Review: Shaolin Mantis (1978)

Directed by:
Cast: , , ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Arguably the best film director for traditional style kung-fu action, Liu Chia-liang (a.k.a. Lau Kar-leung) was a pioneer in exploring authentic martial arts technique and training procedures in kung-fu films. So although David Chiang is a kung-fu veteran, it’s no wonder that in The Shaolin Mantis, where he plays a man who learns martial arts from a praying mantis then seeks revenge for his wife’s death, the movie features some of his best kung-fu fights to date. — (from the IVL DVD)

Erk, what a synopsis. Perhaps we needed it pressed home that this is a kung-fu film.

That it is, too. Lau Kar-leung is my favourite Shaw Brothers director, and this film is typical of his work. An excellent martial artist himself, he did a great deal of action direction for Shaw Brothers (particularly on many of Chang Cheh’s better films) before taking over the director’s chair himself, for 36th Chamber of Shaolin (which everyone reading this should see. Immediately. Followed by its sequel, the cleverly titled Return to the 36th Chamber of Shaolin.) All of Lau Kar-leung’s films have a strong emphasis on traditional martial arts, particularly those descended from Shaolin, and have incredibly well choreographed, impressive action sequences.

This film follows the son of a court scholar who’s learnt some martial arts (played by David Chiang), who is forced by the Qing emperor to infiltrate a house of suspected rebels — he must return with proof that they are rebels or face his family’s demotion to civilian status, imprisonment, then slaughter (at regular intervals). He meets up with a young lady and, upon discovering that she belongs to the house in question, arranges to become her new teacher. Our young lady (played by Huang Hsing-hsiu) is the headstrong, pouting, teacher-beating favourite grand-daughter of the master of the house, played sternly by Lau Kar-wing.

To condense the story a little, suffice it to say that David Chiang’s character is drawn first into a marriage with the young lady, then into a conflict with her grandfather and uncles in which she is killed while they try to leave the house. Chiang escapes with his life and wanders (looking slightly unhinged) in the wilderness, until he spies a praying mantis and is struck by the tenacity of its grip…

The fights and training sequences in this film are excellent, as usual for a Lau Kar-leung film. Chiang is a hugely charismatic actor and it’s a pleasure to watch him, both in mantis-mode and acting opposite Huang Hsing-hsiu who plays the spoilt grand-daughter with enthusiasm. Sharp-eyed viewers will note Liu Chia-hui (Gordon Liu)’s presence in second billing on the cast list, something that must have been done purely for box-office draw — he’s in the film for about two minutes, in one short (but great, with much head-butting) fight scene to establish our hero’s credentials as a fighter to be reckoned with.

Note that unlike many of the other actors in the film, David Chiang hadn’t trained in martial arts before beginning his film career, yet Lau Kar-leung is still able to make him look good through good editing, choreography and camerawork. One other point that is interesting is that the fighting-the-family-to-leave-the-manor subplot is basically the same as the one found in Temple of the Red Lotus, an earlier (1965) Shaw Brothers movie. The rest of the film is quite different, though -— it’s surprising to see the same situation played out in the middle act. The plot weakens considerably in the third act (has David Chiang’s character forgotten his family??) but there’s a good half an hour of action sequences there to make up for it. Worth seeing if you’re a fan of David Chiang or Lau Kar-leung, but maybe not as incandescently impressive as some of Lau Kar-leung’s other efforts.

7.5 mantids (yes, that's the plural) out of 10.
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