Director: Ulysses Au Yeung
Starring: Chen Sing, Chan Hui Min, Kam Kong
Not only is Thou Shall Not Kill... But Once one of the greatest film titles in the history of action cinema, but it was also one of the earliest filmed Shaolin/revenge tales and having seen this 1975 micro budget Shaolin tale for the first time only recently, I was surprised by just how original and vital it still is.
During a funeral procession for a high ranking official, the family is ambushed by a rival official (played by Kam Kong) who wants the family's sword (said to be the most powerful in all of China). He murders the widow and has the rest of the family massacred. The son (Chen Sing) manages to escape. he spares the life of a guard that was pursuing him, impressing the Shaolin Abbott who happened to be watching. He is then allowed (after being rigorously tested) to become a Shaolin monk, renouncing his past. This doesn't sit well with his extended family (who have arranged for the once royal son to be married) or his beautiful wife to be (played by the lovely Lu Shu Chin). Internal strife within the temple also rears it's head in the form of the jealous top student monk (Chan Hui Man) who slowly finds his personal desires mentally intruding into his purified life.
While some fans may be put off by the lack of abundant action, I was extremely impressed with just how much depth (both in it's story and characters) it allowed within it's scant 82 minute running length and much of the credit must go to the note perfect direction by Ulysses Au Yeung. This includes a surprisngly frank depiction of sexual repression which is first shown during Chen Sing's initial test. In order to enter Shaolin, he must first meditate for 49 days. During this time, his mind wanders toward his spurned bride, but with big brother Chan Hui Man guiding him, he survives. Chan himself as it turns out however is not faring as well. He was very much aroused by the sight of the beautiful ex bride and has to fend off his feelings for her. At one point (in a bid of farewell), she clips off some of her hair and tosses it at them. Chen is unfazed, but Chan is clearly turned on by her scent. I was also very impressed with the reference to Bhodi Darma and how it ultimately relates to and parallels Chan's predicament (without giving too much away).
Both Chen Sing and Chan Hui Man turn in top work. Chen (with his gruff appearance) could seem cast against type as the quiet and studious monk in the making. But he pulls it off beautifully, showing a level of restraint to his performance that I hadn't seen before. Chan puts in arguably his best ever performance as the conflicted "big brother" who finds himself slowly consumed by feelings of lust and power. His is easily the most compelling character in the film. As the head villain, Kam Kang is decent, but nothing exceptional. Kam has appeared in a great many early seventies kung fu films and I've always come away underwhelmed by his performances.
When the action does happen, it is quite good. This could be considered an early Shapes (or Styles) film as it delves into the Shaolin 10 Animal styles (which are 5 more than I was aware of), but does not devolve into patty cake fu. The battles are still of the raw and harsh variety displayed in the earlier Bashers, making this film something of a hybrid which I found very pleasing to watch. The finale could have been a little longer and more drawn out, but that's really nitpicking.
Thou Shall Not Kill... But Once could have used a bigger budget but for me, the roughness was part of it's charm. It comes with my highest recommendation.
***1/2 / ****