The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-07-04
“Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” has been the perfect movie to lend to those who think they might like Hong Kong action cinema. It has just about everything that such a movie should have: there is an evil queen, a traitorous general and a band of thuggish Tartars, opposed by a heroic family that is loyal to the emperor, a self-sacrificing abbot, a supremely skilled and dedicated hero with a spunky and tough little sister as a sidekick. Add to this already delicious stew a former general who has become a hermit like hunter, Mother Yang who might be handier with a spear than any of the men, and a brother driven insane by witnessing the slaughter of his family.

The action choreography is uniformly good throughout, the plot is simple and effective, the sets are opulent, the costumes are luxuriantly draped and there is enough weirdness, largely supplied by Yang #5, to make one forget any dull parts. I don’t know if there were any dull parts—I forget.

Gordon Lau is a smoldering, intense and charismatic leading man. He has the build of a center forward with the moves of Gene Kelly. His Yang #5 is either erupting into action or about to erupt—a contemplative moment for him is shaving his own head with a dangerous looking straight razor and burning the pattern of circles into his scalp (the cuts, gashes and blood on his head as he shaved it looked uncomfortably realistic, but not even Gordon Lau could slice himself up like that and not wince). He is the scion of a family of the most skilled spear fighters in China but is only another guy with a stick when he removes the blade from the end of his spear. Thus he appears at the monastery, looking for a place to rest and, as it happens, instruction in pole fighting from the monks who are as good at their discipline as the Yang family was at theirs. Yang #5 doesn’t qualify as a monk—not that much a chance of doing so, since he doesn’t desire a life of contemplation. His every waking moment is filled with thoughts of revenge on the scoundrels who slaughtered his family. This is not a run of the mill monastery, though; even if a postulant is unfitted for the cloistered life, even if he is unable to deal with the spiritual and intellectual rigor involved, in other words if he just doesn’t get what the spiritual life is all about, he can still be admitted to the brotherhood if he proves to be a better pole fighter than the abbot.

The Yang family died a noble death at the battle of Jingshi, seeming to kill one hundred Tartars for each of them that fell. But is was clear that their time was coming to an end—their mastery of the spear was no longer enough since a new technology had been introduced onto the battlefield, the flexible staff, here shown in dramatic black and gold. While the Yangs were able to make short work of enemies armed with spears, swords or poles, an untrained rabble with the spear-grasping flexible staff overwhelmed them and made them easy target for the archers. At the beginning of the final battle at the inn, Yang #5 showed that he had been working on solving the problem of this new weapon. He approached the inn with a wagonload of bamboo staves which, when they were wrapped up in by the jointed staff, shattered. This allowed the pole fighter to pull his weapon through the encircling staff and disembowel his enemy with the sharp ends of the broken bamboo.

The gorgeous Kara Hui was perfect as Sister #8. Tough, skilled and deadly as any man but by no means masculine, she was no less lethal than Nemesis or the Gorgons but much more attractive. Liu Chia Liang was wonderful in an extended cameo as a general, loyal to the emperor, who had been banished to the forest and lived as a hunter. The hunter paid the ultimate sacrifice for his loyalty, but not before dispatching entire battalions of bad guys. He was equally adept with two terrifying weapons, the battle axe and the trident. The battlefield was covered with heaps of corpses that Yang #5 had to climb over when he returned. It is hard to imagine anyone better than Lily Li Li-Li as Mom Yang. Imperious, able to face down thugs like Pun Mei, wielding her dragon headed staff (a gift from the emperor) when necessary, she was the archetypal matriarch for a warrior clan. It might be fun to take an extended look at the female characters in this movie, including the impetuous Sister #9. They are quite a group.

Themes of loyalty to nation and family run throughout this movie. Revenge is never far from the surface—Yang #5 wants nothing more than to kill those who killed his father and brothers and Sister #8 is in the same mold. The chaos of battle and its aftermath is also foregrounded. Yang #6 and Yang #5 fought shoulder to shoulder in the same hopeless skirmish; both saw the carnage visited upon their family and both experienced the helplessness of facing a type of military technology that was unfamiliar to them and that they were unable to counter. But #6 stumbled home insane while #5 made his way to the countryside to plan his vengeance.

“Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is a masterpiece of its genre, a movie that is still entertaining and shocking 23 years after its first release and that still will be 23 years from now.

Very highly recommended
Reviewer Score: 10