Emperor of Shaolin Kung Fu (1981)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2008-01-13
“Emperor of Shaolin Kung Fu” looks at the themes of honor and betrayal through the lens of the destruction of a dynasty and the consequences of rebellion against established, lawful authority. It has a gruesome beginning: the Ming emperor, surrounded and his armies routed, decides that he along with those still loyal to him must commit suicide. His daughter, the third princess, begs him not to kill himself that even in defeat a king must continue to try to lead his people. Since she clearly isn't willing to go gently he slashes at her with his sword. The victorious invaders come upon the scene to find everyone dead but, having a good inventory of the royal household, discover that the third princess is missing. Realizing that any survivor of the royal family could be a rallying point for the populace, the invader orders a search for her and the chase is on.

The Princess flees to a monastery. She has recovered from her wounds although one arm has been amputated. Realizing that she can't become a nun since she must get revenge on her country's conquerors she and a servant leave to try and find a center of resistance to the victorious warlord, Li Tzu Chang. My understanding of Buddhism is very incomplete and fragmentary but I doubt if the very heavy recruitment pitch that the abbess gives the Princess and her companion is in any of the Sutras.

There follows a good depiction of the anxiety and fear that a fugitive would feel; there is no one to trust, she is hunted by armed men and surrounded by people who might be willing to turn her in for a reward. The Princess thinks that Lo Lieh is an assassin who has found her and flees the city, hiding in a field of tall grass. Actually Lo Lieh is there for a confrontation with an emissary sent by the new warlord leader to recruit him--or kill him if he refuses. Lo Lieh makes short work of this unworthy adversary and then tells the Princess that she can safely come out. He is heroic and chivalrous to the very end and the Princess is brave but foolhardy, attacking the heavily armed enemy with only her new ally for support. Li Tzu Chang is not only an uncultured lout and a brutal murderer but also insane, negative qualities that will lead to his downfall.

The Princess escapes because Lo Lieh fights to the death to cover her retreat, a hopeless battle that he is proud to take on. She flees to the home of a bad poet who recites verses that reflect on being completely alone even though his servant stands next to him pouring wine. It turns out he is a dandy who is not only very good at killing but enjoys it. When the wounded Princess seeks his help, closely pursued by Li Tzu Chang's men, he hardly moves while killing them with his sword-flute(!) which is quite a weapon. He hides the Princess from a second wave of pursuers, then takes her on a tour of his grounds and pledges his sudden love for her. Since his father was killed by Li Tzu Chang and he knows a secret passage into Li’s compound he seems to be the right person to help the Princess in her next attack. But since he is played by Dean Shek Tin the audience has a strong sense that however good he claims to be the reality will be more sinister.

His servant is constantly lurking the background keeping on eye on things and when Dean Shek’s character betrays the Princess it is the servant who loyally leaps to her defense. This leads to a formal device in which loyal servant insists that Princess escape since the nation needs her and the Princess tells the wounded retainer that he should flee while she holds off the enemy. Meanwhile the armed thugs surrounding them hold off while the two show their nobility and righteousness. This demands a second level of suspension of disbelief by the audience, or perhaps just the acceptance of the conventions of the medium. Much the same type of thing happens quite often in 18th and 19th century Italian opera where, for example, a stage full of characters will stop whatever actions they had been performing to allow the mortally wounded tenor to sing his last aria.

Once again a brave subordinate, loyal to the monarchy as embodied by the Princess, gives his life so that she can escape and once again the Princess flees looking for the groups of loyalists in the countryside. She is almost captured by Li’s men but is rescued by her female companion, with whom she had split up when they left the monastery. Swords flash and bodies fly and the Princess, showing what could be misguided nobility, refuses to let her companion kill the leader of the ambushers who has been injured, saying that he isn’t worthy of being dispatched by her. Li’s men are never far away, though, and when the two women are cornered on a hilltop there is an astonishing (and literal) instance of self sacrifice by the companion who cuts off her own right arm at the shoulder and then stabs herself so that the princess can dress her dead body in the royal robes, fooling the attackers. This is the third loyal retainer who has sacrificed her life for the Princess. Her body is hung at the city gates, the populace mourns quietly and the Princess goes crazy with grief--or at least has a mad scene.

The Princess's mad act is consistent if not very convincing. Butcher Tu takes pity on her and brings her home where his mother mistakes her for the girl he is going to marry. With mom on her deathbed the match is unavoidable. There is some odd byplay between Tu and a friend that covers everything from the necessity of Tu following his mother's dying wishes and getting married right away to how Li Tzu Chang is running away and they finally have a chance to kill him. The dialogue sounds like the screenwriter decided to make sure everything was covered before the final battle between good and evil.

The battle itself is extended and very brutal with Li Tzu Chang and Butcher Tu facing off and Li getting the upper hand. He is about to kill both Tu and the Princess when an unexpected but still appropriate intervention stops him.

The most interesting aspect of this movie is the constant willingness of individual citizens to sacrifice themselves for the safety of the Princess who represents the last of the legitimate monarchy against the usurpers and rebels. Their unquestioned devotion is quite moving as is the response of the Princess who tries to stay and fight with her comrades in arms but when forced to escape presses on ceaselessly to rally those countrymen loyal to her family’s dynasty.

The action choreography and execution is wildly uneven, going from dull to exciting, the characters are all paper-thin—some could have carried signs saying “tyrant” or “toady” or “best friend of the hero” and not have been any more obvious. The plot is unexceptionable—A is always followed by B with C always coming next and Z clear in the distance. While there are moral choices with great consequences being made, they all must be decided in one way—there is no ambiguity, no chance for a grey area, no questionable ethical decisions. The good guys and gals are noble and brave while the bad guys are corrupt and cowardly. There is a strange attempt at domestic comic relief when the insane acting Princess meets Butcher Lu’s dying and blind mother, although just that description makes it clear that there isn’t any humor in it.

Not a bad movie and exciting in parts but not really recommended.
Reviewer Score: 4