What's happening, all you fighting films lovers out there? Hai! Karate returns with the next post covering a Shaw Brothers flick not widely spoken of but still dope as hell, Shaolin Mantis!!! This film from 1978 stars Shaw action heartthrob David Chiang, Cecilia Wong, Lily Li Li-Li and Lau Kar Wing at the forefront of a real solid cast! Directorial duties here are by the late master Lau Kar Leung himself.
Shaolin Mantis begins in the courtyard of the Qing emperor Ping Xi (Frankie Wei-Hung) who has summoned Scholar Wei and his son, Wei Fung(Chiang). On the surface, all seems innocent. Emperor Xi asks Wei Fung to show off his kung fu, first against a Mongol fighter, and then against a Shaolin priest. (Side note: the priest is played by none other than Gordon Liu. more on that later.) After dispatching both of them, Emperor Xi decrees that Wei Fung leave his studies and go to infiltrate the Tien clan's house in order to obtain proof that they are planning to rebel. These orders come with a serious consequence; if Wei Fung doesn't return in 3 months, his family's royal standing will be stripped. 6 months, they will all be jailed. And in a year, they will all be beheaded.
Wei Fung comes to the Tien's home shortly after and winds up in a slight confrontation with Tien Gi Gi(Wong), Tien's granddaughter after she threw her elderly teacher out. Gi Gi takes a liking to Wei Fung and asks him to be her teacher. She takes him into the clan home, and Wei Fung meets all of the family including Master Tien(Kar-Wing). Master Tien gives permission for Wei Fung to stay over the protests of Gi Gi's uncles. Time passes, and Gi Gi and Wei Fung fall in love. A dangerous fact, and one Gi Gi has to reveal after Wei Fung tries to flee and is caught. The suspense builds as Wei Fung realizes time is running out for his family. He intends to leave, and take Gi Gi with him. But Master Tien and Gi Gi's family have sworn that he would not leave and are dead set against him doing so. Wei Fung manages to flee after a series of harsh fights against the clan, but loses the list. Wounded, tired and looking for vengeance, he stumbles upon a praying mantis in a thicket of bamboo, and begins to craft a new style in order to triumph. But will he succeed?
Shaolin Mantis is an underrated dramatic saga in my opinion, vastly so. It is a bit interesting to note that this film may have not been expected to do too well. One reason being that it was Lau Kar Leung's fifth film directing. He had crafted great films prior to this, Challenge Of The Masters and The Spiritual Boxer among them. They may have wondered if he could keep the magic going. Of course, having Gordon Liu do a cameo didn't hurt. This film was done shortly before the masterpiece that would launch both Leung and Liu into international stardom, The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. Liu features prominently on the poster and the subsequent cover art on the Celestial DVD release when he's only in the film for less than FIVE minutes! That aside, Leung put together a great film. David Chiang is superb as Wei Fung, the conflicted Qing spy. This film was done as he was in the later years of a long career with Shaw. His rakishly handsome looks still worked for him, although in some shots you can see his age more prominently. His fighting talents are in full display here. especially his acrobatics which Leung made sure would be put to the max. Cecilia Wong as Gi Gi shines, deftly making you feel sympathy and warmth as she becomes less of a brat and more of a tragic figure, loving her husband but trapped against her clan. Lau Kar Wing as Master Tien does well enough to not just be a stock villain. Lily Li as Gi Gi's mother gives another great role justice; she would prove to have a knack for these roles throughout her career. Add Wilson Tong and Norman Chu as Gi Gi's uncles and you've got a cast that solidifies the film. As far as the fighting, while it is less than you might expect from a Shaw film, what is there balances the film's dramatic plot out well. One would have like to see more of the mantis style training scenes later in the film, but it is good enough without that. And the plot twist at the end is 'WTF' enough to seal the deal. There may be one or two moments where you'll find your focus wavers but Shaolin Mantis is strikingly good. Check it out when you can, it's out on DVD and online.
RATING: 3.5 of 5 DRAGON PUNCHES