AKA: Executioners of Death
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Writer: Ni Kuang
Producer: Runme Shaw
Cast: Chen Kuan Tai, Lo Lieh, Lily Li Li Li, Wong Yu, Kong Do, Hsiao Ho, Cheng Hong Yip, John Cheung, Shum Lo, Gordon Liu, Fung Hak On, Fung Ming, John Cheung, Wilson Tong, Peter Chan Lung, Lam Ching Ying, Lau Kar Leung, Lee Hoi San, Meng Hoi, Eric Tsang Chi Wai
Running Time: 96 mins.
Tonally, this film is all over the place even for a Shaw Brothers movie. The story opens ‘in medias res’ with the Shaolin Temple (which we never actually see) under siege. Dozens of soldiers are descending on the brave Shaolin warriors and Gordon Lui (“36th Chamber of Shaolin,” “Kill Bill“) gets a stand-out cameo where he fends most of them off. The film then turns its focus to Chen Kuan Tai and his bride-to-be and almost becomes a kung-fu romantic comedy. Chen Kuan falls in love with Lilly Li but his Shaolin brothers continually give him shit about it. His buddies even try to listen in on the happy couple’s wedding night! Chen Kaun has way more patience than me; I’d be unleashing my tiger fist on these guys.
All the while, Chen Kuan is training to get his martial arts skills up to snuff so he can take on the evil Pai Mei and avenge the death of his Master, which occurred during the opening credits. Chen Kuan has to wait 17 years to try and take revenge; this has to be be some kind of record for an action movie (they only imprisoned “Oldboy” for 15!). Things don’t go quite as planned and eventually Chen Kuan’s son, played by Wong Yu, must take up the mission to defeat Pai Mei.
Wong Yu is a naturally gifted and comedic performer who’s a lot of fun to watch; unfortunately, the costume department saddled him with one of the worst haircuts and wardrobes I’ve ever seen in a kung-fu movie. He basically has little buns or pigtails in his hair and is decked out in what looks like a Hawaiin tourist shirt. The fact that he still manages to be a bad-ass in the movie is a testament to his talent as a martial artist and actor.
I’m not sure if I responded well to the film’s various shifts in genre but I can’t deny that Pai Mei makes for one of the finest kung-fu movie villains of all time. He does that over-the-top, evil laugh you almost expect from a Shaw Brothers baddie but more than that he’s got a cool, emotionless look with those long gray eyebrows and incredible fighting skills. He’s practically invincible and he fears no one. Though I gotta say, it was weird how everybody kept trying to punch and kick him in the balls…and then Pai Mei would trap their limbs between his thighs…yeah, uh, quite odd. Chen Kuan and his son even go for the crotch area on their training dummy. This is a very testicles-focused martial arts film. I get that this region is a serious weak point on any dude’s body but in “Executioner From Shaolin” it’s a bit overdone. Fortunately, the ending kicks ass and concludes on an appropriately epic freeze frame.
“Executioner From Shaolin” is one of the quirkier Shaw Brothers movies I can think of. What begins as a tale of blood-thirsty revenge slows down to become at times a romantic comedy and domestic drama. But it still has the classic training sequences that you expect from director Lau Kar-leung (“36 Chamber of Shaolin,” “The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter“) and one of hell of a bad guy in Pai Mei. If you wondered where Quentin Tarantino took inspiration for Gordon Liu’s white-browed, crotchety martial arts instructor in “Kill Bill,” this is it!
HKFanatic’s Rating: 7/10
By Mighty Peking Man
Hung Hze-Kwan (Chen Kuan-Tai) is one of the lucky survivors who barely escaped Pai Mei’s (Lo Lieh) attack on the Shaolin Temple. When Hung Hze-Kwan finds out the high priest (Lee Hoi Sang) was killed during the raid, he dedicates his whole life to getting revenge on Pai Mei.
Soon after the events of the attack, Hung Hze-Kwan flees to Canton where he marries the girl of his dreams (Lily Li), and the two have a baby boy named Wen-Ding (Hsiao Hou). In between being a family man, Hung Hze-Kwan begins his Tiger Syle training and practices it for 10 long years.
Thinking he’s ready to take on Pai Mei, he heads over to his temple and prepares for the ultimate battle. To make a long story short, Hung Hze-Kwan loses. However, he gains more knowledge about his weakness, and observes that you have to hit certain areas, at certain times, in order to defeat him.
I first saw Executioners From Shaolin about 20 years ago. It was the dubbed, panned & scanned VHS version. The film stayed fresh in my mind throughout the years, but what really stuck in my head was how it broke the usual kung fu film mold: intead of your typical train, then take on the main bad guy and win routine, we get a train, then take on the bad guy, lose, train again, take on the bad guy again, then followed by a different guy trains, with a different approach, then takes on the bad guy… It’s a long and winding process, but you know what, it’s entertaining the whole way through.
I’m not sure if I can put the brilliance of Liu Chia-Liang’s filmmaking into words: You have the well-configured choreography, crazy techniques (what’s up with Pai Mei’s crotch hold?) and inventive training devices (I don’t know about you, but I never saw a training dummy filled with moving-metal balls in Black Belt Magazine) – not to mention slick production values, which is a norm for most Shaw Brothers flicks.
Then you have the pre-credit sequence… actually, no, it’s a fight scene that plays during the credit sequence. How cool is that? You get to see who’s in the movie while there’s some chunky action going on. James Bond flicks don’t even give you that.
Lo Lei’s portrayal of the indestructible Pai Mei became such a popular villain amongst fans, that the character was resurrected various times, in some way or another, in a handful of films – most notably in Fist of the White Lotus (where he’s called ‘White Lotus’). Pai Mei even appears in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 2 (played by Gordon Liu).
If you’re looking for a straight up kung fu flick with no bullshit, it doesn’t get any better than this. Yeah, some people will say it’s slow, dull or whatever; only someone who owns the Criterion Collection DVD of Armageddon would be dumb enough to say something like that.
Executioners From Shaolin is a must see.
Mighty Peking Man’s Rating: 10/10