Shaolin Mantis Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: March 22, 2022
Audio: English and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 100:28
Director: Lau Kar-leung
When scholar Wei Fung is hired by the Emperor to infiltrate a clan of rebellious Ming loyalists, his mission goes adrift when he falls in love with the clan leader’s granddaughter and his plans are discovered. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
The ‘60s and early ‘70s were Shaw Bros.’ golden era, when the studio ruled the Hong Kong movie scene, producing hundreds upon hundreds of films and redefining martial arts cinema. Often slavish to their formulas, their influence waned into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as trends changed and rival studios, like Golden Harvest, took over. In response, Shaw Bros. embraced gimmicks, infused wuxia with other genres, and ballooned the scope of action and violence. Some might consider this era too desperate for attention and too detached from the studio’s core filmmaking, but, if you (like me) love grand spectacle and exploitation cinema, it’s hard to top Shaw Bros. at the beginning of the 1980s. One key contributor of the era was Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang), who, after acting as performer and fight choreographer for some of Chang Cheh’s greatest films during this golden era, struck out as first unit director on influential classics.
Directly between two of his biggest early breakthroughs as director, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer & Shaolin Master Killer, 1978) and Heroes of the East (aka: Challenge of the Ninja & Shaolin vs. Ninja, 1978), Lau made Shaolin Mantis (aka: The Deadly Mantis, 1978). Shaolin Mantis is, like many of Lau’s best, an example in building a kung-fu film around the techniques and folklore of a real-world, legendary style of fighting. Eventually, knowledge of these styles became so popular that Shaw Bros. began naming the films after each style, including a number of animal-themed forms. The convention stuck, bled into the worldwide pop culture, and found its way into the massively mainstream product that was Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise (2008, 2011, 2016). Shaolin Mantis was reportedly the first movie to refer to the Northern Praying Mantis style or tang lang, though not necessarily the first to portray it.
Screenwriter On Szeto’s* script is built upon familiar plot mechanics, such as political intrigue between warring clans, a Romeo and Juliet romance, and a dejected kung-fu master inventing a new technique while observing nature (a praying mantis, obviously). The first half is devoted to a somewhat monotonous, Pygmalion-screwball-comedy, in which hapless scholar Wei Fung (David Chiang) and the clan leader’s spoiled granddaughter, Tien Chi-Chi (Cecilia Wong), flirt-fight and are eventually married**. After the extensive set-up, the narrative serves the fight scenes and the action rarely lets up, including a sort of level-by-level series of boss fights. In an interview found in When the Wind was Blowing Wild: Hong Kong Cinema of the 1970s (Hong Kong Film Archive, 2018; compiled by Po Fung), Lau’s brother, Lau Kar-wing, discusses learning classic routines from their father, Lau Cham, and how they applied them to their choreography. He was especially proud of their work on Shaolin Mantis, bragging that he and Chiang “broke” more than 40 moves in a single take during their climactic fight.
* Shortly after Shaolin Mantis, screenwriter On began a lucrative relationship with horror-action pioneer Kuei Chih-Hung, writing/co-writing Hex vs. Witchcraft (1980), Corpse Mania (1981), Bewitched (1981), Hex after Hex (1982), Curse of Evil (1982), and the divine Boxer’s Omen (1983).
** Considering he drew inspiration from martial arts films and that they have a number of traits in common, I wonder if Akira Toriyama might have partially based the Dragon Ball character Chi-Chi on Tien Chi-Chi? It can’t be too far of a stretch – there’s even a Dragon Ball character named Tien.
Shaw Bros. movies have been shared via official VHS/VCDs, bootlegs, and grey market imports for decades. Shaolin Mantis had a particularly iffy stateside DVD debut via NS Video in 2001. The Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label put out a more respectable and decent-looking disc in 2010 (well, respectable from a legal standpoint, not from a human one). This Celestial Films HD transfer, like many of the company’s Shaw transfers, did the rounds on digital streaming services and makes its Blu-ray debut here. Typical for Celestial Films’ remasters, the 1080p, 2.35:1 image is a little on the soft side and the grain has been overly scrubbed, but the overall quality is good, perhaps even better than some of 88 Films’ other recent Shaw discs. Cinematographer Arthur Wong’s photography is especially varied in terms of color, location lighting, and depth of field. Close-up details are tight and edges are clean, minus notable haloes. Most of the artifacts, such as shimmer and distortions, are absolutely the effect of anamorphic lenses, not bad digital mastering, which is also in keeping with other Shaw Bros. transfers.
Shaolin Mantis features English and Mandarin language dubs, both in LPCM 2.0 mono. Being a Hong Kong-based studio at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, the classic Shaw Bros. movies would have needed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio and subtitle options. A lot of us saw these films for the first time with their English dubs and will want to stick with that, but I’m happy that this disc includes the Mandarin track, even though I (perhaps wrongly) assume that Cantonese would be the preferred language of most cast members (the lip-sync is off in either language). The two dubs have generally the same sound quality, aside from the English vocals being louder. Either way, the performances have a bit of hiss and the familiar clang of weapons can be shrill at higher volume. The music is credited to Yung-Yu Chen, but a lot of it is library music again including several tracks that George A. Romero used for his cut of Dawn of the Dead . Having seen that film several dozen times, it’s always so strange to hear its musical cues used
Commentary with Asian cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema – An expectedly jovial track from Leeder, who also works as casting director, stunt coordinator, and producer, and Venema, the director and co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong. Their commentary is especially valuable for its insight into the careers of the cast and the context of experiencing these films from outside of Hongkongese culture (there’s a nice tangent where they discuss learning the language).
Commentary with Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng – The programmer, producer, and critic balances the previous track’s fun energy with mile-a-minute factoids about the film and filmmakers. There is overlap with the Leeder/Venema commentary, but Djeng offers a different cultural and historical perspective.
Complicated Families (13:52, HD) – A visual essay with critic David West, who explores the film’s narrative themes, family units in kung-fu cinema, and careers of the cast & crew
Uncle Tien Chung (20:35, HD) – Actor John Cheung discusses his career with Shaw and in Hollywood, his reverence for Lau, and the making of Shaolin Mantis.
Hong Kong trailer and The Deadly Mantis US trailer
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