AKA: Friendship Forged in Blood
Director: Choe Hyeon-min
Writer: Lee Il-mok
Producer: Joseph Lai, Tomas Tang
Cast: Gordon Liu, Philip Ko Fei, Gam Kei Chu, Lee Fat Yuen, Bruce Lai, Jacky Chen, Lee Gang-jo, Shin Wu-cheol
Running Time: 83 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The image of Gordon Liu as a shaven headed monk is one that’s inextricably associated with the kung fu movie genre. Starring as the monk San Te in Lau Kar Leung’s 1978 picture The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Liu would keep his head shaved for a number of other productions. From Fists and Guts a year later, to Clan of the White Lotus and Return to the 36th Chamber, both from 1980. However while Liu became hugely popular with western audiences, on home soil he never attracted the same fan base as the likes of fellow Shaw Brothers actors like Ti Lung and David Chiang.
Perhaps most tellingly, unlike many Shaw actors, Liu didn’t have a contract which tied him into only making movies for the studio. So by the mid-80’s, while his work at the famous studio saw him either starring in lesser known productions (with the exception of The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, which saw him take on the lead role after the untimely passing of the original star, Alexander Fu Sheng), or playing supporting roles in Lau Kar Leung movies (including returning to the role of San Te in 1985’s Disciples of the 36th Chamber), Liu took the opportunity to star in a trio of Korea and Hong Kong co-productions.
Making both Shaolin Drunken Monk and Raiders of Buddhist Kung Fu in 1981 on Korean soil, Liu returned there one more time a year later to make Fury in Shaolin Temple. Directed by Choe Hyeon-min, what makes his final effort in Korea unique is that it pairs Liu with occasional Bruce Lee clone Chang Il-do (aka Bruce Lai). Liu isn’t the only Hong Kong talent working on the production though, as it also comes with fight choreographer Chin Yuet-Sang. Yuet-Sang has always been an underrated fight choreographer, and has worked on everything from the likes of The Buddha Assassinator to John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears. The movie he’s most famous for though is most likely the Shaw Brothers production, Lion vs. Lion, which along with Hsu Hsia he also wrote and directed.
Yuet-Sang’s presence certainly leaves its mark on Fury in Shaolin Temple, as unlike many Korean productions of the era, the choreography is noticeably sharp and intricate, with Liu and Il-do getting plenty of chances to shine. Unfortunately the movie is let down by just about everything else. The story is extremely muddled, and seems to function only to try and squeeze in as many kung fu movie clichés as possible – we have murdered masters, secret kung fu manuals, monks, training scenes, revenge, bad wigs, and more styles than you can shake a stick at. What other movie crams in Drunken Eagle Claw, Drunken Mantis Fist, Shaolin Ghost Fist, and Dragon Fist all into a compact 90 minute run time!? Fury in Shaolin Temple is the answer.
The basic plot revolves around Liu and Il-do, who play the sons of two martial arts masters that wish for their offspring to combine each of their styles, and defeat a traitorous Shaolin abbot. To protect each other, the martial arts masters swap sons when they’re still babies. However as a child, Liu’s adopted father is framed for stealing a manual and taken away, leaving Liu to be taken in as an assistant cook by the temples chef. Or something like that, none of it really makes sense, and we also learn that Il-do has become a member of the Eagle Clan and is next in line to be the clan’s leader. Whatever, seriously, the plot hardly has an ounce of coherency to it.
Liu and Il-do don’t even appear until 20 minutes in, as proceedings open with one of the fathers battling off the villainous Shaolin monk and his gang. His gang by the way, consist of 18 monks decked out in full body black and grey leotards. I wish I was lying. The father, played by Lee Gang-jo, is possibly the least convincing kung-fu master I’ve ever seen. Slightly on the chubby side, his flailing against the rather uncoordinated and completely impractical moves of the leotard wearing monks is a sight to behold. The monks fighting formations tend to resemble more of a synchronized swimming rehearsal more than anything else, and bizarrely, the whole fight has a strange soundtrack of tigers growling. When Liu does appear, training under a beautifully picturesque waterfall, I let out an audible sight of relief.
During Liu’s training sequences he looks as legit as ever, his teachings from Lau Kar Leung no doubt making him the real deal, and it’s there onscreen to see. When he’s not, he looks bored. Ironically Il-do’s best scene appears to have been randomly inserted from a completely different movie. Suddenly sporting short hair and the same attire Bruce Lee wore in The Big Boss, while wondering through a field he’s confronted by two bandits, played by Philip Ko Fei and Lee Fat Yuen, who attempt to rob him. This leads to a fantastic fight between Il-do and the two assailants. While Fat Yuen is dispatched with ease, the chance isn’t wasted for a face off between Il-do and Ko Fei, as the two opponents use the previously mentioned Drunken Eagle Claw and Drunken Mantis Fist against each other to entertaining effect. It’s a shame the scene has zero relevance to anything else.
Fury in Shaolin Temple is the type of movie that for every scene of quality fight action, we seem to get bombarded by countless nonsensical and goofy scenes in return. At one point a baby is thrown into a tree, in another a bunch of bad guys get hit and roll down a hill, and roll, and roll, and roll, and in another Liu and Il-do are subjected to some hilarious wire work when they jump through the roof of a burning restaurant. That’s not to mention the return of the 18 monks, who do indeed make a comeback, however when they do they’ve lost the leotards, and are instead covered in either bronze or cobalt blue paint (which I think was supposed to look silver).
Despite all this though, Chang Il-do does get some solid fight action, which almost makes it seem like Liu was shoehorned in to the production at the last minute. Il-do’s fight against fellow Korean Shin Wu-cheol, armed with two swords, is a highlight, and he really gets to show off his Taekwondo kicks in these scenes. Of course the whole movie has been building up to when Liu and Il-do realize who the other is, and get together to combine their respective styles. They do meet, however once they’ve established their connection to each other, it seems to have been forgotten that they’re supposed to learn the others style and combine them, and it pretty much skips straight to the final fight with the abbot.
Again Liu seems to be shoehorned in here, as the fight is 90% Il-do, while Liu is left to battle the ridiculously painted monks. Eventually he does join in, throws no more than 3 kicks, and finishes off the abbot with a move which will draw moans from even the most forgiving kung-fu cinema fan. All in all Fury in Shaolin Temple shows all the signs of a movie that was being made up as it went along, and despite containing some decent fight action from Chang Il-do, the feeling of it being cobbled together in such a haphazard and careless manner just can’t be avoided. Needless to say, the only fury worth mentioning here, is what you’ll feel once you’re done watching it.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 4/10