Written by: Michael Den Boer on March 7th, 2005
Theatrical Release Dates: Hong Kong, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1986
Directors: Chang Chen, Liu Chia-liang
Cast: David Chiang, Lung Ti, Alexander Fu Sheng, Lo Lieh, Gordon Liu Chia-hui, Lily Li, Liu Chia-liang, Jet Li
DVD Released: January, 2005
Approximate Running Time: 800 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen & 2.35:1 Non-Anamoprhic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
DVD Release: Celestial Pictures
Region Coding: Region 3 NTSC
Retail Price: $79.95
Five Shaolin Masters: The Qing court hires five deadly assassins to destroy the Shaolin temple. The Shaolin disciples are caught off guard because there is a traitor among them who helped plan the ambush. Only five of the disciples survive the attack. They decided to go into hiding and regroup when their martial arts skills have improved. Will these disciples of Shaolin be able to avenge their fallen master or will they fall prey to the emperor’s assassins?
Though, Five Shoalin Masters follows your basic martial arts premise of student avenging his fallen master. The story moves along at a brisk pace and the action sequences are expertly executed. The films main action set piece is when the Five Shaolin Masters train for six months sharpening their skills for the final showdown. This sequence like most training sequences in action films is done through a series of quick shots known as a montage. One stand out character is Bao Yolung, who disposes of his opponents with his flying axe. The five leads are given plenty to do throughout the film which gives this film a more balanced ensemble feel. The action sequences which are the films strongest assets where designed by Liu Chia-liang and Liu Chia-yung.
Executioners from Shaolin: When it is discovered that revolutionaries have been using the Shaolin temple for sanctuary the Manchurian government orders Pai Mei (Lieh Lo) and his right hand man Kao Tsin Chung to destroy the Shaolin temple. They set fire to the temple killing most of the Shaolin priests who had been inside. In an epic battle Shaolin priest Chi Shan, falls victim to Pai Mei’s superior skills. Hung Hsi Kuan is quickly disposed of after spending the last twenty years training to for his fight against Pai Mei to avenge his fallen master. His son Hung Wen-Ding takes on the burden of avenging his father and the fallen Shaolin’s. Will Hung Wen-Ding find Pai Mei’s weaknesses before he suffers the same fate that befell his father?
The film opens with a flurry of stylized martial arts battles before settling into gentler movie about Hung Hsi Kuan and Yong-chun’s blossoming love affair. This film features a brief from Gordon Liu only appears in the first ten minutes of the film, still in his brief scene he gets to showcase his exquisite fighting skills before dying a noble death. Lo Lieh wonderfully captures the menace of Priest Pai Mei. He is able to convey so much just through his eyes and facial expressions. It should also be noted that this film mark’s the first appearance of the character Pai Mei. The film has its share of lighter comedic moments that at times don’t mix well with the films graphic action set pieces. Overall though the film relies too much on Hung Hsi Kuan training and family situation, it ultimately succeeds because of its superbly realized action set pieces.
Shaolin Temple: On a stormy night Shaolin masters ensemble for a discussion about three outsiders who have waited patiently for five days to be emitted into the Shaolin temple. The grand master decides that it is in the best interest of the Shaolin to teach everyone Shaolin Kung Fu. This would help preserve their martial arts for future generations to come. Fang Shiyu father has been murdered which leads him to studying Shaolin Kung Fu which he will use to avenge his father. Once word gets to the emperor about the Shaolin monks teaching everyone Kung Fu he then decides the best thing to do is kill everyone and burn the Shaolin temple to the ground.
Most of the movie is spent showcases the various Shaolin monks and their disciples as they train. A minor back story that isn’t fully explored is Fang Shiyu’s revenge plot that tends to get lost in the endless training sequences. This film is truly an ensemble piece and no one character really stands out or gets to shine above the rest. The scene in the film involves Fang Shiyu and Wu Heigan who enter the Wooden Men Alley. This place is a chamber of death filled with booby traps and 108 wooden fighting robots. The martial arts in this scene are by far and away the strongest in the whole film. My only minor complaint about this film is that there is too much time spent focusing on the training and when we finally get to the final showdown it fails to match the anticipation built up through the training sequences.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: During the Qing dynasty, a young student named Liu Yu-De (Gordon Liu) secretly helps fight oppressive Manchu forces. When the Manchu forces capture Liu’s co-conspirators and kill his family. He escapes to the Shaolin temple where he hopes to learn the art of Kung Fu so that he can teach it to the people so that they can defend themselves against the Manchu forces. After the Shaolin have accepted Liu renaming him San Te and he has been with them for a year. He asks them if they will teach him Kung Fu and as his training progresses his training ends up being much harder than he expected. In order to complete his training San Te will have to pass through all the 35 chambers. Each chamber has been designed to challenge an aspect of the human endurance and sharpen his mind. He quickly masters the basics as he moves on to actual kung fu and weapons training.
The story may be simple and the characters may not be the strongest. What make’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is its outstanding martial arts and exceptional training sequences that lift this vengeance theme kung fu film a notch above the rest. Chia-Liang Liu’s direction is sure handed and inspired as he infuses elements of real kung fu with grace and humor thought behind every move. Most of the films success is do to the brilliant performance from Gordon Liu who shaved his head for this role and kept the look ever since. By the late 1970′s Gordon Liu would prove himself as one of the greatest kung fu stars of the decade and Warner Brothers after the death of Bruce Lee approached Gordon Liu as Lee’s Successor. They would change their mind and hire Yul Brynner instead as the lead in The Ultimate Warrior. The action scenes are an important aspect to the films success and its focus on the journey of Liu Yu-De to become a fighter is a key element to the films charm.
Return to the 36th Chamber: When some Manchurians are hire at a local dye mill which also leads to the workers losing 20% of their current wages. Cho Shih Sheng hires his younger brother Chou Jen Chich (Gordon Liu Chia-hui) to impersonate the famous Shaolin monk San Te. At first their plan works and the workers get the previous wage back. Then Mill factory boss song discovers that he has been fooled by the workers. His men quickly expose Chou Jen Chich for the fraud that he is which leads to him seeking entrance into the Shaolin temple where he plans to really learn Kung Fu. After Chou Jen Chich finishes the job of remodeling the Shaolin Temple they ask him to leave. Unknowing while he spent time at the Shaolin Temple he learned Kung Fu. With Chou Jen Chich’s new found martial arts skills can he finally win back his brother and the other mill workers lost wages?
Even though Return of the 36th Chambers has many similarities to its predecessor the 36th Chamber of Shaolin it is only a sequel in name only. Director Liu Chia-liang flawlessly balances the slap stick comedic moments with the all out action set pieces. Chou Jen Chich does just about anything to gain admittance into the Shaolin temple. In one scene he puts something into one of the monks’ tea which makes his bowels move uncontrollably. Chou Jen Chich is always telling lies like the boy who cried wolf and even when he is telling the truth no one believes him. The fight scenes are beautifully executed as bamboo and step stoles are used as weapons instead of your usual martial arts weapons. One scene that is sure to remain with you long after the movie is over is when Chou Jen Chich throws a rock down a well. He then proceeds to wash himself with the water from the splash created by the falling rock. The choreographed action in Return of the 36th Chambers is on par with its predecessor the 36th Chamber of Shaolin making this film a must see martial arts classic.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter: The Queen’s brother Pan Bao has been beaten to death in a tournament by Yang Ye’s seventh son. The Queen with the help of her father Pan Mei plan to get ride of the Yang clan once and for all at the Jinsha battle. Their plan nearly goes off without a hitch except for the fact that Yang’s fifth and sixth son’s have escaped the ambush that claimed the lives of Yang and his five other sons. Pan Mei has bigger plans besides destroying his greatest rival and with the help of the Tartars he plans to overthrow the emperor. He must find and kill Yang’s two sons that are now in hiding before they reveal to the emperor his sinister plot.
The action is razor sharp and the spear fighting is lightening fast in precision. Alexander Fu Sheng gives the most moving performance of his career as the Yang’s sixth son who loses his mind after the murdering of his father and brothers. Fu Sheng would tragically die while making The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) known for his action prowess proves that he is capable of carrying more dramatic scenes. While in the Shaolin temple. he shaves his head and then takes the incense candles which he then uses to burn six dots on the top of his head. The scene is extremely painful to watch as Gordon Liu’s character now a broken man. He has become a shell of his former self. The story progresses at brisk pace with action sequences that somehow are able to top the last one with their jaw dropping acrobatics’ and inventiveness. One of the film’s best action scenes comes near the end of the movie when Liu Chia-hui characters Yang’s fifth son uses a wheel barrel full of bamboo rods that he shoots like rockets as his enemies. Ultimately The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a fast paced action extravaganza that ranks as one of the best martial arts films ever made.
Disciples of the 36th Chamber: Fong Shiyu (Hsiao Ho) is a daydreamer who is often up to mischief which leads to him getting himself and his family in trouble. Qin gymnasium is run by the Manchurians and they don’t take kindly to Hans trespassing on their property. One day Fong Shiyu sees a Shaolin monk enter the Qin gymnasium. Fong Shiyu and his two brothers follow the monk inside which leads bad blood between their family and the Manchurians. Fong Shiyu and his brothers are then taken to the Shaolin temple until the trouble boils over. Fong Shiyu continues to cause problems while studying at the temple which leads to him being expelled from the temple. The double crossing Manchurians befriend Fong Shiyu and ask him to invite nine of his fellow Shaolin brothers to join him for a wedding between a Manchurian and a Han. Can the Manchurians or do they have some sinister plot to get rid of their enemies?
Gordon Liu Chia-hui reprises the role of San Te which he first played previous in the films The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Return to the 36th Chamber. This time around San Te is more of a mentor then the focus of the story. Even in a secondary role Liu Chia-hui has plenty to do and even has a few of the films standout moments. The bulk of the film revolves around the childish behavior of Fong Shiyu who is played by Hsiao Ho. Overall his antics tend to get annoying as the film progresses. The training sequence in which the Shaolin run up a step wall defies gravity as the two leads Fong Shiyu and San Te at one point square off against each other. The action is solid throughout and the performances are first rate. The Arc of the story keeps things moving and interesting until the very end.
Martial Arts of Shaolin: Zhi Ming (Jet Li) and Sima Yan are strangers who are linked by the promise that their murdered parents made years ago. They meet for the first time during Lord He Suo’s party when both of their attempts to assassinate He Suo force the now fugitives to join forces. Zhi Ming soon discovers that Sima Yan is wearing an ankle bracelet similar to the one he was given by his parents. Shaolin monks from Sungshen locate Zhi ming and take him back to the temple. Sima Yan returns with Chao her assistant to their home Pution Shaolin temple. Meanwhile Lord He Suo hasn’t given up on finding the three would be assassins. One time rivals Zhi Ming and Chao are forced to join forces when they discover that Lord He Suo has kidnapped Sima Yan.
Martial Arts of Shaolin is one of Jet Li’s earlier films before his martial skills got buried in over blown Hollywood CGI action extravaganzas. The film takes it time by building up the relationships between the lead characters. This brings us closer to their plight and the blooming romance between Zhi Ming and Sima Yan. The bulk of the story does revolve around Zhi and Sima love/hate relationship that becomes full blown love triangle when the character of Chao is entered into the mix. An interesting moment that involves Jet Li’s character is when the three fugitives are on the run and Zhi is the one who dresses up in drag looking like a little Bo Pep. Surprisingly he pulls the bit off without looking to silly or over the top. This film has its share of standout action moments with the films finally the cherry on top. Overall Martial Arts of Shaolin mixes up its various influences into a cohesive piece that contains first rate action with high drama.
Celestial has given Five Shaolin Masters, Executioners of Shaolin, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Martial Arts of Shaolin, Return to the 36th Chamber, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and Disciples of the 36th Chamber brand new anamorphic transfers that preserve the films original 2.35:1 Shaw Scope aspect ratio. Black levels remain constant through out as grain is kept to a minimum. The vibrant color Platte exhibits strong colors through out and natural looking flesh tones. There are no problems with any print damage or compression. Unfortunately one of the titles in the set Shaolin Temple is not anamorphic. At least it is letterboxed at about its original 2.35:1 Shaw Scope aspect ratio. The colors are good just not as strong as the other titles included in this collection. Flesh Tones look healthy and this transfer is virtually free of any print damage. The overall detail for this transfer isn’t as sharp or detailed as the other titles included in this collection.
Five Shaolin Masters, Executioners of Shaolin and Shaolin Temple only come with one audio option. A Mandarin language track presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Martial Arts of Shaolin, Return to the 36th Chamber, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and Disciples of the 36th Chamber all come with two audio options. Mandarin and Cantonese language tracks both presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1. The audio for all these films is free of any hiss or distortion. The action comes through crisp and the dialog is always easy to understand. Over all these audio tracks are in great shape considering their age. English subtitles have been included that are easy to read and follow.
The following extras poster & photo gallery, production notes and cast & crew selected bio/filmographies have been included on all eight DVD’s. Each release not only comes with a theatrical trailer for the feature film. They also come with several trailers for other Shaw Brother releases from Celestial. Other extras include interviews with Lee Ka ting (11:20) and Wang Yu (11:44) both which can be found on the Shaolin Temple release. Rounding out the extras is three featurette’s “Three styles of Hong Fist” included on the Executioners from Shaolin release, “Hero on the Scaffold” included on the Return of the 36th Chambers release and “Shaolin — A Hero Birthplace" included on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin release. Celestial‘s Shaolin Kung Fu Master Killer collection collects eight diverse martial arts films from the legendary Shaw Brothers studio. They have included some informative extras along with restoring the audio and video for all of these releases from original film elements. These films have not looked this good since their original theatrical releases.
Celestial‘s Shaolin Kung Fu Master Killer collection like all Celestial releases can be found at a more then reasonable price. This set is filled with tales of revenge & redemption set against the backdrop of mind blowing Kung Fu action that is sure to satisfy even the most die hard martial arts fan. This set is essential viewing that should be in every old school martial arts fans collection, Highly Recommended.