Shaolin Kung Fu (1974) Review

Shaolin Kung Fu (1974) Review

“Shaolin Kung Fu” Theatrical Poster

Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Chiang-Long, Yi Yuan, Liao Shou Yun, Liu Ping, Yee Hung, Tsang Chiu, Yu Chung Chiu, Yuen Sam, Choi Wang, Woo Chau Ping, Chan San Yat, Yim Chung
Running Time: 92 min.

By Paul Bramhall

The early 70’s was a changing time for kung-fu cinema both in Hong Kong and Taiwan. While the 60’s had been dominated by the wuxia genre, the 70’s kicked off with Jimmy Wang Yu unleashing The Chinese Boxer, popularising empty hand combat and paving the way for the likes of Bruce Lee in The Big Boss a year later. With tastes changing from thrusts of the sword to punches in the face, so directors also course corrected to ensure they weren’t left behind. Taiwanese auteur Joseph Kuo was one such director. Having started his directorial career in 1958, Kuo spent much of the next 10 years helming dramas and comedies, however in 1968 he released his first martial arts movie, a wuxia titled The Swordsman of All Swordsmen. It proved to be a box office hit, and remains Kuo’s most commercially successful production, setting him on the path to be the popular kung-fu movie director most fans know him as today.

Kuo would go on to crank out a further 12 wuxia flicks after The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, spanning 1968 through to 1972, before he realised it was time to drop the swords and embrace the fists. The type of movie that emerged became known as the basher – still several years away from the complex and intricate Peking Opera influenced choreography in the latter part of the decade, the action in bashers was defined by its scrappiness, and reliance on opponents furiously going at each other with their fists and feet. Kuo seemed to find his go-to leading man for this era of his filmography in Wen Chiang-Long. Already active in the Taiwanese kung-fu cinema scene since the late 60’s, it was Kuo that propelled Chiang-Long to headliner status with 1972’s Triangular Duel, which was quickly followed by Rikisha Kuri and Iron Man in 1973.

The pairing of director and star would peak in 1974, with Kuo directing Chiang-Long in Hero of Kwangtong, Deadly Fists Kung Fu, and Shaolin Kung Fu. After that, they’d go their separate ways. Shaolin Kung Fu is particularly interesting as it’s one of the few times Kuo is billed as a co-director, here alongside Lau Sau-Wa, an assistant director who worked almost exclusively for Kuo on wuxia’s like Superior Darter and Son of Swordsman. Either Kuo or Chiang-Long had a thing for characters who are rickshaw drivers, as just like in Triangular Duel and Rikisha Kuri, in Shaolin Kung Fu Chiang-Long is once more playing one of them. Seemingly working off a template formula, whereas in Triangular Duel Chiang-Long promises his teacher not to fight, in Shaolin Kung Fu he makes the same promise to his blind wife.

I have to be honest, out of all the kung-fu movie tropes out there it’s the “main character who’s promised not to fight” one that I find frustrates the most. From Bruce Lee in The Big Boss, to Chen Wo-Fu in The Shadow Boxer (released the same year), there’s just something infuriating about watching a character who you know can fight let themselves, and more importantly usually their loved ones, get beaten up by various unsavoury characters. Thankfully here Chiang-Long finds himself frequently breaking his promise, which stops Shaolin Kung Fu from falling into the same trap as its peers.

The plot initially revolves around a rivalry between local rickshaw drivers, and a particularly aggressive group who seem to be going for a monopoly on local customers, leaving the other more honest fellas out in the wind. It takes a surprisingly short amount of time (in a good way) for Chiang-Long to get sick of their shenanigans, and he proceeds to beat the hell out of the aggressors, getting so angry that he has to be pulled away before he does any serious damage. Things escalate though when the unscrupulous son of the rickshaw operation turns up at Chiang-Long’s home when he’s out and starts harassing his blind wife with the threat of sexual violence, but luckily before things go too far he arrives home and (literally) beats the son to death.

It’s this incident which changes the course of Shaolin Kung Fu from what initially seems like an unengaging and dull rickshaw rivalry plot, to one much more interesting as the son’s father, played by Yi Yuan (The 18 Bronzemen, The Silver Spear), shows he’s willing to do anything to get revenge on Chiang-Long. The obvious elephant in the room is where exactly Shaolin Kung Fu comes into any of this? The short answer is, it doesn’t. Save for a very brief, although admittedly significant, flashback scene involving the wife’s father being mentioned as a Shaolin Kung Fu teacher (which is where we’ll assume Chiang-Long got his skills from), those expecting Shaolin monks to turn up, or indeed perhaps even some Shaolin Kung Fu, I’m afraid have come to the wrong place. The action here is definitely of the basher variety, and is helmed by fight choreographer He Ming-Hsiao.

Shaolin Kung Fu is Ming-Hsia’s first-time handling fight choreography solo, having shared co-choreographer credit with Lin Yu-Chuan on 1973’s Wild Tiger and A Roaming Hero (which had a 3rd choreographer in the form of Yeh Mao). He acquits himself well, with the frequent bursts of action being suitably scrappy, but not to a point where it’s impossible to discern if there’s any actual choreography behind the brawls or if everyone was just told to go at each other. This is my first time to see Chiang-Long, and while initially I thought his look didn’t really suit a fierce kung-fu fighter (although this could be because in the first scene he’s jovially chatting to a rickshaw repair lady), I’m pleased to say looks can be deceiving. If anything this works to his favour, as when any action scene breaks out he’s surprisingly ferocious, and unleashes to a point where it would be easy to think he has an anger management problem.

The highlight fight scene has him and a pair of his rickshaw buddies lured to a quarry where a trio of assailants await to beat them up. As his friends aren’t much use in the fighting department, Chiang-Long is left to take on all three by himself in an encounter which is satisfyingly lengthy with a maintained intensity, and even a little dangerous considering some of the fight takes place on a steep incline full of loose stones. There’s some impressive leg work in the scene with kicks being enthusiastically dished out, and the fight continuously moves further up the quarry slopes (one curious trope that did carry over from the wuxia era into the basher one was the ability for characters to jump completely ridiculous heights, something which was simply expected to be accepted!).

Unfortunately the scene is also where Shaolin Kung Fu peaks, and the directing duo of Kuo and Sau-Wa can’t seem to keep up the momentum once the villainous Yi Yuan kidnaps Chiang-Long’s wife in the spirit of taking an eye for an eye. Like a tonal precursor to many an 80’s HK triad flick, the final reels see everything go to hell, with literally every woman in the cast biting the dust, one of whom goes for that distinctly 70’s kung-fu flick suicide method of banging their head against a wall from a stationery position – apparently a guaranteed instant death (coming a close 2nd of course is the biting the tongue technique). The final fight against Yi Yuan is also a little underwhelming (although it does feature Chiang-Long jumping over an entire lake), and lacks the intensity of earlier encounters. Kudos to the finishing move though, which perhaps provided the inspiration for the final scene in Friday the 13th 6 years later. Hey, don’t rule it out.

Despite being one of the most blatant examples of a product failing to do what it says on the tin, Shaolin Kung Fu still manages to be a perfectly competent mid-70’s basher. Kuo’s experience as a director of dramas is well utilised with a more compelling story than most old school kung-fu flicks, however the balance isn’t quite there in terms of having the quality of the fights also match the quality of the escalating dramatic elements. With that being said, Shaolin Kung Fu is a flick where a fight is definitely never further than a few minutes away, so if you’re a fan of bashers, it comes with an easy recommendation. 

Paul Bramhall’s Rating6/10

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