I haven’t done one of these Shaw Brothers movie reviews in a while and decided to write about my favorite Shaw Brothers movie of all time: The Five Shaolin Masters. While I had seen other Shaw Brothers pictures prior to this one, of them all, this movie made the most impact on me. I probably have seen this movie at least a hundred times and as a child I would re-enact certain scenes, believing I was one of the shaolin masters seeking revenge. Later as an adult, I could appreciate a lot more what this movie was about.
The Five Shaolin Masters has an ensemble cast where they mix two of Chang Cheh’s older favorites of Ti Lung and David Chiang with his newest, hottest pairing of Fu Sheng and Chi Kwan Chun. Along with these four, we have a very young Gordon Liu and a rare Meng Fei Shaw Brothers cameo (in fact, the only appearance that I know of). On the villains’ side, we have Wang Lung Wei, Chiang Tao, Leung Kar-Yan, Fung Hak-On and Tsai Hung. Liu Chia-Liang handled the kung fu direction while his brother Lau Kar-Wing also made a small cameo.
This movie is supposed to be set after the burning of the Shaolin Temple (which was filmed after this movie was produced in 1976) and told of five of the other shaolin heroes who escaped the temple to help fight against the Qing Dynasty.
The start of the film shows the five escaping and facing Qing troops separately, starting a nice, high paced action sequence and introducing us one by one. As the masters group up and swear revenge, their opponents are shown to have their own group where Ma Fu-Yi, played by Wang Lung Wei, immediately shows how Ma had betrayed Shaolin.
However, at that point in the movie, no one yet suspects him although the Shaolin heroes realize that there must be a traitor. The group splits up to try and recruit new allies, using codes and a tea ceremony to communicate to other patriots. Each one faces their destined opponent and a reason to eventually kill them.
Part of the individual story lines show a small bit of each of the heroes’ characters. Ti Lung is a noble man who inspires others through self sacrifice and courage. Chi Kwan Chun is a brash, cocky and very confident fighter who gets his friend killed for not listening to his advice. David Chiang is the bossy, leader that the Man Chus fear because of how much respect he garners from the people. Fu Sheng is the young kid who is betrayed by Ma Fu Yi while Meng Fei is kinda there with no real role outside of getting to say he was in a Shaw Brother’s movie.
As mentioned, Fu Sheng (Ma Chao-Hsing) goes into town attempting to find food or allies but is highly successful. However, Ma Fu-Yi discovers him and tries to set a trap. The initial trap is unsuccessful when two officers are unable to capture him. However, Ma Fu-Yi goes in and is recognized by Ma Chao-Hsing and takes the kid for a meal.
During his meal, Ma Chao-Hsing begins to reveal the small group’s activities. However, Ma Fu-Yi starts to inquire about contact codes and Ma Chao-Hsing nearly gives them away. He pulls back just in the nick of time as he begins to suspect Fu-Yi’s suspicious questions. As Fu-Yi persists, brother Ma dismisses Fu-Yi and is stopped by him.
A fight breaks out where brother Ma tries to run. He manages to bump into another patriot, recognizing on the man’s pole a special written numeric code. The two ally with Ma trying to take a disguise. However, Fu-Yi still manages to capture Ma while the patriot runs off to warn the others.
Fu-Yi takes Ma to the magistrate’s torture chamber to be inquired and Ma does his best to brush off any of Fu-Yi’s questions. Eventually, he starts to reveal the cup ceremony secret. In the meantime, the other patriot regroups with several men as David Chiang (Hu Te-Ti) seeks out Kao Fung in the mountains in an attempt to recruit him.
Hu Te-Ti reaches Kao Fung with some resistance but refuses to fight and implores the young leader to assist the Shaolin men in their plight. They exchange information with Kao Fung saying that he will aid Hu Te-Ti if he brings Kao the magistrate’s head. Knowing that it’s a suicide mission, Hu Te-Ti agrees to the terms and begins to head into town. Kao’s men also recognize that the mission is suicide and calls Te-Ti a real patriot.
In the meantime, Te-Ti encounters the other patriots who inform him that young brother Ma had been captured and that it was Fu-Yi who was the spy. This makes his conviction stronger but they are greeted by two of Kao Fung’s top assistants to inform them that they will aid them in their fight. Together, the group goes for an all out assault against the magistrate.
Back at the HQ, brother Ma completes his demonstration of the tea ceremony. However, Fu-Yi doesn’t trust him and demands to repeat it. Of course, brother Ma tells him that he forgot which only angers Fu-Yi into possibly torturing Ma. Upstairs, a commotion starts as the invasion begins, which makes Fu-Yi tell his guards to figure out what’s going on. In turn, Ma sees his chance to escape and a fight ensues.
Upstairs, Te-Ti and his men storm the HQ with Kao Fung and his group coming from a different side. The fight is brutal with several major casualties, including Kar-Wing and Kao Fung. But both Ma, Te-Ti and several other patriots manage to escape…just barely. What is clear here is that the patriots at this point are no match against the top fighters from the Manchus.
The patriots regroup at Kao Fung’s lair and conclude that the five masters must leave for the moment. The group leaves for the countryside and begin pondering how to defeat the Manchus where Li Shih-Kai (Chi Kwan-Chun) has an epiphany to start training again. They decide to return to the burnt remnants of Shaolin and use that area as a place to practice as the Manchus wouldn’t suspect them of going back.
They spend a fair amount of time improving on their styles or picking techniques to counter their chosen opponents’ abilities. Hu Te-Ti takes up the whip, Ti Lung Tsai Te-Chung learns the pole technique, Meng Fei (Fang Ta-Hung) uses the rolling style, Li Shih-Kai does the “cross technique” while Ma improves upon the Tiger and the Stork.
As the group improves, communication between them and the patriots continue. Ma Chin-Yung brings a message to the patriots indicating a large gathering will be happening. At that point, Te-Ti decides that it’s time the group makes an offensive stance before the gathering occurs.
They use their courier to provide bait to the Manchus into locating them. The five Manchu fighters (along with the two baton assistants of the general) go off to face the Five Masters of Death. Just before the showdown, Te-Ti tells the men that they need to hide their newfound techniques until the right moment because the Manchus won’t be mentally prepared and feel that they still can defeat them.
As each of the fights take place, the plan is set into motion. The Shaolin Masters bait the Manchus into mostly believing that they still lack the skill but slowly unveil their abilities which throw the Manchus off their game. Eventually, the Manchus are defeated but again not without casualties as Ta-Hung and Li Shih-Kai are slain.
The three remaining warriors return with their companions while the Manchu forces discover the dead bodies of their top fighters slung against poles. The great gathering happens as they place their fallen friends upon the pedestal where the gathering takes place.
So the movie is fairly straight forward but I think the tone throughout the show is tragic. This tragic tone is marked by the music, which makes you feel the heavy losses that occur. It’s a pretty memorable song too and one that is unique to this movie.
There are a few humorous spots with Fu Sheng and Meng Fei playing up some moments. But the seriousness of the situation downplays those rare moments such as when brother Ma learns of Kao Fung’s sacrifice for him. Similarly, Ta-Hung’s character starts off playing with children but he finds Gordon Liu (Chang Yun) being held hostage. Eventually, Chang tries to defend Ta-Hung but is killed by Beardie and his men.
The key motivation in this movie is sheer revenge. The heroes see many of their men dying by the hands of the Manchus. Each situation inspires more fervor and lusts of hate towards the Manchus; an example is where Te-Chung slaps Ma’s hand away from the burnt pole and tells him that the charred weapon reminds him how much he hates the Manchus.
There is a karmic element too in the way revenge and death are interleaved. Both Ta-Hung and Shih-Kai survive their encounters because of a bloody sacrifice. That blood is repaid at the end of the movie where they both are killed by their sworn enemies.
Another interesting aspect to the movie is how the arrogance of people lead to their demise. Kao Fung, Shih-Kai and the Manchus all have an air of unmitigated pride that becomes their downfall. Shih-Kai, in particular, is an interesting case because he even admits to Bruce Tong that he wouldn’t doing anything brash any further. However, when you examine Shih-Kai’s fight scene, he keeps telling his opponent his abilities. When he goes in for the kill, he ends up leaving himself open for Chin-Chiu’s mantis fingers to rip his stomach out.
Looking back, the kung fu in this movie didn’t age as well as I would have hoped. It’s still good for me but it can be slow at times compared to more modern films. But because it’s choreographed by Liu Chia-Liang, everything looks authentic.
One thing I like about this movie is that the kung fu is something one could almost say with enough practice is very possible. Meaning that anyone could do it. It doesn’t require crazy wire work or phony jumping from the roof top type moves to do (yes, they had people jumping from the roofs or onto them but that never was the focus for the fights themselves).
Also, the kung fu wasn’t completely mindless nor meaningless. The training sequences would lead to something which would get re-used for a fatality move. And the kung fu was meant to be counters to their opponents’ abilities.
Like when you compare to this movie’s choreography to the Shaolin Temple, this movie was better because of the how the kung fu was more focused. Also, the training was well done, not over-the-top and not boring. I felt it had the perfect amount and could entice one to take it up if so desired.
Pacing-wise, this movie never really dulls. There’s enough conversation and plot with into the action where it sets a good rhythm. The training scenes help build towards the end especially with Chang Cheh using his classic green flashback sequences to help the viewer recall the finishing move.
And while the gore isn’t high, the movie can be very brutal. We see some very violent deaths like a whip being pulled straight through two men, another man having his nuts kicked in, the top of the ax man’s skull being smashed off, the mantis’ jaw being twisted and fractured, Shih-Kai’s stomach being ripped and Fu-Yi’s eyes being poked out then his throat demolished.
The bad guys’ deaths are very cathartic with Chang Cheh using his classic slow motion to really emphasize the violent nature of each villains’ demise. Similarly, when a hero meets a tragic end, they receive a close up and slow, agonizing death that leaves a long lasting imprint on our minds.
And while this may be the perennial example of the penultimate kung fu classic Shaw Brother’s picture, it’s also a pretty neat little period piece. You feel the natural hatred towards the Manchus and Qings while supporting the patriots. The movie doesn’t delve into too much history but just folklore of Chinese heroes. That bit gives this movie some authenticity that goes beyond just a fictitious fantasy.
Overall, this to me is Chang Cheh at his finest. You had a young Fu Sheng who was very relatable and a star studded cast. The kung fu was fun and the movie pretty well acted. Highly recommended.