AKA: The Fourth Largest Shaolin Temple
Director: Park Woo-sang
Writer: Hong Chi-Yun
Producer: Tomas Tang
Cast: Hwang Jang Lee, Ho Kei Cheong, Suen Kwok Ming, Poon Cheung, Luo Hua-Sheng, Olivia Hung
Running Time: 85 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The name of Korean director Park Woo-sang may not be immediately familiar to many, and understandably so. However once the filmmaker immigrated to America, he continued to direct under a different name – Richard Park – and for those who know their B-movie cinema, chances are that this alias should ring a bell. From the mid-80’s Park terrorized the B-movie circuit with such titles as L.A. Streetfighters, American Chinatown, and most famously thanks to the recent Drafthouse Films release, Miami Connection.
Before his immigration stateside though, under his original name of Park Woo-sang he directed a number of decent Korean kung fu movies. From the Korean version of Zatoichi, with the 1971 flick The Blind Swordsman, through to the likes of the Casanova Wong starring Strike of Thunderkick Tiger. Shaolin: The Blood Mission, was the last movie he made in Korea (the original Korean title is The Fourth Largest Shaolin Temple), and as with so many Korean kung fu movies of the era, it was bought up by Godfrey Ho and Tomas Tang’s IFD Films for international distribution, and given an English dub.
What separates Shaolin: The Blood Mission from many of the Korean productions that Ho and Tang bought up, is that it quickly becomes clear the movie is a co-production between Korea and Hong Kong, long before their interference. Numerous familiar faces from Hong Kong populate the production, such as Yen Shi Kwan is listed as action director, the main character is a monk played by Suen Kwok Ming, and Ho Kei Cheong appears as a prominent villain. Outside of the principal cast members though, the rest of the performers in Shaolin: The Blood Mission are exceptionally difficult to find any information on. Sites like the Korean Movie Database, the Hong Kong Movie Database, HKcinemagic, and IMDB all return blanks on elaborating beyond a handful of actors.
It’s a shame, because two of the unnamed members from the trio of monks that make up the protagonists are remarkably skilled, and appear to be Wushu practitioners. The guy who plays the shorter monk in particular is highly acrobatic, throwing in various exciting somersaults and flips whenever he’s in action. The third monk is the most muscular of the trio, but again moves with speed and displays some quality talent handling weapons. There’s also an additional character, a rebel who comes to the aide of the monks, who shows off a formidable range of kicks and has some great fast paced fight scenes. However all remain uncredited when exploring the usual avenues to look up information on these productions.
The movie itself starts off with a bang. Before the credits have even appeared, Hwang Jang Lee storms down the pathway leading up to the palace steps, carrying a cloth covered severed head in one hand, all set to the shower scene soundtrack from Psycho. It’s a double whammy, not only is it a great way to make an entrance, but it’s also a great way to start a movie! A familiar plot is soon revealed – there’s a list which details rebels against the Ching Dynasty, and Hwang Jang Lee is tasked to find it, of course leading to the Shaolin Temple which is believed to be harboring both rebels and the list in question.
After a failed directing gig at Shaw Brothers, Hwang worked almost exclusively in his native Korea from late 1982, before returning to Hong Kong and making Where’s Officer Tuba? with Sammo Hung in 1986. Even though many fans consider Korean productions to be a class below their Hong Kong equivalents, which to a large degree is true, what can’t be complained about is the screen time Hwang got in his Korean movies. While many Hong Kong productions would have him randomly pop up in the finale, as a previously hardly seen villain (see Ninja in the Dragons Den and Tower of Death for prime examples), his Korean productions usually had him in prominent roles. Shaolin: The Blood Mission is no different, giving his villain character plenty of opportunities to let loose with his famous kicks.
Korean movies are also known for their slightly left of field antics, and here fans of the wacky won’t be left disappointed. At one point Hwang and his villainous cohort, played by Ho Kei Cheong, are playing a game of chess. However it’s no ordinary game of chess, sitting in high chairs at either end of a huge board drawn onto the ground, scantily clad ladies wearing see through gowns are the pieces, and Hwang instructs his pieces to move by whipping the lady in question. The eliminated piece is usually greeted by being stabbed in the chest, hardly the gentleman’s game it has the reputation to be! There’s also a bizarre scene were the abbot of the temple reveals he’s been hiding a book for a number of years, by having it stitched into his back! Removing it involves a rather gory scene of him having his back sliced open to remove the book from under his skin, after which he promptly dies. If anything, it certainly ensures that the scenes between the fights never get dull.
Of course the fights are really what kung fu movies are all about, and Shaolin: The Blood Mission is a pleasant surprise in this department. After a rocky start, which almost seems like it’s going to be an intolerable comedy, things turn serious pretty quickly, and the action comes thick and fast. As mentioned, the monks appear to be being played by genuine Wushu practitioners, so plenty of acrobatics and weapons work are included in the fight sequences. I believe this is the only movie which really pits Hwang Jang Lee’s kicks against the flowery flourishes of the highly stylized but visually stunning Wushu. The contrast between his powerful and disciplined kicking, to the monks flips and fluidity of movement, makes for a number of unique and thrilling confrontations.
Both the three central monks and Hwang Jang Lee also get their own individual chances to shine. The monks in an exam which pits them against each other, allowing for both opponents to display their physical dexterity, and Hwang in one particular scene in which he wades through a small army of monks from the temple, dispatching them with some fierce footwork. Events transpire to culminate in a fantastic three on one, as a spear wielding Suen Kwok Ming, the acrobatic monk, and the boot-master rebel team up to take on Hwang’s ferocious villain. It’s a long and exhausting fight, one in which every performer gets to do their thing. What I particularly liked about it is that mid-way through, it appears that the good guys are gaining the advantage, at which point Hwang ramps up his kicking to the next level, and as a result the whole fight gets turned up a notch.
Throw in rebels getting blown up with dynamite, monks being impaled by flaming arrows, and a chicken losing its head, and Shaolin: The Blood Mission certainly lives up to its title. There are some deaths that would even make Chang Cheh proud, a compliment that any kung fu movie should be happy to receive. While the dubbing and editing of the plot may sometimes leave you scratching your head, no doubt due to Godfrey Ho’s involvement rather than any fault of the original production, there’s enough solid fight action on display to more than warrant a watch. If you’ve contemplated watching Shaolin: The Blood Mission before but decided to give it a miss, hopefully this review will make you re-consider, but if it doesn’t, I’ll ask the same question that at one point the Abbot asks the monks – “Are you totally out of your skull?”
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7.5/10