[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.]
Earlier this month, my friend was digging through some of his old DVDs and happened upon his box set for the One-Armed Swordsman trilogy. Remembering how badass those films were, he asked if I’d like to come over and watch them with him and I agreed. Then I promptly forgot to bring my region-free DVD player and it basically ruined my plan for this month’s column.
While laughing over how absent-minded I can be, I brought up Martial Arts of Shaolin on a whim since I remember buying that film alongside the One-Armed Swordsman collection. With that film actually available to stream on Netflix (and in original language!), it was a pretty easy decision as to what we should watch…and what I’d now write about.
That’s the backstory for how I decided upon the film this month. I know, I’m not some all-knowing Kung Fu guru that is actually organized and does things on schedule. Who’s to say I’m not writing this the very day it gets published? The world will never know the truth (yes it will), but you will now know the majesty that is Jet Li’s only film to be distributed by Shaw Brothers.
Released in 1986 and directed by the legendary Lau-Kar Leung, Martial Arts of Shaolin is actually the third installment in a series known as Shaolin Temple. Both previous films start Jet Li and the movies form an incredibly loose narrative that follows the life of an orphan that is raised in Shaolin Temple and wishes to seek revenge for the death of his parents. This third film obviously reaches that conclusion, but plot is hardly the main priority here.
The thing that truly sets Martial Arts of Shaolin apart from its contemporaries is the collaboration between Shaw Brothers, a Hong Kong-based film studio, and Pearl River Film, a mainland China-based studio. With the ability to finally not have to rely on studio sets to capture intense moments, Lau-Kar Leung goes hog wild in showcasing the majesty that is the Chinese countryside. There’s also a cast of extras that numbers in the thousands, making for some ridiculously large fight sequences.
From the very beginning of the movie, you’ll be treated to the sights of the Forbidden City. A scholar is bringing a decree from the emperor about the wrongful execution of Zhi-Ming’s (Jet Li) father, but that’s quickly forgotten as we flash to the actual Shaolin Temple for some training sequences. Zhi-Ming is punching the living hell out of a tree in sped-up footage, but it seems as if Jet Li was something of a method actor at his young age. Until I can find a statement otherwise, I honestly believe he’s punching a tree for practice.
Anyway, these opening moments establish that our hero is something of a goof and doesn’t quite take things seriously. The previous Shaolin Temple movies were very light in tone and had elements of humor with the second film actually being a musical. It’s a very strange series, overall, and Martial Arts of Shaolin retains both of these elements to some degree. There’s a theme song that plays over Zhi-Ming’s training and the music often accentuates action scenes with a very 80s sounding techno vibe.
Soon after all of this exposition, we quickly learn Zhi-Ming’s plan for revenge and how his desires for that conflict with his teachings from Shaolin. A man named Lord He Suo (Yu Chenghui) killed Zhi-Ming’s parents at a young age and Zhi-Ming hasn’t let that go. His training in Shaolin was simply to bide time until he was strong enough…or so he thinks. We’ll touch on that later because the plot sort of goes off the rails from here.
Zhi-Ming sneaks out of Shaolin after learning that a banquet to honor He Suo is happening and what follows is an insanely elaborate Lion Dance sequence that must have taken weeks of planning to get right. If there’s one thing Martial Arts of Shaolin nails, it’s the staging of its set-pieces. Really, everything about this middle segment is incredible, down to the music, acting, fisticuffs, and just general acrobatics. It serves almost no purpose to the plot, but I defy you to not be impressed with everything happening on screen. It’s especially impressive thanks to what is probably 1,000 actors being on screen at once.
Getting back to the matter at hand, Zhi-Ming ends up encountering Si-Ma Yan (Huang Qiuyan) and Chao Wei (Hu Jianqiang) during the ceremony and it turns out that all three are gunning for He Suo’s head. They inevitably fail and are forced to flee, bringing us to one of the standout moments of the film: a chase sequence atop the Great Wall of China.
I’m still absolutely spellbound by this moment, especially since it goes on for about 25 minutes. With the runtime being only 90 minutes, Martial Arts of Shaolin feels absolutely packed to the brim with action sequences. People often say you don’t watch Kung Fu for its plot and while I do disagree, it’s very clearly the case here. That’s perfectly fine, especially since the stunt actors are excellent and the pacing keeps things moving past the otherwise poorly structured plot.
Case in point, right after this thrilling series of events, the movie slows down completely to set up some weird love story between Zhi-Meng and Si-Ma Yan. I think the idea is that Si-Ma is a distant relative of Chinese general Sima Yi and Zhi-Meng might come from notability. The two have a bangle on their ankles that was bequeathed to them as an arranged marriage and Zhi-Meng is having a ton of trouble parsing his new Shaolin life with his secular interests. I’m not really sure, but we soon learn Zhi-Meng is from Northern Shaolin while Si-Ma Yan is from Southern, and…yeah, I’ll just stop.
One convoluted twist later and Zhi-Ming is escaping from Shaolin again to help his newfound friends seek their revenge. They pinpoint He Suo’s location to a boat on the Yangtze River, which concludes the film in a glorious fashion. I think the best part of Martial Arts of Shaolin is that it works as something of a lens into the past. Most of China’s countryside remains untouched after many thousands of years, so it convincingly comes off as ancient here. It’s also captured with stunning camera angles and a ton of color, almost looking 3D in how grand it is.
The last fight, too, is just all kinds of absurd. Zhi-Ming and Chao Wei set up a blockade, then proceed to storm the boat and fight off about 250 guards. Soon, both North and South Shaolin join in and people are getting flung through the air while Jet Li is cartwheeling on the boat to dodge attacks. It’s sometimes a bit much to take in, but it always remains coherent.
He Suo clearly knows his time is up, so he attempts to flee when the going gets tough. Zhi-Ming and his teacher chase He Suo to a vineyard and commence in one last brawl to end things. It’s really not much of a fight as He Suo is completely outnumbered. Zhi-Ming is initially hesitant to kill his adversary, but Si-Ma Yan walks in to slice his head off for the final blow. It’s absolutely brutal, made more so by how fast it happens and how unremorseful Qiuyan’s facial expression is.
The ending doesn’t really add anything else to the film, so I won’t even bother discussing it. What I can say is that Martial Arts of Shaolin remains 100% as exhilarating as my memory told me. Despite having not seen it in years and constantly questioning what the hell the plot was, I was floored by the action scenes at every turn. This is not the type of film you can put on in the background and just let happen. Despite nothing even resembling character arcs truly happening, the movie is constantly engaging as a piece of Chinese opera.
It’s really no wonder why Jet Li would continue to grow as a star once you see this movie. In fact, he would even find a short romance with co-star Qiuyan and marry her the following year. Their marriage would come to an end in 1990, but the two remained amicable with Li even gifting her $50,000 for her second marriage in 2005. Li, himself, would remarry in 1999 and has stayed with his current wife since.
It may not be the deepest film around and it certainly doesn’t say anything about the state of the world during ancient times, but Martial Arts of Shaolin exists as a celebration of what makes Chinese opera and Kung Fu so special. In my youth, I always saw it as this extraordinary piece of filmmaking and I’m happy to say that that assessment was not ill-found. You 100% owe it to yourself to give this movie a watch.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.