[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly 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.]
If you thought Hell’s Wind Staff was an obscure Kung Fu film, wait until we check out today’s subject. I started off this month with the idea that I’d talk about a couple of mostly unknown films I had in my collection because I think it’s fun to give exposure to otherwise overlooked media. Maybe there are fans around the world that never knew anyone else cared about a particular film or maybe a random passerby will see the blog and say, “Hey, I have some hidden information about that!” That is unlikely to be the case with Shaolin Traitorous.
Released in 1976 at the height of the Hong Kong Kung Fu craze, Shaolin Traitorous (known in its native HK as simply Traitorous) is a film that has so little information about its production available, I’m almost in awe that it even exists. This is one of those rare films where despite having a couple of martial arts legends in its cast, we’re probably never going to learn how it came to be or what the actual influences were for its creation.
The DVD case that I have -which is from the Xenon Pictures release in 2003- gives a description that sounds almost like it was made up on the spot. It reads, “In the days of the Ming Dynasty, dozens of wicked eunuchs overrun the government. The White-Haired Mantis (martial arts superstar Samo Hung) and the Tien Law Net Set kill everyone who opposes their leader, Wei Chung Hsien (Chang Yi).” That is all technically true, but Eunuchs are never once mentioned in the film, and Sammo’s character isn’t even given a name.
Continuing on, the synopsis reads, “Yung (Carter Wong: Bruce Lee’s Deadly Kung Fu, Big Trouble in Little China), the escaped son of their victims, finds refuge in Shaolin Temple. Ten years later, Yung is well-versed in the ways of Shaolin and, after defeating the 18 bronze men, is allowed to leave the temple. Yung Teams up with a group of defectors from the Tien Law Net Set and Yuan Hsiao (Polly Shang Kwan), ‘adopted’ by Hsien after he butchered her parents. Together they must prepare for their ultimate test – and face pure White-Haired fury!”
Maybe my confusion stems from the ridiculously lackluster subtitles, but I’m fairly certain Yung does not face the 18 bronze men in this film. There are a few moments where the Shaolin abbot brings up different styles of Kung Fu, but we don’t get some showdown with the bronze men or even get to see them battle. Anyway, I’m getting a bit sidetracked.
The reason I even included that description verbatim is that it seems no one really understands what is going on with this film. The Wikipedia description is entirely different from the DVD case. Both HK Cinemagic and HKMDB have barely any information. Shaolin Traitorous is something of an enigma when it comes to 1970s Kung Fu. I know the industry was pumping out 100+ movies a year for a while there, but you’d think one of the earliest roles of Sammo Hung’s career would get more than a crappy quality DVD release. This film is hardly even his first role as an actor, though it did release just one year before his directorial debut.
The director, Sung Ting-Mei, has seven directorial credits to his name, but the rest of his filmography is shrouded in as much mystery as Shaolin Traitorous. Much like how this film contains some legends of the industry in its cast, a few other films from Ting-Mei have Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, and Lau Kar-Wing working either as actors or action directors. Either this man was a promising director whose character got cut short, or he had some powerful connections that he called upon to make low-budget schlock.
Whatever the case, it’s probably time for me to talk about the actual content of this film versus piecing together its background. Sadly, Shaolin Traitorous doesn’t hold up. I should rephrase that, however. It’s not that this film doesn’t hold up, it’s more that I’m trying to figure out what I even originally saw in the movie. I suppose as this was one of the first few movies I purchased when getting into Kung Fu cinema, I just listened to my friend’s suggestions and grabbed whatever he had.
It’s not like you can fault the narrative in this movie for being generic. Capitalizing on the Shaolin craze that was getting a second wind the very same year of its release, Shaolin Traitorous is yet another movie about a child watching his parents die and seeking revenge through martial arts. In 2022, that is an incredibly played-out trope, but it wasn’t even original 46 years ago. The reason that The 36th Chamber of Shaolin became a classic isn’t that it stuck to a well-worn plot, but that it innovated its cinematography and choreography by focusing on training versus hand-to-hand combat.
Shaolin Traitorous, on the other hand, plays out like a rejected Joseph Kuo movie (who had a burning passion for Shaolin films). Even with famous figures like Sammo Hung and Carter Wong, the fight choreography is overly basic and stiff. I have a feeling that this DVD is missing a lot of footage because certain cuts between takes don’t flow well. You’ll see a person get knocked to the ground only to be immediately standing up in the next shot.
More important than flimsy editing is just how rushed the entire thing feels. It’s got a neatly packaged three-act structure where each segment of the movie fits tightly into 30-minute chunks, but we get the entire origin story and rise to power for Yung in act one, the twist introduction of Hsiao Yun and her connection to the villain in act two, then some random fighting in the final act before things wrap up. Despite watching it just hours before coming to write this, I still don’t really know what happened.
I want to give Shaolin Traitorous the benefit of the doubt as a lot of these old-school films weren’t given proper treatment on home video even 20 years ago. The DVD I have is so ugly that the “Digitally Remastered” tag on the front makes me snort-laugh. The fact that nothing was done to try and find a clean negative so that new subtitles could be produced just reeks of some studio wanting to make a quick buck by turning around a barely finished product.
Even as I was rewatching this, I was thinking about ways I could retime some subtitles to give a better understanding of the proceedings. Everything might be basic about this movie, but that doesn’t mean it deserves to be remembered in the worst possible light. I mean, how the hell else are you supposed to take a subtitle that reads, “He’s very hard, how wonderful”? Did no one think that might come off awkwardly?
I think that the beauty of having a column like this is that sometimes, I get to learn new things about films I love because I research them in an attempt to present them to an unaware audience. Other times, I get to see firsthand how film preservation sometimes robs films of the chance to really flourish because they are presented like throwaway entertainment. Shaolin Traitorous won’t set your world on fire and is even a film I’m not entirely fond of, but the mystery of how it came to be will continue to intrigue me for years to come. If I ever get the chance to actually speak with Sammo Hung, Carter Wong, or Polly Shang Kuan in my lifetime, I’ll do my best to figure out how this film came to be.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.