Friday, November 30, 2012

Shaolin Martial Arts (1974), starring Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan Chun, Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Bruce Tong Yim Chaan, Irene Chan Yi Ling, Leung Kar Yan and Johnny Wang Lung Wei. Directed by Chang Cheh.

All images courtesy Celestial Pictures.
FOR anyone who likes their Shaw Brothers flicks with Shaolin kung fu, Shaolin Martial Arts will live up to its name for you adequately. The third of four Shaolin-based films made by director Chang Cheh to be released in 1974, it initially attracted moviegoers because of the pairing of rising stars Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun, but it's since been rediscovered in the home video age for the early presence of popular performers Gordon Liu (not yet shaving his head), Leung Kar Yan (not yet sporting a beard) and Wang Lung Wei (not yet using a finger to make his point). With a script by Cheh and the prolific Ni Kuang that deviates some from the convention found in most of these films, it catches the viewer's attention with a low-key, moody story.

Lau Kar Wing
Long after the Shaolin Temple has been burnt down (heroes like Fang Shih-yu and Hung Tsi-qwan are mentioned in the past tense), the Qing court gets word from the province of Guangdong of the discovery of Shaolin rebels at a kung fu school run by Lin Zan Tian (Lo Dik). They arrange to have Wu Chung Ping (Kong Do) open and manage a Manchu school nearby, using it as a subterfuge for rooting out the fugitives. The Manchus finally strike at a ceremony jointly attended by the schools, killing a Shaolin student (Lau Kar Wing) in order to provoke a fight, but their strategy backfires when the agitators trounce the Manchus, including Ping. Not surprisingly, once the Qing authorities arrive, they side with the Manchus, claiming nothing more happened than a "gang fight", thus denying the Shaolin men justice for their slain brother.

left to right: Leung Kar Yan and Johnny Wang Lung Wei
Disappointed Ping and his pupils failed to defeat the rebels, a Qing general (Lee Wan Chung) offers Ping some assistance via his confidante, kung fu master He Lian (Fung Hak On). Lian has summoned his two favorite disciples to help the Manchus eradicate the Shaolin agitators: Ba Kang (Leung Kar Yan) and Yu Pi (Johnny Wang Lung Wei). Kang is highly trained at Steel Armor kung fu, which makes his skin tough and invulnerable to blows; Pi has mastered Qi Gong, which enables him to withstand a blow from an opponent and "rebound the power of the blow", injuring "the one who initiated the punch."

top, left to right: Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun
below, left to right: Bruce Tong Yim Chaan,
Tino Wong Chueng and Gordon Liu Chia Hui
Soon enough, the dissidents find out Kang and Pi are forces not to be trifled with when the duo leads a group of Manchus on a visit to Tian's school; once there, they kill his two best students in brief, one-sided matches. Among those who witness the spectacle are Shaolin aspirants Li Yao (Fu Sheng), Chen Bao Rong (Chi Kuan Chun), He Zhen Gang (Gordon Liu Chia Hui) and Mai Han (Bruce Tong Yim Chaan). Knowing they're in over their heads if they fight this deadly twosome, they flee from the Manchus and report what's transpired to the ailing Tian, who lives in seclusion with his daughter, Lin Zhen Ziou (Irene Chan Yi Ling), and his niece, Ah Wai (Yuen Man Tzu).

Lo Dik
Once he's been updated, Tian knows exactly what kind of kung fu they're dealing with, and he believes the Eagle Claw and Rolling Eagle Claw styles will best take out Kang and Pi, respectively. However, he's no expert on those martial arts, so he has Gang and Han go to a reclusive sifu known as the "King of Eagle Claw" (Chiang Nan) for a few months of special training, while Yao and Rong stay with him and continue their Shaolin training.

Eventually, Gang and Han complete their training, but on the way back to see Tian, they get word four Shaolin students have been recently captured by the Manchus, prompting them to go into rescue mode. For an instant, it looks like their new abilities put them on equal footing with Kang and Pi, but they fall short of that. Gang and Han are killed, but the pupils manage to escape the Manchus' grasp and tell Tian about the bad turn of events.

left to right: Simon Yuen Sui Tien and Feng Yi 
Realizing he tragically underestimated Kang and Pi's advanced skills, Tian has Yao and Rong seek out two other sifus whose areas of expertise may be more helpful toward ending the murderers' reign of terror. Yao goes to Master Liang (Simon Yuen Sui Tien) to learn Tiger and Crane Fist (to stop Kang), while Rong locates Master Yan (Feng Yi) so he can learn Wing Chung (to stop Pi). In the beginning, the workouts are long, tiring and exasperating (Yao has to wait a whole month before Liang agrees to work with him!) to the point both consider quitting, but they quickly change their minds once Ziou and Wai disclose how Tian defiantly committed suicide when Kang, Pi and the Manchus came calling on him not long after they left. Now refocused, the young men dive into the training with a passion. Months later, Yao and Rong, eager to avenge the deaths of Tian and their many Shaolin brothers, are finally prepared for a showdown with Kang and Pi, mano-a-mano....

top, left to right: Irene Chan Yi Ling and Yuen Man Tzu
bottom, left to right: Kong Do and Funk Hak On
As a whole, Cheh and Kuang's screenplay for SMA doesn't get mired in formula because the formula is a work in progress. The narrative fares better when shown from the viewpoint of the Shaolin rebels. Vicariously, we feel their anger when their comrades are slain; their camaraderie as they hide out from the Manchus; and their disappointment and elation as they go through the rigors of learning kung fu. What doesn't come off as well are the villains. Kang and Pi are intimidating enough, but their limited screen time lessens their menace; with Ping and Lian, their roles are way underdeveloped, and a good rewrite could drop either of them without harm to the story. Some have reserved their loudest complaints for Ziou and Wai. It's possible the women were added at the suggestion of the Shaws (the romantic angle is played up in the original movie trailer, included on the IVL DVD), over the objections of director Cheh. (Did Kuang write them in?) I have no hangups about the ladies (though their girlish behavior is laid on thick), and it's to the credit of Kuang and/or Cheh they're not depicted as damsels in distress.

Despite having young ladies in his yang gang scenario, Cheh directs SMA assuredly, with as much attention given to the pensive moments as are the boisterous ones. The photography by Miyaki Yukio (Kung Mu To) helps to set the proper atmosphere, particularly with a good usage of darkness in well composed low-lit scenes. Kwok Ting Hung's editing is adroit, enhancing the grace, beauty and intensity Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaii bring to the choreography of the training sequences and the fights. (Only the climatic battle ends with a whimper, but that's more of another script problem.)

The cast handles their parts capably. Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun make a great team, both at (or near) their physical peaks, and while Chun gets his fair share of acting opportunities (and is very good), Sheng carries the picture with his winning personality and an underplayed performance, even during his comedic scenes with the winsome Yuen Man Tzu. Irene Chan Yi Ling (forever "Princess" in Cheh's Young People) shows impressive range in what time she gets to be seen as Tian's daughter (and Rong's girlfriend). Lo Dik, Feng Yi, Chiang Nan and Simon Yuen Sui Tien are great as the Shaolin sifus, with Tien a true scene stealer as the obstinate Liang, who gives Yao no mercy. Supporting player Bruce Tong Yim Chaan gets a rare weighty role as the Shaolin student fated to die at the hands of Pi; why this above average actor and fighter didn't get a chance at stardom is mystifying. As already noted, Kong Do (Ping) and Fung Hak On (Lian) are given skimpy roles, but they give enough of a spark to them they don't come across as cardboard cutouts. As always, other familiar Shaw faces are present throughout, including the likes of Tino Wong Chueng, Dang Tak Chueng, Chan Dik Hak, Li Chen Piao, Lo Wai and Lam Fai Wong.

left to right: ? and Leung Kar Yan
What about those three newcomers mentioned earlier? For Leung Kar Yan and Lang Lung Wei, SMA was their second Shaw movie (but the first to be issued), while Gordon Liu had a few more films under his belt prior to this one. So it stands Liu is the more accomplished actor and gets to show off his kung fu capabilities in a memorable fight with Yan, demonstrating his potential as star material years before he got his big break with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. As the efficient killing machines, Yan and Wei play don't get to display any depth but they are convincingly tough. However, Yan arguably gets the meatier role as Kang, highlighted by one of the movie's best scenes where a prostitute's attempt to arouse him fails because, thanks to his Steel Armor training, he's capable of retracting his sex organs into his body cavity!

The IVL DVD is the best way to experience SMA. It boasts a remastered, anamorphic picture, the original mono Mandarin soundtrack and English subtitles. Extras consist of bios and newly made Shaw trailers by Celestial Pictures. (I first saw this years back in bootleg form with the English dub, which I didn't like much, thanks to the overly sweet voices given to Ziou and Wai. Seriously, you get a better feel for the emotional tone of the movie if you see the legit DVD. Watch that, not the bootleg.)

SMA is early in Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle", and it has the bumps in the script to prove it. Fortunately, the modest imbalance (a.k.a. the weak villainy) doesn't hurt what is an exciting and fun (even thoughtful) film. Most of all, with Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan Chun, Gordon Liu, Leung Kar Yan and Lang Lung Wei participating, it's definitely not boring.

Brother Fang cuts to the chase: "A special dose of Shaolin, featuring the ascending Fu Sheng and early looks at Gordon Liu, "Beardy" and Lang Lung Wei. Recommended!"


Keeping it trivial....

Brother Fang, Shaolin Temple.

4 comments:

  1. This is my favorite of Cheh's Shaolin films (though I am not counting DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN and NEW SHAOLIN BOXERS; if I did, DISCIPLES might nudge it out by a slim hair). It's the one I have seen the most and I can't find any fault with it. I've always wondered if John Avildsen has seen this movie prior to shooting THE KARATE KID what with the "work as kung fu training" schematic is the same; ergo, Tang Yen San has no idea he's learning the Eagle Claw by catching fish and whatnot.

    I have had a different view on the villains, though, Russ. I thought they were among the most powerful of all the bad guys in Cheh's movies. They come off so intimidating, and the choice of music fits so well, that both Wang and Liang could have just stared at you and it would have resonated. Also, the mention that Ba Kang's kung fu is even better than Pai Mei's does much to make them a feared presence.

    The end fight was pretty awesome to me as well. I wasn't expecting what happens to happen ie the "money shot" which I think you know what I mean, lol. Both bad guys had, by that point, thought they were truly invincible, so what a shock to have two guys come along -- and dressed in white -- and defeat them.

    This is an awesome piece, Russ. I enjoyed reading it and it's easily the best written article on this wonderful movie I've seen yet.

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  2. Thank you for reading, Brian!

    The training sequences make me come back to this one often. (Irene Chan, too.) Chi Kuan Chun's learning of Wing Chung is (IMO) is the most interesting of them all (and quite a "bell-ringer").

    Yan and Wei were spot-on as the heavies (glares and music included); I just wish they had a touch more screen time to help convey how menacing they were to the Shaolin men better than what's actually seen in SMA. The weakest link is actually Kong Do's character. His part should've been consolidated into Fung Hak On's part, where it would be Lian who gets beat up by the Shaolin guys, suggests to the general his two students could take care of the rebels handily, etc.

    You're right about the end fight; the bit where they first stop by at Tian's abandoned school was a nice poignant touch.

    With my first viewing, I had the same reaction to the "money shot" you did!

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  3. This one used to come on TV many times back in the 80s and early 90s. The "money shot" wasn't shown, obviously. The close up of Wang's painful expression is slowed down and the red tinted bit is missing, but a brief wide shot of Wang gripping himself was shown and you could see what had happened, just not the actual violence itself. The widescreen Made In Hong Kong VHS that came out much later was uncut of course, so it was a great pleasure to see this in the mid 90s in such a form. The split screen scenes, which were ruined on TV, look great and were a nice touch.

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  4. Hi guys!

    Nice article on an excellent Cheh's movie, my favourite along with Heroes Two.

    By any chance, do you know where the music was taken of?

    I know it's an american western which I saw long time, but impossible to remember wich one...

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