The Plot: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is at it’s core a story focused around family. The Yang family, comprised of a mother and father who spawned nine children who are all warriors in their own way. Seven brothers and two daughters. When the mongols oppose the Yang family, they set up an elaborate trap to kill all of the men in the family. Things go well enough for the mongols, as they kill all but two. The fifth brother (Gordon Liu) and the sixth (Alexander Fu Sheng). The sixth brother goes insane with battle fatigue in the midst of the fight and is stuck in an aggressive insanity he is unable to shake. When he arrives home, charging into battle there, he is under the impression that all brothers died along with their father. The fifth brother however barely managed to escape and finds shelter with a hunter who helps him escape to a Shaolin temple where he hopes to become a monk. However, the Yang brothers are warriors and not worshipers and thus Fifth brother is not immediately accepted amongst the community. However, he will fight for understanding and then he will fight for revenge for what has come upon his family.
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is one of the last remaining big “classics” of the old school Kung Fu film genre I suppose I had not seen until recently. Ranked up there alongside Five Deadly Venoms, Shaolin Master Killer and Five Fingers of Death it’s a flick you’ll usually see resting pretty high on the top ten list of many martial arts film fanatics such as myself. So I finally sat down to enjoy it this evening, with very little in the way of knowledge about the film other than many people thinking a lot of it. Another teaming of the brothers Chia-Liang Liu (who makes a cameo here, but is probably best remembered as the older gentleman Jackie Chan fights underneath the train depot in Legend of Drunken master) and the unmistakable Gordon Liu who after about thirty minutes into the film finally becomes the bald headed monk fighting hero we all know and love. Showing the range of both director and lead performer, the differences between Pole Fighter and the previously mentioned Master Killer are many. Pole Fighter is a darker and more sordid tale of violence and its impact on an entire family as well as those around it, and in many ways it’s a more emotionally gripping film because of all the themes running throughout it. There’s also the violence, which is a considerable change with much bloodshed throughout the course of the film. Although not at all gory, the film does show plenty of the red stuff and doesn’t shy away from it. The martial arts itself stand out quite a bit as being different as well, featuring some wirework throughout – but never enough to distract from the authenticity of the actual film. Simply providing an exaggerated or stylized version of physics. Also, the hand to hand combat in the film is very, very limited with almost all fight scenes being handled by weapon instead of by hand. Mostly spears or staffs are used for fighting, as they are the Yang families trademark… I mean, after all, it is called 8 Diagram POLE Fighter for a reason. I personally never find myself a huge fan of weapons choreography for some reason, I find the fight scenes never grab me quite like style vs. style Kung Fu or boxing. I suppose because I am reminded of swashbucklers and that sort of thing, and it takes away a bit of the movie magic. Even for an old man like myself, movie magic is still somewhat necessary. Pole Fighter however is so accessible and even if you do hold a bias against weapons based choreography like I do, you can’t help but be roped in by the dramatic and epic story that the film is constantly weaving. I’ll give it to the Liu brothers, when they tell a tale they sure make it an experience.
A lot of the times with these older Kung Fu films, whenever comedy wasn’t integrated, the whole structure of the film relied heavily on the plot. You can have fantastic fight choreography, but if that’s all you have and the story is just your basic student searching for revenge sort of affair you have no chances of your film being anything other than “good” in the eyes of the fans. At least here in North America. It’s the script that really sets apart films like Five Venoms and Master Killer, sure they have great Kung Fu and the impact they had was legendary but I’m of the opinion that if those films wouldn’t have come close to that impact had it not been for the strong storytelling that comes with them. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is probably one of the most impressive in terms of telling a story and expressing the plight of the characters. Few characters are as shallow as one would expect from a Kung Fu flick, with both Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng (who was originally to be the star of the picture, but passed away before finishing his scenes) both stepping up their performances and creating passionate characters that are seldom felt like they are in this particular film. The film is also one of the most visually stylish Shaw Bros. productions I can think of right off the top of my head. This might have been because it’s one of the few Celestial restored Shaw films I have seen so far (but watched with the English dub, thank goodness for FanEdits!) but there really is a tremendous amount of style infused into the film. From the crane shots to the awesome lighting during the night scenes, it’s just an awesome thing to witness. With the classic Shaw sets, where although you can tell it’s obviously fake and not a real mountain setting – that isn’t the point. Like a play or a musical, there’s a state of heightened reality sustained throughout the Shaw productions. Something a little stripped down and basic, but so over the top that it becomes something entirely different and new. This goes for the elaborate costumes as well, which although not as wild as some of Chang Cheh’s productions – anything made by the Shaw studio generally had some really impressive looking costumes.All of that is nice and all, but I’m sure most are probably curious about the fight scenes. Well, you will not be disappointed. As I said earlier, I’m not even a fan of weapons based Kung Fu – but they really pulled it of with Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. The use of wires in the choreography is very limited, but it helps create that level of heightened reality that takes the movie from something ordinary to something extraordinary. The final fight sequence, which I will do my best not to spoil, takes place atop five stacked coffins and features Gordon Liu essentially fighting an army to get to the top of them. Absolutely classic Kung Fu choreography and without a doubt one of the best old school fight scenes out there.
I really did not expect to love Eight Diagram Pole Fighter like I did once it started rolling but sometimes you can stop in the middle of a movie and say “wow, I am watching something spectacular” and this is one of those films that lets you do that. Although I wouldn’t put it at the very top of my list for old school Kung Fu flicks, it’s definitely in the top ten (amongst HEAVY competition) and I could definitely see someone else listing it as their personal favorite. Definitely check this one out, if you’re a fan of Gordon Liu’s you’re going to love it and if you’re a fan of traditional martial arts cinema you’re going to love it. If you’re looking for all out action and Jackie Chan style stuntwork… maybe not so much. These films are from a select time and place and represent that, but if you’re open to something new – definitely check this one out. A classic amongst a classic genre.