Sunday, 13 March 2011

Disciples of Shaolin (1975)


Directed by Chang Cheh

Some time after the Ming rebellion was quelled by the Manchu invaders, Guan Feng Yi (Alexander Fu Sheng), a poor young man with tattered shoes, wanders into a small village seeking his elder brother, Wang (Chi Kuan Chun). Upon finding him, Guan discovers his brother works for a local dye mill that is being oppressed by competition from another mill owned by the Manchu's. Guan decides to aid the helpless workers gaining favor with the mill owner in the process. He's given a job at the mill as a guard and trainer. His brother, a former bodyguard for a wealthy businessman some years before, disapproves of Guan taking the job. Desiring only a brand new pair of shoes for his trouble, the gullible Guan soon becomes an unwitting victim of greed, power and ultimately, tragedy.

Chang Cheh's biggest Hong Kong hit is a powerhouse performance by the vibrant and efficiently handsome Fu Sheng in his signature, genre defining role. Without question, this is Fu's finest hour as the naive, yet righteous bumpkin who only wants a pair of good shoes. Both shoes and a stopwatch play a significant role in the movie; they are symbolic of the slow climb from having nothing to having a lot. When he arrives in town, he becomes enchanted with the pretty Hsiao Ying, but the budding romance hasn't time to bloom once Guan is given a job as a bodyguard. His desires are now engulfed in new clothes, a home, money and a new woman, a former prostitute named Chu Hong. It's the classic 'Rags To Riches' storyline and Cheh did two other similar movies--the massively successful THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG (1972) and THE CHINATOWN KID (1977), the latter a modern day tale and also starring Fu Sheng.

This film also speaks on the rich and their treatment of the grunts they employ for protection. This is much in the same fashion as the way ancient roman rulers treated their gladiators--they were the lowliest of citizens and there for a spectators sport and nothing more. The wealthy and elder Chinese property owners have the same perception of martial arts fighters in this movie. They appreciate their protection, but once they become useless, another is waiting in the wings to replace them with little to no regard for the valiant soul who stood faithfully by them.

This was one of the revered Liu Chia Liang's last jobs as an action choreographer for Chang Cheh before embarking on his own directorial ventures. He manages a number of brutal confrontations, particularly during a crucial sequence towards the end of the movie. Still, fighting is secondary to this production. This was one of a dozen Chang's Company pictures shot between 1973 and 1976 in Taiwan with Shaw capital that couldn't be extradited from the country. Distribution was then handled by the Shaw's. Considering it's an "independent" effort outside the glorious Shaw Brothers studio, production values are noticeably a lesser standard, but the plot and performances make up for this. Chi Kuan Chun, frequently paired with Fu Sheng, has a lesser, but mysterious role as Guan's brother, Wang. He hides a secret which is revealed later in the movie and answers questions that arise earlier in the film.

 In 1993, a remake surfaced with Aaron Kwok in the lead called THE BAREFOOT KID. Ti Lung, a former Shaw superstar and one of the late Fu Sheng's closest friends, co-starred. Nearly directing a hundred movies in his long career, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN is one of Chang Cheh's best works. The ending is surprising, but only to those not expecting it. It feels a bit rushed and somewhat upsets the balance of everything that has come before. It's not crippling, just the final moments feel more like a typical revenge kung fu flick than the meticulously mounted, dramatic action film of the previous 100 minutes.

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