It’s been ages since I’ve sat down with a proper kung fu movie. I have no excuse. I used to watch these all the time. ALL THE TIME! I’d stay up all night back when I had the luxury of depriving myself sleep in exchange for sweet, sweet kung fu. I’d go from USA Up All Night, which frequently ran Shaw Brothers classics, back to my own collection of bootlegs. Why it fell off, I may never know. Usually I break out The 36 Chambers of Shaolin and rave to anyone who will listen about why I think it’s the absolute zenith of the martial arts world. We could argue about it until we’re blue in the face, but my mind will never change.
I can’t remember the last time I watched Fist of the White Lotus. Until about a year ago I didn’t own it on DVD. I had a bootleg of it but I wound up throwing out all my bootleg VHS tapes the last time we moved. Kill Bill reminded me just how awesome this movie was and since I saw it, Fist of the White Lotus had bee in the back of my mind as a movie I really needed to check out again.
In typical Shaw Brothers form, they thrust you right into the story as Hong Wen-Ting and his kung fu brother, Wu Ah-Biu take on the chief of the White Lotus clan, Pai-Mei, with their righteous tag-team Tiger Crane Boxing that pits two fighters against one as they furiously lay the smackdown in rapid order. Pai-Mei, however, is totally bad ass, and can hold his own, but it’s not long until Wen-Tin and Ah-Biu get the upper hand and kill Pai-Mei. For this, the two Shaolin brothers wind up in prison. The Emperor decides to release them and all the other Shaolin prisoners and allows them to rebuild their temple. This infuriates the White Lotus clan and their new chief, Pai-Mei’s twin brother, Pak-Mei, who orders them killed. The White Lotus clan ambushes the Shaolin at every turn and kills most of them. Ah-Biu and Wen-Ting manage to escape and the Lotuses chase them back to their pad where a furious battle takes place as the two brothers and their respective ladies whip ass on everyone. As it looks like the Shaolin are getting the upper hand, Pak-Mei shows up and puts his amazing martial arts on display, including the lethal 7 step palm technique. Ah-Biu takes on Pak-Mei while the others book it, but Wen-Ting’s lady winds up getting killed as well as Ah-Biu. Ah-Biu’s pregnant wife, Mei-Hsiao and Wen-Ting go into hiding with Ah-Biu’s actual brother, a clumsy but well-meaning idiot, while Wen-Ting develops his kung fu to perfection. At first, his technique is crippled since it relied on Ah-Biu’s crane style, but he learns that he can combine two styles into one and sets off to practice. Several times, Wen-Ting goes to the White Lotus temple to face Pak-Mei but each time, he can’t seem to get his hands on him. Mei-Hsiao teaches Wen-Ting that his kung fu is too forceful and his speed is working against him. She teaches him her style of kung fu, Woman Style, which has a graceful hand form similar to sewing but wind up looking like Tai Chi, Wing Chun and Drunken Boxing. With this, and a new understanding of acupuncture, Wen-Ting goes back to the Lotus Temple and takes on Pak-Mei for the last time, using his accupressure points against him and getting the revenge that he so desperately wants.
For years, the Shaw Brothers were IT in the Hong Kong film market. It was until the 70’s when they faced any opposition with the introduction of the Bruce Lee fueled Golden Harvest company. Like all things, competition raises the quality of a product and ushered in a golden age of martial arts movies coming out of Hong Kong. Fist of the White Lotus (also known as Clan of the White Lotus) was released in 1980 and I’ve never been able to definitively tell if this is a sequel to another Gordon Liu vs. Pai Mei movie, Executioners From Shaolin. This is one of the crowning achievements of Shaw Brother’s catalog. It stands on high ground along with The 36 Chambers of Shaolin as one of the most exciting and entertaining martial arts movies ever made.
Gordon Liu is one of the rarest examples of extraordinary martial artist and capable actor. Hong Kong has long suffered the imbalance of casting fighters who can’t act or actors who can’t fight. Since the US market snatched up most of Hong Kong’s best actors in the 90’s, they’ve been left with little option but to cast Cantopop stars where they used to cast amazing martial artists. Liu ranks up there with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in terms of fighters who also carry a natural charisma that makes them fun to watch even when they’re not fighting. White Lotus itself isn’t much to sing about in the plotting department, but few kung fu movies are. The plots are always simple stories of revenge or duty as one or two men singlehandedly take on the corrupt governments in place during particularly turbulent times during Chinese history. The stories are always such and such sifu is killed by the Wu Tang Clan and his determined students carry out a plan to avenge his death with a lot of training exposition in the middle, all the while it’s draped heavily in Chinese history. While White Lotus is no exception, it incorporates the trademark martial arts prowess, choreographed and directed by the legendary Liu Chia-Liang (Drunken Master 2, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter) with genuinely funny comedy and the White Eyebrows villain that Tarantino liked so much that he incorporated into his own movie, Kill Bill.
Lotus also displays a rare sympathy to women that most kung fu movie foresake in favor of the more macho themes of brotherhood that are so prevalent in the average kung fu movie. Mei-Hsiao, the widowed sifu to Wen-Ting teaches him the secret weapon that he needs in order to defeat Pak-Mei. Her technique is graceful and extremely deadly. She requires the same revenge that Wen-Ting needs but understands that he’ll be killed if he doesn’t scale back his force and take a more feminine approach to his attack.
Expect more kung fu reviews in the future. Fist of the White Lotus was a stark reminder of why I love martial arts movies so much. The fighting is a furious display of peak talent, expertly directed without the use of wires. It’s a classic piece of kung fu that is tons of fun to watch.