Turn Back The Clock
Executioners from Shaolin
Distributed by Shaw Brothers Studio
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Those of you who are G-POP.net regulars know that I am partial to the older martial arts films, specifically those created by Shaw Brothers Studio that I watched as a kid on Black Belt Theater on Saturdays at 3PM on Channel 5. Some of these films are shadowy memories in my past, but some really stood out for me as an adult and have become a part of my martial arts film library. One such film, a 1976 Shaw Brothers Studio presentation entitled Executioners from Shaolin, has remained one of my favorites after all these years.
Executioners from Shaolin stars Kuan Tai Chen as Hung Hsi Kuan, a student of the Shaolin Temple. The temple has long been considered home to rebels against the government and Governor Kao Tsi Chung (Kong Do) has ordered it destroyed. He enlists the aide of Wu Tang priest Pai Mei (Lo Lieh) in destroying the temple and its Master. Hung Hsi Kuan and a few of his fellow students escape, vowing to spread the word of the governmentís treachery and to avenge the death of Master Zhishan.
They travel in red boats under the guise of a troupe of actors whose performances spread government dissent. After years of traveling in this manner and spreading the word through their performances, the group comes upon another performer, a Crane Style expert named Ying Chun (Lily Li). Tiger Style expert Hung Hsi Kuan and Ying Chun fall in love and are married. Soon after, the true identity of the troupe members is discovered and many are put to death. The Shaolin survivors are forced to spread out and go into deeper hiding.
The union of Hung Hsi Kuan and Ying Chun produces a son and the two decide that Wen Ding should learn his motherís style of kung fu. Meanwhile, Hung Hsi Kuan begins to hone his Tiger Style kung fu in preparation for his long awaited confrontation with Pai Mei. Ying Chun pleads with her husband to allow him to teach him her Crane Style kung fu giving him further advantage against Pai Mei, but Hung Hsi Kuan will not hear of it. He reminds his wife that they had long ago agreed never to learn each otherís styles. Hung Hsi Kuan promises his wife that if he cannot beat Pai Mei, he will run, preserving his life for another confrontation when he is stronger.
The first confrontation does not go very well and Hung Hsi Kuan learns that Pai Mei is master of the Invincible Armor style of kung fu which allows the user to change weak points at will. Remembering his promise to his wife, Hung Hsi Kuan attempts to flee before Pai Mei can kill him. He is aided by his best friend who sacrifices himself to aide Hung Hsi Kuan in his escape. Before dying, Hung Hsi Kuanís friend tells him that Pai Meiís weakest times are between 1PM and 3PM. Hung Hsi Kuan vows to use this information to aide him in his next battle with Pai Mei.
Over the next ten years, Hung Hsi Kuan works harder to perfect his Tiger Style kung fu, using a life-sized bronze statue filled with metal balls. Using the grooves along the statueís surface, Hung Hsi Kuan trains in speed and accuracy, attempting to locate the weak spots at various hours of the day. Although his wife begs him to learn Crane Style in addition to Tiger Style, Hung Hsi Kuan adamantly refuses. His son Wen Ding (Wang Yu), now almost an adult, attempts to stop his father from confronting Pai Mei, knowing for certain that if he is not victorious, Pai Mei will never let him leave. Unfortunately, Wen Ding is unsuccessful in persuading his father to release himself of his vow for revenge.
Later, Wen Ding takes his fatherís vow upon himself, promising his mother that he will learn his fatherís Tiger Style kung fu in addition to the Crane Style he has already mastered. Unfortunately, his fatherís books about Tiger Style kung fu have been partially destroyed, forcing Wen Ding to make up moves as he trains with his fatherís bronze statue. Believing himself ready to face Pai Mei, Wen Ding sets out for his temple, but not without some sage advice from his mother about hiding his Crane Style kung fu until absolutely necessary. This proves to be perfect advice as it throws off Pai Mei and allows Wen Ding to avenge his father and exact the revenge Hung Hsi Kuan had always wanted.
Unlike many kung fu films set in this decade, Executioners from Shaolin wasnít simply about show kung fu battles, although it contained some rather interesting ones at that. The movie contained a believable storyline Ė a story of destruction coupled with a vow for vengeance with a love story mixed in. The storyline kept you as captivated as the kung fu scenes giving this tale a one-two punch.
The movie is filled with skilled actors and martial arts experts. Until this film I had never seen Crane Style martial arts and both Li Li Li and Wang Yu perform the style flawlessly. Hung Hsi Kuanís Tiger Style kung fu is awesome to behold and I love the scenes during which he practiced with the bronze statue. Kuan Tai Chen is a sexy leading man with excellent skill as a martial artist. Lily Li is not only beautiful to look at, but a talented fighter in her own right. Lo Lieh has long been a favorite of mine, having watched him in quite a few martial arts films including Five Fingers of Death, The 36th Chanber of Shaolin and more. He always gives 100% in all of his performances, even as an old man with incredible kung fu technique. Wang Yu is perfect as the unlikely hero of this film. Even Gordon Liu makes an appearance in this film as Shaolin student Tung Tien Chin who gives his life in a spectacular battle while buying time for his brothers to escape Governor Chungís army.
I never get enough of watching this film. To me, it combines the best of both worlds Ė an interesting storyline that is both believable and captivating and great martial arts battles that leave you on the edge of your seat. No self-respecting old-school martial arts fan would ever admit to not having a copy of Executioners from Shaolin prominently displayed in their martial arts film collection. This is one film every fan of the genre must see!