The Shaolin Plot [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (31st May 2022).
The Film

Manchu Prince Dagulen (Aces Go Places's Chan Sing) wants to rule China by mastering the secret techniques of the four great schools. When only one school willingly hands over its secret manuals and the Beggar school sends an assassin (Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog's Mang Hoi), Dagulen sends hired Tibetan monk warrior Golden Cymbals (Eastern Condors' Sammo Hung) - so named because of his "Flying Guillotine"-styled weapon of choice – to take the manuals by force. He first targets the Wudang school whose master sends his son Little Tiger (Fist of Fury's James Tien) fleeing into the forest with the secret sword manual and torches the rest before he is murdered by Golden Cymbals' men. Little Tiger finds sanctuary with meditating Shaolin monk Puihui (Half a Loaf of Kung Fu's Chin Kang) who fights off Golden Cymbals and his men but is blinded by the shards of Golden Cymbal's shattered weapons. Unwilling to return to the Shaolin temple because of his stance in fighting the Manchu versus that of the chief abbot (the film's director Huang Feng) that the monks should focus on prayer and meditation, Puihui goes into hiding with Little Tiger and trains the younger man in the Shaolin style. Upon learning of Golden Cymbals' failure, Prince Dagulen visits the Shaolin temple and accuses the abbot of harboring rebels; however, he is unable to obtain the fighting fist manuals by force or intimidation. Soon after, they offer shelter to a scarred deaf-mute who has been badly beaten by Manchu officers. When Little Tiger spots Manchu fighters lurking in the village near his hiding place, he follows them and discovers that Prince Dagulen himself has infiltrated the Shaolin temple in disguise. His attempts to warn the abbot fall on deaf ears and he may have to use his shaky new fighting skills to get his message across by force before it is too late.

Little seen outside Asia, The Shaolin Plot is most notable as the culmination of collaborations between director Huang Feng and action director/actor Sammo Hung – both of whom had been toiling in the industry for Shaw since the sixties and then Golden Harvest – that lead to Hung's directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk which was co-written by Huang and co-starred Tien. The film starts out well-enough with Dagulen as a dastardly villain and Hung quite the bully, a forehead impalement with a chicken bone, and a gruesome decapitation; however, the film seriously drags in the middle with both the training of Little Tiger and the Shaolin temple intrigues perfunctorily-handled at best and outright dull at worst. The film is at its best at its most vicious, including a truly disturbing sequence with a burning monk and a truly visceral quality to the body blows dealt to the villains during the climax. Tien is perhaps best-known in the industry for having his star overshadowed by Bruce Lee who replaced him in the lead of The Big Boss, demoting him to a supporting role. A solid performer, Tien is saddled with a clichι but underwritten role of the untested young man avenging both a father and a master, and here he too is sidelined by the greater charisma and fighting ability of Casanova Wong (Duel to the Death) and Kwan-Yung Moon (Project A) as the abbot's guards who handle much of the fighting at the end. At best, Little Tiger's lesser involvement in the climax realistically suggests that a training montage does not turn a novice into a formidable warrior capable to taking on those who have studied multiple styles for years but Casanova Wong at this point was still Ho Wang and his and Kwan-Yung Moon's characters do not come into the film until the final quarter and are rather anonymous as characters. While The Iron-Fisted Monk carried over some elements, Hung's approach has an entirely different energy and tone to this effort from Huang Feng who would only direct four more films the following year but the collaboration was nevertheless educational and influential enough for Hung to describe Huang Feng as one of his mentors.


Although dubbed for export, The Shaolin Plot was unreleased in the United States and not released in the UK until 1982 and subsequently only had Hong Kong VCD and mainland China DVD editions (the latter presumably derived from the VCD master). Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 2K restoration – we have no idea whether the Scandinavian Blu-ray transfer from 2019 comes from the same master or an older one but it only had the English dub track – and while we have not seen earlier versions it is hard to imagine it looking better. Colors pop when the period color schemes allow – wardrobe accents and splashes of blood – and the image is generally crisp apart from the usual softness during wide angle pans where the older anamorphic scope lenses bow in the center of the frame.


Audio options included Mandarin LPCM 2.0 mono – there was apparently no Cantonese dub – and an English LPCM 2.0 dub track. Both sound clean, with the Mandarin track perhaps handling the high end of the music better than the English track, and the former is the way to go since the English track has rather flat performances that make the cliched scenarios seem even more so for those of us who grew up on films like these in dubbed form. The English subtitles include the annotation to the title card "(Lt. The Four Great Schools)" but have no noticeable errors.


Apart from the Hong Kong theatrical trailer (3:54) and the English export trailer (2:54), the only extras are a pair of audio commentaries from Eureka's usual suspects. The first is an audio commentary by Asian film experts Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and Michael Worth recorded during a "marathon week" of commentary recording. Djeng and Worth discuss the influences of King Hu on the plot and the visuals – like Hu's Raining in the Mountain, the film was shot in Korea and possess some similar story elements – the contribution of prolific scripter Kuang Ni (The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter), the importance of Huang Feng in Hung's career, Hung's "Bond villain"-esque character, and the use of the "Flying Guillotine"-type weapon a year after The Master of The Flying Guillotine from Jimmy Wang Yu after he walked out on Golden Harvest. The second track is an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema in which they cover some of the same information, point out brief appearances by Shaw/Golden Harvest fixtures like Lam-Ching Ying (Mr. Vampire) whose limited screen time may be bewildering to those used to seeing him in larger lead or supporting roles, the film's use of gore, Tien's unlucky career, and the acknowledged influence of Star Wars on Hung – perhaps reaching in comparing the Manchu to the Empire and Shaolin monks to the Jedi – with Leeder also revealing that Hung was intended to be the action director on Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones and was hired by Leeder for that position on Rogue One (Leeder is credited with the film's Asian casting). Perhaps because they are not as enamored as the film as Djeng, they do speculate more on Tien's seemingly diminished role in the film and the possibility that Hung and Huang may have discovered Casanova Wong's greater screen presence late in the production.


Housed with the disc and the O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling included with the first 2,000 copies is the equally-limited twenty-seven page collector's booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver. "Nirvana Can Wait: Monks, Masters, and The Shaolin Plot" also positions the film as one of the best martial arts films of the seventies while also rehabilitating the career of Huang Feng whose role in fostering Hung's career as a filmmaker is "often downplayed or ignored completely." He cites the film's importance in being a "rare film that actually considers the tension between kung fu as an ascetic practice and kung fu as a means of bringing the hurt."


Little seen outside Asia, The Shaolin Plot is regarded by some as an unheralded classic and less so by others but it is most notable as the culmination of collaborations between director Huang Feng and action director/actor Sammo Hung who followed the film up with his own directorial debut.


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