Gimmicky kung fu tale with more flying than punching
SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE (1976) has a good cast and an interesting-enough Ming-vs.-Ching storyline set in 17th century China, but its many fight scenes depend less on traditional old-school kung fu than on flying, leaping, somersaulting and exotic weaponry. Characters never enter a courtyard through an archway when they can leap over a wall. No one leaves a room by the door when there's an open window to fling themselves through. The plot involves a mission by Ming loyalists to spirit King Tang, the surviving brother of the late Ming emperor (who'd died in a Ching prison), through Ching territory to safer haven in Southern China. When the local Ching prince and his cadre of kung fu fighters capture and imprison the incognito King Tang without knowing his real identity, the Ming fighters enlist the help of the Abbot of Shaolin Temple in freeing him. The plot thickens when we learn of a Ching spy stationed at Shaolin. The Ching prince and his men eventually invade the temple and the action quickly shifts to a series of underground chambers outfitted with traps.
Carter Wong (18 BRONZEMEN) and femme fighting star Hsu Feng (TOUCH OF ZEN) play the main heroes fighting on behalf of King Tang. Chang Yi (EAGLE'S CLAW) is the assassin sent after them and he cuts quite a formidable figure in a red and black outfit with white streaks in his hair as he unleashes his deadly weapons, the "bloody birds"--hand-held devices with three wing-shaped blades which can spin at great speed and slice through tree trunks and human targets with astonishing ease. Neither Carter nor Chang Yi get much of an opportunity to do the hand-to-hand, feet-to-feet combat at which they normally excelled. Instead, the acrobatic stunt doubles seem to be having all the fun. Hsu Feng has a good sizable part for a change and is in most of the fight scenes, but she doesn't get to do much actual fighting either, given the emphasis in these scenes on her stunt double's superhuman leaps and somersaults off of horses and onto tree limbs and such. Plenty of other kung fu notables are on hand including Phillip Ko, Lung Fei, Kam Kong, Chan Siu Pang (also the film's fight director), Ma Cheung and Li Chao, in addition to Liu Ping who plays the evil prince whose skin is invulnerable, except for one secret weak point, to all blade thrusts.
Old school purists will object to the gimmicky, high-leaping fight action and the quick cutting in such scenes, which can get very distracting at times. While not in the top ranks of kung fu films, SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE remains, however, colorful and diverting and boasts a most dependable cast. The word "mystagogue" is never used in the film and its significance remains a mystery. Webster's Dictionary defines "mystagogue" as "an interpreter of religious mysteries or one who initiates others into them." The only possible character this could refer to is the Abbot of Shaolin who guards a secret kung fu scroll coveted by one of the characters. But it's still quite a stretch.
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