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Invincible Shaolin (Nan Shao Lin yu bei Shao Lin, 1978)

Chang Cheh

Hong Kong

98 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2004 Branislav L. Slantchev

What an eye-full! No wonder Chang Cheh is hailed universally as the master of martial arts film. While Invincible Shaolin has a paper-thin cover masquerading as a plot, it really is a great fun ride from one incredible fighting scene to another. The Five Venoms return fresh from their debut to deliver some of the best action around. Decent acting, some predictably tragic circumstances, and tons of acrobatics make this film a jolly good outing.

Trampoline-fu Sun Chien, Lu Feng, & funny guy Chiang Sheng

If it matters, the background goes something like this. The Manchu conquerors don't like that Shaolin is propagating its martial arts, especially by training civilians. So General Pu (Johnny Wang) sets up a complicated trap designed to divide and conquer Northern and Southern Shaolin under the flimsy pretext of training Manchu troops. He calls on the temples to send their three best fighters to battle it out for the positions of honor. Why the temples would send civilians thereby acknowledging their trespassing is not explained. Well, the Northern masters played by Sun Chien, Lu Feng, and the perpetually smiling Chiang Sheng easily defeat the three imposters from the South, and when the General kills the defeated and arranges for the blame to fall on the three good guys, it's time for revenge.

Kazakh dances used to be fun Lu Feng in Old Spice ad

Utterly unconvincing as a plot (a simple explanation at the funeral or any time later would have prevented further bloodshed), the story does give Chang an excuse to film a fighting scene every two minutes. Following the death of his son and two other disciples, the ailing Southern sifu Mai (Chan Shen) disbands the school and begins an elaborate plan to wreak bloody revenge. Realizing that his pupils' skills are not up to the challenge, he sends his son Mai Fong (Wai Pak) to learn wing chun, Chu (Lo Meng) to learn mantis, and keeps Ying Wu (Philip Kwos) to teach him fishtail pole.

An apple a day... Ching Miao teaches Lo Meng to make omelette

The film spends about a third on the training of these men, in good genre tradition. As usual, the teachers tend to be on the bizarre side (one has an egg fetish, the other is a plant potter), but their methods quickly turn the talented men into formidable fighters. Each trains in a particular skill designed to overcome the one in which his opponent is proficient. My impression is that these martial arts skills are like a rock-paper-scissors game: every style is always defeated by another style. Without an omni-victorious style, one has to train in methods closely linked to the ones of his opponent. That's specialization. No wonder these guys are so reluctant to kill said opponents later: doing so renders them obsolescent. But enough ranting...

Philip Kwok: slayer of rice paper Wai Pak striking an Apollo pose

The interesting part begins when the three Northerners become entangled in love relationships with three local girls played by Kara Hui, Yau Chui Ling, and Niu Niu. The women are beautiful, of course. However, this being a Chang Cheh film, we know that if they are not going to be doing evil things or dying because of the men, they will be relegated to the sidelines. And, sure enough, our heroes ignore these gals, leaving them to suffer the pain of helplessly watching their beloved ones fall into General Pu's trap.

Break legs first, ask questions never Chiang Sheng is simply cool

There are some poignant scenes with the Southerners preparing to get their revenge. They have their own suspicions but their dying master swears them not to rest until the three baddies are killed. When the six opponents meet, it becomes immediately obvious to some of them that they have been set up. Unfortunately, it proves impossible to break the oath taken in front of a dying man, and so, tragically, the epic encounter begins, the fulfilling Manchu scheme.

Chan Shen brainwashes disciples Drink first...

The main thing to remember about the film is that it's really fun to watch. I stopped caring about the swiss-cheese plot after the first 10 minutes. The fights are extremely well done, and I am very partial to long shots which showcase the martial art talents of the actors. Such a difference from modern Hollywood films with rapid cuts designed to hide the fact that the actors don't know fighting from ballet. Chiang Sheng is my all-time favorite here, both because of his charisma and his presence. There's very little blood (by Chang Cheh standards anyway and excluding some pretty mild chest-ripping), and even the wire-fu is restrained.

...kill later Beautiful and inconsequential

The Celestial DVD is pretty good, coming as it does in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that looks remarkably nice. The remixed Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks come in Mandarin and Cantonese versions. I don't know whether they've added sounds, but there was quite a bit of bird chirping going on. The English subtitles are, as usual, decent and nearly error-free. The extras include a photo gallery, talent files, and trailers. A good DVD of a pretty cool film. Recommended.

July 7, 2004