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THE HEROES tells the fate of the imprisoned Shaolin survivors
THE HEROES (aka STORY OF CHIVALRY, 1980) offers an intriguing variation on the Shaolin theme, starting with the familiar account of the burning of Shaolin Temple and the repression of Shaolin kung fu by the Manchurian-backed Qing rulers. Here the focus is on a former Shaolin man, Marshal Kao (Ti Lung), who takes his former classmates prisoner and, instead of executing them, proposes to his Qing commander that he torture them and break their spirits until they're willing to fight on behalf of the Qings. The 'torture' comes to look increasingly like strenuous kung fu training with Kao putting the prisoners through their paces. The Qing governor (Michael Chan Wai Man) and his aides become suspicious of Kao's motives, although the beautiful Princess Shao Lung (Shih Szu) develops her own ideas about him. Interspersed within the story are flashbacks to Kao's training at Shaolin.
The film recalls some of the Shaw Bros. epics of a few years earlier and comes close to capturing some of their narrative power and dramatic sweep, although without the spectacle of those films and without the sheer star power of the Shaw Bros. casts. The training and fight scenes are frequent but lack the vigor and imagination of the Shaw Bros. fight scenes (which were often staged by Lau Kar Leung).
Ti Lung is a fine actor and adequately conveys the anguish of watching his former comrades suffer under imprisonment. However, his fight scenes are a little slower and more studied than they ought to be. He was best served by the more stylized sagas of his early Shaw Bros. days (NEW ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN, DYNASTY OF BLOOD) and the ensemble casts of his later Shaw work (FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS, SHAOLIN TEMPLE). The rest of the cast is interesting, although not as strong as the film's intense story requires. Tsai Hung and Wang Chung are among the Shaolin prisoners and are familiar faces from the Shaw Bros. days, as is Wang Ching, who plays one of the guards. Tan Tao Liang plays another prisoner, but doesn't get enough chance to display the high-kicking skills he showed as the star of several Taiwan-based independent kung fu films from the late 1970s (CHALLENGE OF DEATH, LEG FIGHTERS). Also on hand is Danny Lee, (INFRAMAN, CITY ON FIRE, THE KILLER), as a Shaolin patriot planning a raid on the prison.
The action is staged (by Robert Tai) on large-scale studio sets in Taiwan and is underscored by a lovely and evocative original Chinese music soundtrack. The film's director is Wu Ma, a longtime Hong Kong character actor best known for Tsui Hark's Chinese GHOST STORY and who appears here as the imprisoned cook from Shaolin Temple. The film has a good enough script (co-written by Shaw Bros.' head scribe, I Kuang) to make one wish it had a stronger director. Other alternate titles are THE SHAOLIN HEROES and THE UNFORGIVEN OF SHAOLIN. It has also been released in the U.S. in a low-cost, low-quality VHS edition called WU TANG CLAN.
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