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Shaolin Temple (1976)

Chang Cheh

Hong Kong

116 min, color, Mandarin (English subtitles)

Review © 2003 Branislav L. Slantchev

In heat and cold, rain or shine... ...the prospectives always starve

Not to be confused with the legendary Jet Li film of the same name, this is a typical Chang Cheh extravaganza boasting expensive sets, high production values, a stellar cast, and a dramatic, if not surprising, story about the last days of Shaolin, the temple whose last days have been filmed more than the last days of any other structure.

The band of surviving Ming elements Li Yi-min "almost" slips by Lee Sau Kei

This one weaves, in the usual I Kuang fashion, several stories that almost come together at the end. First, we have Alexander Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun as two of the three friends who come to Shaolin seeking to acquire skills to exact bloody vengeance on someone for something, it is never clear who or what, but we know their cause is just because they are cute. They wait for days at the temple but are not admitted until the Chief Abbot (Tong Dik) decides the political fate of the establishment. That is to say, he decides to oppose the new rulers and, correctly foreseeing that this is not likely to make them happy, to extend Shaolin training to any worthy candidate.

Clown (Fu Sheng) and Cool (Yueh Hua) Li Yi-min, Philip Kwok, and Bruce Tong

Thus, without their knowledge, the three friends enter the temple and sign their own wanted warrants. What began as an innocent quest for bloody vengeance has turned into sedition, and worse, perhaps rebellion. And all this, without them even knowing. Bloody monks. The related story is about rebels who do know they are rebelling and in fact are on the run from the authorities who have wiped out their forces. The five friends (Ti Lung, David Chiang, Yueh Hua, and Wang Chung) plus two others, one of whom is obviously a traitor (Wang Lung Wei because he always has a treacherous look), also join the temple. To train.

Hey, we didn't sign up for READING The thorny road to perfections

Then a lot of people starve at the temple gates seeking admission and being tempted with rice and water by the tricksy monks. Those who bravely starve come in. As one can guess, not a lot of people can starve for so long without actually starving, so only three come in. These only want to learn. They do not want to rebel or seek vengeance. Ironically, in Chang Cheh's world, this marks them for death. And all three of them (Philip Kwok, Bruce Tong, and Li Yi-min) are going to die, die, die.

Ten Animals skills of whatever Alexander Fu Sheng about to get plastered

Then there's a lot of training, but not the amusing sort like what one would see in a Jackie Chan film but rather unimaginative (some would say, dull) and tedious jumping around, stirring water, or preparing the fire. Nothing of the cool weapons training in the Jet Li film either. However, on the bright side, Alexander Fu Sheng gets a whole can of whoopass opened on him by the evil Wang Lung Wei, who by this time has also become predictably treacherous because he has been signed up by the equally evil and treacherous monk Heixien (Shan Mao), who is in the services of the Imperial Forces led by Ku Feng.

Mysterious master The regulars: David Chiang and Ti Lung

For some odd reason, nobody seems to suspect there's something amiss even when both David Chiang and Ti Lung see a masked monk sneak back into the table and, on a separate occasion, mill about suspiciously around the well. Nothing comes of the many discussions except that one should not be too suspicious, the one thing one would be well-advised to be in these circumstances. No wonder Shaolin Temple was sacked. It's a miracle that with stupid "insights" like these Buddhism still exists.

Advanced stirring skills Chi Kuan-Chun and Fu Sheng

The moral of the story thus far is that "Monks Know Best." Surprised? Well, it's all about their training methods, which seem to the uninitiated cruel, unusual, and useless. Wanna learn how to handle the pole? Stir soup for two years! Wanna learn how to lift weights? Jump in a hole with weights on your legs for two years. Wanna learn kung fu? Put paper on pointy stones and then walk over it until it stops breaking. Yes, you guessed it, for two years. And this is the advanced training. Some get to stir the fire for years on end. For what purpose? Buddha says, "How do you know you cannot learn kung fu by stirring soup?"

As easy as it looks So you DON'T want me to go?

After many years of stirring soup, Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun are ready to exact their revenge but to do that, they have to sneak out of the temple. Turns out Shaolin is not just difficult to get into, it's also hard to exit, much like a Ph.D. program. This one involves going through some trails of strength that usually kill the person trying to escape without permission. The trails were unimpressive and would have been easy if it weren't for the unauthorized attempts to kill the two by the evil Wang Lung Wei and Shan Mao. They fail, of course, and we hear that our two characters have made quite a name for themselves by exacting bloody vengeance on someone for something.

Shaolin discipline at lowest ebb Not a joyful reunion

But then the chickens come home to roost, and the government finally moves in to squash the pesky temple that is teaching bad kung fu to gullible subjects. The two agents of vengeance return to warn everyone but the monks predictably fail to take any precautions and even manage to get themselves poisoned even though there was great suspicion that someone might have poisoned the well. Then the apocalyptic last battle erupts on the grounds of the temple.

Man, it was easy with prop spears! Philip Kwok, identified flying object

It is absolutely spectacular and well-worth the entire film. There are numerous exhibitions of very skilled acrobatics, excellent kung fu, and nary a wire in sight. Philip Kwok in particular is stunning in several somersaults. Many monks bravely die, but many more bravely fight, and Ti Lung gets to show off his skills in close-quarters fighting. The Shaolin people are obviously doomed and just about everyone meets his death. This includes the three friends who had come simply to train. All the ones with a "higher" purpose (rebellion or revenge) survive to carry on the Shaolin spirit. Not before killing all the main villains, of course.

Extreme Acupuncture Shaolin Burning

The Celestial Pictures DVD is a bit disappointing. The widescreen 2.35:1 picture is not anamorphically enhanced, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin remix was serviceable at best. There are two interviews that are not very informative although they are both subtitled. The English subtitles give slightly different names to the characters than the original trailer. Still, for a classic film like this one, this is the best (and only) way to own it. And you want to own it, trust me.

November 24, 2003