Shaw Brothers Saturdays: Chiang has a prayer’s hope in ‘Shaolin Mantis’
Directed by Lau Kar-leung
Screenplay by On Szeto
Hong Kong, 1978
In the world of kung fu, so far as the movies go at least, there is a laundry list of various fighting styles which have adapted or directly imitated characteristics of certain animals and insects. Snakes, tigers, crabs, these creatures as well as many others have been the inspiration for some of the most famous combat and self-defence techniques. How one comes to translate the movements of a creature to the realm of martial arts is a matter of inventiveness, but also practice, practice, practice! In 1978, the same year he made 36th Chamber of the Shaolin, director Lau Kar-leung teamed up with perennial star David Chiang, the latter whom spent most of his career collaborating with Chang Cheh, to produce his own animal inspired epic, Shaolin Mantis.
Viewers are once again transported to the time of the Ching Dynasty, as is so often the case in films of this ilk, when the threat of rebellion is stirring up terrific paranoia in the Emperor’s court. Rumours are that some powerful people would like nothing better than to see the restoration of the Ming Dynasty. One of the throne’s fiercest, highly regarded weapons, Wei Fung (David Chiang) is tasked with infiltrating the Tien camp, for it is suspected that the family head (Liu Chia-rong) has been creating dangerously rebellious alliances for some time already. As happenstance would have it, while on the way to the region where Tien lives, Wei makes the acquaintance of a pretty, if terribly obnoxious and loud mouthed woman, Gi Gi (Cecilia Huang Chong-kuang) who happens to be Tien’s granddaughter. She has just fired yet another one of her teacher’s and, with that knowledge in mind, Wei takes the opportunity to become her new professor in matters of academia. Thus thus slowly blossoms a friendship and even a love, although Wei cannot forgo the true motive behind his presence in the Tien family home: espionage. When his mission is compromised and with his back against the wall, Wei fights with a new, unorthodox style that is nearly impossible to counter: the praying mantis!
A couple of weeks ago, praise was awarded to another David Chiang movie, Blood Brothers, with one of that picture’s stronger elements being the actor’s multifaceted performance, which came unexpected. With Shaolin Mantis, it is a return to his usual form, which is by no means poor. Chiang has always taken on characters possessing flair, wit and a keen sense of irony. His sardonic sense of humour also creeps in, giving the character of Wei Fung an interesting edge, something most of Chiang’s roles had. It is not as though he was the most physically imposing martial arts star in the Shaw Brothers repertoire, and therefore he had to make for it in other departments. As the saying goes, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. Despite it all, there is nevertheless a sense of unfamiliarity about the actor’s role in Mantis, the primary reason being that his character his given a romantic co-star in actress Cecilia Huang Chong-kuang. When one stops to think about it for a moment, it is true that David Chiang was rarely cast in parts that demanded any sort of romantic inclinations, which is a bit odd considering the amount of charm and charisma he exuded on screen. Granted, in the entire second half of the film there is little in the way of romance, and whatever heavy lifting is required in the first half is mostly taken care of by Cecilia Huang, but the fact of the matter is that it exists as a part of the story and that much is welcomed. The two protagonists do combine to make a bit of an awkward couple, with Gi Gi, regardless of whatever kung fu prowess she may demonstrate, coming across as rather whiny and spoiled, whereas Wei seems so cool and sophisticated in comparison. Maybe it is precisely those stark differences in characterization which lend to the obvious chemistry abundant in most of their scenes together. Opposites do attract after all.
Director Lau Kar-leung’s accomplishments as a filmmaker speak for themselves. Even though one is almost certainly going to receive something special when discovering a Lau film for the first time, what continues to amaze is his ability to bring a level of vibrancy to the fight sequences which is near unparallelled by any other director who worked within the genre at the time. The camerawork involved in depicting and heightening the intensity of the fights is stunning. To pull off what Lau pulls without making it seem as though the camera is deliberately calling attention to itself, which so often proves to be frustratingly distracting, is worthy of applause and arguably good enough reason for anyone with a passing interest in action movies to get a hold of at at least a few of the director’s films on DVD to observe and learn, this despite how ridiculous the plots of these films can be. The zooming in and out of the picture frame, the dynamic pans which follow two combatants as they exchange blows while going up or down a series of stairs, the capturing of one character’s intense face and arms in the foreground as he or she blocks a strike from the opponent who is in the background of the frame…it is free flowing kung fu movie making bliss. Make no mistake, there is never a dull moment in a Lau Kar-leung action scene.
Unlike some of the director’s other efforts, Mantis falls a few points shy of being great. For one, the actual title of the film is misleading. There is no true ‘Shaolin’ aspect to the story or the technique created by Wei. There is an unexpectedly brilliant cameo early on by legend Gordon Liu playing, what else, a Shaolin monk, but that lasts about 3 minutes and has nothing to do with the story. Confusing things further still is the moment in the film when the introduction of the praying mantis style occurs. Mantis has a 95 minutes running time and Wei not only invents the technique by about the 75 minute mark, he does not utilize it very much in his final confrontations against the individual Tien clan members. While credit was given earlier to the chemistry between actors Chiang and Cecilia Huang, who have some wonderfully comedic scenes together, the script plays it fast and loose with regards to Wei’s feelings towards Gi Gi. She clearly loves him, but the film never gives a proper sense of how he feels about her. Is it love? Is it respect? It is maybe more a question of honour? Does he not even care that much? The answer is unclear to say the least.
While not rising to the same Olympian heights as some of his previous works, Shaolin Mantis is still an entertaining film from Lau Kar-leung. A more well rounded script would have helped truly solidify the film, but it still comes recommended.