[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Being almost two full years into this monthly column, I often wonder why I made mention of low-budget director Joseph Kuo for my introductory paragraph. Something I’ve mostly pasted onto each retrospective to quickly get people up to speed, I’ve come to realize that I really do not remember many of Kuo’s films. I have a collection of four of them and have been eyeing this outstanding-looking Blu-Ray collection from Eureka, but do I even really like his output?
That’s what led me to revisit 18 Bronzemen this month…or rather, kind of. I actually wanted to rewatch Dragon’s Claws as it was a notorious joke among my high school friends since the movie features a rather ridiculous scene with kids peeing in a pot. We’ll get to that once I manage to get my DVD fixed. So, yes, 18 Bronzemen was totally the plan all along.
Often Kuo’s favorite subject, 18 Bronzemen is another in a long line of films about Shaolin Temple that would get renewed interest a few years later with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Kuo’s take on the legendary temple is…puzzling? Confusing? Slapdash? Something I barely remember? It’s kind of all of those things at the same time. While watching the movie, I even paused it to look at the DVD case and make sure I hadn’t simply purchased the film and never actually opened it. No, I’ve seen this one before.
Trying to summarize the plot to 18 Bronzemen is a fool’s errand. There’s a story about a child from a gifted legacy being taken to Shaolin Temple after his family is assassinated. There is also some other kid that winds up there and befriends the main character, but the majority of the film concerns the titular Bronzemen and the struggle that various monks have in conquering this trial. Think the cliché of 80s action movies having training sequences, but turn it into a full movie. That’s what this picture is.
Kung Fu movies had never shied away from training sequences, but it’s actually hard to pinpoint which film catapulted the Shaolin genre into prominence. Kuo not only directed this movie in 1976 but also The Blazing Temple. As evidenced by that title, it concerns the downfall of the Southern Shaolin Temple during the Qing Dynasty, but the exact release date is unknown. It’s possible The Blazing Temple spurred interest, but I like to believe 18 Bronzemen was responsible (especially since they return as a plot point in Kuo’s other Shaolin epic).
Whatever the case, many have referred to this film as a “classic” and a “masterpiece,” so I’ve always just assumed it was. I do vaguely remember the bits where stars Tien Peng and Carter Wong fight the titular bronzemen, but nothing else. It really isn’t surprising why that is the case once I got to the ending. Despite being a three-act film, the first and final acts are completely irrelevant to the point.
I’ve shied away from even naming the characters because that isn’t even important. Tien Peng plays Shao Lung who is the aforementioned child whose family gets assassinated. He’s unaware of his greater purpose until the final act, making his struggle to defeat the bronzemen lack any gravity. Carter Wong plays a monk named Wan who gets a last-second reveal to be pivotal to Shao Lung’s training over the 20 years this film takes place. It’s the sort of ludicrous stuff you see in soap operas that tries to get viewers to gasp in awe.
None of this should really matter if the fight scenes are good. I’ve spoken about numerous films for this column that have mechanical plotlines to facilitate different fight sequences, but 18 Bronzemen doesn’t even get that. It’s certainly funny seeing dudes painted bronze and acting mostly robotic battling with rigid movement, but it’s not very convincing in the slightest. The worst offender is mostly the editing, which is choppy at best and unfocused at worst. Carter Wong is a legendary actor (he would even later star in Big Trouble in Little China), but he’s the only one in the cast that approaches believability.
In the third act, we also get introduced to Miss Lu, played by Polly Shang Kuan. She was a frequent collaborator with Kuo and um…why is she here? With the same kind of twist that Wan gets at the end, Miss Lu is revealed to be the betrothed wife to Shao Long with a flashback sequence to something that never happened earlier in the movie. She has a quick fight scene that does nothing to properly showcase her skill and then we’re on to a weird double cross and rushed conclusion.
In rewatching 18 Bronzemen, I’m reminded of the old saying “everybody starts somewhere” and all of its various permutations. Joseph Kuo didn’t rise to prominence simply for being an outsider in the Hong Kong cinema scene. It’s true that he never collaborated with Golden Harvest and only had a brief stint with Shaw Brothers, but films like 18 Bronzemen would have been laughed out of existence if they were the only thing Kuo produced. Pretty much all of his best work would come out after this, except maybe The Blazing Temple.
I’ve already covered one of his films, the incredible 7 Grandmasters. A masterpiece of fight choreography and snappy editing, it also suffers from an unfocused plot but knows when to shut up and let its actors perform. 18 Bronzemen, conversely, feels like a first draft for something better. It has a ton of cool ideas and is partly responsible for giving birth to Shaolin-themed movies, but it’s not truly worth the effort to sit and watch.
That’s a shame to say, but sometimes nostalgia blinds us to the faults that were always there. In the late 70s, I could see why this film was so exciting. Nearly 50 years later, there are so many other films that do the same subject better, even from Kuo. Considering it is included alongside seven other films in Eureka’s boxset, though, you might wind up watching it if anything here sounds fun.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.