[Originally published in Movietone News 41, May 1975]
Is the making of many potboilers a prime way to fashion an auteur? If so, a veritable Pantheon of those critics’ darlings must have matriculated by now at the humming factories of Run Run Shaw and Raymond Chow. Plenty of scope over there for that magical tension between a director’s “personality” and the miserable formulaic projects he keeps getting saddled with by his producers. I sample the product occasionally at Vancouver’s two chief outlets for Chinese movies, but my experience so far is that any new movie directed by, say, Lo Wei (and nine out of ten new Chinese movies do seem to have been directed by Lo Wei) resembles the last movie directed by Lo Wei only insofar as both are unimaginative and totally predictable hack jobs. English critic Tony Rayns, who has made “the labyrinth of Hong Kong cinema” his special province, performs prodigies of genre analysis, structuralism, semantic reading upon these movies; if only seeing them proved half as much fun as reading about them! Still, I’m grateful that Rayns steered me to Chu Yuan’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (MTN 35), which combined genre conventions and sheer outrageousness in surprising ways. And having recently caught two-thirds of Chang Cheh’s epic martial-arts trilogy (Men from the Monastery / Heroes Two / Shao Lin Martial Arts), I can now share some of Rayns’s enthusiasm for this director.
Take Shin Lao Martial Arts. lf this turns up in next week’s Variety labeled as merely one more “chopsocky,” I don’t know as I could honestly demur. What happens? The evil Manchus set about exterminating the Shao Lin martial arts school’s rebellious, skilled fighters. They hire two very heavy out-of’-town experts to demoralize the Shao Lin–ers and mop them up. After many reverses, two star Shao Lin pupils finally kill the hitherto invincible heavies. A simple plot with no special distinction that I could see in the visuals. Entirely too much zooming, as usual. Shallow, dull supporting characters: your stereotypical master teacher with his long pipe and sweet disposition; your cold cruel dictatorial overlord; your silly flirtatious young maiden who dotes on the hero. But the fight scenes in Chang Cheh’s movie (and in its predecessor in his trilogy, Heroes Two) are the best I’ve ever seen. Detailed, untricky, involving, serious. Even more unusual, instead of pushing them at you every five minutes or so like an obligatory penetration in a porno movie, as his confreres do, Chang Cheh makes these fight scenes the true nodes of his narrative, widely separated and carefully, suspensefully. Sometimes rather quietly built up to.
Most unusual of all, in a long central passage we follow the arduous special training received by two Shao Lin students hand-picked lo go up against the apparently invulnerable Manchu agents—only to watch these two finely honed fighters attack the villains at last, appear to gain the day, and … get bloodily killed. It all has to start over again. Two new hopefuls seek out two new masters (more individually characterized this time) whose techniques possibly, but only possibly, may prove more equal to the fearsome “Steel Armour” and “Inner Strength” juju of the Manchu heavies. Rigorous as it was, the training of the first two challengers had a lightness of tone, a daffy folkloric quality, even. “I love carp,” one student is told by his teacher. “But hooked carp aren’t so tasty.” The student is to go to the river and nab fifty live carp every day—with his bare hands. He wades in, a big basket over one shoulder. Pathetic first attempt at seizing the slippery prey; pathetic second, third, fourth, fifth attempts. Night falls. A lyrical longshot of the young man standing in the water, moonlit, still hard at it. Gradually, his hands acquire the skill; he’s also acquiring the means for the “Eagle Claw Technique,” presumably the key to defeating his antagonist. When he comes pridefully back before the teacher with his basketload, the teacher smilingly assigns a new task: cut fifty logs, remove the bark from each with a single swoop of the bare fingers. He learns to do this, too. All this training—and all this merriment too—and the upshot is death.
Lighthearted moments ensue in the last-ditch training of the next two challengers, but not as many. They learn, respectively, the deadly “Tiger and Stork” and an infighting technique which makes a man’s hand a murderously powerful weapon at a distance of only one inch from his opponent’s body. This time, when the confrontation comes, the matched techniques work and Shao Lin vengeance is done in a shockingly visceral form. It’s a pleasure to watch stalwart young fighters like Chia Kuan-chun and Alexander Fu Sheng triumph over evil; but this is also one of those movies when you’re almost sorry to see the villains (Liang Chia-jen and Wang Lung-wei) get their comeuppance, so much first-class popular entertainment have they provided with their full-bodied physical presence and sneering, intimidating mime.
SHAO LIN MARTIAL ARTS
Direction: Chang Cheh. Screenplay: Chang Cheh, Yi Kuang. Cinematography: Kung Mu Tu. Editing: Kou Ting-hung. Martial arts instruction: Tang Chia, Lin Chia-liang.
The Players: Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chun, Liang Chia-jen, Wang Lung-wei, Liu Chia-hui, Tang Yen-tsan.
Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler