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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

SHAOLIN MANTIS -- DVD review by porfle

Another one of those Shaw Brothers gems from the 70s, SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978) is an absorbing story with some nice atmosphere and lots of furious fight action from director Chia-Liang Liu of the 36TH CHAMBER series. 

An elder scholar presents his son, Wei Feng (David Chiang, THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN), to the Qian dynasty emperor but lives to regret it when Wei is enlisted in the emperor's plan to infiltrate a rebel clan working to overthrow him.  Wei is given a three-part deadline for returning with evidence against the Tian clan: in three months, his father will lose his title; in six months, his family will be imprisoned; and in one year, they'll be executed.  Real peach of a guy, this emperor. 

Wei manages to enter the Tian household by becoming a teacher to the cute but extremely spoiled Zhizhi (Huang Hsing-hsiu), granddaughter to the Old Master (Chia Yung Liu).  Zhizhi falls in love with Wei and they marry, but he isn't allowed to leave the house after Old Master discovers that he's a Qian spy.  After finding some evidence which the emperor needs to arrest the Tians, Wei must then fight his way out by confronting Zhizhi's uncles in battle and finally facing the Old Master himself. 

The first action scene comes early on as the Qian emperor demands a demonstration of Wei's abilities.  He first defeats a Mongol warrior, then a monk played by Chia Hui Liu, aka Gordon Liu (RETURN TO THE 36TH CHAMBER, KILL BILL), in a lively sequence with plenty of action. Later, when Wei begins teaching the unruly Zhizhi, the story gears down and becomes a romantic comedy for awhile as the young girl flirts with her handsome tutor and begins to fall for him.  The relationship is light and fun, carrying us through a mostly uneventful stretch as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Things get serious again around the halfway point when Wei and Zhizhi decide to defy the Old Master and leave the house, at which point the film becomes an almost non-stop series of deadly battles.  Making their way from one room to the next, Wei and Zhizhi team up to fight her three uncles in turn (Huang Hsing-hsiu is impressive) as a myriad of exotic weaponry comes into play.  Each has a different fighting style which proves difficult to overcome.  Last in their gauntlet of foes is the Old Master himself, using his invincible Shadow style which brings the escape attempt to a disastrous conclusion for the young rebels. 

This middle section of the film is a feast for old-style martial arts fans, thanks in large part to Chia-Liang Liu's no-frills directing style which consists mainly of long, carefully-choreographed takes punctuated by a minimum of flashy directorial touches and quick editing.  The familiar whiplash pans and zooms are there but are unobtrusive, while the use of slow-motion is kept to a bare minimum.

After Wei's escape from Five Sun Manor comes my favorite part of the film, in which Wei inadvertently invents the Mantis fighting style while hiding out in the forest.  While toying with a fiesty preying mantis one day, he notices the grace and dexterity of its movements and begins to adapt them to his own fighting technique, which seems to be just the thing for combatting Old Master's seemingly unbeatable Shadow style.

There are some really beautiful shots of both Wei and the mantis sharing the frame as he prods it with his finger, observing its movements as it defends itself.  More amazing closeup shots of the mantis make it appear as though, like a wise old mentor, it is actually teaching Wei its moves as he imitates them.  This exquisitely shot-and-edited sequence is wonderfully captivating and unlike anything I've ever seen in this kind of film. 

Returning to Five Sun Manor, Wei plunges through the gauntlet with a renewed determination and skill in another series of bouts that culminates with a decisive Mantis-versus-Shadow rematch against the Old Master.  Chia-Liang Liu builds excitement and suspense with increasingly innovative moves which keep the long sequence from becoming monotonous.  Once again the scene is loaded with lengthy takes involving intricate choreography that is expertly performed. 

The DVD from Vivendi's Dragon Dynasty label is in 2.35:1 widescreen with Mandarin and English mono soundtracks.  Subtitles are in English and Spanish.  There are no extras.

SHAOLIN MANTIS is an involving story which invests us in the characters before thrusting them into a maelstrom of furious and thrilling martial arts battles.  I found it thoroughly enjoyable right up to its startling ending, which comes from right out of left field.  If you're like me, the final freeze-frame will leave you knee-deep in "WTF?"  

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