Shaolin Mantis (1978)
Director: Liu Chia-Liang
Writers: On Szeto
Starring: David Chiang, Lily Li and Huang Hsing-hsiu

The Plot: Our story focuses on Wei Fung (David Chiang), a young man who is taken before the evil emperor due to his scholarly ways and skill in Kung Fu. The new government sees opportunity with this multi-talented young man, and they hope to use his abilities to crush the rebellion. After he demonstrates his skills for the emperor, he is given a dangerous and daring mission. He is told that the Tien clan is rumored to have been looking to usurp his tyrannical throne, so he tasks Wei Fung with a missions that involves going undercover and finding this clan’s ulterior motives. The emperor is cruel, but he isn’t unjust. He wants definitive proof of these transgressions and he establishes a very strict deadline. In three months, Wei Fung’s father will be stripped of his title. In six months his family will be imprisoned. After the one year mark, his entire family will all be decapitated. When Wei Fung stumbles upon this Tien clan, he immediately catches the eye of the young Tien Chichi (Huang Hsin-Hsiu) who hires on the young man as her teacher. What follows is a game of cat and mouse as the family soon discovers Wei Fung’s secret, but due to Chichi’s love for the man he is not killed but he will not be allowed to ever leave the compound. With possible death waiting at every corner, what will Wei Fung do?

The Review
As we continue the Kung Fu Christmas marathon here on Varied Celluloid, we continue to see more of Liu Chia-Liang (AKA Lau Kar-Leung) popping up throughout the month. While exploring his multitude of martial art films, I have discovered how much I really enjoy Liu Chia-Liang’s work. He is a filmmaker that in many ways provided a more grown up view of the genre through a lot of his films. As much as I love Chang Cheh, it was a much more infrequent thing to come across complex characters and narrative patterns that strayed from genre cliches. While Chang Cheh, in my opinion, may have more true “classics” of the genre; Liu Chia-Liang was the more consistent director at all times. Arguably, you could call him the more interesting filmmaker to boot and I dare say the title of “thinking man’s Kung Fu director” may even be appropriate. I think I may have found the best example of this slightly more intelligent look at the martial arts genre in Shaolin Mantis, which may actually prove to be short on animal style Kung Fu but is high on moral dilemmas and questionable motivations.
At its heart, Shaolin Mantis is a tragedy… as surprising as that may seem. A tale of diverging loyalties and the turmoil that is present during clan disputes, Shaolin Mantis takes the high road with its plot and offers us no simple black hat/white hat moral compass. The character of Wei Fung is a man being used by the Ching in order to sneak into a honorable family’s home so that he may spy on them, due to their affiliation with the rebel movement. The situation is that Wei Fung’s family will be killed if he doesn’t do right by the Ching, but in doing so he is helping shut down the Ming resistance and hurting the Han population of China (the dominant majority who were oppressed severely when the Manchu/Ching began to govern). There is at no point any sort of question as to whether Wei Fung is the protagonist of our story, but in saving his family he is putting a great number of others at risk. It’s a deadly catch 22 and Liu Chia-Liang plays off of this concept all the way until the tumultuous conclusion. While it isn’t overly complicated, meaning that it is easy enough to keep up with, this is by no means a simple film. Liu Chia-Liang brings up questions on patriotism, loyalty, love and family; while also kicking some serious butt along the way.

At no point do you ever feel as if Shaolin Mantis is simply following conventions. Granted there are plenty of fight scenes, and some of the reasons that our characters have for fighting are weak to say the least, but Liu Chia-Liang does a spectacular job at making his film feel completely original in concept. There is an air of maturity that seems slightly more modern than the era that this film was actually produced in. In a genre where success is often predicated more on costumes and gimmicks than on new or creative narrative devices, Shaolin Mantis isn’t afraid to try new things and deliver something unique. Such is the case when during the first half of the movie the Tien family actually discovers exactly what Wei Fung’s purpose is in their home. This goes in the polar opposite of everything we have come to expect from general film conventions. Normally the undercover agent, in any situation, remains hidden until the final moments so that his escape can be seen as that much more daring. In this situation however, all of that suspense is redirected in a different direction. We see both sides of the angle and when Wei Fung goes before the Tien clan and asks to leave so that he may see his family, we know that this means the end of his life. The build up to such scenes is quite daring and very unique for a Kung Fu film.
Although he is generally great in everything I see him in, David Chiang is particularly good here as he once again delves into a different role than what one expects from him. The last time we saw David Chiang here on Varied Celluloid, he was portraying the driven and slightly psychotic leading man in Chang Cheh’s Vengeance, and before that we saw him as the noble and stoic hero in The Deadly Duo. Today however, we have yet another shade of David Chiang. Here he is seen playing an extremely talented but incredibly naive martial artist. Not only is he blissfully unaware that his cover has been blown almost immediately after his character Wei Fung arrives into the Tien compound, but he seems unaware of the implications of his own actions as an undercover agent for the Ching. It is easy to lose context within the film, but Wei Fung’s actions throughout the film are completely traitorous to his people and while it is noble that he seeks help for his family, in the process of doing so he destroy’s another family and if he is successful in helping the Ching then it will surely see many more annihilated. How is that for heavy ideals discussed through an action movie? While discussing the cast, i would be let down with myself if I didn’t mention Huang Hsin-Hsiu. The young actress plays the naive and girl-like Chi-Chi who falls in love with the character of Wei Fung. Chiang and the young actress have a lot of chemistry, particularly in the scenes where they fight alongside one another.

The narrative aspects of the film are ultimately what drew me to it and caused me to fall in love with the movie overall, but there’s no getting past the ton of action that the movie boasts. In the same way the narrative doesn’t flow in the manner one would expect, neither does the action. There are sequences that seem to follow the plot more than any action film cliches, but when the choreography picks up it is always quite enjoyable. The more formulaic moments seem to come along in the back end of the movie as we see David Chiang and Huang Hsin-Hsiu have to fight through a series of mini-boss-like fighters who protect the Tien compound. This is followed up by the actual Mantis Kung Fu, which we only see during the final twenty minutes of the film. If you come into the film expecting wall to wal Mantis style Kung Fu, you may be left rather disappointed. With an open mind, you’re likely to find one of the more engaging pieces of Kung Fu cinema you’ve likely ever seen.

The Conclusion
I loved this movie, I can’t lie. From Huang Hsin-Hsiu and David Chiang spouting off one liners while fighting the very best that the Tien clan has to offer, all the way to David Chiang’s studious observations of a praying mantis. The film has something to offer all audiences, but if you watch the film with historical context firmly in your mind you’ll see a very tricky piece of work that does ask questions of its audience. I thought it was spectacular. Search this one out!

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