By Shannon Roxborough
Never mind that there is no historical evidence that he actually existed (a character likely plucked from the pages of Wuxia, or “martial heroes,” novels), the fictional exploits of Shaolin hero Fang Shih-yu are legendary — second only to equally mythological Hung Hsi-kuan.
As with any long-lived figure celebrated in popular imagination, there have been many versions of Fang Shih-yu, who has been endlessly reimagined and reinterpreted over the years, from the big screen to the small screen and then back again. But one the more celebrated iterations that occupies a memorable place in the hearts and minds of many kung fu film fans is “The Shaolin Avengers,” starring Alexander Fu Sheng (“Disciples of Shaolin”) as Fang and co-directed by Chang Cheh (“The Five Deadly Venoms”) and Wu Ma (“The Dead and the Deadly”).
In this absorbing, bloody and mostly-serious version of his legend, Fang is not a lone wolf, but half of an injustice-fighting duo, his partner being Hu Hui-chien (Chi Kuan-chun). The Shaolin Avengers takes us back to the character’s early life, following his dedicated martial arts training to get revenge for his father’s murder by the ruthless Manchus and the cunning white-eyebrowed priest Bai Mei, who betrayed the Shaolin Temple and had Ching troops to burn it down (before the character what immortalized by Lo Lieh in “Executioners From Shaolin”). For his part, Hu, who also lost his father to the sadistic invaders, was sent to the cradle of kung fu and Chan (Zen) Buddhism to polish his pugilistic skills and avenge his father’s murder.
The film uses an unconventional storytelling style that starts with the ending, fading in and out with a series of flashbacks that artfully depict how the heroes and villains arrive to battle it out in a final showdown between good and evil.
Under the guidance of his mother, young Fang perfects his kung fu skills and soaks up to the neck in medicinal Chinese herbal wine baths to make his body impervious to injury (though he does have one peculiar weak spot that, if struck, would, quite literally, mark his end). Fang ultimately joins forces with Hu and sets about waging war against the Ching, which is largely represented by Bai Mei, who has emerged from behind the screen used to conceal his identity in “Men from the Monastery” to take on a more active role in this film, adding to the engaging plotline.
The courage and determination of Fang and his companion in arms are inspiring, but the film is distinguished by the immersive nature of its many training sequences and fight scenes, along with the heft of a charismatic and solid dramatic performance by Alexander Fu Sheng, which helped contribute to his rising stardom in Hong Kong at the time. The overall impact is such that viewers can easily overlook distracting cinematic tricks like switching to black-and-white to spike the intensity at certain moments and brutal death scenes, in which the screen goes bold red for visual emphasis.
Although one of the director’s first outings without the genius choreographer Liu Chia-liang, fight scenes were in the capable hands of Hsieh Hsing (“Master of the Flying Guillotine”) and Chen Hsin-yi (who choreographed Jackie Chan in “To Kill with Intrigue”). And it shows, particularly in Fang’s battle with Tiger Li (Fei Lung) while perched atop poles toward the end of the film, which is well done and integral part of the sheer dramatic build-up.
All told, The Shaolin Avengers is an action-filled saga of retribution that is part-history, part-legend and all entertainment, with a climatic ending of an artistic caliber rarely achieved in kung fu cinema.
Vengeance is mine, saieth the martial warrior.
The Shaolin Avengers
Director: Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)
Stars: Alexander Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chun, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Lung Fei, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Shan Mao, Bryan Leung Kar-Yan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Chan Wai-Lau, Tsai Hung, Lo Dik, Ma Chi-Chun, Weng Hsiao-Hu, Ricky Cheng Tien-Chi.
About the Author
Shannon Roxborough is a widely published veteran freelance writer and journalist, longtime kung fu and Chinese healing arts enthusiast, lifelong Sinophile who has followed China for decades and a Shaw Brothers and martial arts movie fan since the 1970s. He can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.