e-mail:Smokey X. Digger
Shaolin Master Killer
1978, Dir. Chia-Liang Liu
Shaolin Master Killer is regarded as one of the classics of the kung-fu genre. Being a Shaw Bros. production, it has all the corny elements you're looking for: bad dubbing, ridiculously over-amplified body movements, and dubious editing. What it doesn't have is nonstop ass-kicking, instead focusing on one man's passage through the training regimen of Shaolin. The training sequences can become tedious, but fight fans get what they paid for afterwards with several impressive fight scenes.
The general lack of fighting in the flick is due to the fact that for the better part of it, our hero doesn't know any. San Te (Gordon Liu) is just a student whose village is being oppressed by the Manchu regime. He gets involved with the local resistance as a messenger and is labeled a rebel by the Manchus. I don't know why he couldn't just organize a sit-in like every other idealistic college student, but it gets him in a world of shit when the Manchu general destroys San's father's business and kills his father. Despairing his lot in life, San Te decides that if the villagers knew kung-fu, they could at least defend themselves. So with the Manchus hot on his trail, he sets out for the local Shaolin Temple (they apparently don't do correspondence courses).
The better part of the movie then follows San Te as he undergoes the training, the 35 chambers, of a Shaolin Monk. Watching this film in 2001 makes his trajectory seem predictable; after so much sweeping up and cleaning, he gets fidgety and wants to learn some kung-fu. He goes immediately to the highest level of training, gets kicked out on his ass, and goes down to level one, which he has considerable trouble with. When he finally begins to catch on, he advances past all the other students and becomes "the greatest student this temple has ever had". There are times during this segment of the film where you'll wonder if you're going to see every last chamber, but there are highlights. There are some nicely shot scenes, for example the eye training and the kick training involving reflecting lanterns. And you can't help but laugh as the prospective monks run around headbutting large punching bags only to clutch their heads and collapse in pain.
After San Te is cast out into the world in an abrupt plot shift, all those training scenes begin to make sense. In a series of fantastic fight scenes, the lessons of the Shaolin Temple are clearly illustrated. Each of the techniques that were focused upon come into play and enable San Te to gain the upper hand. The battle in the cemetery at night springs to mind, both as an example of Shaolin techniques at work and as a brilliant fight sequence that I wish would've lasted longer.
IN CLOSING: In answer to the classic question; "Does everyone in China know kung-fu?"; Shaolin Master Killer says no. This film treats martial arts with a respect not found in cheaper chop-socky flicks in which everybody just kicks everybody else's asses. The martial arts are treated as sacred here, and everything in the temple sequences contributes; the stern teachers, the time-keeping percussion and the tolling of the huge bell, the darkness in which San Te undergoes some of his training. What may on the surface seem tedious is actually giving the martial arts more depth than they get in most kung-fu films, and in the end that's a rewarding experience.