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.