Salutations Hai! Karate fans! For the next flick we're covering today, we've plucked one of the key films from the career of the late great Alexander Fu Sheng, The Shaolin Avengers!!! This is another saga directed by the legend, Chang Cheh. Fu Sheng also co-stars with Chi Kuan-Chun here as the heroic leads. The rest of the cast is a solid one, with Shaw Studio vets Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Johnny Wang Lung Wei, Leung Kar Yan, Venoms member Chiang Sheng as well as appearances by Lung Fei and Shan Mao. Let's break down this flick, shall we?
We begin in the midst of a furious battle as brothers Fang Shiyu(Fu Sheng) and Fang Xiaoyu(Tong Yim-Chaan) take on troops from the Manchu army and other fighters as the infamous priest White Brows(Chan Yi Lau) looks on. Aiding them in their fight is Hu Huigan(Kuan-Chun). We learn about the Fang's and Huigan's involvement to this point through lengthy flashbacks during this fight. Shiyu and Xiaoyu's father was killed by Lei Laohu(Fei) and his underlings in a contest designed to oppress the citizens. Shiyu and Xiaoyu undergo intense training under the tutelage of their mother, with Shiyu enduring a rigorous wine bath treatment that makes him invulnerable to weapons... except for one weak spot. Emboldened, Shiyu and Xiaoyu take their revenge against Laohu and his men in rapid action until this final battle to avenge the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. Huigan, whose father was also murdered, joins the brothers after being sent to the Shaolin Temple to become a better fighter. All three are locked in battle with White Brows and his men...what will the outcome be?
The Shaolin Avengers is unique for a couple of reasons. First off, it's actually a remake of a film Cheh shot two years prior, Men From The Monastery. The difference between that film(which Hai! Karate will cover in the future) and this comes down to execution of the plot and visual styling. Here, Cheh's usage of the flashback to establish story works well. You get to be one with Shiyu, Huigan and Xiaoyu this way. A similarity to Men From The Monastery seen here lies in the use of black and white film to illustrate the grit and drama of fight scenes, and then bright red to highlight a rather vicious demise. These sight cues add to the intensity. The fight scenes go from compact to flowing in terms of force. You'll get a kick" out of the duel Shiyu has with Laohu atop the Plum Lotus piles. Look out for cameos by future Venoms member Chiang Sheng and Ricky Cheng as this was one of their earlier flicks with Cheh. Alexander Fu Sheng comes into his own in this film, displaying all of the charisma and bravado that made him a rising star in Hong Kong cinema at this time. As Shiyu, he effectively shows off his dramatic range and some real prowess. In a contrast, Chi Kuan-Chun comes off as stoic with some shows of fire. This would be one of a few pairings he and Fu Sheng would have under the eye of Chang Cheh over the next few years. They do complement each other well. Bruce Tong as Xiaoyu is measured and solid in one of the roles that got him more light in Shaw Studio productions during this time. It's interesting to see Lung fei and Shan Mao in a Shaw flick; both were mainly veteran actors who worked with indie studios. They both serve well here. (Side note: White Brows is really an early iteration of the infamous Priest Pai Mei role that Lo Lieh would make immortal in the next 2 years.)
Bear in mind that there's going to be one or two things in The Shaolin Avengers that will be bugged out to you. One of which involves Shiyu's 'wine bath' training and that weak spot. When you find out where it is, you're going to cringe. Expect that cringing to increase tenfold by the time the flick's over. That's all I'm saying. Also, you may get a bit thrown by the movie's pacing due to the flashback cuts. But overall, The Shaolin Avengers is definitely a worthwhile movie to check out for Chang Cheh and Alexander Fu Sheng fans. You can get it via DVD and through iTunes.
RATING: 3 OF 5 DRAGON PUNCHES