Tuesday, July 19, 2016
THE SHAOLIN BROTHERS (1977)
PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic // marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological*
I'll make the allowance for the possibility that this movie seems worse than it is because it may've received a bad dubbing-job. But it still seems like an incoherent mess, and I did find one online review that asserted that most chopsockies by director Joseph Kuo follow a similar pattern.
The one noteworthy thing about SHAOLIN BROTHERS is that it's the closest I've ever seen to a film in which two plot-lines are really fundamentally separate, even though the film makes a piddling effort to unite them. Beside this film, even a jumble like 1967's CASINO ROYALE seems well organized. I gather than 1970s Hong Kong films had no outlet for "anthology films," so Kuo simply took two unrelated plotlines-- possibly one being shot for an unfinished feature?-- and spliced them together.
The film starts out in the domain of the marvelous. While opening credits are still rolling, we see a small group of Chinese "hopping vampires," complete with Buddhist ofuda (paper talismans) hanging over their faces, bouncing down a night-time village street. A voice-over tells the audience that in medieval times it was deemed important for the bodies of the deceased to be returned to the villages where they were born. Well and good, but the voice-over DOESN'T tell onlookers that these particular corpses have been re-animated by a Taoist mortician, who for some unexplained reason doesn't simply load his corpses in a wagon. Instead, he revives them so that-- they can hop all the way to wherever they're supposed to go. I've only seen a small handful of "hopping vampire" films, but I have a feeling that this "custom" is entirely the invention of the film-makers. Not that this in itself is necessarily a minus: a lot of non-canonical folklore makes for interesting cinema. But SHAOLIN BROTHERS, having come up with this bizarre and thoroughly impractical notion, has no idea what to do with it.
All of this corpse-nonsense appears long after the film establishes its principal, largely naturalistic plot, based on the struggles between the loyalists of the vanquished Ming Dynasty and the evil turncoats of the triumphant Ching Dynasty. As I don't have access to character-names, I'll call the hero Good Ming Guy and his opponent Bad Ching Guy. (The latter is played by Carter Wong, one of the few 1970s martial-arts stars who remains recognizable to non-specalists like myself). There really are no "Shaolin brothers" in the story, but the hero and the villain trained under the same mentor, so I guess that makes them "brothers," even though they don't call each other that. Also, when the film does show the mentor, he doesn't look like a Shaolin monk, but like some old Taoist herbalist living in the hills.
Anyway, Bad Ching Guy wants Good Ming Guy to join forces with the Ching forces. Good Ming Guy refuses, and they fight. Bad Ching Guy wounds his opponent with poisoned needles, apparently hidden with the belt worn by the villain, and stolen from their former master (and what would a Shaolin monk be doing with a belt full of poisoned needles?) Good Ming Guy goes on the run. His sister and some of his other allies ramp up their attempts to overthrow the Ching forces, though it's not clear whether or not Good Ming Guy was already allied with some counter-revolution. Later on, we finally see Good Ming Guy with his mentor, who informs him that he can slow down the effects of the poison, but it'll still kill the hero in nine days.
One of the rebels is killed fighting the Ching soldiers, and this provides a tenuous excuse for bringing in the Taoist mortician with his traveling parade of corpses. One of the rebels brings the dead guy to the Taoist, who says he never makes one of these night-time journeys unless he has six hopping dead people. The story-telling becomes extremely murky here, but I think two or three of the rebels fake their own deaths so that they can go along with the mortician's procession and avoid scrutiny by the soldiers. All that I can say for certain is that one or two of the vampires are real, though they don't do anything but hop about, disappear, and annoy people, and that at one point three of the "vampires" whip off their paper talismans and run off.
By film's end we finally get back to the main conflict, as Bad Ching Guy mops up the floors with all of his rebel-opponents, Good Ming Guy shows up, says something incoherent about the golden rope-weapon he wields, and then somehow sets the villain on fire. The two of them tumble into a river and the "brothers" perish together, while the mourning sister looks on. Frankly, though her fighting-scenes are brief, this actress (seen in the still above) is the only one who perks up the routine battles. Some sources identify as Lung Chung-erh, but Hong Kong Cinemagic is perhaps more reliable, listing her as "Chin Meng," with only three or four other credits to her name.
Frankly, I wouldn't have spent this much time writing about this stuffed Shaolin duck if it hadn't been a challenge to classify. In most films with any vampires, hopping or not, the main characters are intimately concerned with either fighting or avoiding them. In SHAOLIN, the real vampires have no effect whatever on the main story, and so I've come up with a new category for this sort of metaphenomenon: the "peripheral-marvelous."
For that matter, it's not entirely clear whether or not any Oriental weirdness makes it into the main plotline. Hong Kong cinema is certainly replete with all sorts of odd gimmicks, and the poison-needle belt might have been one of these. However, it's not clear that the belt fires the needles, or just has them embedded in it. Similarly, if the golden rope has some sort of power, this too is not clear, any more than the possibility that the old master works any magic to slow the hero's fatal demise. Since director Kuo didn't bother to enlarge on any of these matters, by default I'll deem the main plot naturalistic.