Disciples of Shaolin Review
Disciples of Shaolin is a bit of a misnomer as a title and owes much to this film being a follow-up to Shaolin Martial Arts. This is a Chang Cheh film and he has certainly ploughed the Shaolin furrow more than most but the film has little to do with temples while the Manchu-Han conflict is merely an insignificant fact of the setting. It does star a couple of Cheh regulars in the shame of Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chun, but the film is really a tale of brothers and their different paths in life. Fu Sheng is cast according to type as the impish slightly over eager brother who comes to the city to seek his fortune and catch up with his older brother, Kuan-Chun. Kuan-Chun works at a cotton mill and has forsaken his kung-fu skills through the bitter experience of disloyal masters and amoral bloodshed, and he advises his show-off brother to do the same. His advice falls on deaf ears and soon his brother is alternatively facing the sack for his cheek and becoming the protector of the unfaithful Mill boss, Ha. Fu Sheng's innocent starts to crave the trappings of success such as a gold watch or new shoes and uses his new found success to even scores and enjoy his new status. In to this story comes the well connected opposition Mill boss, He, who is bent on taking over his competition through bribery and violence. He finds his efforts to bribe the mill workers unsuccessful and sets out on a plan of intimidation to achieve his ends. As the new foreman and the handiest with his fists, Fu Sheng fights back and He hatches another plan to end resistance for good.
If anything, Cheh's film is a tale of the virtues of loyalty in an invidious, pseudo-feudal world. Fu Sheng is the naive brother who eventually finds that his master treats him as a possession rather than a man, the innocent who gets seduced by easy fame and becomes in the words of his brother "no better than a dog". Kuan-Chun is the older brother who has become cynical and withdrawn from the greed of men and the machinations of masters. Both brothers represent a response to poverty - one wide eyed and material, the other noble and Buddha like. Cheh's film enjoys both these characters and admires the younger's spirit as well as the older's wisdom, but clearly a martial arts film enjoys the younger's willingness to fight rather than the older's peaceful objection. Additionally, Fu Sheng's fights are probably more fun because they are faster and more exciting than Kuan-Chun's few grapples which end the film. Fu Sheng is good value as the naive country bumpkin lost in promotion and his charisma means that his fights are not only more technically proficient but possess greater style and warmth. Kuan-Chun is less thrilling and less of a personality, and for all his character's virtues he does seem rather judgemental and austere.
I Kuang's screenplay is one of his better ones for Cheh, giving enough opportunity for choppy socky action whilst exploring themes of feudalism, exploitation and moral choices. There are some details which seem like afterthoughts but are delightful: the tired prostitute who falls for Fu Sheng despite her profession and the use of signifiers of social treachery such as the new shoes and the gold watch. On these last two points, Cheh uses these devices well as symbols of, first, the growing embourgeoisement of Fu Sheng and, finally, his eventual rejection of status for honour. Cheh also throws in some trademark touches such as the white suit that Fu Sheng dons in his final battle, like David Chiang in Vengeance, and the image of the single honourable man dealing out justice to the hordes of the corrupt. This recording of the film also carries a soundtrack which owes, at different times, much to other genres of pictures from Fred Neil's work on Midnight Cowboy to Morricone's spaghetti westerns and gialli.
What really raises the film is that it is one of the last times Cheh worked with Liu Chia-Liang and Liang's work with Fu Sheng here is every bit of the standard that he came to achieve with Gordon Liu. The fights roll from punch to kick and use the surroundings brilliantly, there is a continuity and exuberance that only Sammo Hung equals at his best. Fu Sheng's final bout is a typical Cheh fight against impossible odds and Cheh switches to monochrome to capture pathos in the midst of the carnage, a trick that Tarantino repeated in Kill Bill. This style, the emotional depth, the choreography, and an on-song Fu Sheng are the chief reasons that the film succeeds as a well above average entry in the great Cheh's filmography.
Presented in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the restored transfer here is very good in terms of colours and sharpness. Unlike a lot of the R3 re-issues from Shaw, the transfer is razor sharp and detailed. There is little evidence of extensive tinkering to the colours, contrast and edges and it is only in stills that you can notice a degree of motion blur and very rare combing. This release definitely raises the bar for the IVL Shaw discs' visual quality. The audio tracks are mono in the original Mandarin and additional Cantonese. Both tracks synch well to the characters but clearly the mandarin is the better choice with music reproduced faithfully and only some mild distortion to voices in the high treble range. The English subtitles are good with only minor grammatical errors.
The extras include two trailers for the film, a new one and the original theatrical (both subbed in English), and four other trailers from the IVL Shaw catalogue. The disc also comes with the original poster and photo gallery, short production notes in English and Chinese, and 2 page long biographies for the leading actors and Cheh.
Disciples of Shaolin is one of Cheh's better mid seventies films but it is not the quality of his great films with David Chiang and Ti Lung. This IVL release is an improvement in their regular quality with English options available throughout, so for fans of the great man this is an affordable and quality purchase.
Last updated: 07/05/2018 00:30:01