Masterpiece of kung fu training from director Chang Cheh
SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974) is one of a handful of near-epic kung fu movies made by Chang Cheh in Hong Kong in the 1970s. At 111 minutes, it's also longer than most. This one is important because it is the first to focus the film's narrative on the heroes' martial arts training and the need to master certain styles in order to defeat an enemy's style. This structure would be adopted by many of the best kung fu films of the next six years.
The plot highlights a group of students forced into a running conflict with a band of ruling Manchurian kung fu champs. Two students are sent off to learn particular styles in order to defeat the Manchu champs. When they fail, two other students are sent into hiding with reclusive masters for a period of years to study even more specific styles. One learns tiger and stork styles, while the other studies Wing Chun and has to learn to hit a massive iron bell from inches away with enough force to cause it to ring. In the end, they come back and defeat all four Manchu champs.
The all-star 1970s kung fu cast includes Gordon Liu (MASTER KILLER) and Billy Tang (SHAOLIN AVENGERS) as the first two students and Alexander Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun as the second pair of students--the main characters. The teacher who trains Fu Sheng in tiger and stork style is Simon Yuen (the original DRUNKEN MASTER). The main villains are Leung Kar Yan and Wang Lung Wei, two performers who were often paired as villains in 1970s kung fu films. They are joined in the final battle by two other formidable villains, Feng Ko-An (aka Fung Hak On) and Chiang Tao. Lau Kar Wing is in the cast also. The credits indicate that the film is 'introducing' Liu Chia Hui (Gordon Liu), Liang Chia Jen (Leung Kar Yan) and Wang Lung Wei. A year before he began directing films himself, Liu Chia Liang (aka Lau Kar Leung) was co-fight choreographer on this one.
This film and DEATH CHAMBER (aka SHAOLIN TEMPLE, 1976, not to be confused with the Jet Li film), another all-star kung fu film of epic length, are arguably Chang Cheh's two most significant masterworks from his entire career. A trilogy of sorts is formed with the addition of FIVE MASTERS OF DEATH (FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS, 1975) which covers the activities of the characters following the burning of Shaolin. All three films circulate on poor quality bootleg VHS tapes. If there was ever a crying need for restored prints on letter-boxed DVDs, this is it.
ADDENDUM: Since doing this review, I've acquired the Celestial Pictures R3 DVD of a restored, remastered edition of this film. That's the one to see.
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