Director: Lin Dah Tsao
Starring: Chen Kin Cheung, Chan Kian Ching, Chan Kian Ho, Mark Long
The year was 1987 and I found myself roaming around in my local mom and pop run video store (remember those?). As always, I checked out the martial arts section first. At that particular time, I was starting to get just a little burned out on Chinese kung fu movies, having watched nearly three hundered in the past two years alone. Plus, I had recently been burned by a few really lousy titles and wasn't in the mood to get burned again. But I learned that the store had a few new ones in this week (courtesy of Ocean Shores Video) and I figured I'd give them a glance. The one that caught my eye was titled War of the Shaolin Temple (which I later found out was originally titled 13 Poles From Shaolin). I decided to throw down my two bucks and bring it home. I'm glad I did.
Lensed in Taiwan in 1980, 13 Poles From Shaolin is a Sung Dynasty saga detailing a young fighter named Wang Ng Lung who retrieves the Sung Emperor's Seal from invading Manchu General Chao Ming and hides at Shaolin Temple. There he becomes a monk and learns martial arts, but gets no help from the head Abbott who wants nothing to do with ouside conflict. However, the Manchus aren't far behind. Chao Ming has been looking for a reason to destroy Shaolin and it's 3,000 fighting monks and sees this as a perfect opportunity.
Director Lin Dah Tsao takes this otherwise well worn story and infuses it with great pacing and a high energy level, making this one of the best independently made kung fu movies. The film deftly meshes it's basically very serious tone with comedic elements that do not exist for their own sake. This especially works during the sequence where our hero visits the "crazy monk", an ex Abbott who has gone rougue and spends his time in a cave mixing wine. Wang cleverly tricks him into teaching him his unique martial arts style. The scenes featuring the two of them are surprisingly charming and well handled. Sure, it veers into silliness, but not overly so.
Then there's the fight choreography. Simply put, this has some of the very best late seventies style kung fu fighting that I've seen. The forms are terrific and the battles are gripping. Chen Kin Cheung makes for a good hero and veteran genre fave Mark Long (Seven Grandmasters, Mystery of Chess Boxing) makes for a formidable villian. Aside from Long, most of the cast are made up of relative unknowns, but all are good actors and tremendous fighters. One exceptionally recognizable face is that of the late Chiang Sheng. Sheng apparently took a hiatus from the "Venom Mob" series and returned home to Taiwan to film a brief, but very welcome cameo.
Interestingly, this terrific low budget epic seems to have served as the basis for the film, The Shaolin Temple. This was The People's Republic of China's first martial arts film from 1981 and featured the debut of a very young Jet Li. Though that film has gone on to be revered among martial arts movie enthusists, I always found this bigger budgeted epic to be less impressive and entertaining then the film it was seemingly influenced by.
13 Poles From Shaolin (the title referring to a special group of staff weilding monks that our hero joins) is great, rousing entertainment. If you like your Shaolin tales, this one's as good as it gets.
***1/2 / ****