Shaolin Brothers (Yang Ji-You, 1984)

When I still had enough financial means to buy a cheap DVD whenever I wanted, I set about trying to grab all of the readily available kung fu movies from Mainland China made in the wake of Jet Li’s debut, Shaolin Temple (Zhang Xinyan, 1982). Aside from inspiring thousands of Chinese youth to learn martial arts and making considerable profit, the real success of Li’s first film was the authentic location shooting. For the first time (possibly) ever, the Shaolin Temple looked like the actual monastery, because it was the actual monastery and surrounding areas in which the film makers shot their movie.

Zhang Xinyan, the director of Shaolin Temple, came from Hong Kong, where he had made a number of films for left-wing studios like Great Wall (including the important Mandarin language 1966 wuxia movie, The Jade Bow). Native Chinese film makers swooped in to emulate that success. That success varies from film to film. Sun Sha’s Undaunted Wudang is great. Hu Mei’s film, Jiang Hu Ba Mian Feng (江湖八面风 1991) is maybe less so (an aside: as is her recent Confucius). But whether directed by Hong Kong or Mainland film makers, the wave of traditional martial arts films from 1980’s China have similar virtues: attractive and authentic location filming, usually serious-minded plotting and characterization, and Wushu champions and coaches in leading roles. Not least of these are the Wushu performers.
I wish not to get involved in the debate over the authenticity or efficacy of varying styles and heritages of Chinese martial arts, as this has little to do with art of film making, even martial arts film making. The difference between the fight choreography in Chinese and Hong Kong films is still striking. Much of the choreography in the Mainland films looks like Wushu demos; Hong Kong and Taiwanese fight choreography often looks like just about anything, but mostly looks like Hong Kong and Taiwanese fight choreography, influenced by Chinese Opera (the proper term, I believe, is Jingju, but that is, again, another matter) and wuxia novels and a long tradition of genre films. Mainland film fight choreography operates on a different rhythm and showcases different physical skills.
Shaolin Brothers, sadly, is the foremost example of a Mainland film that exemplifies this in all the wrong ways. It showcases lots of horsemanship -- stunt riding techniques for which most of the actors look to be doubled -- as well as weapons not often utilized by Hong Kong film makers, like rope-darts and whips; but, even for all that, the fight scenes look bad. These fights do not look like two-man Wushu demos, usually. They most often resemble the kung fu movies of the early 1970’s, made around the same time as Bruce Lee’s films, but exhibiting little of the intensity. Arms and legs flail, sometimes at the camera, followed by a reaction shot, and the audience longs for the graceful movements Li Lianjie and the sensible filming techniques of Zhang Xinyan.

Actually, Shaolin Brothers stars Ding Lan, the female lead from Shaolin Temple, and the reason I bought the Tai Seng DVD in the first place. She’s ill served by the choreography, as are the rest of the performers, many of whom I recognized from other films. I also recognized locations. The eponymous Shaolin sees several scenes, as does a large fortress that Zhang Xinyan filmed more cinematically in Yellow River Fighter. The production feels much like it’s tagging along behind other films calling “me too!”
Up to this point I have said nothing of the pic’s story or characters, and for good reason. I believe that Tai Seng’s “Martial Arts Theater” DVD, likely sourced from an Ocean Shores video print, was at some point re-edited by monkeys with scissors. From the obvious problems, like split-second establishing shots with un-synced music, to the less so, such as characters who disappear and reappear with no explanation, the film I watched makes little sense in continuity, let alone plot; I highly doubt that “the film I watched” is the same as the one that writer-director Yang Ji-You turned in to the Censor Board. I also doubt the Censor Board made this mess either. I’m also fairly certain that the dub team is the same that worked on Nine Demons and Attack of the Joyful Goddess, about which, enough said.

Here’s as much of the story as I gleaned: An acrobatic troupe of street performers including Hung Cai-Xia (Ding Lan) and Hung Cai-Yun (Lee Bing) runs afoul of the lecherous Monkey Ho, whose father, the Shaolin trained crime boss Ho Lien, controls much of the countryside by threat of violence. They beat up Monkey and run, pursued by Ho Lien’s men, and eventually ask for help from their brother, a Shaolin monk himself, who eventually helps them to kill Ho Lien and his minions. The early Republican era setting recalls those early 70’s kung fu flicks which feature similarly limp fight choreography.
I really wanted to see Yang Ji-You’s other film, 1990’s Three Great Kingdoms, one assumes a Three Kingdoms era historical drama, I believe focusing on the eminent Guan Yu. Now, I’m not so sure.

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