Film Reviews

The Shaolin Plot (1977) – Blu-ray Review

Film villains can have some wild motivations for why they’ve decided to do awful things: sometimes it’s wanting power, sometimes it’s amassing wealth, and it can occasionally be something that seems genuinely good, but pursued through evil methods. The villain in The Shaolin Plot might have one of the strangest reasons for being evil however: wanting to complete his book collection.

The Shaolin Plot tells the story of Prince Daglen (Chang Sing), a dictator who wants to own all of the martial arts manuals from each of the four martial arts schools. He has labelled shelves made ready for them, and won’t stop until his set is complete. The film begins with Daglen attaining the Wu-Tang volume and setting his sights on the Shaolin text. However, it soon becomes apparent that the Shaolin temple will prove harder to break into than first thought, and a plan to infiltrate the compound is formed.

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Meanwhile, Little Tiger (James Tien), the son of one of the Wu-Tang masters killed by Daglen’s people, swears to get revenge. Little Tiger ends up training with a blind monk, who teaches him advanced fighting techniques in the hopes that he will be able to stop Daglen’s schemes, and avenge his father.

The Shaolin Plot is not a very well known martial arts movie, something that is mentioned on both of the commentary tracks on this release. This feels a little strange when you see some of the names involved in the film, both in front of and behind the camera. Director Huang Feng was well known both as an actor and a director. Producer Raymond Chow is considered to be the man responsible for bringing martial arts films to the rest of the world, and for making many stars’ careers. Sammo Hung appears as a stand out character, and is the stunt coordinator for the film, and is something of a headline figure in the genre. So with so much star power behind the movie why is it so unknown? I’m sad to say, it’s probably because it’s kind of boring.

The plot for the film sounds absolutely fine, and on paper it’s the kind of ridiculous plot you come to expect from the genre; someone killing scores of people for something as inconsequential as a book isn’t the wildest thing to happen in martial arts cinema by a long margin. And whilst there are some spectacular, and at times silly, fight scenes, the stuff in between them really drags the film down. Feng Huang spends a lot of time letting the camera linger, giving audiences long shots taking in the beautiful locations and the expensive sets. There are many moments where the actors don’t speak, and the camera stays on them, allowing for long pauses and silent spaces where you’re able to just observe.

Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this kind of film making, and some of the locations are genuinely beautiful, this isn’t the kind of thing one expects from a martial arts film. These movies usually have a much quicker pace, with short scenes that have bare-bones dialogue as you spend as little as possible moving from one action sequence to the next. But this film does the opposite, and when watching it it does feel like there are long gaps where not a huge amount happens, and you’re left wondering when the next fight is coming.

To be fair, however, the fights are very good, and I particularly enjoyed Sammo Hung’s evil monk character who throws razor sharp cymbals at people. The ridiculousness of how the weapons hover around and zip across the scene as if by remote control, taking people’s heads off, is frankly delightful. And if the film had more of this I’d have enjoyed it a lot more. It really did feel like it needed more action, and more tongue-in-cheek moments to really be a great film.

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The new release also feels kind of bare-bones. It comes with a pair of audio-commentaries that are enjoyable, and at times more entertaining than the film itself. One is conducted by Asian film experts Frank Djeng and Michael Worth, whilst the other features action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. Those folks who have been picking up Eureka Entertainment‘s other martial arts releases will be familiar with these names, and will know the kind of commentary they provide. Outside of that there’s only a trailer to fill in space. Sadly the film doesn’t come with any kind of archive material, behind the scenes looks, or interviews. If you’re lucky enough to pick up one of the editions that comes with the limited edition collectors booklet (limited to only 2000 copies) you’ll at least get some interesting history about the movie to read.

The Shaolin Plot is a decent enough martial arts film that plays it safe, and because of that it fails to stand out. Avid collectors of the genre will be happy to finally get the movie on Blu-ray, but casual viewers might find it a bit of a slog at times.

The Shaolin Plot is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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