Chang Cheh’s Five Shaolin Masters: A Favorite of None

Shirtless masculine bodies in motion with a craving with desperation to do something about the Qing (Manchu) destruction of the Shaolin Temple, the five protagonists of Chang Cheh’s Five Shaolin Masters (or 5 Masters Of Death; 1974), along with their five evil Qing caricature counterparts, become interchangeable with one another in writer Ni Kuang’s web of complexity. (Or, I Kuang as the version on Arrow Player translates his name.) There’s no real point in trying to make full sense of what’s going on here…that would likely take several viewings; Five Shaolin Masters is best viewed through the words of the scientist in Tenet (2020): “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.”

With 10 characters receiving quality screen time, none of the five masters—Tsai Te-Chung (Ti Lung / Tommy Tam Fu-wing), Ma Chao-Hsing (Alexander Fu Sheng),  Fang Ta-Hung (Meng Fei), Li Shih-Kai (Chi Kuan Chun), and Hu Te-Ti (David Chiang / David Chiang Tai-wai)—has the potential for the same charisma as Jimmy Wang Yu in One-Armed Swordsman or Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Instead, Five Shaolin Masters is a baton-war film, where the emotional efficacy emanates from characters passing the Shaolin ardor to one another in martyrdom for the sake of the doomed Ming resistance. In at least two instances, a kung fu master literally sacrifices himself to allow another to escape with vital information that may prove useful to the still growing resistance. The baton of Shaolin resistance moves from individual to group, fueling their subversive efforts. 

There are no women, and much like the later “military training” action movie Top Gun (1986), there is something unmistakably homoerotic about the five men (who, unsurprisingly, spend a lot of time together). Chang shoots the men with a zoomed focus on their glistening abs, most often while in motion. The training here couldn’t be more different than the idealist spiritual quest of Lau Kar-leung’s 36th Chamber, poignantly set just before the destruction of the temple. Chang doesn’t recognize the same revolutionary potential in holy idealism that Lau’s film teaches. Chang, to twist the famous Mao quote, appears to believe “heroism grows out of the barrel of a gun.” The bodies of the training men thus practice violence in choreographed dance, absent sparring partners, stripping the consequences from the violent actions and imbuing them instead with an innocent beauty. That is, until their training is done. Chang can’t seem to locate heroism outside of bloodshed.

The production appears uninspired and dialed-in compared to its fellow Shaw Bros peers. The action, with choreography by the legend Lau Kar-leung and Lau Kar-wing, gets uncommonly fatigued rather early and that’s to the film’s detriment since it’s bloated with fights. Maybe it’s because the most recent Shaw Bros film I watched was 36th Chamber, but the comparably lame and undirected sets, combined with the vapid action and the strictly violent perspective, Five Shaolin Masters just didn’t work for me.

It’s not one of Chang’s best, that’s for sure. 

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