Most fans of Shaw Brothers’ martial-arts and swordplay films know the names of director Chang Cheh and action director Lau Kar-leung, also a fine director in his own right. The Shaws studio had several other top action directors, though, chief among them Tong Gaai, who worked in partnership with Lau sifu on many of Chang Cheh’s films. While Lau is most associated with empty-handed martial arts, Tong Gaai was a weapons specialist, responsible for many of the Shaws films featuring exotic weaponry that was often central to the plot: think Ti Lung’s spinning sword in The Magic Blade, for example.
Shaolin Prince is the first of only three films that Tong Gaai has his name stamped upon as director, rather than action director, all made in the early 80s just before the studio halted production. And as you’d expect, it has all the hallmarks of the films he choreographed for other Shaws directors: complex action scenes with lots of participants, brightly-coloured outfits for everyone involved, and exotic weaponry.
At the beginning of the film, we see the current monarchy being overthrown by the evil Lord 9th (Jason Pai Piao), who wears a steel-fingered glove on one hand. Unable to save himself, the king charges his guards to carry his two princes to safety, so that when they are grown they can win back their birthright. The cadre of guards split up, with the younger prince making it safely to the house of the Prime Minister. The crown prince, however, is lost: with his dying breath, the guard carrying him entrusts him to the care of three screwball masters at Shaolin Temple, without telling them who he is.
Flashing forward to twenty years later, the film picks up the stories of the two princes. The younger prince, played by Derek Yee (David Chiang’s younger brother, and director of One Nite in Mongkok and Protege), has been brought up in the court, becoming a superb swordsman and aware of his background and the treachery of Lord 9th. The crown prince, played by Ti Lung, is now a special student of Shaolin, taught by his three masters apart from the other monks. He’s developed impressive kung-fu, but has no idea that he’s the rightful king.
Shaolin Prince is a bit of a genre extravaganza, taking three top stars, a large budget for sets and special effects, two cinematographers, five action directors and creating a mishmash of all the genres that were popular in the early eighties. On one hand, the story is simple, recalling many of the 60s wuxia films that Shaws produced. Mixed in there, however, is the Shaolin setting, some screwball comedy courtesy of Ti Lung’s three mad masters and a ghost story subplot featuring a demonic young lady. The film has rather a lot of special effects, too — though they look a bit dated now, all the special effects and the huge amount of wirework used in the action sequences can’t have been easy to do at the time.
All in all, Shaolin Prince is pretty impressive for the first film from a director, and it’s a shame that Tong Gaai didn’t start directing earlier like his contemporary, Lau Kar-leung. It certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously, has a lot of inventive action scenes, and is a good example of Shaws house style at its most frenetic and colourful.