Director: Chang Cheh, Wu Ma
Writer: Ni Kuang, Chang Cheh
Producer: Run Run Shaw
Cast: Alexander Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chi Kuan Chun, Johnny Wang, Chiang Sheng, Lo Meng, Lu Feng, Philip Kwok, Choi Wang, Cheung Hei, Chiang Nan, Chui Tai Ping, Goo Man Chung, Hong Hoi, Kok Lee Yan, Ku Feng, Anthony Lau, Lau Fong Sai, Wang Chung
Running Time: 116 min.
Not to be confused with the Jet Li film of the same name, Shaolin Temple is a Chang Cheh/I Kuang production that provides a different look at my favorite director/writer combo. Its pace is leisurely, the story takes back seat to character, and the kung fu fireworks are mostly saved for the very end, but regardless, I was swept away by this great movie.
There are many similarities between this and Liu Chia-Liang’s later 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but whereas Liu’s movie focuses on one character, Shaolin Temple features several characters, jumbled together. I believe this actually caused contention in the Shaw Brothers camp; former Chang Cheh darlings David Chiang and Ti Lung are mostly relegated to supporting roles, with new favorites Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun in the lead. Apparently Chiang and Lung resented this, and shortly thereafter parted ways with Chang Cheh. I do feel a bit sad for the formerly-popular duo, though. It’s obvious Chang snubs them, rushing through their scenes so he can get back to Fu Sheng.
But that’s beside the point, because I actually prefer Fu Sheng’s character to either Chiang’s or Lung’s. I’ve always felt Fu Sheng had more star potential than any of the Shaws actors, and I’ll add my voice to the thousands of others who’ve said this: it’s a damn shame he died young. Fu gets to show off his acting range in this one, as usual getting all the laughs in the comedic parts, and then proving his worth when it comes to the fighting. Here he plays Fong Sai-Yuk, a character he portrayed in a handful of other Chang Cheh movies made in the mid-1970s.
Shaolin Temple can be seen as a melting pot of the Shaw Brothers’ acting stable. There’s David Chiang, Ti Lung, and Wang Chung representing the late 1960s/early 1970s era. There’s Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun representing the mid-1970s era, and Kuo Choi, Chiang Sheng, and Lu Feng of the Venoms crew representing the late 1970s/early 1980s. Then there’s Wang Lung-Wei, who was a constant villain throughout all of the eras. Chang Cheh juggles all of these acting groups very well for the most part, though as I said Fu Sheng takes predominance.
The movie details the final days of the Shaolin Temple, as Manchu bastards plot its destruction. Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun are Fong Sai-Yuk and Hung Sze-Kwan respectively, and seek admittance into the Temple. The monks only let them in once they realize that the imminent destruction of Shaolin would erase their style of martial arts from the world, so the more students the better. Fu Sheng and his pals are given menial jobs however, and only Chi Kuan-Chun is instructed in kung-fu. Time passes by in the usual fast-forward Shaw Brothers fashion, until Ti Lung, David Chiang, Wang Chung, Wang Lung-Wei, and a few others arrive as soldiers opposed to the Manchu. As they were once Shaolin students, they’re admitted promptly into the Temple, much to the chagrin of Kuo Choi and his fellows, who have been kneeling outside for days, awaiting admittance. Eventually they are accepted as students, and here the film juggles training sequences between the three groups.
Fu Sheng resorts to learning kung fu on the fly from a masked master. Eventually he and Chi Kuan-Chun decide they’re now good enough to leave the Temple and accomplish the mission for which they became students: namely, gaining revenge. However, leaving Shaolin is just as difficult as entering it, and they must leave through the Alley of Death, a “death chamber” that’s loaded with traps and wooden robots. Treachery is afoot in the Temple, as well, with Wang Lung-Wei and one of the monks scheming together to bring the Temple down from the inside. The two of them attempt to kill Fu and Chi, but with the assistance of Chiang, Lung, and Chiang Sheng our two heroes manage to escape.
Later, after they’ve gained revenge and notoriety as great fighters, Fu and Chi discover Manchu soldiers en route to the Temple. They go back to inform the monks, but the old men decide they’ll die with Shaolin. This leads to the final battle, which is a tour de force of martial combat. The Manchu soldiers arrive, but mostly stand around outside and lamely shake their spears while their kung-fu masters (Lu Feng among them) storm the Temple and take on the monks in one-on-one combat.
The choreography here is very good, though Kuo Choi and Lu Feng put the others to shame, even though they only give a glimpse of what they’d later accomplish in the Venoms movies. But with all of the chaos and cutting to and from different fight scenes, the end battle is a bit overwhelming. If the Water Margin’s finale was anti-climatic, then the finale for Shaolin Temple is TOO climatic. Especially after the leisurely pace of the preceding hour-plus of story. Another problem is that the Temple is taken down too quickly. All we see is kung-fu combat among the principles, a few Manchu soldiers getting in lucky strikes with their spears, and then suddenly the Temple’s burning to the ground, even though the “cannons,” which are mentioned, are never seen. I guess they were beyond the budget.
The violence level is toned down, with only the occasional spurt of blood from mouths or sword slashes. I think there must have been a crackdown on cinema violence in the mid-1970s in Hong Kong, as this and other Chang Cheh movies of the era have suspiciously-minimal carnage. That’s not to say this movie is Disney-lite. In fact, tons of guys buy the farm in the climax, but just not as bloodily as they would’ve in earlier and later Shaw Brothers movies. Set design on the other hand is as high as ever, though most of the action takes place in the Temple itself. And you’ve gotta love those wooden robots.
Like I said, this movie shows a different side of the Chang Cheh experience. Instead of rushing to vengeance-fueled melees, he takes his time with the story, giving it a near-epic feel. Comedy is sprinkled about, though unfortunately it’s complimented with goofy sound effects. They even pull out the traditional “wah-wah-waaaah” French horn bit. I guess it’s the fact that it seemed so different from most other Chang Cheh films is what made the movie so enjoyable. The guy was a great director, and the historical revisionism currently going on is bullshit. (I read an online review that claimed Chang was the Shaw Brothers’ “weak link!?!” He was their top director!) If a movie’s got Chang Cheh’s name on it, most of the time it’ll at least be very good, but most of the time it’ll be great. And Shaolin Temple is great.
This movie leads directly into Five Shaolin Masters, a 1974 film directed by Chang Cheh and featuring most of the same actors (save for the Venoms crew). Interestingly though, only Ti Lung, David Chiang, and Wang Lung-Wei play the same characters in that film, with Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun portraying different Shaolin heroes. It’s also interesting that Wang Lung-Wei plays the same character in Shaolin Temple and Five Shaolin Masters, as his character dies in both films! I guess he knew “regenerative kung fu” or something. Anyway, this technically makes Shaolin Temple a prequel, much like Phantom Menace was a prequel. But whereas Phantom Menace was a big steaming pile of shit, Shaolin Temple is excellent filmmaking.
Joe909’s Rating: 10/10