Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Polly Shang-Kwan, Chang I Fei, Tin Peng, Carter Wong, Kam Kong, Yee Yuen, Chang Yi, Jimmy Lee Fong, Cliff Lok, Chen Chiu, Sham Chin Bo
Running Time: 91 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Like every genre kung-fu cinema has continued to evolve throughout the years, and perhaps no decade was more transformative than the 70’s. While the swordsplay dominated wuxia genre still ruled the roost at the start of the decade, by the mid-70’s open handed combat had risen in popularity thanks to the likes of Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer, the type of movie that came to be commonly known as the basher. Taiwanese director Joseph Kuo was in tune with the shifting of audience tastes, and by the mid-70’s had shifted away from his early 70’s wuxia output like The Ghost’s Sword and The Matchless Conqueror, and was cranking out basher flicks like 1974’s Iron Man and Shaolin Kung Fu. It’s in considering this that his 1975 production The Shaolin Kids is such an odd outlier, in that it both looks and feels like a throwback to the kind of wuxia themed tales that had long since fallen out of fashion at the time it was made.
Notable as being the first of Kuo’s movies to bring together the trio of Polly Shang-Kuan (The Ghostly Face, General Stone) , Tien Peng (The Ghost Hill, The Majesty Cat) , and Carter Wong (The Skyhawk, The Magnificent), who would reunite to make The 18 Bronzemen and Return of the 18 Bronzemen, out of the 3 productions it’s The Shaolin Kids that gives Shang-Kuan the lead role. Much like the time Shang-Kuan spent with Union Film at the start of the decade, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that here the plot revolves around her seeking to avenge the death of her father. After he dies at the hands of a corrupt official, played by Taiwanese bad guy regular Yi Yuan (The Devil’s Treasure, Iron Swallow), the trio attempt to intercept a scroll that implicates his villainous deeds so they can present it to the emperor, who he also plans to assassinate.
It’s probably worth to address the elephant in the room of where exactly the titular ‘Shaolin Kids’ fit into any of this. In short, they don’t. Kuo seemed to have a thing for including the word ‘Shaolin’ in his movies during this era, with Shaolin Kung Fu from the previous year sharing a barely there Shaolin connection (and ironically, his movies which do focus on Shaolin – The 18 Bronzemen, The Return of the 18 Bronzemen, and The Blazing Temple – don’t mention it in their title at all!). Here we get to see a group of Shaolin disciples practicing during the opening credits, then they show up again during the finale in an almost peripheral role (and we do get the Wong Fei Hung theme being played intermittently throughout if that counts), so needless to say for those expecting a dose of Joseph Kuo directed Shaolin goodness, stick to those that involve bronze body paint.
What’s most interesting about The Shaolin Kids is that Kuo seems to be attempting a tale more focused on grand political intrigue, recalling his more dramatic work from the 1960’s, than an all-out martial arts epic. After Shang-Kuan’s father is murdered hardly a couple of minutes have passed before she demolishes a group of 8 guards who stand in her way, the use of double daggers recalling her character from 1970’s The Bravest Revenge. Seemingly setting things up for the kind of non-stop slice and dice-athon that defined so much of her work with Union Film, proceedings take an unexpected turn when the narrative instead chooses to settle down into one which focuses on political strife, all played out through a lot of exposition heavy musings.
Initially this makes for a refreshing change in direction from the usual fight fests these movies can often find themselves falling into, with the bursts of action serving as exclamation marks to the more talky parts, however the more the plot progresses the more the fight action seems to get pushed into the background. The long dry spells with no action and excessive talking gradually turns The Shaolin Kids into somewhat of a plodding experience, one that you keep watching for the fact that you know some action has to hit at some point, but any kung-fu cinema fans patience will inevitably be tested the more the plot progresses. The balance of story and action serves to highlight the fine balancing act that Kuo’s peers like King Hu displayed a far better grasp of, and while it could be argued Hu had greater access to higher budgets and resources, the fundamental basics of how to tell a compelling story remain unchanged.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of Kuo’s ambitions to tell more of a drama than a wuxia flick is that there’s really no main villain to face off against in the finale. Technically it should be Yi Yuan, however he isn’t involved in the final confrontation at all, and instead the fight action is left to his pair of bodyguards – the light and dark killers. Played by Cliff Lok (Tiger’s Claw, Ring of Death) and Huang Fei-Long (One Armed Boxer, The Eight Masters), their speciality is the combined heaven and earth move, a technique that they amusingly resort to whenever they realise a fight can’t be won individually. The action which preludes the move (which consists of one somersaulting over the other to deliver a seemingly indefensible death blow to whoever they’re fighting against) is the most impressive though, choreographed by Lok himself pulling double duty along with Kuo regular Chan Siu-Pang (The Old Master, Lackey and the Lady Tiger).
It’s possible Kuo came close to the end of the production and realised just how little fight action there was, so he literally has Lok and Fei-Long face off against each of the good guys one after the other, running from one location to the next. First against Chiang Yi (The Crimson Charm, The Fast Sword), then against Carter Wong, then against the duo of Polly Shang-Kuan and Tien Peng (who have mastered some nifty rope techniques to counter their heaven and earth move). Armed with a golden pill which would appear to be the equivalent of a health restoring powerup, even when Wong basically finishes them off, popping the pill allows them to proceed to the next fight in what feels like a desperate attempt to make up for the lack of action so far. The issue is that we’re not really invested in them being beaten since they’re only Yi Yuan’s lackeys, so seeing so much time and effort being spent on them feels a little meaningless.
Rather than their eventual defeat being a precursor to the real finale though, in what feels like an unwelcome rug pull on the audience, the fights against Lok and Fei-Long are the last we see in terms of any meaningful martial arts action. The narrative then proceeds to go on for almost 15 minutes as the plot is resolved through more dull exposition in a series of closing scenes. Quite what went wrong here is hard to tell, Kuo was already an experienced director in the martial arts genre, so it seems to belie his skill as a filmmaker that he’d think it makes sense to have a series of back-to-back fight scenes then slam on the brakes for an extended conclusion. I can’t help but feel like there was either 2 movies here which have been awkwardly meshed together, or that The Shaolin Kids was originally intended to be a drama, and only had martial arts action introduced into it because that’s what Kuo had become known for at the time.
While The Shaolin Kids isn’t all bad – we do get an almost unrecognizable Carter Wong sporting a dashing black beard, and seeing Chiang Yi bust out his mantis fist style in a wuxia setting (in a teahouse fight no less!) is an undeniable highlight. However Kuo struggles to find the balance between action and drama almost right from the very beginning, and he’s evidently still struggling by the time the end credits roll, creating a final product which feels like it doesn’t fully commit to being a drama or a kung-fu flick. For Polly Shang-Kuan completists there’ll be something to enjoy here, as arguably she’s pushed into the background in both The 18 Bronzemen and its sequel, making The Shaolin Kids the only production out of those she did with Kuo where she’s front and centre. For everyone else though, stick to Kuo’s earlier wuxia’s to see what he can really do.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10