South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin (1983) Review

"South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin" Korean Theatrical Poster

“South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin” Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: Wu Chia Chun
Co-director: Casanova Wong
Writer: Go Seong-ui
Producer: Park Jong-gu
Cast: Casanova Wong, Eagle Han Ying, Ma Chin Ku, Wang Kuan Hsiung, Chiang Cheng, Gang Myeong-hwa
Running Time: 87 min.

By Paul Bramhall

In 1982, a year prior to the release of South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin, the movie that launched Jet Li into stardom, and triggered a wave of wushu influenced Shaolin movies, captured the imagination of Asian audiences in the form of Shaolin Temple. Made at a time when Chang Cheh’s own Shaolin Cycle series had been out of fad since the mid-70’s, suddenly Shaolin was cool again, and many filmmakers looked to jump on the bandwagon. This is the background that led to Korea and Taiwan creating a couple of co-productions together focusing on the exploits of the kung fu practicing Shaolin monks, both from 1983, with the other being Shaolin vs. Tai Chi.

While Taiwanese director Wu Chia-Chun helmed Shaolin vs. Tai Chi solo (and indeed, only the opening scene from this movie was filmed in Korea), for South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin, which was shot entirely on location in Korea, it provided star and choreographer Casanova Wong his first opportunity to try sitting in the director’s chair. Wong would go on to direct several notoriously unavailable Korean action movies, such as The Magic Sword and Bloody Mafia, but South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin can be considered his directorial debut. Chi-Chun was a logical decision to be co-director, as he’d already had experience working in Korea, co-directing such productions as Jackie and Bruce to the Rescue.

As with almost any Korean kung fu movie, what can be considered to be the true uncut version is an almost impossible discussion to have. A version was shot for Taiwan with additional scenes of the Taiwan cast, and another version was shot for Korea with additional scenes of the Korean cast, then somewhere in between, you have the horrible hybrid that is the English dubbed version. For western audiences then, the plot of South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin involves two babies who are said to be princes being smuggled away from murderous Qing soldiers, led by Eagle Han Ying. In a scene that doesn’t make it apparently clear what happens to the other, one gets away via being throw into a tree (so far, so Fury in Shaolin Temple), and ends up being raised by monks in the Shaolin Temple. Growing up to become Casanova Wong, he’s never forgotten his revenge, and intends to kill Han Ying as soon as he’s skilled enough to do so.

At this point you may well be asking what the relevance of the title is to what actually unfolds onscreen, so I’ll be upfront and say none whatsoever. There is no battle of the geographically opposing Shaolin Temples, so for those looking for some inter-Shaolin action, best stick with Invincible Shaolin. What we do have is the rare sight of a shaven headed Casanova Wong in the role of a monk, and what’s more, in one of his first fight choreographer gigs, he decided to move the focus away from his kicks, and instead shift more towards a reliance on weapons. This can again be traced back to the Shaolin Temple influence, which suddenly made the flowery acrobatic flourishes of wushu weapons handling incredibly popular, and the action here clearly shows that influence.

This is the first of South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin’s problems, Wong is a boot master, not a weapons guy. While his trademark kicks are still there, they’re never the focus, and seeing his jaw dropping kicking abilities side-lined in favour of only average weapons work is a serious error in judgement. The second problem comes in the form of one of the most irritating cast of characters ever assembled. It begins to become apparent fairly quickly that proceedings are going down the comedic route, but literally every character seems to have gone to the Dean Shek School of Comedy Acting, including Wong himself. I don’t consider it too much of a spoiler to say that, when Han Ying mercilessly kills pretty much everyone except Wong, I found myself breathing a sigh of relief as each gurning idiot gets kicked to death on the receiving end of his boots.

Indeed it’s fair to say that it’s Han Ying who looks the best out of everyone, apart from the aesthetically pleasing dyed red stripe running through the middle of his hair, he’s the only martial artist who really gets to show off what he’s good at – kicking. The rest of the action delivers entertainment value not so much from its quality, but more the laugh out loud bizarreness of it. As with so many of these movies, the intentional comedy falls flat, but the unintended variety provides plenty of laughs. In the opening scene ninjas, which are clearly mannequins, burst out of the ground bolt upright, thanks to a spring loaded mechanism which would break any real persons back. It’s a laugh inducing sight. They then proceed to awkwardly crawl along the ground on their side, in what I can only assume was supposed to keep them out of sight from their targets, but considering they’re crawling on a completely clear patch of land, it ends up looking ridiculous.

The ninjas do provide some of the movies most entertaining moments though. After almost an hour of intolerable comedy, there’s a scene in which a gang of them ambush Wong, which involves him having to tackle flying ninjas armed with flame throwing blow pipes and bamboo traps. The ninjas finishing move is also worth a mention, which sees them pile up on top of their target, then when they jump off the victim is already buried in an instantly made grave! However these brief glimpses of entertainment are few and far between, and the more South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin progresses, the more desperate it seems to become. In the latter half we suddenly have random horror elements thrown in for no apparent reason whatsoever. First we have Wong practicing against a dummy thats head is actually a real skull, which is naturally covered in creepy crawlies, but the most bizarre scene has Wong arriving in a deserted funeral parlour in the middle of the night.

Here he’s suddenly confronted by 4 long black haired cross dressing ghosts, who seem more interested in getting it on with Wong than they do fighting him, but their advances are treated with kicks to the face. Words are difficult to find to do justice to the bizarreness of this scene, so I’ll simply leave it at that. In any case, Wong’s visit to the parlour ends with him fending off several flying coffins, all of which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot itself. Most of the scenes also seem to be of the one take only variety. There’s a scene which has one of Han Ying’s lackeys running over to him in a field to deliver some news, however as he’s just a few paces away he clearly almost falls over due to the uneven ground, but it’s in the movie. In another during the final battle, two monks are taking on one of the villains, and one of them, obviously meant to be standing out of shot until it’s his turn to spring into action, instead is seen simply standing there at the side of the frame.

Events eventually culminate in Han Ying and his four main lackeys heading over to Shaolin Temple, knowing that the monks are harbouring Wong’s brother, who grew up to become a prince in hiding. You may be wondering why I’m so casually throwing in a line about Wong’s brother turning up, a fairly significant plot point if you consider the synopsis, however it’s handled so clumsily that it’s barely worth a mention. Not only does Wong never find out it’s his brother, but we also never find out what happens to the him at the end, he simply disappears without explanation. What it does leave us with, is a Shaolin Temple style finale with the monks taking on the villains. My favorite part of this scene is perhaps what was supposed to be an acrobatic flourish, which sees a row of about 10 monks, all of whom must be about 50 metres from the fight action, decide against charging into the fray, and instead do rolls until they reach the enemy. If there was an award for the lamest attacking tactic ever, this would have to be a candidate.

Wong does of course eventually turn up, which leads to an exhaustive 10 minute one-on-one against Han Ying. This should have been a dream matchup, and indeed Wong gets some of his trademark kicks in – including both the take-three-guys-out-in-one flying kick from The Master Strikes, and the awesome over the table flying kick seen in ‘Warriors Two’, just minus the table. However again the overall focus on weapons make the whole fight fall considerably short of what it could have been. Wong brandishes a 3 sectioned staff for a large portion of it, taking on Han Ying who interchanges between a sword and spear, however his handling of it is so slow that the 3rd staff often ends up dangling limply, or barely completing its rotation around Wong’s torso due to a lack of momentum. In the end he simply drops it on the floor, which looks to be more out of relief than anything else.

By the time a fire breathing villain is thrown into the fray, and Wong ends up in a tree fending off ninjas in addition to Han Ying, there’s a distinct feeling that everyone is out of ideas. Perhaps the biggest lesson to come out of South Shaolin vs. North Shaolin, is that wushu practitioners would be best left to show off their wushu skills, and taekwondo practitioners would be best left to show off their taekwondo skills. While it’s admirable to see Wong attempting to break out of the type of roles he usually got cast in for his directorial debut, when it comes to martial arts, sometimes sticking with what you know is best.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3/10

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