Posts Tagged ‘Chi Kuan-chun’

Chinese martial arts in Disciples of Shaolin

Tuesday, November 18th, 2008

'Disciples of Shaolin' (1975)

When a naive country bumpkin (Alexander Fu Sheng) finds work at a cloth factory he discovers that his kung fu skills are highly prized by his boss after a feud with a rival factory owner (Chiang Tao) breaks out. Using kung fu to gain fortune and power comes with a high price that forces his equally skilled elder brother (Chi Kuan-chun) to reluctantly get involved. Chang Cheh directs this unusually well-developed dramatic kung fu classic from Shaw Brothers with skilled action direction from Lau Kar-leung and fierce fighting performances from Fu Sheng, Chi Kuan-chun and Chiang Tao.

Although relatively light on action by kung fu movie standards, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN is a highly successful mergence of Chang Cheh’s “heroic bloodshed” motifs and action director Lau Kar-leung’s combination of tightly choreographed fight work and Chinese kung fu morality. Not only is it one of their last collaborations before Lau began directing his own films, it is their most fully developed and balanced work among an association encompassing over 40 feature films in the span of a decade.

The literal translation of the film’s Chinese title, HONG QUAN XIAO ZI, is “Hung (or Hong) Boxing Kid.” Hung refers to Hung Fist kung fu, or more specifically the real-life family kung fu of the film’s action director Lau Kar-leung.

The previous year Lau and Chang collaborated on a short film called THREE STYLES OF HUNG FIST that introduced audiences to what would become the dominant screen fighting style of the filmmakers’ subsequent collaborations, most notably their Shaolin cycle of films that chronicled the popular folklore of China’s fabled Southern Shaolin Temple where Hung Fist originated from. As a side note, Chang Cheh quickly abandoned Hung Fist forms once he parted ways with Lau and replaced it action directors and stunt actors specializing in modern Chinese opera fighting and acrobatics, largely from Taiwan.

Despite its English title, DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN does not fit in amongst the linked narratives brought forth in films such as SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS, FIVE SHAOLIN MASTERS or MEN FROM THE MONASTERY. Those films sought to chronicle the dubious exploits of exiled students of Shaolin resisting suppression by the government. This film stands on its own plot-wise and is closer in narrative to Chang’s earlier hit THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG.

Like Chen Kuan-tai, Fu Sheng portrays a naive young man from a poor rural village who travels to the city to find his fortune. The dominant theme here is immigration and the struggles of adapting to a more sophisticated culture. This is a reoccurring dramatic element in many of the martial arts and action films from the early 1970s and it undoubtedly played well to target audiences who were likely first or second generation immigrants to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

“Kung fu” shoes play an important role in this movie. They represent status and Fu Sheng’s rise from poverty. Fu Sheng arrives in town so poor that he is barefoot. His brother gives him a pair of his old worn shoes. They don’t even fit right but a young woman (Chen Ming-li) who takes an interest in him gives out some pointers on how to make them fit. Later, when Fu Sheng is promoted at the factory he thoughtlessly discards his old shoes and more importantly, the people who helped him in the first place. It’s thoughtful elements like this that make this film more substantial than your average kung fu movie, even counting Chang Cheh’s other works. Perhaps because of the shoes and its similarity to a similar device in SHAOLIN SOCCER I would credit Stephen Chow with having carried on this all too rare tradition, albeit with much more humor than the limited joking that Fu Sheng engages in here.

Chang and co-writer Ni Kuang craft an engaging tale that is propped up by the highly charismatic and skillful performance of Fu Sheng, appearing in the best physical condition of his career. He was rightly one of Hong Kong’s top leading men right up to his untimely death in 1983. DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN provides one of his best performances in a martial arts movie. Fu Sheng always did his best fighting under the direct supervision and coaching of Lau and I cannot think of a better performance. Granted, he performs very little early on but Fu Sheng’s memorable match ups against genre heavies Fung Hak-on and Chiang Tao are both fantastic.

One of the great strengths of Hung Fist and southern Shaolin kung fu forms in general is the emphasis on lower body stability and balance. Fu Sheng provides a great example in this film with rock solid leg positioning and a nearly constant crouched stance. This is where body conditioning like Jackie Chan’s horse stance training in DRUNKEN MASTER comes into play in a tangible, if controlled way.

There are two scenes in DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN that should be seared into the minds of every viewer. One is where Fu Sheng talks to his fists when mocking Fung Hak-on right before breaking into a dazzling fight sequence involving a sharpened bamboo pole. Its crowd-pleasing antics like this that has earned Fu Sheng his place among a small circle of charismatic martial arts superstars that include Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.

The other memorable scene bares either the artistic mark of Chang Cheh or censorship or both. When Fu Sheng’s battle with Chiang Tao’s men turns nasty the screen turns to black and white. It’s a convention Chang used several times in his movies, usually to depict flashbacks. Interestingly, it’s a very bloody sequence not unlike the carnage that Chang created in films like THE HEROIC ONES. What is different is the type of stage blood used. Previously, the blood looked like barn red paint and thus gave the violence a surreal, artificial look. But in the brief moments of color that we see blood in this film, it looks more realistic and this leads me to wonder if Shaw Brothers or Chang felt compelled to tone the scene down by filtering out the color. Years later, Quentin Tarantino did the same thing for the violent nightclub fight in KILL BILL: VOL. 1, at least in the U.S. version. It ran in full color in Japan.

Chi Kuan-chun isn’t utilized enough in the movie and has very few fight scenes. His little fight for justice at the end is underdeveloped and rushed, suggesting that the film ran out of production time or ideas. It appears to have been a weak attempt to channel Chang’s previous colorful depictions of brotherly revenge with Ti Lung and David Chiang in the leading roles. The best example can be found in VENGEANCE.

Production design is weaker than usual, although only slightly. Most Shaw films from this period have that canned look of being shot on studio property with familiar New Territories location footage inserted. Costumes and music are stock as usual. Wigs are inaccurate for the period. They have queues but not shaved heads. This was common until Gordon Liu made going bald for Qing-era films hip. What drags this film below standards is the hideous-looking garden owned by Lu Ti, playing Fu Sheng’s boss. The idea is to present him as a gentlemen factory owner out of touch with his workers. He sits in his “lavish” garden and treats his prize crickets better than his employees. The problem? His garden amounts to a few plastic house plants left in pots and scattered around a bathtub-sized pond that looks like runoff from a sewage treatment plant. My guess is that fellow studio director Chor Yuen was hogging all of the best props from for one of his lavish wuxia films at the time.

Despite a weak ending and some sloppy art direction DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN is still a quality kung fu classic with a strong story, excellent Hung Fist fight work and a knock out performance from Alexander Fu Sheng. Anyone interested in this film should also see THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG and CHINATOWN KID, preferably first. All three are similar but DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN comes in behind the other two when it comes to general entertainment value. Based purely on kung fu choreography and screen fighting performances I would put DISCIPLES first.

THE BARE-FOOTED KID, a remake of DISCIPLES OF SHAOLIN was released in 1993. Directed by Johnnie To, this wire-enhanced update put Aaron Kwok into Fu Sheng’s role and replaced Chi Kuan-chun with elder Shaw Brothers star Ti Lung. Lau Kar-leung again directed the action, this time with martial emphasis on northern wushu which was the trend in kung fu movies at the time of release.

What do you guys think is the trend in kung fu / martial arts movies now?