HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Saturday, December 15, 2007

We're back! Martin Reviews Shaolin Plot With Sammo Hung

Once in a while a classic movie crops up that has somehow slipped under the radar, for some unknown reason. One such movie is Shaolin Plot. If you are a dedicated searcher for old skool Kung Fu flicks, you will not be disappointed with this discovery. The personnel involved immediately point it towards the majestic. Directed by Huang Feng in 1977, This was one of the journeyman directors last self directed films. Anyone who is familiar with Sammo Hung's early action choreographer days should know the name Huang Feng. A veteran director who began his career in the late fifties as a writer, Huang turned his hand to Martial arts films in the late sixties with the Angela Mao starrer Lady Whirlwind. At this time Sammo was choreographer extraordinaire, having just worked on King Hu's Palme D'or winning masterpiece A Touch of Zen. Huang Feng took the young Sammo under his wing, and Sammo action directed almost of his output up to 1977 and Shaolin Plot. This series of films are regarded very highly, with many of them breaking new ground for martial arts cinema. Films such as Hapkido and When Taekwondo Strikes introduced new styles of screen fighting, while establishing Angela Mao as the number 1 femme fatale lady warrior.

The Shaolin Plot, while not being as well known as a title such as Hapkido, is certainly up there with them in all departments. The film begins at a good pace, with the evil intent of mastermind baddie Chen Sing put to the fore. A veteran of hundreds of 70's kung fu films, Chen here displays all of his villainous presence alongside his extremely powerful martial artistry. In the opening scenes Sammo's Lama villain is superbly introduced with his penchant for strange weaponry i.e. flying cymbals that decapitate! The plot moves at a breakneck pace at first, with Chen's Chinese general character Dagalen looking to gain access to all martial arts manuals from around China, at whatever cost. Cut to our main hero James Tien as a Wu Tang fighter who attempts to save the Wu Tang manual, but fails and escapes to by chance to a wandering Shaolin Monks home. He is trained in the Shaolin style, With which he can counter Dagalen's attacks. Meanwhile Dagalen attempts to raid Shaolin for the ultimate prize; the Shaolin martial arts manual. Just as he has reached his goal the Wu Tang fighter discovers him, and Dagalen retreats to his palace. Both the Shaolin Monks and the Wu Tang fighter join forces to crush this most cunning of foes.

While the plot contains formulaic elements such as the training of the Wu Tang fighter and the disguise of Dagalen to infiltrate the Shaolin Temple, there are lots of developments and surprises in relation to character. For instance the mid section concentrates on Dagalen and his infiltration of the Shaolin temple and is filmed in an almost pseudo-documentary style; this allows the viewer to relate to the ends to which Dagalen will go to achieve his goal. Dagalen pretends to be deaf and mute and on the run to infiltrate the Temple, and observes the rituals of the monks. Here the audience is invited to identify with Dagalen in his deed, as the presentation is of him adapting to the life of the Monks. While this is intriguing, it is a deviation in tone from the earier and later parts of the film. As Dagalen reveals his disguise the build up of the mid section loses its impetus, as he is presented as the formulaic villain. However, this is an interesting aside to an otherwise familiar approach to old skool Kung Fu. In this part the use of location is superb, with some long tracking shots taking in the Temple buildings. The production values are pretty decent considering the year. The change of pace in the middle and differing style is a bit jarring, especially to those who like their movies fast and furious. However, to those who like their action fast and furious and delivered by the best, this is one to savour.

At this time in his career, Sammo was producing nothing less than faultless old skool action, and this is no exception. The opening battle between Kam Kong as the renegade Monk and Sammo and his minions is superb, with Kam showing off his bootwork to great effect. As the plot progresses Chien Yuet San (always an underrated actor and martial artist) performs superb spearplay backed up by razor sharp editing, while Sammo holds court. After the aforementioned middle section things really hot up, with one name most aficionados will know appearing in his first screen role: Casanova Wong.

This Taekwondo expert was spotted by Sammo and immediately thrust into the limelight. . Anyone who has seen Warriors Two or The Master Strikes can attest to Casanova's boot prowess, but here arguably his greatest work resides. First his combination kicking when fighting Tien is superb, which leads up to the end battle, and then his brief encounter with Sammo ends magnificently.

It is the ending wherein the all star martial cast really get to shine. First Tien battles Dagalen in Tien's best martial art performance ever, but it is up to the two monks Casanova AND Kwon Young Moon to vanquish there foe. This pairing of two of the jade screens greatest kickers does not disappoint, even though Kwon does not perform his usual array of fantastic kicks. That role is left to Casanova, and Sammo obviously knew he was up to the task. In one shot he fires off seven kicks to head and body, lightning fast without his foot touching the ground! Chen Sing's brute force and clinical style is given a supreme showcase, with some of his hand forms reaching very intricate heights. During all of the fights the camerawork is fluid, catching all of the moves superbly. As in most old skoolers it is the long takes which are most important, with up to 30 moves in a take, and Sammo really pushes the casts ablilities to their limit. The editing here adds to the impact immeasurably, with climaxes reached in the action pieced together with superior accuracy. The 70s style sound effects really add to the impact too. In terms of soundtrack there is an unusually good orchestrated score, which in the main has not been used in a thousand movies you've seen before. In the mid section there is some great use of the score, which really adds to the atmosphere.

All in all Shaolin Plot is definitely up there with the best 70's old skool Kung Fu movies, and holds its own against even the best of Sammo Hung's early output, even the masterpiece Magnificent Butcher. It makes for an intersting comparison with Iron Fisted Monk, which was one of the first movies to move away from the po-faced dramatic style of most traditional Kung Fu movies, Shaolin Plot included. Casanova reprises his role in the former film as he battles Sammo in a friendly duel during the credits, while Chen Sing plays a Monk with values at the opposite of his character in Shaolin Plot. Also Chien Yuet San reprises his weapon wielding baddie role. The mid section may split audiences due to its slow pace, but it is an interesting aside juxtaposed with the traditional Kung Fu-ery. All of the cast are on top form, especially Casanova and Chen Sing. While Sammo does not get a huge role here, he really sinks his teeth into it and it is one of his few villainous performances that stand out alongside Broken Oath and Sha Po Lang. This movie lives up to its all star billing, and will not disappoint fans of any of the cast.

DVD review

Company? Hong kong based, there is no English on the box, could be Mei Ah

Box: The cover art is the best thing about this presentation, with some great illustrations and a cool fold out box.

Picture, presentation: Its presented in 235:1 letterboxed version, but is not remastered and the print is pretty aged, but still very watchable

Languages: Cantonese with burnt on English subtitles


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