Starring David Chaing, Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, Wang Lung, Gordon Liu, Liang Chia-Jen (Beardy), Meng Fei, Chi Kuan-Chun, Fung Hark On, Chiang Tao, Tsai Hung
Fight Choreography by Lau Kar Leung and Lar Kar Wing
Directed by Chang Cheh
The name Shaw Brothers has long been synonymous with kung-fu films and for good reason. Run Run Shaw and his brother Runme forged martial arts films into what they are today, and really created the studio system for them in Hong Kong. For that alone we should all bow down and worship them…forever. Not all of their films were great, and many were not good in relation to the fact that they churned out what seemed like hundreds, but when they struck gold boy did they ever, and directors like King Hu and Chang Cheh are many of the reasons why, and in 1974 Chang Cheh got together an all star cast in a film about Shaolin revenge that thrills with wall to wall action…
The story opens during the Qing Dynasty, where the Manchus attacked the Shaolin Temple and kills everyone there–except five of them, of course. The opening escape of the Shaolin is a thrilling way to showcase the cast while rolling the opening credits at the same time. We are introduced to: Hu Dedi (Chaing), the leader of the group, the young idiot Mao Chao-Hsing, Tsai Te-Chung (Lung), Fang Ta-Hung (Fei), and Li Shih-Kai (Kuan -Chun) as they are the last to escape the temple, and are pursued by a cast just as good as the heroes, led by Chiang Tao, the always dependable Fung Hark-On, Tsai Hung, Beardy, and Wang Lung. Now if that’s not an all-star group of villains I don’t know what is.
The Five Shaolin are good, but not good enough to defeat the Emperor’s men, and they go into hiding, meeting up with other Shaolin who have taken to hiding in an attempt to regroup and attack the Emperors’ men. This is tougher than it seems as some of the Shaolin and the local rebels have ideas of their own, and there is even a shaolin traitor who ratted them out to the Manchus, Ma Fu-Yi (Wang Lung). Hu Dedi tries to garner the support of Chief Gao, leader of a group of rebels, but Gao has a little bit of bitch in him, and decides he wants Hu to kill the local magistrate, who just happens to be the very badasses that the Shaolin ran away from in the first place. Compounding matters is Mao “I’m the young idiot of this film” Chao-Hsing, who in his bravado and yes, idiocy, gets captured but not before finding the Shaolin traitor. Hu Dedi and Chief Gao rescue him, but it costs Gao his life. Reunited with the other Five Shaolin Masters, they go to train, and plan to take on the Manchus in a fight to the finish…
Five Shaolin Masters has that familiar theme that runs through many Shaw Brothers film of brothers-at-arms and the bonds of fellowship even as Chang Cheh throws so many martial arts fight scenes into this film that it would satiate even the most ravenous kung-fu film buff. The acting runs the gamut, but each actor more or less plays their best character-type: David Chaing as the stoic hero, Ti Lung as another stoic hero, Chaing Tao as a villainous douchebag, and Fung Hark-On as the bad guy badass. The only problem I had was with Alexander Fu Sheng, who always looked as if he was too hot, and never really bothers to wear a shirt, which he seems to opt out of for any film he makes. C’mon Alex, those abs aren’t that great! His character irked me the entire film, which may have been the intent, as he acted like a knucklehead, and an overconfident knucklehead at that. I’m convinced Cheh knew this as whenever Fu Sheng fights he gets some children-sounding music that seems to say “ yes, he’s the comedy relief of this film”. Gordon Liu has a cameo, and looked like he stumbled on set from a different film, and they just decided to use him in this one.
The camera work is great, and captures the fights in all of their ShawScope glory, of which there is many. The slow parts aren’t very long, and the fights, from the opening to the end, escalate the complexity and astounding choreography perfectly. Lau Kar Leung was always one of better choreographers from the Shaw Brothers stable, and he shows why. The villains are damn tough, and the fights show this appropriately, and the choreography flows brilliantly so that at all times you know what each fighter is doing and more importantly why, rather than being a bunch of pretty movements. My favorite fight? The fight that begins to save Mao. Beardy really shows his stuff here, as does Wang Lung. The Final fight is–I have trouble choosing one over the other, so I won’t! The final fight does have one of the most painful kills ever committed to films. Gentlemen, you may want to look away at that part. You’ll know what I mean.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (10) Lau Kar Leung does some of his very best work here, and is nothing short of tremendous, and with so many fights, they all move the story at the same time giving something different each time.
STUNTWORK: (9) The stuntmen bring some great stuntwork and falls, and yes, even their overacting for their death scenes has a brilliance all their own. Kudos to the poor bastard at the beginning of the film who rolls himself down a fight of concrete stairs. I hope they bought him a beer.
STAR POWER: (10) Are you kidding me? Check that cast list again!
FINAL GRADE: (10) This is one of the best of the Shaw Brothers output. An average story surrounded by tremendous martial arts fight scenes and stars. A must see for any martial arts film enthusiast.