Plot Outline: It’s ancient China and the evil Manchu government is using their power to oppress the people. After Shaolin is designated an enemy of the state, it is destroyed, burned to the ground and it’s inhabitants slaughtered. After fighting the overbearing enemy, only about five men are able to find their way to escape. Among them, Hu Te-Ti (David Chiang) who takes over as leader among the rag tag group of five. They join the anti-manchu rebel patriots and all disband to go their separate ways just in case the spy who helped the Manchu destroy Shaolin happens to be among them. Little do they know that Ma Fu Yi (Lung Wei Wang), one of the best fighters at Shaolin, happens to be the true culprit. In due time all is revealed, and our heroes may not be a match for these treacherous villains, but in due time they will become… Five Shaolin Masters! … yeah, that was a little lame even by my standards.


The Review
Well, it’s December 2003. It’s chilly outside, Christmas is right upon us and I’m feeling the holiday spirit. So with that in mind, I could think of no better way to commemorate my favorite holiday than to throw a marathon of cinematic treats from my personal favorite cinematic style. The Kung Fu genre boys and girls. I’m going through seven randomly chosen Hong Kong classics, all coming straight out of the old school, and hopefully you the reader will join in on the festivities as well. Five Shaolin Masters seems fitting a movie to end on, seeing how out of this whole marathon it’s the first film that I’ve tackled that features either David Chiang, Alexander Fu-Sheng or the grandmaster Ti Lung, who has always been a favorite of mine. Being that I basically grabbed a stack of Kung Fu movies and started randomly choosing films to review, I didn’t really take the opportunity to grab hold of any of the star’s better works, but Five Shaolin Masters certainly isn’t a failed film by no means. It’s one of those Shaw Bros. films that feels like it was thrown together by the top brass within the company who wanted an epic so they got some of their best men on the job. It seems the Shaw’s did this on a regular basis, my favorite of these mini-epics was The Heroic Ones (although it really wasn’t ‘mini) which reminded me of a cross between the styles of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven (and yes I know Magnificent was a remake of Samurai), with the addition of some Kung Fu and a fairly sizable budget. Five Shaolin Masters unfortunately doesn’t take the Kurosawa/Western influences of the previously mentioned film, nor does it take it’s budget. Still, for what it is, it’s an entertaining bit of Martial Arts cinema. Although, unlike some people out there who rank the film as an out and out classic, I feel a bit more reserved about it’s place in the genre. When I first watched the film, I loved it I believe. Yet, as a more gifted reviewer than I once said, never write a review after watching a film for the first time because you’re bound to like it or hate it more than you might think of it later. Such true words, because on second viewing of the film, I really didn’t take that much satisfaction from it. No doubt, my first impression of the film was formed mostly from the concluding thirty or forty minutes and not by the film as a whole, but after sitting through it this time, I was much more critical. For better or for worse.

The biggest problem I tend to have with the film is that it doesn’t really start to get very interesting until almost an hour into it. After the students suffer a humiliating defeat and are forced to go back to Shaolin and begin focusing on their Kung Fu so that they can return for revenge, that’s when the film really starts to grab my focus and get me interested in what is happening. You know a film is at least ‘different’ when it takes over half the running time to get to the expected ‘revenge’ scenario. Although the film does have plenty of little interesting bits in that first hour or so, it’s just not very grabbing. While watching the film I have a hard time keeping up with the plot because my mind began wandering because of lack of anything substantial, and having a wandering thought process is not something I recommend while watching a Kung Fu film with a fairly complex list of characters. Matching foreign names with unfamiliar faces isn’t that easy a task.

The Kung Fu is surprisingly hit or miss for me, and it pains me to say it because of the immense quality of talent from nearly everyone involved in the film. It doesn’t mean that what is here isn’t good, it’s just that the quality fluctuates. The concluding ten or so minute battle sequence featuring all of the main stars stands out as a brilliant display, but the rest of the film is fairly ‘off’ when it comes to putting on a show. A lot of the Kung Fu comes off somewhat slow and maybe even a little messy. I’m not entirely sure if this was in order to make the fights look believable or not, but it’s certainly not Chang Cheh’s usual bouts. The Kung Fu moves at a deliberate pace that’s for sure, and the heroes aren’t invincible in this film. They take hits just like the rest of the guys. In that way the fighting tends to be a success, but if you’re expecting agile martial artists that move with the grace of a ballet dancer, then this isn’t the film. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Jimmy Wang either, it’s something unique which tends to have it’s own charm, but in my eyes, it’s a fairly sizable let down when you look at the cast and crew involved in the creation of the film. This is all opinion mind you and some may find these fights to be among the greatest ever filmed, but speaking for me personally, I just wasn’t impressed. At least not enough to warrant a lot of praise. The climax of the film most definitely sticks out as being quite entertaining, and the training of the five students was also very memorable, and the two back to back stand out as the best moments of the film. They also happen to comprise of the majority of the last forty minutes all together. Still, it’s what comes before that which doesn’t set right with me.

The pacing of the film leaves me cold, and the lack of directness to the plot adds up to a lot of time where almost nothing seems to happen and unless you’re able to keep enthralled my what happens on screen, also leads to a good bit of confusion as to what is happening within the narrative. In some ways, it’s a very underrated film. It’s actually very good in certain parts throughout, almost making the rest of the film seem excusable. Yet, the problem lies in the faults of the film. The fact that although it may have a lot of good elements towards the end, it can’t erase the majority of the film and the fact that as a film and part of several legacies, it just doesn’t distinguish it’s self by much. The plot, the action and the lack of truly memorable characters just leaves the film feeling rather rudimentary at the end of the day. I don’t mean to sound like some raving maniac who hates the film with all of his being, I’m about as far from that as you can get, but I’m not all too extremely loyal to it either. To switch gears I might as well move on to the positives the film has to offer. Well, to start with, it features one of the most amazing Kung Fu soundtracks I can possibly think of. Better than the majority of films I hold in a much higher respect than this film. The score is catchy and ominous, and really helps the film in almost every scene it is laid over. It creates tension, atmosphere and is one of the things that really grabs ahold of it’s audience. A lot of these older films didn’t have a lot of time or money put into the soundtrack specified for the film’s, thus even a lot of great films got the shaft when it came to memorable theme songs, but Five Shaolin Masters walks away with a theme so incredibly catchy you’re almost guaranteed to walk away humming it. There are also little splashes of style thrown in during the course of the picture, some of my favorite moments come when flashback sequences are shown. Much like what Quentin Tarantino was going for in Kill Bill, the flashbacks in the film are shown in through different colors and with the use of the soundtrack the effect is magnificent. Chang Cheh didn’t get to put some of his magnificent Shaw sets to use in the film, but he snuck a few in there but the majority of the film seems to have been shot on location in fields and different areas. The cinematography and direction are both up to Cheh’s standards, but as far as being able to pick apart his style in the film he’s not quite as flamboyant as usual, probably because of the fact that the film seems to take place in a more realistic world than his Venoms films or anything of that sort. Although it may not be his best work, same goes for the cast, it’s still a entertaining film but unless you’re serious about Kung Fu please take my caution.

The acting in the film is a bit hard to judge because of my lack of interest during the first course the film takes, but I can tell you that David Chiang never looked better that’s for sure. Among all the talents involved in the film, he tends to be the most memorable. His character isn’t very conflicted, but his ‘man fighting for right’ attitude comes through the screen easily. Ti Lung isn’t given an incredible amount of screen time, but I found it forgivable because David Chiang and Lu Feng were the other two stars, but it still would have been nice to see Lung getting to stretch his abilities farther. Lung certainly doesn’t get to showcase his acting, but he does get to show off some great Kung Fu with his staff from the ruins of Shaolin. His training sequence (intercut between the other five’s training) wasn’t the most creative, but he made it work and of all the cast he seemed to be the only one who truly developed an ‘ace in the hole’ when it comes to his technique, much like many of Cheh’s other films where a character brings about something from their training and delivers it in a battle in order to defeat the enemy. Alexander Fu-Sheng is probably the second most interesting character behind David Chiang’s, because at first I actually thought he was mentally handicapped. His character acts so childish and seemingly braindead at the beginning of the film, that I’m still not sure how he was able to become a Shaolin Master by the end of the film, but they somehow made it all work. His character seems to have been the one designated for the comedy relief, but he doesn’t lay it on too thick so for those who don’t dig on Kung Fu Comedy, have no fears. This is a fairly solemn film. Out of all of the villains, the one familiar face that I spotted and the one whom I got the most enjoyment out of was Lung Wei Wang as Ma Fu Yi, the traitor of Shaolin. Wang will always be remembered by me as Iron Robe from The Kid With the Golden Arms, but here he gets to play an even more evil role and he hams it up well. The only other popular actor I can think of to note in the film would be Gordon Liu, but I swear he’s only in the film for about two minutes making his role nothing more than a glorified cameo. Still, it was nice to see him, and with hair no less.

The Conclusion
So anyway, it’s about time to wrap this all up. I hate to end the marathon by reviewing another 3 rated film, but what can I say, that’s what you get when you pick up films randomly. Five Shaolin Masters isn’t a terrible film, not even one that is really ‘bad’, it just doesn’t carry a whole lot of interest with it. It lacks things to occupy the mind, but maybe it’s just me. Although it’s a three, I would say it’s a relatively high three. It certainly has enough positive elements to it to warrant a rental if you can find a store that carries it.