The Roaming Monk (1980)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-06-03
“The Shaolin Monk Fights Back” has a plot that could have been pulled off the shelf of well worn martial arts movie outlines, characters that have been recycled since the first sifu took on the his first student, cinematography of the “pull focus and point the camera” school, music cues—one couldn’t really call the accompaniment a score—taken from the dusty shelf next to the plot and set design that used whatever open fields were available. Its editing is confusing with little continuity between scenes. Its themes are dull, its treatment of women is atrocious and the ability of the actors is no better than could be expected. If not for its fight scenes it would be less than mediocre—however the fight scenes are sublime particularly the one between Ching Ching as a phony abbot and Lee Bing-Hung the wandering Shaolin monk of the title.

The fight takes five minutes and 22 seconds of screen time. There are 31 cuts, four of which are cutaways to Mr. Feng and The Kid watching the battle, so the mean time of a shot of the two men fighting is 12 seconds long. That is a very long time, especially since some of the shots were significantly less than 12 seconds and therefore others longer. I don't know if Ching and Lee are using the Crane Fist or Snake Crane style kung fu (if those are the correct terms) or a simplified cinematic variant but they really sold the fight. There were a lot of intricate hand strikes, many of which weren’t cut to but zoomed in and out of, extending those shots and making things tougher on the actors. This was a vicious looking fight and, unlike most of the rest of the movie, was brilliantly choreographed, shot, edited and executed brilliantly. It was as close to watching a live match as anything I have seen from that era.

The last fight is one between Lee and the leader of the YinYang cult. It also looks brutal and must have been exhausting for the fighters. In this case the cult leader had already beaten a court marshal and his assistant, Feng’s daughter, the Kid plus the two guys recruited specifically to fight his gang.

The marshal and his assistant had a well choreographed arrangement in which both of them concentrated on one enemy at a time, wearing him down and then delivering the final blows in tandem. Feng’s daughter’s credibility as a fighter was based on energetic and authentic looking combinations of kicks and punches while her opponents flip and tumble. She and they sell her fights very well.

The plot is summed up by the phony abbot who says to Feng, “Give me your daughter or I will kill you”, which isn’t a demand that anyone could follow. Daughters, wives and mothers are threatened, kidnapped, raped and killed by men posing as religious leaders or doctors. The story is given impetus by the Kid whose mother was kidnapped and his father killed while he was powerless to stop the assault. He is on the road, trying to learn kung fu and trying to find the man who destroyed his family when he encounters the wandering monk—everything is pretty much what one would expect after that.

There were some really egregious scenes. In one Feng’s daughter disguises herself as a man in order to get into the brothel where the Kid’s mother is being held. She is immediately set upon by a bevy of prostitutes who haul her upstairs and sit around a table with her. It isn’t funny or dramatic but it is long—much too long. This is followed by an unconscionably melodramatic recognition scene between mother and son that is as bleak and brutal as the worst excesses of Seneca.

In the dubbed version that I watched there is also a very strong undercurrent of Western religious orthodoxy. At least twice the wandering monk tells an opponent that if he repents his sins that all will be forgiven, which sounds much more like Christian than Buddhist teaching.

Recommended solely for the action scenes
Reviewer Score: 7