“Lost” masterpieces can be catnip for serious movie buffs and collectors. Now you can properly worship at the feet of kung fu action spectacular The Shaolin Plot (1977, directed by Huang Feng), a seldom-seen Hong Kong picture from the Golden Harvest production company.
Celebrated martial arts actor, stuntman and filmmaker Sammo Hung worked with director Huang Feng on several movies before The Shaolin Plot, in which Sammo operates as stunt coordinator and has one of his first major roles as a bullying, brutal, renegade monk armed with Golden Cymbals (a variation on the “flying guillotine”). Following the release of The Shaolin Plot, Sammo would begin his own much-lauded career as a director (Iron Fisted Monk, also 1977, saw his helming debut).
Hong Kong movie veteran Chen Hsing plays a tyrannical Manchurian Prince who aims to collect all existing Chinese martial arts manuals. After obtaining the Wudang manual and others, he sets his sights on the Shaolin Temple and the secrets of their profound and complex fighting style. Shaolin Monks and bodyguards, including high-kicking Casanova Wong, must team up with a revenge-driven Wudang fighter (James Tien) to defeat the villainous despot.
Why has The Shaolin Plot been “lost”? It seems various factors saw it fade into something of obscurity following an unspectacular cinema release – its Mandarin language (many kung fu and Golden Harvest productions, like their rival Shaw Brothers’ pictures, were made in Cantonese, including the Bruce Lee films, and it became more of the norm from the late 1970s onwards); the film’s running time (a relatively lengthy 109 minutes); some experimental elements (unusually long shots and extended scenes with little or no dialogue); and perhaps the lack of focus on one main “hero” figure – James Tien (Big Boss, Fist Of Fury), Chin Kang (as a venerable, estranged Shaolin Monk) and even Chen Hsing’s villain take turns in the limelight, with Casanova’s taekwondo-influenced fighting style granted centre stage, to great and rousing effect, in the climactic showdown.
It’s kung fu cards on the table time – while no connoisseur, I’ve seen all the Bruce Lee films, except any version of Game Of Death (completed after Lee’s death in 1973, I always expected it to be an unsatisfying hodge-podge. I’m sure there are many fans out there who will tell me I am wrong in this). The rest of Lee’s output I have watched multiple times in the cinema and elsewhere, particularly Way Of The Dragon and Enter The Dragon. And yes, I was one of those dismayed when Quentin Tarantino concocted his “fight” scene between stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and a supposed Lee (Mike Moh) in Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood (2019). Texas’ own Bowling For Soup sang about it, I like to think dismissively, in their biographical ditty, I Wanna Be Brad Pitt: “Always eating in the Oceans movies/ Criticised for his accent in Snatch and then/ He won an Oscar for beating up Bruce Lee.” An all-round lame, bad idea, QT. I also watched, during lockdown, a kung fu triple bill – Come Drink With Me (1966), The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984). These much-revered titles fully delivered – mythic, heroic, awesome movies, championing and celebrating cultural histories and philosophies as well as sheer physical ability and endurance, with classic wuxia Come Drink With Me probably the pick.
The Shaolin Plot proved to be another fascinating, thoroughly entertaining experience, peopled by impressive physical specimens with “strength that shakes mountains”, genuine human superheroes who make Marvel’s Avengers look like guys in suits posing in a movie. It is a handsome all-round picture with high production values, large-scale scenes and varied locations. The exteriors and some interiors were shot in South Korea, largely due to access there to the temples on show. The colours pop and images are redolent of the period, clear and crisp, despite some standard anamorphic “warping”.
There isn’t a single female character in sight but lots of stunts and some wire work, old school sound effects and an array of exotic, otherworldly weaponry. Chen Hsing takes on a double role and, risking a spoiler alert RE his other character, let’s just say you must keep one eye out for him. Director Huang Feng himself plays the Shaolin Chief Abbot.
The action can be gory, gruesome and grisly at times, with an early decapitation courtesy of the Golden Cymbals. And one veteran Shaolin Monk (the afore-mentioned Chin Kang, of Master Of The Flying Guillotine / One-Armed Boxer II) is blinded, his face scarred and disfigured before, in a later scene, being tricked into standing on spikes which fix him to the ground. Sammo then instructs his gang to pack wood around their victim to set him on fire. Interestingly, the burning monk settles down serenely to await his fate, reminiscent of the self-immolating Buddhist Monk, Thich Quang Duc, in his 1963 protest in Saigon, Vietnam. Rage Against The Machine fans will know it from the iconic record sleeves, if nowhere else.
Eureka Entertainment are making The Shaolin Plot (cert 15) available for the first time in the UK, from a new 2K restoration, on June 20. There are two worthwhile audio commentaries, by Frank Djeng (New York Asian Film Festival) and Michael Worth, and from action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. The former pair are the more informative and scholarly while the latter duo make some interesting comments about the perceived interchangeability of tropes, characters, plots and even music between Spaghetti Westerns, king fu movies and Star Wars – George Lucas’ epic sci-fi series owing much, of course, to Shaolin and, indeed, Samurai culture, history and traditions, not to mention pirate swashbucklers, Akira Kurosawa pictures and anything else the bold George thought at the time he could safely rip off (or which “manuals” he could “purloin”?!).
The Shaolin Plot is now available to buy from Eureka