Chang Cheh’s films with the “Venoms” crew of actors and action choreographers are amongst his most famous. Justifiably so, too — these guys do their thing well, with some amazing fight sequences that show off a variety of styles and some complex choreography.
Two Champions of Shaolin is set at the beginning of the Qing dynasty and focuses on the two dominant schools of martial arts, Shaolin and Wu Tang. Wu Tang supports the Qing government, while the Shaolin school is against it. Hence, the two schools are in conflict despite their common heritage, both having been founded by students of the same master. We follow the story of Tung Chien-chin (played by the muscle-bound Lo Meng), a student at Shaolin, who is sent to Guangzhou to contact a fellow student, Wu Hui-kan (played by a cocky, grinning Chiang Sheng) on a mission for the school. When he arrives, he’s spotted by representatives of Wu Tang led by Li De-chung (Yu Tai-ping) and is wounded in the back by Li’s Blood Knife, a sort of curved throwing knife that acts a bit like a boomerang.
Our hero staggers through the streets spilling blood on all the available white surfaces until he finally collapses in the doorway of a house. Luckily, that house is inhabited by a brother and sister (Chin Tai-lai and Chin Pi-erh, played by Sun Chien and Yeung Jing-jing) who are anti-Wu Tang, since their late father had fled the government’s employ. The two of them nurse Tung back to health and also spend time teaching him techniques for countering the Blood Knife, which Pi-erh has been taught to throw and Tai-lai has been taught to counter. Just after his recovery (during which he’s fallen in love with Pi-erh), Tung runs into Wu, who is parading around in the streets with a couple of banners declaring himself a martial arts champion. They plot to do away with Li, even as Li and his compatriots plot to do away with the two of them. Also in the background are an anti-Qing student inside the Wu Tang camp, and a sinister martial arts expert (Lu Feng) with his three disciples, who have all been trained in monkey boxing.
This is classic Chang Cheh, with a dark, revenge-focused plot (albeit one that’s nothing really new, Shaolin-versus-Wu Tang-or-Qing films from Shaws being quite plentiful) and some amazing fight sequences. The action shows off a number of different styles and techniques, pitting Lo Meng’s strength-oriented moves and Chiang Sheng’s speed and acrobatics against the Wu Tang styles and monkey boxing, complete with monkey masks in some scenes. Particularly impressive is Chiang Sheng, who can really move. At one point he delivers a fatal blow to an enemy that will make every male watcher wince.
This film is unfortunately missing one of the Venoms, Philip Kwok, but according to the DVD notes he did do some of the action choreography. Lo Meng delivers some good acting in the lead role (he’s usually a supporting character). I also liked Chin Siu-ho’s performance (apparently his first, from what I can dig up) as the young Ming sympathiser inside Wu Tang, caught between his feelings for his country and his school. Curiously, Chang Cheh doesn’t do much with other well-known characters that are in the film, but do little more than deliver a line or two of dialogue – Pai Mei (known to those who’ve seen Kill Bill II, at least), Fong Sai Yuk and San Te are all in there. Perhaps they’re just there to remind us when the film’s set, but it seemed a bit incongruous to have them basically uninvolved.
The DVD is another excellent release, with a Celestial-remastered print of the film which looks amazing, both the original Mandarin soundtrack and an English dub, and subtitles in English. The disc also has a documentary on Wu Xia films and trailers for several of the other films that Siren are releasing.
Thoroughly worth watching, especially for fans of Chang Cheh or good old-school martial arts action.