Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Carter Wong, Polly Shang-Kuan, Tien Peng, Ko Yu-Min, Yuen Sam, Wong Fei Lung, Lau Lap Cho, O Yau Man, Chiu Ting, Shaw Luo Hui, Chen Chiu
Running Time: 96 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Following the success of the previous years 18 Bronzemen, director Joseph Kuo realised that he still had a few tubs of bronze paint leftover, so got the gang back together for a sequel, Return of the 18 Bronzemen, that made its debut less than 8 months later. The trio of Carter Wong, Polly Shang-Kuan, and Tien Peng all return, as does Ko Yu-Min as the shaolin abbot. However Yu-Min is the only actor reprising his role from the original, with everyone else stepping into different parts. The approach makes sense when considering how 18 Bronzemen ended (and indeed the concept as a whole – why would anyone want to go through the bronzemen test twice!?), so this time around Carter Wong takes centre stage as the villainous 4th son (and master of Muslim kung-fu!) of the recently deceased emperor, who through some will altering shenanigans quickly ascends himself to the emperor’s throne.
While the original shared top billing between the Wong, Shang-Kuan, and Peng, here it’s very much the Carter Wong show. Shang-Kuan is severely underused, although whenever she is onscreen it’s a delight, and Peng clocks in little more than a cameo as the shaolin trained boyfriend of a girl Wong has his eye on. The decision is an understandable one though, as he exudes charisma as the constantly seething emperor, delivering a performance full of intense stares and smug smirks, all captured in that kung-fu cinematography speciality – the glorious crash zoom. 1976 remains the busiest year in Wong’s entire filmography, clocking in 13 appearances in front of the camera, all of which (with the exception of The Ming Patriots) are significant roles.
Here, spurred on by the fact rumors are flying around of shaolin monks threatening to overthrow the palace, and his own keen interest in shaolin kung-fu, Wong’s character decides to study at the shaolin temple himself for 3 years, and learn their secrets from the inside. From a plot perspective, I actually find Return of the 18 Bronzemen to be more entertaining than the original, as the main character of the piece is also the main bad guy, however I can bet with certainty that you’ll be rooting for him to complete the bronzemen tests once he’s ready to take them on. Director Kuo’s background of helming dramas for most of the 60’s always saw the storylines in his kung-fu cinema outings have a little more depth to them than the average revenge plot, and here is no different. Despite the relatively quick turnaround in which Return of the 18 Bronzemen was churned out, the plot still offers up a unique slant over more typical genre fare.
Assuming part of the success of the original was the bronzemen gimmick, then the sequel doubles down on them. Part of the appeal of the bronzemen is that it’s never actually explained what they are, leaving an air of mystery to these silent attackers who stand in the way of anyone wanting to leave the temple. The metallic clangs whenever they’re hit may suggest a supernatural element, but ultimately, I don’t think their origins are intended to be overly debated. Whatever the case though, what can’t be denied is that both the original and Return of the 18 Bronzemen predate the likes of 36th Chamber of Shaolin by 2 years, a production which often gets cited as popularising shaolin training sequences. It may well have done, but I challenge anyone to check out the training sequences in these Joseph Kuo flicks, and not think Lau Kar Leung must have taken some inspiration from them.
That’s not to say Kuo himself wasn’t taking inspiration from Shaw Brothers as well, with Wong’s initial rejection by the temple leading to him staying knelt outside the temple doors for several days through rain or shine, a scene that easily recalls the likes of Chang Cheh’s 1974 production Five Shaolin Masters. Once inside though, it’s all action, with Kuo’s follow-up maintaining fight choreographers Chan Siu-Pang (The Bloody Fight, Monkey Fist) and Cliff Lok (The Virgin Mart, Shaolin Death Squads), while losing Huang Fei-Long who made up a third member of the choreography team for the original. The fight action is frequent, even if it’s relegated to sparring between monks, however the temperature gets cranked up significantly once Wong decides he’s ready to take on the bronzemen test.
Ironically it’s the bronzemen that prove to be one of the issues with the sequel. The tests have become more elaborate and lengthier since we last saw them, with spiked walls, weapons handling challenges, and at its most cruel, a hearing test that’s taken sat down, which if you fail results in a tonne weight sandbag repeatedly dropping from the ceiling onto your head. Cruel, but also quite funny to watch. While the Return of the 18 Bronzemen addresses the originals issue of having 2 characters take the same test one after the other, making the whole sequence a rather repetitive watch, the sequel stretches the tests out so much that they become somewhat of a laborious chore to get through. Almost an entire third, if not a little more, of the runtime is spent on the bronzemen tests, the first 2 attempts of which Wong fails at the final hurdle and barely escapes with his life.
On the plus side, each time he goes back to take the challenge again the tests are changed up so we’re not watching the same thing twice, however it’s a bit like watching a computer game which you’ve gotten really far on, however every time you die you need to go back to the start and do it all over again. By the time Wong was on his 3rd attempt and a group of somersaulting bronzemen surrounded him in one of the rooms, I went and made myself a cup of tea. The choreography is fast and powerful, so it’s not an issue of the action itself being dull, more so the fact that the more we watch of the tests, the more it feels like there’s actually very little on the line beyond passing that particular room, and seeing what awaits in the next one (clue – more bronzemen). In the end I couldn’t help but feel like while the bronzemen scenes may be iconic to the genre in isolation, presented one after the other a lot of the thrill quickly dissipates.
As it is, a teahouse fight with Polly Shang-Kuan stands as an action highlight. It surprisingly eschews the seriousness of the original, introducing a comedic element with rectal impaling’s via chopsticks, blunt force trauma to the crotch via a banister, and a pot being used like a pinball to hit someone in the head. Naturally of course, everyone also thinks she’s a guy. Despite the non-stop bronzemen action being a little numbing, it’s actually a plot twist that brings Return of the 18 Bronzemen back on track, with Kuo pulling the rug out from under the audience with a reveal once Wong finally leaves the temple. Proving to be another example of why watching kung-fu movies told by experienced storytellers usually allows the genre to be presented in new and interesting ways, the reveal almost begs for an instant rewatch, with the knowledge now bestowed upon us painting certain parts in a different light.
While the reliability of the production schedules and release dates of Kuo’s output in the mid-70’s is a little murky, even if Return of the 18 Bronzemen was a quick cash-in on the success of the original (at least in its native Taiwan, based on HKMDB it actually came out in Hong Kong first, with the original released later!), in my opinion it’s the superior of the 2 productions. It also seems to have been conceived as a prequel to The Blazing Temple, another production helmed by Kuo and starring Carter Wong (playing a different character again!) that came out in 1976, which portrays the aftermath of the events alluded to in the final scene. Indeed the closing scenes offer a distinct lack of catharsis or resolution to the narrative, closing out on a cliff-hanger ending, so it’d at least offer closure to know if The Blazing Temple is supposed to be what’s viewed next, or if in fact it was a planned production that Kuo just never got around to.
Regardless though, if you like the kung-fu in your kung-fu flicks to be almost constant, then Return of the 18 Bronzemen goes for gold, and for that, it’s definitely an admirable effort.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 6/10