The Shaw Brothers column is back after practically a one month absence! To get back on track in style, this week we take a look at a slightly earlier effort from one of the all-time greats, Liu Chia-liang, who is most fondly remembered for bringing fans The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin and Heroes of the East. Both of those iconic films were released in 1978, but just a couple of years prior he made Executioners from Shaolin. This is, in truth, the sequel to a Chang Cheh film from 1974, Men From the Monastery, which depicted the assault of the Shaolin temple by one of its own elders, Bai Mei (here played by Lo Lieh), who conspired with the Manchus. Both films are loosely based on historical events.
The film opens up with a very interesting scene in which the traitor Bai Mei does kung fu battle with the temple current head. The background, curiously enough, is but a room coloured in red. The focus should be, of course, on the fight itself. After a terrific exchange of blows, Bai Mei finally gets the upper hand and vanquishes the noble leader. Cut to the remaining Shaolin students fleeing the burning temple. The viewers follow Hong Xi-guan (Chen Kuan-tai) as he struggles to gather enough of his proverbial brothers in order to launch an assault on Bai Mei and avenge the death of their former master and reclaim the temple. However, as the saying goes, life gets in the way, in this particular example life takes the shape of Ying Chun (Lily Li), a street kung fu artist with whom Hong falls in love. They marry and even have a child (Wang Yu). Time passes, and as Bai Mei grows ever stronger, Hong decides to take his revenge, risking his marriage and duties as a father in the process…
It feels as though this film should be mentioned more often than it actually is when the topic is director Liu Chia-liang’s filmmography. True enough, the aforementioned 1978 films rightfully earn their places as top of the line Shaw Brothers material, but Executioners From Shaolin is not far behind. For one, it perfectly balances so many of the things director Liu had a kack for as a storyteller, namely, fantastic fight sequences, decent plot, compelling characters supported by solid actors, and finally, some appreciative comedy. None of Liu’s major films are particularly dark in that the overall tone is rarely completely bleak despite that some plot developments are less joyous than others. Liu has always been very good at balancing sense of danger with a sense of fun, which is ultimately what makes his movies so good and so memorable, Executioners being but another example of this tactful balancing act.
So far as the action is concerned, the results are top notch, no questions asked. Any battles between enemies (for there are many others sorts of skirmishes in the film) is intense and immensely watchable for the precision and detail that went into their production. The movements carry both fluidity and impressive power. Yet other fights fill a totally different purpose, such as those involving members of the Hong family. The father, the mother and the son are all either master of the art of learning it, hence take advantage of any opportunity to start kicking, punching and jumping in order to score a single blow…or get to bed. That is not even a joke, since on their honeymoon, Chun refuses, at first, to make love to Hong, who very much desires to consummate the marriage. Chun’s crane style enables her to lock her knees together so tightly that virtually no one can unlock them, thus ‘preserving’ herself from, well, you get the point. It is up to Hong to somehow find a way to work around this. Even after he succeeds, Chun is unwilling to give in just yet, and so the two exchange knee and leg blows in bed. It is a cleverly devised little sequence, one that not only entertains, but showcases the personalities of the characters, in addition to being quite funny. After all, it is not often that Shaw Brothers films feature not so subtle sex jokes.
The unexpectedly funny moments during contests do not end there. It is revealed at one point that the chief antagonist, Bai Mei, has a vulnerable point somewhere on his body, only that it changes place depending on the hour of the day. Hong, in order to master his tiger style and use it to strike at all potential weak points on a body, practices against a massive bronze statue that release marbles, each one different depending on the critical point which has been struck. The bizarre aspect is that the marbles drop out of the statue’s groin, making certain shots, depending on how they are filmed, seem hilariously vulgar. Then of course there are the moments when an opponent of Bai Mei attempts to strike at his groin, but because that is not where the vulnerable point is that time time, Mei simply smiles and taunts his adversary as the latter fiddles around in the groin area, looking for you know what. The most amazing thing is that this film is not essentially a comedy, but a dedicated action film about vengeance. Only that, much like in his later work, Liu effortlessly inserts comedic gold here and there.
The film was also something of a pleasure to watch given how prominent a role Lily Li is given. It seems as though she is often relegated to second leading lady behind somebody else. In Executioners, director Liu gives her a meaty character to play and she pulls it off quite well. Her character is very motherly at times and caring, but also incredibly strong and focused. Lily Li, even in her small roles, typically gives very good performances, so seeing her so much more in a film with leading lady status made for a nice change. Lo Lieh is nearly unrecognizable as Bai Mei, the elderly enemy with long, silky white hair. If his character looks familiar to Tarantino fans, that is because the American director did in fact use his look as the basis for his kung fu master character in the second of the Kill Bill films (interestingly enough, in Tarantino’s film, the individual is played by the iconic Gordon Liu).
Executioners proves a very important point about filmmaking. It does not matter how many tones or styles one tries to put into a film. If the director, the crew, and of course the cast understand how to juggle those disparate styles, then the film should come out looking pretty good. There are some great fights, some fun characters, and two completely different yet intimately related storylines (the planned Shaolin revenge and Hong’s family life). Liu Chia-liang would go one to make the films he is mostly known for, but fans should not skip this one.