Thursday, August 14, 2014

"The Shaolin Mantis" (1978) d/ Liu Chia Liang

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By 1978, the stars of director/fight choreographer, Liu Chia Liang, and HK leading man, David Chiang, were headed in two different directions. Chiang had once headed the biggest productions out of Shaw Brothers Studios, usually opposite Ti Lung, during the arm-swinging early seventies when fight choreography wasn't nearly as scrutinized, and elder Liu was well on his way to legendary status in the genre already, having already helmed such classics as 1976's Challenge of the Masters, Executioners from Shaolin (1977), and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin/ Master Killer (1978) the same year as this minor effort, seemingly meant to boost Chiang back to his former box office glory with Liu's special brand of martial magic.

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This particular chichi (Cecilia Wong) isn't served with Slim Jim's or Cheetos, but she still looks scrumptious.
After impressing the emperor (Hung Wei) with a methodically lackluster martial display, dismantling several martial experts including a Mongol (Lee Hoi San) and a monk (Liu Chia Hui, who else?), Wei Fung (David Chiang) is ordered to infiltrate the Tien Gang as a spy, and the longer his mission takes, the worse off all of his family will be for his procrastination: stripped of official titles, thrown in jail, beaten, and finally beheaded. Sheesh. Imagine if the emperor didn't dig his demonstration... It's a good thing he bumps into teenaged Tien Chi Chi (Cecilia Wong) as she's bullying her old tutor out the door, as he quickly talks his way into their residence as her new teacher, turning the frisky teen's focus to writing and reading rather than her preferred kung fu, which he pretends to know nothing at all of. Just as her Grandfather (Liu Chia Yung) discovers Wei's true background and intent, she becomes smitten with her tutor, and declares him her lover, forcing her angry family members to give Wei a martial mulligan, and not send him to his maker.

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Did you remember to bring all your weapons, David?
At this point Wei and Chi Chi are married, while elder Tien warns his granddaughter that if her husband should ever try to leave their home, he and his brothers will be forced to kill him, in the name of the rebellion. Enjoying married life and not very concerned about his family's lives back home, Wei finally suggests that they visit his parents together, spurring on the family/gang's traditional five guard showdown, which Chi Chi joins her husband in fighting. Elder Tien doesn't take the news very well at all, killing both his granddaughter and his sympathetic wife (Lily Li) in the process, with Wei barely escaping with his life. Right about here, Wei observes some mantises in the field (on the set, really), and develops the Mantis fist to combat Elder Tien's deadly Shadow fist technique, using the insects as his instructors. As Wei returns on his word to the Tien residence, the final showdown jumps off, with expected results. Where's that Shaw Brothers freeze frame ending? Oh, there it is.

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"...very good, and now, go catch your sifu a nice fat, pollenated bee."
Liu Chia Liang would also complete the amazing Heroes of the East the same year, so it's sort of easy to see how this effort sometimes gets overlooked. His middle brother, Chia Yung, who directed movies like Dirty Kung Fu (1978), Shaolin Warrior (1980), and 1982's The Fake Ghost Catchers, with Fu Sheng, also continued to act and perform in martial arts movies as recently as 2011. David Chiang, who crossed over in the Shaw/Hammer co-production The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in 1974, would go on to appear in things like Shaolin Handlock (1978),  Shaolin Abbot (1979), and The Lost Kung Fu Secret under the silly pseudonym Garth Lo in 1980, and though he continues to maintain a high cinematic profile, for this guy, his best work came in earlier Shaw productions, such as Vengeance (1970), The Heroic Ones (1970), and Blood Brothers (1973). His mantis fist displays here won't force you to forget Feng Ko An any time soon, that's for sure. The adorable Cecilia Wong, credited here as Huang Hsing-hsiu, can also be seen in things like Renegade Monk (1978) with John Liu, Liu Chia Liang's Spiritual Boxer II (1979), and 1981's Old Master. On the scale, two Wops. Decent, but nothing compared to Liang's masterworks. Worth a look.

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"If you're gonna reverse jump twenty-five feet onto my gabled roof to safety, I suggest you do it now."
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