I don’t do kung fu flicks here enough. For reasons unknown to me, I’m largely known as a horror blogger and I tend to moan endlessly about being pigeonholed when this is brought to my attention but I’m actually a fan of all sorts of exploitation. I am, in fact, as versed in the ways of Hong Kong film culture as I am with horror. I love this shit! I even trained for several years in a Wah Lum Pai kwoon, a flavor of northern kung fu with a hangup on preying mantis style. Eventually I got hurt during training and now in my mid-30’s, I have the back of an 80 year old man. I can still kick your ass, though.
There’s really nothing finer than a Shaw Brothers kung fu movie. There are so many of these fucking things, too. The Shaws are the most prolific production company in Hong Kong. They’re primarily known for their martial arts movies but kicking things off in 1930, they had their hands in a lot of the genres, having produced some musicals and comedies and occasionally dabbling in Western filmmaking with Cleopatra Jones sequels and exploiting the popularity of Japanese tokusatsu with their own franchise, Inframan. It’s fairly obvious, though, that the true Shaw Brothers legacy is their martial arts movies having established a strong pattern of wuxia flicks that bounced back and forth between serious dynasty period dramas and ridiculously awesome asian exploitations like Five Elements Ninja. Seemed like 1978 was a big year for The Shaws. That very year we got their flagship kung fu flick, The 5 Deadly Venoms. The same year, the same director turned out Invincible Shaolin and that’s a really cool thing.
Shaw Brothers movies aren’t exactly known for winding, substantial plots. Most of their movies go something like this: One kung fu clan doesn’t like another kung fu claan. They fight. One clan’s sifu kills the other’s sifu. The grieving clan swears an oath of revenge. Lots of fights break out. Invincible Shaolin isn’t all that different than the usual Shaw mold apart from a sneaky Qing Dynasty general orchestrating a rivalry between Northern Shaolin fighters and Southern Shaolin fighters in an effort to keep them fighting amongst each other so they won’t rise up against the empire. Three northern masters continuously take on inferior fighters from a southern school to see who will teach the general’s army their kung fu. This kung fu treachery is appreciated by no one.
Kung fu and I walk a thin line. I’m impressed when I find a movie that emphasizes the skill and technique of its stars and I’m really not impressed at all when I find a movie that is nothing but wire-fu. Invincible Shaolin falls somewhere in the middle. It’s stars are a trio of exceptionally capable martial artists and watching them go off is exciting as all get out. Occasionally, they display some super human techniques that are hilarious. For instance, a double palm push attack that leaves hand print shaped impacts on a wooden dummy or a punch that results in broken ribs exploding out of the impact zone.
The plot of Invincible Shaolin runs a little on the frustrating side as fighting monks from the Northern Shaolin clan go up against wave after wave of inferior fighters from the Southern clan but all it would have taken to stem the bloodshed in the beginning is some clear communication and the treacherous Qing general’s plot to keep the Shaolin fighting amongst themselves would have been exposed leading to a cadre of smirking diplomats getting their faces punched in instead of the deaths of many noble Shaolin. Then again, had communication not been a problem, I suppose we wouldn’t have a movie and indisputable evidence that the Shaolin are, indeed, invincible. I think I ask too much of my martial arts movies. I sh0uld probably just relax.
Director, Chang Cheh, was the master and an absolutely vital piece of kung fu movie history. He never reached too far when it came to themes of brotherhood and honor but he could frame a fight scene like a champ! Downtime between fights can sometimes feel like an eternity since there’s not a lot of compelling narrative happening in these gaps but the fighting, both open handed and with weapons, is some amazing stuff! This Venoms era Shaw Brothers, mind you, so you can expect a higher quality product than what came before and after. By some accounts, 1978 was the peak of the Shaw Brothers product.
Celestial Films is said to have picked up 700 of the over 1,000 pictures produced by The Shaw Brothers, mostly the martial arts movies. Shaw Brothers movies have been widely available on home video for years from dozens of different companies but they’ve never looked quite this good. Dragon Dynasty has released a number of these movies without ever putting much effort into them and while this Celestial/Funimation release isn’t exactly there, either, Invincible Shaolin has never gotten the visual treatment that this particular release has been given. Often times, martial arts movies are taken from damaged, poorly stored prints, but with this release you get a good, clear look at exactly what Shaw Scope was, a subtle yet bizarre fish-eye lens effect around the periphery of the frame. This is always evident in panning shots of the always elaborate period sets. Celestial/Funimation’s release is lacking anything resembling an extra. You get trailers but what these Shaw Brothers releases really need is something to give the set some context. The legacy of The Shaw Brothers is fascinating stuff and a real standout release of any of their movies would highlight the studio’s importance. However, if all you’re in the market for is a kick ass kung fu movie that doesn’t look like it was sourced from a third generation VHS bootleg, this new Celestial/Funimation release is where it’s at.