I haven’t done one of these in a while but recently re-watched The Shaolin Temple online. It’s one of my favorite Shaw Brothers classic movies, even though, in truth, it really wasn’t a great movie. The key thing about this movie was the all star cast, which features almost all the top names under the Shaw Brothers at the time. I think it’s more remarkable that a few key names did NOT show up for this movie but that might’ve pushed it over the edge. Nevertheless, this is one that I’ve been meaning to review for some time but finally figured it’s a good time to write something for it.
The Shaw Brothers had produced a few movies related to the Shaolin Temple, or rather the burning of it like the Five Masters of Death, Shaolin Rescuers, Heroes II, etc. But this movie’s main plot was how Shaolin started recruiting outsiders into their fold and training them in their martial arts, which made them a potential threat to the Manchu Dynasty. With spies inside of the temple, the Manchus would eventually decide to put a stop to the temple before things got out of hand.
The movie opens up with the monks discussing whether or not to bring in pupils while outside in the rain sit several legendary figures as prospects in the form of Fang Siu Yu (Fu Sheng), Hu Hui Gan (Chi Kuan-Chun) and Hong Xi Guan (Wai Wang). Both Fang Siu Yu and Hu Hui Gan have a clear purpose of getting revenge for their fallen family members, although Hong Xi Guan never reveals his own motivation for being there (assuming it was similar but the actor doesn’t do much in this movie except a few cameo bits). Eventually, they’re admitted rather reluctantly by Hui Xian (Shan Mao), who clearly seems to have an ulterior motive that we will gradually discover.
Besides those three, there are two additional groups seeking refuge inside the walls of Shaolin. We encounter six soldiers Hu De Di (David Chiang), Cai De Zhong (Ti Lung), Ma Fu Yi (Wang Lung-Wei), Li Se Kai (Yueh Ha), Fang Da Hong (Wang Chung) and Ma Chao Xing (Lau Wing). The names of these six actually appeared in a sequel film (actually a prequel just because it technically came out before this one) called The Five Masters of Death where David Chiang, Ti Lung and Wang Lung-Wei would play these roles. But here, they get a little more background in terms of why they were running, being part of a rebellion army, trying to escape the Manchus. Of the six though, Ma Fu Yi shows doubt at their situation which brings some tension between him and Hu De Di. Just as things appear hopeless, Cai De Zhong’s female friend, Yan Yong Chun, makes a short cameo to help bring these soldiers to the Shaolin temple.
The last of these groups accepting refuge is composed of Zhu Dao (Bruce Tong), Lin Guang Yao (Philip Kwok) and Huang Song Han (Li Yi-Min). This group endures the most in terms of trying to gain acceptance into Shaolin. Now, at least for my money’s worth, I think part of the idea here is that these three characters weren’t famous in Chinese legend so they’re supposed to represent the every day man who did their best to enter into Shaolin. There are others with them that slowly give up during their trials whether it’s impatience, hunger or humiliation. Eventually, only these three remain, which impresses the abbot himself and are permitted to enter.
Now, I want to stop here to discuss how up until this point, the movie had been moving at a snail’s pace. I get that they wanted to demonstrate the suffering these people had to endure in order to gain entry, but it felt like a lot of wasted time. Also, there was a bit of counter-productivity here in that it made these three characters seem really stupid. They really had no motivation to be there compared to the other two groups and we would see in time that these three would be made into eventual fodder, although they were likeable enough on their own.
At any rate, between the various entry points to the burgeoning conflict with the Manchus, we see the asperity of the life inside of Shaolin. There’s harsh rules such as waking up early, strict timeliness for practice and of course stringent training for kung fu itself. In several cases, the techniques shown aren’t obvious to some of these people. For instance, Zhu Dao is forced to turn blank sutras over jagged rocks while Lin Guang Yao is subjected to being chained while stirring soup. But these methods are used to demonstrate how each person’s abilities are different such as Zhu Dao’s light skill vs Lin Guang Yao. Over time, we see that each person slowly improves with Fang Shi Yu being motivated not only by revenge but to confront and defeat Ma Fu Yi, who had been bullying him after meeting him.
While this goes on, Hui Xian is revealed to be a spy and after Ma Fu Yi is beaten finally by Fang Shi Yu, Hui Xian privately speaks with the former soldier to recruit him to the Manchu’s cause. During this period, Hu De Di and Cai De Zhong begin suspecting Hui Xian and encounter him while he’s returning from a mission, although neither are able to properly identify him just yet. Nonetheless, they meet with another monk, a female one at that whom we never see her face. She warns them off chasing the spy and takes them both in as her pupils teaching Hu De Di the whip and Cai De Zhong a form of boxing.
Eventually, Hu Hui Gan reminds Fang Shi Yu about their original purpose for joining Shaolin. That leads them to face the Wooden Men in an “alleyway” type of dungeon that’s meant to discourage those who flee. Both split up temporarily but get caught by Ma Fu Yi and Hui Xian and get into a fight. However, the brothers of Shaolin actually decide to take up for the pair to help them escape. That causes the abbot to restrain those partaking in the aiding of Fang and Hu a sentence of confinement. Nonetheless, both men manage to get revenge off screen.
Taking a side break again, I want to say the Wooden Men section of this movie is my least favorite part. It just feels like it drags on forever and I always end up tuning out when this section comes on.
As things are beginning to peak in terms of the tension at the Manchu court, the Manchus decide to send a small army to eradicate the Shaolin temple. On their return, Fang and Hu capture and interrogate a soldier who reveals the plans. Both men manage to reach Shaolin before the army does and attempt to warn the abbot and their brothers of the plot. Hui Xian though still tries to dissuade the abbot otherwise but he’s shut down by Fang.
Finally, the Manchu army reaches the gates of Shaolin and Hui Xian kills a bunch of monks to help breach the gates. Fang sees Hui Xian and declares him a traitor but isn’t able to beat him back to prevent him from opening up the gates. Smartly, Fang retreats while the Manchus flood Shaolin. The first line of defense of monks come out but against the various weapons and numbers of the Manchus, the monks don’t stand a chance.
Fang returns with Hu to the abbot, who reveals that all the senior monks had been poisoned and asks that those who can survive to continue spreading the name of Shaolin. From here on out, it’s just fight scene after fight scene. There’s some good stuff in here but other parts which again drag on forever. Everyone gets their bits in, including a gruesome but cathartic death of Hui Xian where Fang gives him the crane bill to the temple as a dying Huang Song Han tears up his guts with the end of a polearm. Also, Ti Lung and Wang Lung-Wei have a neat fight scene on a staircase with David Chiang tossing his steel whip through Wang Lung-Wei. Other death scenes border on ridiculous like Bruce Tong getting shot by a bunch of arrows or Chiang Sheng getting sliced on both sides with a bunch of blades.
Without going into detail about those fight scenes themselves, I wanted to say that I once read another reviewer remarking how this movie’s lack of Lau Kar-Leung as the martial arts director made the kung fu itself far less focused. And while they did have some training scenes, they didn’t feel as authentic as a Lau Kar-Leung production. The kung fu itself was incidental to the plot itself whereas in a Lau Kar-Leung production, the kung fu would be the focus or even be a major part of the plot.
And from there the all star cast aspect, while novel, actually hurt the movie imo. You had some figures like the ones who would play characters from the Five Shaolin Masters or Hung Sze-Kuan did little to nothing at all. Really their purpose was to name drop a figure in Chinese kung fu lore and get a line or two in, maybe hit someone then that’s it. They weren’t even the jobbers here.
Then there’s the plot. I think the only thing you can say about a plot here is that the Manchus eventually invade because they don’t like the idea of someone else training fighters. But you don’t really get that sense throughout the movie. It’s more of a subplot as you have these various unessential scenarios happening that take up excessive amounts of time. Like the Fang Shi Yu vs Ma Fu Yi part just went on for a while. But he doesn’t even fight him at the end of the movie and it’s David Chiang who gets the kill. You’re just moving from one point to another and somehow racing to get to the big fight at the end.
But let’s be honest. The only real reason to watch this movie is for that huge fight once the Manchus arrive. And that’s where the real fun happens. There’s lots of action and some moments of pathos like when our jobber team unfairly get slaughtered in typical Chang Cheh fashion. When it comes to the Manchus themselves, they’re just a one dimensional evil bad guy no different from Nazis. You have a guy like Tsai Hung, who doesn’t really get any lines in but has an evil laugh at one point be the obvious villain. But we don’t know why we should hate him other than the fact that he’s giving orders, doing squash matches against jobbers until Fu Sheng comes in to beat his ass.
I mean, this isn’t a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. You watch it because of the big end fight scene and the all star cast. The training in this movie doesn’t really stand out compared to other Shaw Brothers classics and the kung fu by itself isn’t remarkable. I do think it sucks that Chen Kuan-Tai, Leung Kar-Yan, Gordon Liu and Sun Chien couldn’t have been in this as well. Also, I wish Lau Kar-Leung could’ve been the one handling the choreography. But again this probably was their biggest production when it came to size and name talent. Overall, it’s a fun movie but there are better ones that I hope to review some day.