Man, where to start? This is one of the few Shaw Brothers classics that I had not previously owned or seen, even in bootleg form. I had heard mixed things about it so I tried to keep my expectations in check. A difficult task given the bizarre themes and esoteric behavior of most of the characters. While I try to judge old-school fu mostly on the fighting, I have a tendency to grow very annoyed if a story succeeds in pulling me in... only to let me down!
David Chiang ("Boxer From Shantung") plays Wei Feng, a scholar and martial arts student whose father is an influential guard for the Qing Emperor. The Emperor orders Wei Feng to infiltrate the Tian Clan and obtain a list of Ming loyalists to crush their potential uprising. If Wei Feng doesn't return in 3 months, his father will be stripped of his rank. At 6 months, the whole family gets imprisoned! 12 months? They will ALL be beheaded! No pressure there! He journeys to the Clan's Five Sun Manor and ends up being recruited by Zhizhi (Cecilia Wong, "Way of the Black Dragon"), the granddaughter of the Clan's patriarch (Lau Kar Wing, "Knockabout"), to be her scholarly teacher, as she has chased away the previous 18 with her mischievous kung fu skills! Wei Feng pretends to not know how to fight and accepts the job.
There's a TON more to the story that I won't spoil for those interested. I will say that he'll have to fight his way out of Five Sun Manor to prevent his family's execution, develop the title's style (and my namesake) to counteract the Clan's Shadow Technique, and fight his way BACK into Five Sun Manor! Much to my frustration, not necessarily in that order! Adding to the list of liabilities is the under-use of the great Lily Li Li ("Disciples of the 36th Chamber") as Zhizhi's mother and an ending that could've prevented ALL the film's tragedy with a little communication! Imagine Shakespeare tackling a "Three's Company" episode!
Well, the fights are choreographed by the director, Lau Kar Leung ("Heroes of the East"), who's known for his authentic depictions of kung fu and is himself a bona fide master of Hung Gar (Tiger/Crane). He has done better choreography but I've not seen a better fighting performance given by David Chiang. This film has a decent amount of fisticuffs for a flick that's more story-based. Lots of weapons and some hand-to-hand. The flick opens with Wei Feng proving his skills to the Emperor by squaring off against brief appearances by monk Gordon Liu ("The 36th Chamber of Shaolin") and Lee Hoi San (just about EVERY old-school flick) as a Mongol warrior. In general, the fights are pretty good for the late-70s with plenty of shapes!
Dragon Dynasty's release is curiously devoid of ANY special features and that seems to be the trend they've decided to set with their recent versions of Shaw Brothers flicks. While that IS a complaint, I am happy with the lower price tag and burgeoning selection of classic, legitimate fu, particularly Lau Kar Leung's titles. This one has a fantastic, BEAUTIFULLY remastered, widescreen picture with spoken languages available in Mandarin or English and subtitles available in English, Spanish, and English SDH. If this tickles your fancy, I would act SOON as the company's future is questionable. They haven't updated their site or catalog in months despite a half-dozen releases this year and a lot of their older titles are no longer available.
I hesitate to say I enjoyed it but it will receive more viewings and it's definitely interesting. This film was meant to elicit a specific response and was likely not originally prescribed for a western audience. That being said, I would recommend it mainly to old-school aficionados and those curious about 17th century China.
1978. aka: Deadly Mantis