Today I watched Lau Kar-leung’s Executioners From Shaolin (1977)
The Manchu government is tired of the Shaolin Temple granting asylum and training rebels and revolutionaries, so they send their own martial master, Pai Mei, and his disciples to destroy the temple. Many of the students escape though, including Hung Hsi-Kuan the temple’s best student and master of Tiger Style Kung Fu. They all go into hiding, forming the historical Red Boat Opera troupes which allow them to travel and practice martial arts in secret while undermining the Manchu. During this time Hung meets a wonderful woman named Ying Chun who is herself a master of Crane Style, their relationship begins competitively but soon evolves into true love. Unfortunatly the Red Boats become the target of the Manchu officials and they have to find a place to hide once again, this time taking up residence in an isolated cottage in the wilderness to raise their newborn son. But Hung is not content with a simple life and continues to quest for vengeance against the villainous Pai Mei but his Tiger Style is incapable of felling his opponent, perhaps his son, who has blended the techniques of both his father and mother, holds the key to success and justice.
Once again the Shaolin is held up as the pinnacle of Chinese morality and philosophy, though it’s presence in this film is mostly just setup and to establish the goodness of our protagonists. Once again the themes deal with learning and problem solving, how to defeat Pai Mei, a master of internal Kung Fu who has blocked off all his weak points. There is a lot of trial and error throughout the film, to the point where it becomes generational and Hung’s son has to become the hero and learn in his father’s footsteps. Another element of this is a rather feminist one as Hung refuses to train in his wife’s style, yet it is precisely the blending of these styles that gives his son the edge he lacks. Ying Chun gets very little respect for her skills throughout the story and the film takes some time to focus on this and how absurd and unfair it is, without getting preachy.
This is just a wonderful, must-see, Kung Fu flick. It is surprisingly funny throughout which helps to cut through some of the melodrama and to humanize the characters. It is also quite bloody when it needs to be, switching from that humour to a much darker tone with little effort. Gordon Liu is only in the beginning of this film but he does get one of the best fight scenes that really sets the tone for the rest of the film and he would later take up the role of Pai Mei himself in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill duology. The fight scenes are furious, the characters are incredibly fun, and the film strikes a strong balance between comedic moments and complete melodrama, all in all, an easilly recommended classic. 5/5