Thursday, January 12, 2012

Kung Fu Review: The Five Shaolin Masters

This all star epic is a perfect entry into the Shaw Brothers films especially for Star Wars fans

Five Shaolin Masters has a special place in my heart. It was the first kung fu movie I saw after Return of the Dragon and it blew me away. It was poorly dubbed but that didn’t matter, there was just so much action and adventure it captured my imagination.

The plot is simple, after the burning of the Shaolin Temple by Manchu soldiers, five of the monks escape and join the local resistance movement. They are hunted by five enemy martial arts experts including a traitorous former monk. In the finale they fight the five enemy masters and win. It’s a simple plot that’s easy to follow despite atrocious dubbing and an unfamiliar setting. That’s the secret to the appeal of a kung fu movie; the studios kept their plots short and easy and put all their energy into fight choreography and stuntwork. Joe Bob Briggs in his book Profoundly Disturbing said that no Western studio would even dream of putting as much time and effort into a fight sequence as the Hong Kong Studios did, but for the Shaw Brothers and their counterparts there was no other choice. The fight scenes weren’t just a compliment to the story, they were the story. The actors were telling a story through their stuntwork and fight scenes. Even at a young age I responded to this. And why not? Despite every critic at the time looking down his or her nose at the genre this is a purely cinematic way of story telling. It’s all action just as it was in the silent era. It wasn’t until after Jackie Chan started making extremely obvious references to Buster Keaton that the Western critical community finally took notice. But Chan didn’t invent this still, it had been in developed over the course of decades in Hong Kong and Five Shaolin Masters is a fine example of the mid ‘70s style.

Another big reason I loved this film so much is that I was a sci-fi geek and I loved Star Wars. Five Shaolin Masters is part of a kung fu sub-genre called, appropriately the Shaolin Cycle. As it turned out The Shaolin Cycle was a great gateway for a Star Wars fan to get into the kung fu movies. The Shaolin Cycle is about the Shaolin monks and their resistance to the Manchu Dynasty in the late 17th Century. The Manchu Dynasty is probably the most hated in Chinese history. And much of the criticism is well earned, just see Last Emperor. They were very malleable bad guys in that regardless of whether you lived in the PRC, Taiwan, or Hong Kong they were easy to hate. If you were a democracy advocate they represented totalitarian authority. If you were a nationalist they represented foreign domination. If you were a communist they represented feudal lords oppressing the common man. But the great thing is they make compelling villains to those outside the Chinese community. To me they were the evil empire. The resistance movement was the rebel alliance. The Shaolin masters were Jedi and the Manchu masters were the Sith Lords. Kung Fu was this strange discipline that they used in combat, much like the Force. It’s well known that George Lucas was inspired by Samurai films when he was creating Star Wars. It’s incredible that the Shaolin Cycle seems to fit his world even better than the samurai films do. Imagine what Star Wars would have looked like if Lucas had discovered the Shaolin Cycle.

Five Shaolin Masters also has one of the great superstar casts of any Shaw Brothers movie. David Chiang and Ti Lung had starred in some of the first great Shaw Brothers classics in the early ‘70s and at this point were still in the prime of their careers. David Chiang plays the leader of the five monks. The role represents something of a departure for him. In movies like Vengeance and Shaolin Handlock, Chiang is more impulsive and often brutally reckless. But here he and Ti Lung play the older brothers of the group and they have to be more leveled headed. Chiang is the group’s strategist and planner and he manages to convey a lot of intelligence.

Opposite David Chiang and Ti Lung are Sheng Fu, also known as Alexander Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun who were just starting to make their names. Sheng Fu is known as the James Dean of kung fu films and not just because his life was cut tragically short by a car accident. Sheng Fu specialized in playing rebellious youth. I’ll visit several of his films later. In this one stands out as the hotheaded youngster of the group. His mannerisms and even his look are anachronistic. He’s clearly sporting ‘70s hair. But provides a lot of energy and humor in between the fight scenes.

The villains here are very well cast as well. All of the actors here would go on to have long careers in Hong Kong cinemas. Liang Chia-Jen would become a kung fu hero in his own right in films like The Victim. But the villain who nearly steals the entire movie is Wang Lung Wei who plays the legendary traitor Ma Fu Yi. Wang just has the perfect look for a kung fu villain. He would have a very long career and would reappear in the ‘80s to fight Jackie Chan in Project A Part 2 and provide a memorable fight in Millionaire’s Express.

Five Shaolin Masters lit the fuse for me. After that I watched these movies religiously for next five years. I caught every one that was on TV whether it sucked or not. I’m very glad to see it is revered as one of the best from the Shaw Brothers.

Next Up: Masters of Kung Fu

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