It is safe to say that, save for the BFI, Eureka Entertainment is the premier distributor of classic film entertainment in the UK and Ireland. From their Masters of Cinema collection to their Martial Art library, they preserve the legacy of cinema’s greats into the 21st Century and shine a light on hidden gems in world cinema.
Most of the time, anyway. There is always an exception to the rule.
The Shaolin Plot is the 1977 martial arts thriller, now on Blu-Ray from Eureka.
After the Manchus Qing dynasty ascension, the mighty prince Daglen (Chan Sing) moves to subdue the martial arts schools in his region and gain control of their manuals. Aided by his henchman Dummaraga’ Golden Cymbals’ (Sammo Hung), he brutally destroys the Wudang schools to gain their sword fighting manual. The only survivor, Little Tiger (James Tien), is rescued by a Shaolin Monk in exile who teaches him the way of the famous school. As Daglen turns his attention to the Shaolin School, it falls to Little Tiger to work with the monks and protect their teachings before they fall into the wrong hands.
Reading the above, one could imagine that this will be a noble revenge film, where Little Tiger saves the Shaolin School and gains vengeance for his Wudang brothers. Perhaps coming too close to becoming the cruel monster that Daglen is, causing an internal battle between his lust for revenge and his duty to justice, and that only through mastering the ways of both Schools can he find balance and maintain his integrity. One could imagine that.
One would be wrong, though.
Well-choreographed but poorly edited
At its heart, The Shaolin Plot is a set of well-choreographed but poorly edited series of fight scenes wrapped in something that is less of a plot and more of a mission statement by the filmmakers. It almost feels like this is a business card, a test-of-concept film. Save that, the writer and director, Huang Feng, had an impressive career before and after this film.
It’s almost a cheap film, you can see the wires of signature weapons, and the sound studio scenes look like they’re painted on the walls.
The cinematography is lacking compared to other Hong Kong martial art films. It is almost like this film doesn’t want to expend the energy on itself. Some have called it a well-made Kung Fu film, but you would be hard-pressed to find it here. This is not up to the standard of the time, given that Feng wrote Iron Fisted Monk the same year and had directed Lady Whirlwind in 1972. Both released by the same studio, Golden Harvest, they are together in terms of direction and performance a far better movie. Knockabout from 1979, with many of the same actors including Hung, was a far better film. It is only in the second half that the film starts to come out of its shell, showing better production when it leaves the studio for outdoor sets.
Maybe something is being lost in translation, a significance that is invisible to Western viewers. There seems to be commentary of 1970s China throughout; the villain Dummaraga is a Tibetan monk and hedonistic renegade, while Daglen is a Manchu leader oppressing the Han Chinse schools. The two characters are “foreign” to China, destroying its heritage and traditions while oppressing its people.
Much is made on national ties and heritage needing to be protected. Maybe there is a deeper meaning here for a film from Hong Kong, 30 years away from being returned to China, made the year after China’s Cultural Revolution ended. Is Feng assigning blame to outside forces unleashing mayhem in China? Is it the anxiety about what may happen to Hong Kong in the then not too distant future of 1997? Maybe it is how Feng has chosen to explore the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution, and the viewer sees how filmmakers dealt with that legacy and how it shaped cinema, which may be enough to encourage people to watch it.
So it is not a bad film. It just isn’t a good film. It’s a movie. That’s all. A deeper reading might make up for the flaws in editing and overall plot, balancing it out.
The disk comes with two audio commentaries from Asian film experts Frank Djeng and Michael Worth and action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema.
Despite the talent of its cast and director, this one should only appeal to the most committed aficionados of Hong Kong action films.