Monday, September 1, 2014

"Men From the Monastery" (1974) d/ Chang Cheh

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We'll spinning wheel kick off September with the second of Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh's Shaolin series, utilizing the martial prowess of his first stable actors like Chen Kuan Tai, Fu Sheng, and Chi Kuan Chun to illustrate the further struggles of legendary patriots Fang Shih Yu and Hung Hsi Kwan against those oppressive Manchu bastards and their murderous jealousy of the effectiveness of Shaolin kung fu, as choreographed by the one and only Liu Chia Liang (Tang Chia, as well, to be specific). For those keeping score at home, Heroes Two was the first of the series, released the previous year.

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"Couldn't we just beat each other up on the ground and be done with it?"
At the outset, we meet Fang Shih Yu (Fu Sheng) as he's about to undergo a test at Shaolin known as "Death Alley" where he's forced to mix it up with his classmates in a darkened chamber in levels of increasing difficulty, vs. the bo, the butterfly swords, two sectional staff, etc. He states that he's fully aware that if he happens to be killed in his attempt, then he simply wasn't any good. As candles are lit and extinguished, he blows through all successive comers with ease and escapes with his life despite a half-baked hit by Manchu plants. Waving his trademark white fan wherever he goes, he duels Tiger Yang to the death atop some strategic fighting poles, and after skewering him like a chunk of lamb meat on a spit,  he soon runs into Hu Hueh Chien (Chi Kuan Chun), a stubborn young fellow with a death wish ever since his father got stepped on like a waterbug by two sore loser Manchus at the gambling house, as he's having his latest ass whooping administered to him by the Manchu bullies. Fang helps him to escape and tells him to go to Shaolin and learn how to fight before taking on expert opponents.Luckily, Fang's special baths at Shaolin have also made him impervious to weapons and blows of all kinds, save for one pesky secret unprotected area that....well, let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

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"Guess what you're having for dinner, pal...neck chops! Huaaaaaa!"
Fang and Hu set up his father's murderers, who Hu beats to death for their sins, which alerts even heavier Manchu baddies to the Shaolin upstarts, as led by Chiang Tao himself, who amuses himself by capturing and killing rebels whenever he can. The bastard even sets fire to Shaolin (with footage culled from the aforementioned Heroes Two, no less) in trying to flush out Hung Hsi Kwan (Chen Kuan Tai), the rebel leader who's been in hiding, leading to all surviving patriots involved scattering like ashes and regrouping at an abandoned temple that nobody'd ever think twice about looking there for them. Well, except the Manchus, who put tails on Hu's girlfriend and have the place surrounded by archers in no time. You know what comes next. It's Shaolin vs. Manchu to the overly dramatic death on the temple steps, with more bloody deaths in black and white than you can shake a Tiger's Fork at, but you folks at home are gonna have to see this one for yourselves to fully appreciate it, and also to find out if the Shaolin martial flame lives on.

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"Alright Shaolin disciples, get into your dramatic battle stances, places everybody!"
I can still remember taping this one late one Saturday night back in the eighties off of Channel 29's Kung Fu Theater. The print I saw recently,  reminded me of the shabby vhs quality of my own dub, with tracking lines and ghosts a plenty. Those were the days, eh? Cheh would revisit the Shaolin backdrop and plotline with Shaolin Temple/ Death Chamber (1976), Five Masters of Death/ Five Shaolin Masters (1974), and Shaolin Martial Arts (1974), all of which also use many of the same actors you'll see here. He also helmed 1975's Disciples of Shaolin/ Invincible One, which also starred Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun. Though I don't dig this one nearly as much as any of the titles above, probably due to many of the fights involving anyone other than Fu, Chi, or Chen looking choppy and uninspired in spots (a problem the studio smoothed out over time, with more adept scrappers handling the intricate fight moves with a much better flow for the big screen, I think), it's still a classic in it's own right, deserving of three Wops on the scale, and coming recommended to any fans of the genre.

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"Movement number six, Manchu pierces the flaming hemorrhoid!"
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