Review for The Shaolin Plot
Another movie with the word ‘Shaolin’ in the title? The Western companies that translated the titles, or simply re-titled anew Hong Kong action movies lacked for creativity. There are a few too many kung-fu classics out there making reference to the Shaolin, and they tend to blur together in my memory, but The Shaolin Plot takes that to a whole other level. In other words, I’ve seen this movie done before, only not quite as well. After all, it was the names of Sammo Hung and Casanova Wong that piqued my interest. They starred together in Warriors Two from 1978, recently released on Blu-ray by Eureka, and they also star in The Shaolin Plot from the previous year. But as I’ve often mentioned, I’m not quite as au fait with the straight kung fu action of the seventies as I am with the kung fu comedies of the eighties.
Prince Dagukon has a ruthless ambition to possess all of the kung-fu in the nation. He’ll happily kill and steal to achieve that end, and no school of kung-fu is safe from his depredations. The Wudang Sword School is no exception, and only the son of the master, Little Tiger manages to escape the carnage when the prince’s men come for the Sword Technique manuals. He manages to find shelter with a Shaolin monk living in exile, but when one of the prince’s men, another itinerant monk with a bad disposition encounters them, the Shaolin Monk suffers the consequences.
Speaking of the Shaolin, the Shaolin Temple is the last holdout when it comes to the secrets of kung-fu that the prince covets; only raiding the temple is on a whole different level to attacking the smaller schools. The prince comes up with a plan more suited to guile and chicanery, and the monks of the Shaolin Temple are hoodwinked. But Little Tiger has been learning Shaolin kung-fu from the exiled monk, and he’s on a vendetta against the killers of his father.
The Shaolin Plot gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, with the choice between PCM 1.0 Mono Mandarin and English, with a translated English subtitle track and a signs only track to go with the English dub. The image is clear and sharp, and this Golden Harvest production once again comes up a treat in high definition, given a decent restoration, removing any sign of age or print damage. Colours are rich, and detail levels are excellent. The film makes use of studio sets and location filming and there is some quality to the production design. The audio is fine, clear and without distortion, although there were one or two scenes where I noticed some background buzz on the Mandarin track I listened to. The only real issue I noticed with the transfer was a frame jump at around 1:04:01.
The disc boots to a static menu. The following extras are on the disc.
Audio commentary with Frank Djeng and Michael Worth
Audio commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:54)
English Export Trailer (2:54)
It hasn’t been that long since Eureka released the Cinematic Vengeance boxset featuring eight films from director Joseph Kuo, and I was getting some serious déjà vu last night as I watched The Shaolin Plot. In 1976, The Return of the 18 Bronzemen was released, and that too was a story about a villainous prince, going incognito into a temple to steal some martial arts secrets. While there is a little more complexity and depth to The Shaolin Plot, the story unfolds in much the same way, and I have to admit that the familiarity, so soon after seeing The Return of the 18 Bronzemen actually added a little tedium to the experience.
However, it’s only a matter of timing. The Joseph Kuo film is a lower budget affair with less in the way of production value and quality. I just happened to watch it first. The Shaolin Plot from Golden Harvest has the production value, the quality performances, and some serious kung-fu action, trumping the earlier film in almost every way.
It is a film that comes from the period of kung-fu cinema that doesn’t really appeal to me. It is rather po-faced and serious, kung-fu schools and multiple styles, fallen masters and students training up to seek vengeance. The film does enough to make it feel different from the majority of the genre, but it is still firmly in that milieu. The one, striking difference in the film is actually Sammo Hung, almost unrecognisable as the villainous monk with a bald pate, sneaky and devious in the way that he fights, and possessing enough character to fill the screen, even when the rest of the cast seem to conform to rather familiar tropes. He’s such an obvious comic element in the film that he stands out in stark contrast against an otherwise rather staid story.
The narrative may be clichéd, but Sammo Hung is a bright highlight, while the action sequences are really well choreographed and impactful. The quality of the transfer on the disc can’t be faulted, although the disc is rather light on extra features. That is no doubt explained by the fact that I can find no prior DVD release for the film in the UK, no Hong Kong Legends archive extra features to reuse, leaving just the new commentaries.