[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.]
I’ve enjoyed writing about Kung Fu films on Flixist for the last few years and I never anticipated there would come a time when I stop. While I won’t be settling down until the fourth anniversary, I wanted to use this week to let any readers know that I’ll be changing gears in 2024. Instead of looking specifically at Hong Kong action films, I’ll be taking a broader look at Asian cinema and writing retrospectives/analyses of those movies.
What does that mean for Peter’s Kung Fu Corner? Well, I suppose it will enter retirement. I’ll obviously still write about Kung Fu from time to time, but with this column having nearly cataloged all of the films I grew up watching, there needs to be a change in the future. I also have the positive news that I’ve actually begun to write officially for some of the boutique Blu-Ray labels that are re-releasing these films.
You heard that right, I am contributing to the legacy of these films for new audiences to appreciate. Apart from trying to re-examine my love for Kung Fu cinema with this series, I also wanted to bring an awareness of these films to newer audiences who may have never heard of them. Since I will be doing that in an official capacity, that means I’ll need to stop covering certain films on here or else I’ll be robbing myself of new opportunities.
With that out of the way, I wanted to look at possibly the most obscure film I’ve ever seen in my youth for today’s column. This is a movie that will likely never resurface on Blu-Ray or UHD: The Eighteen Jade Arhats. The movie actually has a few different names, the most prominent alternate title being The 18 Jade Claws of Shaolin, but one thing is certain about it. This is a stinker.
As is to be expected with such a low-budget and obscure title, The Eighteen Jade Arhats has practically no information available online. Directed by Chang Jen-Chieh, it’s hard to even figure out where this was filmed and when. With characters played by Polly Shang Kuan and Lo Lieh, it has incredibly prominent actors battling on screen together, but that is the most interesting thing about the film. Well, that and the fact that the original language version has been lost to time.
When I first started my journey with looking into Kung Fu films, my friends in high school brought this over one night. Being English dubbed, I never took the film seriously, so it became something of a running joke between us. Running just under 90 minutes, the movie moves ridiculously fast and it seems to be missing key scenes that could potentially flesh out the story. During the finale, for instance, Polly Shang Kuan’s character recalls words of wisdom from her teacher, but that teacher is never actually seen in the movie.
The basic plot description on IMDB is about the most coherent thing you’ll get about The Eighteen Jade Arhats. It reads, “Two wandering strangers cross paths in a mysterious town, just around the time of the death of a local. The dubious death of the unbeaten expert creates a cryptic trail into his murder, as well as suspicion over the strangers’ arrival.” I mean, that does happen in the movie, but putting it in that order doesn’t do the film justice.
As I’ve learned over the last few years, certain low-budget projects were cobbled together from different sources. The ever-economical Joseph Kuo would splice in scenes from different films to pad out new ones, reusing characters and actors from other films despite them not being from the movie you were currently watching. Honestly, that would explain a lot about The Eighteen Jade Arhats, as the plot feels like a truncated version of an anime where a villain needs to be found and is located four seconds later.
The film begins with Si Pei Pei (Shang Kuan) running into Kung Shi Ya (Li Lung-Hua) at “Old Town,” which is a dangerous place. As mentioned above, a local has recently died in the area and he was known as the Unbeatable Warrior. Since Si Pei Pei recently fought with him, doubt is cast on her for the crime. Kung Shi Ya isn’t convinced, so the two do some digging. It leads down a rabbit hole of different allegiances, styles, and masters. At some point, the titular arhats (which go back to being referred to by their Cantonese title, Luo Hans) get brought up.
The entire film seems stapled together from different sources. All of the characters, costumes, and sets are consistent, but none of the scenes piece together correctly. Kung Shi Ya will meet with someone, inquire about the recent murder, and then immediately face off with the suspect. I guess that is one way to keep things focused on action, which The Eighteen Jade Arhats at least has a ton of.
The HKMDB lists two action directors for this film and both have experience with Shaw Brothers productions. That makes sense considering a few of the battles here are fairly unique. During one of the many detours from the main suspect, Si Pei Pei battles with an assailant atop a golden ball. The two have to keep their footing while trading blows. It doesn’t look particularly impressive, but I have to give it props for being creative. Another segment has Si Pei Pei testing her balance against a lady monk (referred to as a nun) and she manages to berate her into stumbling. Again, that’s not something you would expect in a Kung Fu film.
Even with those flashes of creativity, there is a lack of coherence overall. At one point, Kung Shi Ya walks about two feet, has a fight with a monk, walks another two feet, and then runs into another challenger. It’s as if the writers weren’t even trying to hide the fact that this movie was an excuse to film something. The endeavor feels like a side project meant to waste time in between bigger movies. That could possibly explain why Lo Lieh is here considering he was appearing in Shaw Brothers productions left and right during the 70s.
While Lo Lieh surprisingly doesn’t play a villain, we don’t even see the main antagonist until the last seven minutes. It’s hard to figure out just what, exactly, The Eighteen Jade Arhats was meant to be about. While I understand that all films are a product of the environment they were made in and even the most innocuous of productions has some kind of message, this film really feels like a bunch of nonsense meant to collect a paycheck. With how poorly most of these actors were paid back in the day, that may just be the answer.
If you search on YouTube, you can not only find the film in its entirety, but an alternate opening that looks taken from the Hong Kong print. I wouldn’t recommend anyone actually waste their time watching this film, but then I would really like to know if the Hong Kong version fixes some of the continuity errors present. I do think there is likely an okay-ish story contained within The Eighteen Jade Arhats, but crappy dubbing and shoddy editing don’t clue you into what it might be.
With the Hong Kong film industry in full swing by 1979, we’re unlikely to ever find a complete version of this movie. Studios across the country were cranking these films out on a weekly basis with Shaw Brothers clocking in something like 50 films a year. I would never say that director Chang Jen-Chieh didn’t have his heart in this, but he likely wouldn’t even remember this one. The man is credited with 31 films over a period of 20 years and is now in his 80s. That is a pretty substantial career.
I wish I could have walked away from this recent rewatch of The Eighteen Jade Arhats saying that the film was an unsung classic, but that’s simply not the case. Without any kind of real creative vision, this movie feels like throwaway entertainment. It likely sufficed for the period it was released in and nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it does mean The Eighteen Jade Arhats is one of the few films from my youth that won’t be following me forward.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.