Five Shaolin Masters (1974)

Posted in Reviews by - October 13, 2019
Five Shaolin Masters (1974)

A rip-roaring kung fu film, part of Chang Cheh‘s ‘Shaolin cycle’ which boasts a formidable cast, sharp fight choreography from Lau Kar-leung and Tong Gaai, and a tangible sense of space and location, filmed away from the claustrophobic confines of Shaws’ Movietown Studios in the wilds of Taiwan in a bid to make use of foreign capital. The result shows Chang Cheh flexing slightly different muscles, capturing texture and landscape as well as buckets of blood and muscular young boys with their shirts off. Even by Chang’s standards, this is particularly boy-tastic, featuring the full force of his heroic discoveries in a starry ensemble. Together they play the fabled ‘five ancestors’ of Shaolin: Cai Dezhong (Ti Lung), Fang Dahong (Meng Fei), Ma Chaoxing (Fu Sheng), Hu Deding (David Chiang) and Li Shikai (Chi Kuan-chun). This story places them as escapees from the same southern monastery burnt at the hands of the Manchu-backed government as seen in the previous Shaolin cycle films. However, historical accounts place the five ancestors at the northern temple, thus highlighting how Chang Cheh was never a director to let the facts get in the way of a good story. The five masters are scattered with each take on their own Manchu adversary, played by another quintet of young kung fu royalty – Choi Wang, Leung Kar-yan, Fung Hark-on, Kong Do and Wang Lung-wei – but their skills are no match for the baddies. So they reconvene at the charred remains of the Shaolin temple to develop their skills. Despite being a shadow of its former glory, its potency as a place of enlightenment, scholarship and learning is not lost of the five heroes, and through some brilliant training scenes, the boys hone their kung fu skills. They wear white, angelic robes and march through luscious Taiwanese settings to see out their legend and achieve martyrdom. Aside from Fu Sheng’s customary playfulness, the film is played very straight, like the majority of Chang’s odes to heroic masculinity.

AKA: Five Masters of Death.

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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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