As the Shaw Brothers film studio business was winding down, resulting in an output of lesser quality than the preceding decades, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter burst forth, a bellowing send-off for both a voluminous cycle of movies and a star who died too young. Bursting with vigour and capturing much of what made the studio and director famous, it never settles for imitating the past, still refining techniques and pushing new ideas.
This is not immediately evident as the film makes a rocky first impression. A few short scenes setting up Sung Dynasty political conflict are fine, but the battle that follows is lacklustre. The setting is sparse — a few ersatz boulders dotted around a dusty floor — which causes the painted backdrop to stick out more than it usually does. The action, despite some decent choreography, fails to convey the overall view of the battle. The spatial relationships between the combatants are unclear and at one point scores of archers appear so suddenly they may as well have entered from stage left. There are duff movements such as a spear meant to pierce an opponent obviously passing behind the stuntman and several hokey elements like characters undergoing rigor mortis so sudden they remain frozen standing up. It looks like a stage production, and comes across like a retelling of past events, but this is the present day catalyst for the rest of the film and it feels jarring. I almost expected to see violin bows poking up from the orchestra pit. One aspect the battle does establish well is the weapons central to the story. The Yang family heroes are masters of the spear and their enemies employ the first of the film’s notable prop gimmicks, staffs with a flexible section at the end that can wrap around and neutralise weapons and limbs.
Following the opening tragedy, the two Yang family survivors take separate paths through the rest of the film. The Sixth Yang Brother (Alexander Fu Sheng) returns home, driven mad with rage and despair. The Fifth Yang Brother (Gordon Liu) escapes into the countryside and after an encounter with a patriotic hunter (a cameo by director Lau Kar Leung) decides to join a monastery while waiting for his chance to avenge his fallen brethren and clear the family name.
It’s a raw and bloody revenge tale, not unusual for Shaw films, but quite out of the ordinary for Lau Kar Leung as a director, who adopted a light, often comedic touch in his films of martial honour and tradition. The tragic death of Alexander Fu Sheng during production adds extra pathos to the already emotional story. It is easy to imagine his passing fuelling the outpouring of grief seen on screen, particularly during the far-from-serene tonsuring ceremony and the final reckoning centred around a stack of coffins. The character of the Sixth Brother is pretty one-note before quietly disappearing, but given the circumstances it’s handled pretty well, with Eighth Daughter (Kara Hui) stepping into the breach for the film’s final act.
Director Lau keeps a firm handle on proceedings despite the real life difficulties, weaving an intricate story of martial arts practice through all the emotional intensity. While not surprising that a film so titled has an emphasis on weapons, the way Lau uses them and other objects to deliver information and character moments is artful. The opening shot is a prophecy stick sliding into frame and throughout the film edits and scene changes often occur by cutting from one straight object to another.
The central prop of the film is the fifth brother’s personal weapon, being both an identifying artifact and constant reminder of the character’s stake in the story. After their Yang spear wielding is brought low, Yang Fifth gradually transitions to becoming a pole fighting specialist. This is capped off by a stellar head to head staff battle with a senior monk (Phillip Ko) that escalates to the perfect punctuation point. Elsewhere, the Yang family matriarch (an aged-up, white-wigged Lily Li) also wields a staff, a dragon-headed heirloom whose symbolic power is highlighted with some very effective close-up movement and fast zoom camera work. The one weapon that sticks out as not being properly introduced is a golden guandao that appears out of nowhere, but is immediately put to use by Eighth Daughter and again in the finale.
The second notable prop gimmick of the film are wolf dummies used in the monastery training room. Training dummies have been shown many times on film, but these new specimens, while fanciful, are used so well in the story they earn their place. Watch for a moment in the finale where the flexible staff and wolf dummy interact in a very thematically satisfying way.
All the focus on weapons doesn’t overshadow the human characters. While the tone is chiefly of desperate sorrow, there are some really well-played moments of intrigue too, such as Mrs Yang shrewdly dealing with the duplicitous Pan Mei (Ke Ming Lin) and a monk playing the spy. Come the ending though, it’s all howling vengeance as heroes and traitors clash, with assistance from the monks demonstrating all that talk about de-fanging the wolves was not just a training metaphor. Gordon Liu finally loses his shirt and the red stuff really starts to get sprayed around for a bleak, but fitting conclusion. A justified classic of martial arts cinema, be sure to check this one out.