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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Revenge of the Shaolin Master by Martin

Can anyone name a movie that Yuen Woo Ping is involved in that contains nothing less than superb action choreography? The man’s name was in the 70s Kung fu movie boom synonymous with great martial arts action, and now there is no difference. This reviewer, as a great fan of Yuen and his brothers Yuen Cheung Yan, Yuen Hsin Yee and Yuen Yat Chor, was very surprised and pleased to find out about the film Revenge of the Shaolin Master. A 1978 Taiwanese production, its fight choreographers are credited as Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung Yan. While this is not surprising in itself as at the time the two brothers were working in Taiwan and Hong Kong together as a team, the main actor cast as lead certainly is. This is none other than Dorian Tan Tao Liang (aka Delon Tan, Delom Tan and my fave variation Delon Tanners) one of the most well-regarded kickers and indeed Martial Artists ever to grace the screen. Tan was peaking at this time, dividing it between Taiwanese and Hong Kong productions, with other classics such as The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious and The Himalayan. The Yuen clan, though yet to begin work on Woo Ping directed movies, were proving their action directing and stuntmen talents to all and sundry with movies such as Born Invincible and Broken Oath. The pairing of choreographers and star set me salivating, and to my fellow Kung Fu movie cohorts I am pleased to say: This one don’t disappoint.

There are few old skool movies whose consistency of action is constant and thrilling. Secret Rivals 2 springs to mind, as does Dance of the Drunk Mantis. Both choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, of course. Revenge of the Shaolin Master, by virtue of its non-stop high quality action, is in that elite class. The ability to conceive of a plot and narrative that allows for constant action is a tough ask.

As anyone familiar with Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema of the late 70’s knows, the idea of script re-writes did not cross film-makers minds. In many productions the plot was made up as the shoot went on. This means the action in quality productions grew organically out of the plot, with a feeling of cohesion and outcome of characters actions meaning they must fight. The problem with this is that it can be a hit and miss affair, as plotlines can suffer and formula is relied on. Unfortunately this is the case to an extent with Revenge of the Shaolin Master, but it has the talent on show to rise above it.

The film begins with Tan playing an upright man Lin Chan Hu, who has the task of escorting food and money to refugees across the border, by order of the magistrate. They are ambushed by bandits, and the goods are stolen. The Chief of the town Chi Chu (played by the creepy Choi Wang) comes to the conclusion that Chan Hu has set up the ambush, and he is captured but released for lack of evidence soon after. Meanwhile Chan Hu’s father dies of old age, and an inspector working for Chin Chu, Sha (played by Taiwanese actor/martial artist Chiang Fu Jian) encounters Chan Hu’s sister, Feng Yi (Lau San). It is revealed that Sha and Chan Hu have friends in common in the shape of an old uncle, and the two meet there in the midst of a fight with Chin Chu’s men. Chan Hu is eventually captured again and witnesses the murder of his mother and fianceė by Chin Chu. He escapes thanks to Feng Yi. Chan Hu and Sha discover that Chin Chu and his brother (played by the ever-excellent Lung Fei) were setting up Chan Hu and they are both taken to a desolate beach. They must fight to the death to discover who is the better fighter. Chen Sing’s cameo is at this point, as the Marshall, and what a cameo it is. Watch the shock ending to find out what’s next! The twists and turns of the plot are evident, and at times obvious, but engaging.

Joe Law Chi, a veteran director in the Kung Fu genre, directs the film. He has a reasonable ability to weave plotlines around the action, but his directorial style at times is not suited to the subject matter. The screen seems to go dead at times without the action, and he also directed the roundly derided Invincible Kung Fu Trio, known to be one of the worst Kung Fu films involving major stars ever made. However, there are some nicely framed shots and good uses of crash zooms between cuts and scenes. What really impresses is the way the action is integrated into a complex plot, and the build up of rage which Tan’s character feels reflecting in the fights.

At this time the Yuen clan’s ability to film intricate old skool action was at its peak, and here we get an unbelievable mix of leg techniques, open hand kung fu and weaponry. The rhythm and tempo of the fights is up there with the best, while the editing apart from a couple of shots is not a frame out. Chiang Fu Jian, who plays the inspector, had a short career in movies. His other credits include Thundering Mantis and Shaolin Legend, but here he gets to show off his action chops at an incredibly high level. In his first fight he shows off great arm lock techniques, while in the mid section his spearplay is timed to the second combined with nice legwork, and in the end fight to the death his hand techniques come to the fore with maximum effect. Lau San who plays Tan’s sister also had a short career, with other titles of note including Kung Fu from Beyond the Grave and 18 Bronzegirls From Shaolin (!). Here her martial arts abilities are given a great showcase, and she performs some kick and punch combinations with grace and authority. Choi Wang, a veteran of Shaw Brothers and many other company’s films, is supremely creepy as the main villain and gets a magnificent knock down and drag-out fight with Chiang Fu Jian. To see Chen Sing go into weapon-wielding action with Lung Fei is a joy to behold, if the fight is a little on the short side.

Now to Tan the man. As one of the most prolific performers of the old skool, it is very difficult to pick a best martial arts performance. For me, having seen more than half of his output, this IS his best. Every aspect of his open hand martial artistry is tested to the extreme. In the most complex fight in the film he takes on four spearmen. This scene contains some of the most fancy footwork ever seen on screen, including Tan’s logic-defying ability to keep his left leg of the ground for up to a dozen kicks. The criticism of Tan not using his right leg much is supported by the movie, but in some moves he finishes off the opponent beautifully with his right. The end battle contains powerful examples of his hand forms and exceptional bootwork. In most of his films there is no concentration on his hands, but here we get combinations of them and his legendary legwork. Its all testament to the genius of the Yuen Clan, to make mercurial Martial Arts movies which stand the test of time.

Revenge of the Shaolin Master is exactly what old skool greatness is all about; a movie with an understandable plot and action scenes of the highest quality that never fails to entertain, no matter how many times you watch. The Taiwanese locations are very easy on the eye, especially the opening scenes among the mountains and the ending on a desolate beach surrounded by crags. Despite the soundtrack being typically unoriginal, it adds drama to a number of scenes. The majority of the cast, in Martial Art terms, never looked this good in other productions and Tan the man is at his supreme best. While the Yuen clan and Woo Ping in particular would go on to bigger and better things, in terms of pure choreography this is up there with classics such as Legend of a Fighter. A must for fans of any of the aforementioned persons.


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