Director: Lee Tso Nam
Producer: Ching Kuo Chung
Cast: Alexander Lo Rei, William Yen, Sun Jung Chi, Chen Shan, Lee Wai Wan, Chang Chi Ping, Ching Kuo Chung, Wong Chi Sang, William Yen, Li Min Lang
Running Time: 90 min.
By Chris Hatcher
In the world of old school kung fu films of the 1970s and 80s, there is a vast mix of good-to-great films and terribly bad ones; films with superbly fast-paced fight choreography and ones with moves slower than my grandma on her morning mile walk before breakfast; films that make you laugh at the poorly-dubbed English tracks, which are endearing to those of us who view this as part of the “old school” charm; and the rarity film that puts all the best qualities of the genre together to create a masterpiece of chop-socky Asian cinema that stands the test of time.
Look no further for one of these rarities than Lee Tso Nam’s Shaolin vs. Lama, my all-time favorite old school kung fu film, for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, the speed of the fight choreography can only be described as “breakneck” (and not undercranked), which is my highest compliment. Of the 200+ fu flicks in my collection, it’s my go-to for introducing friends to the genre. Not Enter the Dragon, not The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, not Drunken Master… but Shaolin Vs. Lama. Period… hands down… end of story.
Don’t get me wrong, I have several close seconds to Shaolin vs. Lama that are near and dear to my heart. Warriors Two, the aforementioned 36th Chamber, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, Clan of the White Lotus, Five Element Ninjas, and 7 Grandmasters all come to mind. But when I ask myself the question, “Which film gives me some of the most ferocious fight sequences of the genre,” I always come back to Shaolin vs. Lama as my number one answer.
Now that I’ve gotten my personal SVL love out of the way, here’s what you can expect from Nam’s tour de force: Alexander Lo Rei is Sun Yu Ting, a wanderer who challenges kung fu experts in search of a master with an “if you can beat me, I’m yours to teach” motto. When he meets Shaolin trouble-maker Hsu Chi (William Yen) and learns of his Grandmaster’s (Sun Jung Chi) excellent kung fu, Yu Ting is up for the challenge… an encounter that lasts all of 30 seconds as the GM bests Yu Ting and has him begging to become his student. The old “stink foot” technique was never so potent (truly one of the grossest, but intentionally funny, scenes in old school fu flick history)!
The old monk refuses the job, but Hsu Shi devises a plan for Yu Ting to “steal” the Grandmaster’s kung fu by attacking him and learning his moves in the process (an absurd concept that proves highly entertaining when Yu Ting plays “keep away” with some smoked chickens… this GM loves his meat and wine!). When this painful approach prompts Yu Ting to ask why the monk won’t teach him, Hsu Chi tells him of Chi Kung (Chang Shan), a former pupil of the Grandmaster’s who posed as a Shaolin student 10+ years ago while sitting as chief of the rival Golden Wheel Lamas. We learn his plan was to avenge the death of a former Lama chief at the hands of the Shaolin (of course!) by infiltrating their temple and stealing a secret kung fu manual (of course, of course!!). Couple this betrayal with knowing the old GM was the one who allowed Chi Kung to escape with the manual (which we see in flashback), and we have a good idea why he now has an affection for the drink.
Because SVL isn’t Shakespeare, I’ll wrap up the storyline by revealing some good ol’ tried and true particulars of the genre: Chi Kung resurfaces as Yao Feng Lin, up to his old tricks of infiltrating clans with his loyal lamas; when a survivor (Lee Wai Wan) of his latest attack is saved by Yu Ting and harbored by the Shaolin, it brings the lamas right to the temple doorsteps; as the head abbot (Chang Chi Ping) is about to put Yu Ting out of the temple for good, the Grandmaster takes pity and accepts him as his pupil (of course, of course, of course!!!); Yu Ting begins some brief, but rigorous Shaolin training in preparation for battle with Yao Feng (accompanied by a catchy Chinese opera/pipe organ jingle that shows up whenever the main players face off); the Shaolin traitor catches Yu Ting and his GM off guard, which leads to some spectacular kung fu with disastrous results; and we see Yao Feng use multiple styles from the secret manual, which will make the task of defeating him all the more difficult.
To sum it up, Shaolin Vs. Lama has it all… great fights, (intentionally) great comedy, cheesy costumes, crazy eyebrows, projectile “spittle” (wait… what?), a highly entertaining story, and (unintentionally) hilarious dubbing. Aside from the amazing fight scenes between Yu Ting, Yao Feng, and the Grandmaster, there are several battles between monks and lamas that are highly acrobatic and entertaining. While some fighters don’t display the most technical grace (note the fat, balding lama who looks out of place), the fights are so well-staged and the monks so on-point, you barely notice. (Shaolin Chief Yan Zu is excellent in his multiple encounters!) Major props go to William Yen, who provides well-placed comic relief as Lo Rei’s sidekick. As does Sun Jung Chi; his interactions with Yen and Lo Rei are very funny (you’ll remember “stink foot” for as long as you live!). It’s nice to see the comedic elements actually enhance an old school film rather than drag it down.
However, the fights between Lo Rei, Chang Shan, and Jung Chi are the reason to watch… some of my all-time favorite throw-downs. (In 1978, both Lo Rei and Chang Shan won the Taiwan Taekwondo Championship and the Second World Kung Fu Tournament, respectively, so their pedigrees are proven.) Their fights are so ferocious, and feature such exciting snippets of styles from tiger fist to shadow boxing to Sanshou (as noted in a 2016 interview Chang Shan gave to kungfukingdom.com), they make the hair stand up on my neck every time I watch them! And, I almost forgot to mention the Buddha Finger… the ultimate technique for finding your opponent’s weak spot! You’ll laugh at how it comes off during the training sequences and you’ll love how it’s applied in the final showdown!
Ultimate kudos to Nam and action director Peng Kong because none of the three main actors ever looked as good in any other film they made compared to Shaolin Vs. Lama. If you need proof, check out Lo Rei in the highly undercranked Ninja: The Final Duel… an awful film with near unwatchable fight choreography. Even Nam, who directed other good films like The Leg Fighters and Shaolin Invincible Sticks, never topped the quality level achieved in SVL. The fact everyone’s very best work comes out in the same fu flick tells you all you need to know about why Shaolin Vs. Lama is special, and deserves its place on the top shelf as one of the greatest of all time.
Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 10/10