Friday, October 1, 2010

Men From the Monastery (1974), starring Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chi and Chen Kuan-tai. Directed by Chang Cheh.

DIRECTOR Chang Cheh must have had some regrets about making Men From the Monastery; why else would he rework such substantial pieces of it into The Shaolin Avengers and Shaolin Temple (both 1976)?

Of all Cheh's eight films in his "Shaolin cycle", MFtM is the one most devalued, if most of all of the written critiques I've read about it is any indication. I feel this may be an excessive judgement. If this can be considered a lesser Cheh effort, it's one that's more entertaining than the flawed attempts at experimentation like The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975) or Heaven and Hell (1978). It also includes the full-fledged debut of a Shaw favorite; more on him in a little bit.


The story is divided into four chapters, the first one featuring Fang Shih-yu (Fu Sheng). Fang attempts to leave the Shaolin Temple, and after clearing the wooden men alley, one of the two brothers on guard, Chen Si Di (Tung Choi Bo), tries to stab Fang before he departs. The other brother on duty takes the knife for Fang, allowing him to escape. Chen tells fellow Qing loyalist Feng Dao De (Lo Dik) of his failure to stop him, and they both go to Zhi Shan, the abbot, to try pinning the murder on Fang. The abbot doesn't believe them for a minute, so on advice from their fellow Shaolin traitor, Brother White Brow, they decide to return to the Wu Dang Martial Arts School and deal with Fang later, White Brow plotting to take care of the abbot another day.

Fang goes to a nearby town to look up an old friend, He Da Yong; from him, Fang learns his old Qing nemesis, Lei Lao Hu, has been practicing pile formation (pole) fighting while he was away at the temple; he's killed two people already. Fang's pal offers to help him with the basics of the formation, but he's murdered by Lei's men the next day as he chops down a tree for a pole. Fang retaliates; he slays Lei's men and quickly hunts down Lei himself, who's waiting for him atop his own pole formation (with sharp bamboo spikes along the ground below, ready for those unfortunate to fall and be impaled on them). Despite a lack of experience on the poles, Fang triumphs over Lei with what he learned from Shaolin.


The second chapter spotlights Hu Hui-chien (Chi Kuan-chi). In Guangzhou, two outlaw Qing symphathizers (instructors from the Jing Lung Martial Arts School) kill Hu's father (Wu Chih-ching), and he wants revenge. His determination is better than his martial arts skills, and he endures their repeated trouncings, even a near drowning where he gets rescued by his girlfriend, Li Cui Ping. Fang intervenes during another ill-advised fight, and he suggests to Hu some time at the Shaolin Temple will help him to defeat them.

Three years later, Hu leaves the temple, and with minor assistance from Fang, he turns the tables on his tormentors, wrecking the Jing Lung school and beating up the troublesome instructors. In a final move to make an example out of the two, he brings them back to the school in front of the students still around, stating these murdering thugs are from the Wu Dang school and are allied with Feng Dao De. The school can still operate, but if they ever cause trouble like their instructors, he'll beat them up, too. As the two suddenly jump up for another attack, he swiftly kills them, their death bringing home to all who witness it the earnestness of Hu's message.


The third chapter focuses on Hung Tsi-kwan (Chen Kuan-tai). After Hung manages to slip out of a brothel before a band of Qing soldiers led by Lei Da Pang (Wang Ching) can catch him, he goes off to convene a meeting of Shaolin disciples where he tells all in attendance that they must look for more men who oppose the Qing.

Prior to the meeting, he met up with two disciples on the road (one of them played by Bruce Tong), who were soon discovered to have been tailed by Lei and his men. Hung and the small group of Shaolin men got every Qing but Lei, who fled the scene when the going got tough.

Presently, Lei reports what occurred to his superior, Gao Jin Zhong (Kong Do). Angered, Gao gives the order to burn down the Shaolin Temple and to begin hunting down and exterminating the fugitives.


The final chapter (titled Men From the Monastery) wraps things all up. After the temple is burned down, and the abbot is killed by White Brow, the assembled Shaolin disciples split up to keep ahead of the Qing. An attempt to hole up on a Chinese Opera troupe's boat is foiled by Lei and his men. Li escapes, and two of the Qing, posing as rebels, go with her to find Hung and the others, one of the men leaving trail markers for the other Qing to follow. Li is on to their ruse; she leads them to the Shaolin men, but they are killed before they have a chance to report back to Gao and Lei.

The Qing lose track of the disciples until Chen Si Di spies two of them transporting sacks of rice to an abandoned temple where Hung and the others are hiding out. Upon hearing this news, Gao and Lei mobilize their men and go to eradicate the Shaolin rebels. As for Feng Dao De, he's along to take out only one of them: Fang Shih-yu....

After that...NO "SPOILERS"!


I have no trouble with the general story as structured by Cheh and writer Ni Kuang; the plot is slightly overrun by the action, but not to extremes. The lack of characterization doesn't hurt here because the pace is fast enough you never get the chance to dwell on it. For continuity buffs, however, the thread of familiarity connecting MFtM to Heroes Two will drive some nuts. Cast members, standing sets and outdoor locations used in HT that show up here again are not always redressed well, though some of the returning actors actually get (arguably) better parts in this! For anyone used to the conventions of low-budgeted movies, all of this just adds to the enjoyment factor, including good photography and well-selected music cues.

The main sticking point to many is the contribution Lau Kar Leung (with Tong Gaai) brings to the fight choreography. While it's not lacking in action, it is missing a lot of the moves of the "Hung Fist" style. What got spotlighted in HT got over-looked here. It's an apparent oversight (caught after the fact) that did not happen again in the other sequels. Even so, "heroic bloodshed" is in abundance and doesn't disappoint; cuts to black & white film and red tints are part of the film's bloody climax.

While Chen Kuan-tai returns as Hung, his prescence in the story is reduced (the bulk of it carried by Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chi), which disappointed me some, but he does have his moments here. (Executioners from Shaolin would let him encore Hung a final time in a more memorable way.) Fu Sheng continues to shine as Fang, and his pole-fighting sequence is a well-edited highlight; there's more tension felt with the close and low shots than what the re-staging had in The Shaolin Avengers. Chi Kuan-chi manages to make a good impression in his first big part as Hu, even if it's somewhat laughable (and implausible) to see this muscular fighting machine get his butt handed to him earlier in his segment! Once he's in the temple, he becomes that more familiar, upstoppable "force of nature" with dazzling moves. He doesn't get to show much dramatic range here, but he plays his part capably.

The rest of the supporting cast are comparably good. Among the heavies, even though Kong Do's role is of the highest-ranking Qing, no one actor dominates overall. All of them have limited screen time, so the villainy is rather diluted; Lo Dik as Feng caught my attention out of all of them. I wish I knew the names of the ladies who played Li (Hu's girlfriend) and Hung Ying (the woman Hung was with at the brothel); they both had plum parts here where they weren't submissive victims. (If anyone does know who they are, drop a note here in a comment!)

The rudimentary nice assemblage of the IVL DVD is given a boost in the "extras" department with the original trailer included. The main presentation has a very good anamorphic picture and clear, strong mono audio (Mandarin language); unless Tokyo Shock considers making it a future release, this is as good as the movie's gonna get.

MFtM is not a bad film; it just presses the limits of its modest budget and limited production schedule by cramming so much into an hour and a half. That this "rush job" would spur Cheh on to revisit the material (by spreading it out over two movies) makes sense. Still, MFtM succeeds through the majority of its parts (if not as a whole), and there's a mess of them, so that's the cinematic equilvalent of a high batting average. To take the baseball analogy further, it's not so much a "grand slam" as it is a hit that gets you to third base, and that's not bad at all!

More for fans of Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chi than for you Chen Kuan-tai lovers! Otherwise, complete your "Shaolin cycle" collection with this! Recommended by Brother Fang!

Keeping it trivial....

Fang Shih-yu, Shaolin Temple.

P.S. - Purchase it from Play-Asia by clicking on here.

11 comments:

  1. As you might know, Fang, I'm not the biggest fan of this movie. I do like how both this and HEROES TWO exist concurrently with one another and the chapters of the film are a novel approach.

    But they would be far more interesting if they weren't virtually identical with one another. The Chi Kuan Chun segment seemed to drag and was terribly repetitive. Years later, the abominable QT would adopt a similar chapter style to some of his movies.

    The ending was the only thing redeemable about this one for me. I used to not like SHAOLIN AVENGERS and preferred MFTM, but now, the reverse holds true. I thought the flashback approach held during a big battle was a brilliant approach for that film. Not counting DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN and NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS, the best of this series for me are SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS, SHAOLIN AVENGERS and SHAOLIN TEMPLE.

    MFTM does have its share of fans, though. I first saw it on the Black Belt Feature under its DISCIPLES OF DEATH moniker.

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  2. This one is, indeed, for Fu Sheng fans, above all else.

    The Hung segment seemed more of a lead-in to part four than it was geared for Chen Kuan-tai! Any idea if CKT had any friction with Cheh at some point? Maybe that would explain why Frankie Wei was cast as Hung in Shaolin Temple; Hung was barely in that one, but casting Wei comes off like a slap in the face to CKT! Thank goodness for LKL and Executioners from Shaolin!

    The Shaolin Avengers mostly improves on the stuff covered first in MFtM. I prefer the pole-fighting scene in the latter, and Fu Sheng's final scene is more nasty in that, too!

    How much was cut out of the BBF version of MFtM?

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  3. Chen Kuan Tai abruptly left Shaw Brothers during the production of FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 so this may have had something to do with why he wasn't in SHAOLIN TEMPLE. He wasn't really required, though, as the character is barely in the film. Frankie Wei wasn't the star that Chen was, either. Chen's first movie returning to the studio was CRIPPLED AVENGERS.

    I don't remember, that was way back in the early 80's. I only remember the pole fight and the ending which was still in B/W. I also remember there was LOTS of lines in the version shown, too. The Warner VHS has Fu Sheng's death in color while the HK cut it's in red. This was normal, though as HK had a slightly stronger cut than other Asian territories and the international versions were always the most brutal.

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  4. Ah! I forgot about the Flying Guillotine 2 "falling-out"! Thanks for that memory jog!

    How about that MFtM ending? Fu Sheng "pulls" out the sword, it goes in the air, and it lands in the ground so near his foot! I wonder if that was caught in one take?

    I Know Wei mostly did exploitation pictures for Shaw, and he mostly played bad guys. Of what I've seen him do, he's an okay actor.

    Shaolin Temple is a blast! The fight between Kuo Chui and Lu Feng near the end is a delirious spectacle!

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  5. I like all the Chang Shaolin Cycle movies for many reasons but I think the reason a lot of people don't give MFTM a good write up is because of the plot "discontinuity". Stories that suddenly drop a protagonist and pick up another are not usually successful because it cuts off viewer sympathy.

    Yes, the three guys' stories weave back together for the final confrontation but a sudden protagonist switch is always hard for people. Even more so if they are not familiar with the various Shaolin legends. This is I think why, for example, Executioners deflates for Western audiences - the protagonist dies and his son's revenge just doesn't hold the same level of meaning for Westerners.

    All that said, of course I like MFTM! Prime Chang-style kung fu fightin'!

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  6. You are on the mark, achillesgirl!

    Though Fang was the one thread running throughout (most of) MFtM, his ultimate fate was muted by how the story was plotted. This would explain why Chang Cheh made it the focus of The Shaolin Avengers.

    Thanks for reading the review, my good lady! ;o)

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  7. Always a pleasure to share the Shaw love!

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  8. This was one of my earliest IVL purchases, achillesgirl, and as far as I'm concerned, it was worth every penny spent!

    Love all your HKC reviews, by the way! ;o)

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  9. Oh yeah, I feel that EVERY Chang Cheh (and Lau Kar Leung) Shaolin Cycle movie is worth the $$. Heroically heroic heroism at its finest!

    I hope you ACTUALLY like my reviews; I feel pretty tired of writing them and don't feel inspired at all right now. :( I hope I get over that soon cause I kinda gotta do it.

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  10. achillesgirl, I like your reviews and your blog because they convey your own personality and "voice" wonderfully! In turn, I've come to like the PERSON who's written them, as a result!

    We all have our "blah" moments with writing, as Glenn and I can attest. Any little "breather" you can take from writing should keep the chance of "burnout" at bay!

    Keep up the good fight, my good lady, knowing you have Brother Fang on your side!

    Have a good evening--

    Fang Go ;o)

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  11. Thank you Fang Go! That makes me feel better!

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