Nonstop fight action buries the most interesting plot element
There's a fascinating story, taken from Chinese history, at the heart of THE BEST OF SHAOLIN KUNG FU (1976), but it never gets explored in any meaningful detail, thanks to the abundance of fight scenes that dominate the action. Prince Chien Lung (Pai Ying), who soon became the Ching Dynasty's most famous and far-reaching emperor (reigning from 1735-1796), travels with his bodyguard (Carter Wong) to locate a secret document offering evidence of the prince's Han Chinese heritage. At one point it's implied that this is part of a presumed bid to legitimize his impending rule among the Han populace, although there is likely an ulterior motive (one fully outlined in the plot description on the video box from Lion Video which I hadn't considered when watching the film but made perfect sense afterwards). He even enlists the aid of a relative (Cliff Lok), who may be his half-brother, to enter Shaolin Temple and pass a lengthy series of grueling martial tests to get the document. I would like to have known more about Chien Lung's motives, but there simply is no attention paid to this. I wonder if some scenes were cut from the subtitled print I saw, which ran only 76 minutes, a rather short running time for a kung fu film with this star-studded cast. Curiously, Chien Lung, who was played in a heroic vein by Liu Yung in a series of Shaw Bros. films around the same time, is something of a villain in this film. He tends to confront an opponent or group of opponents only to sit back quietly with a smirk while his super-skilled bodyguard fights them off all alone, leaving a field of wounded behind him.
Fans of fight scenes will, of course, be satisfied. Carter Wong takes on all manner of opponents in the first half of the film, in scenes that are usually shot outdoors on location. In a lengthy middle portion of the film, Cliff Lok takes on pretty much every fighting monk at Shaolin in a series of "tests" that all take place in one day. He even takes a crash course in the 12 Tamo Strikes with the revered Shaolin Abbot. The famous 18 Bronze Men turn up in one bit, but they don't fight at all. (Lok turns up in the next sequence none the worse for wear despite the punishment he took in those fights.) Finally, there's one more big fight pitting Cliff Lok and his anti-Ching entourage against Carter Wong and his men, culminating in a one-on-one showdown between Lok and Wong. Doris Chen (aka Lung Chung Erh) shows up in a couple of scenes, but doesn't have much to do. Kam Kong, frequently a villain in these films, plays one of Lok's allies.
I was quite alarmed to note that the Shaolin fight scenes seem to have been filmed in an actual temple, and one that looks freshly painted, to boot. I'm hoping the statues and altars so close to the fighting were props. In one maneuver, Lok even spills black oil on the floor to slide along in order to make him too slippery for his opponents. I kept thinking about those poor temple caretakers and wondering if they simply banned all filmmakers from the premises thereafter.
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