In Sung dynasty Sichuan, the monks of a Buddhist temple debate whether they should help repel the invading Jin armies or withdraw entirely from earthly politics, preserving their monastery and their centuries old regulations. When Zhi Xing and his senior return from a journey of punishment for breaking the temple rules, they come across the Jin’s raping and pillaging a small local town. Zhi Xing finally uses his kung fu to defeat the Jins after they kill a small child. While Zhi Xing successfully expels the invaders with the help of the local militia, he also brings their attention to the monastery, where the monks must confront the Jins. The reaction of the abbot and senior monks is stoicism, while the Jins begin to kill them, attempting to provoke a reaction, until Zhi Xing finally responds. Repelling them again, the monks wish to further punish Zhi Xing for repeatedly breaking their rules regarding martial arts, but he is saved by a beautiful woman, one of the leaders of the local militia whom he met during the battle in the town.
The townspeople nurse Zhi Xing back to health, while the Jin armies besiege the Buddhist temple. Of course, this finally causes the monks to reconsider their position on self-defense.
Roughly the first fifteen minutes expound the inner workings of the monastery. The punishments, like the long journey from which Zhi Xing and his master return, are harsh, and potentially life-threatening. The senior monks manipulate the abbot and are more bound to the antiquated rules than he is. The abbot is impressed with the insight of a monk he sent into exile decades ago, but comes back unafraid to criticize the way the temple operates. All this happens before Zhi Xing appears on screen, and while the location shooting looks pretty nice and the temple’s drama interesting in itself, the viewer will probably want to know when the kung fu will start.
Arhats in Fury isn’t an odd movie by the standards of the brief spurt of mainland Chinese kung fu films designed to showcase Wushu made in the wake of Shaolin Temple (Zhang Xinyan, 1982). It has the requisite animosity towards Buddhism -- one of Mao’s many grinds was religion, for reasons that ought to be obvious from the plot description of any of these movies -- the authentic location shooting and the 1980’s mainland aesthetic. It is strange for a director like Wong Singlui, usually associated with Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries. The influence of Hong Kong’s new wave directors occasionally comes out in his direction, but the major influence clearly comes from the propaganda war/action films of China’s film industry. The location shooting is immaculate. The images of monkeys and birds, especially, are striking. It moves from being a straight kung fu picture of the Hong Kong/Taiwan tradition, to typical PRC propaganda, to a wildly aesthetic pictorial of Sichuan.
The aforementioned animals too, make for one of the stranger parts of the movie, as well as the most unpleasant. There is real footage of animal death. The actors kill birds graphically, in one scene. Zhi Xing, apparently, has king-of-the-Sichuan-province powers over the animals, and during one skirmish, calls them in to help fight the Jins. It's a sign of Chinese language cinema's growing pains that the film makers behind a kung fu movie lifted ideas wholesale from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds just because they could. And the images of monkeys communing with the monks, looking as though they’re praying monks or Buddha idols are far more unusual than what would one would typically associate with the genre during the late seventies.
Probably the nicest thing to be said about Lau Jan-Ling in his role as Zhi Xing is that he’s a perfectly capable martial artist. As an actor, he either over-emotes or stares into the distance like he doesn’t know what else to do. The actress who plays his romantic interest, the leader of the people’s militia (another Maoist propaganda element) has a similar on/off style of acting. The actors playing the Jins are camp. The actors playing the corrupt monks have little to do besides look angry.
But all of that stuff doesn’t really matter once people start hitting each other in the face. Arhats in Fury is among the best of this strain of Chinese films. The athleticism of the performers provides enough gloriously choreographed mayhem, but the sheer number of people in certain scenes further adds to the spectacle. The weapon choreography also, is among the best that the mainland offered, exceeded only by The South Shaolin Master (Siu Lung, 1984). If any movie were ever buoyed by its action scenes, it’s this one. Casting most of the roles with wushu experts assures that the fight scenes will impress, and its unsurprising that the only times that the action scenes don’t work is either due to rough editing or unnecessary wire work.
Animal lovers and those sensitive about propaganda will probably not like Arhats in Fury. There is much to be said about its portrayal of Buddhist pacifism, whether it intentionally misrepresents or obfuscates the intentions of that religion’s tenants. The very concept is heavier than the film itself. Whenever you watch one of these films, you have to wonder how much of the screenplay was intended as a way to get past the very active censors, as opposed to what the film makers actually cared about producing. Given the director, I’d think that the real concern was with beautiful location shots and brutal, impeccably choreographed action. But with as much time as is spent with the monastery, I can’t say that for certain.