Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)

Posted in Reviews by - October 13, 2019
Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)

Another passionate potboiler; the third in the so-called ‘Shaolin cycle’ and one of the best. This one not only features a strong, youthful cast of Shaw talent (many of whom – people like Leung Kar-yan, Wang Lung-wei and Gordon Liu – would go on to become huge kung fu stars), but also because of the heavy influence of its fight choreographers, Lau Kar-leung and Tong Gaai. They use Chang Cheh‘s brooding setting to explore the practical applications of specific Chinese martial arts styles. The detail is almost forensic, but told in a playful way, despite its somewhat bleak premise.

The film is set several years after the exploits of Shaolin legends Fong Sai-yuk and Hung Hei-kwan (which was explored in the previous ‘cycle’ films, Heroes Two and Men from the Monastery), who are now mere folk tales in a future where the Shaolin rebellion is all but extinguished by the ruling Manchus, existing only in quiet corners by a new generation of hotheaded youth. Master Lin (Lu Ti) runs the only refuge for Shaolin kung fu, but he is quick to acquiesce to governmental pressures, even when a rival Manchu school show up to an inauguration ceremony and kill Lau Kar-wing with his own halberd. The general wants the Shaolin fighters destroyed for good, so he hires two exceptional fighters to do the dirty. Both are masters of the dark arts: one is a ‘steel skin’ expert, impervious to any blows and possessing a retractable penis (the same technique used by the traitorous Shaolin eunuch, Pai Mei); the other is an inner-strength expert who can absorb his opponent’s energy and cause GBH without seemingly lifting a finger. To defeat them both, Master Lin’s next generation of fighters must seek tutelage from an older generation who, although different in temperament, are shown to still sympathise with the rebel cause.

So Bruce Tong and Gordon Liu learn how to catch carp with their bare hands and develop their eagle claw technique, while Chi Kuan-chun and Alexander Fu Sheng learn a mixture of wing chun, tiger and stork style to get to their adversary’s weak spots. The film is ultimately a blistering showcase of expert kung fu fighting performed with expert precision, timing and style by a cast in their absolute prime. It’s a non-stop joy to behold, with real tense moments and a genuine lightness of touch, particularly in the romantic asides where both Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chun get to enjoy a flirtatious distraction with the girls next door (played by Yuan Man-tzu and Irene Chen).

AKA: Five Fingers of DeathMartial Arts of Shaolin.

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Editor and creator of Kung Fu Movie Guide and the host of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast. I live behind a laptop in London, UK.

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