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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

Shaolin Plot Blu-ray Review



Arrow Video

Blu-ray Release: February 13, 2024

Video: 2.40:1/1080p/Color

Audio: Mandarin,and English LPCM 1.0 Mono

Subtitles: English, English SDH

Run Time: 109:49

Director: Huang Feng


Prince Daglen (Chan Sing) is hellbent on completing his comprehensive collection of Chinese martial arts manuals and mastering each form against his opponents. With only two manuals left to obtain, he sends his most dangerous henchman, a renegade monk (Sammo Hung) armed with two golden cymbals acting as flying guillotines, to steal the manual of Wu-Tang. To steal the sacred texts of Shaolin, however, the wicked Daglen will have to infiltrate the temple himself. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)



Golden Harvest’s rapid rise to power in the shadow of decades of Shaw Bros. dominance is typically credited to the company’s ties to Bruce Lee and the related ascent of Sammo Hung (aka: Hung Kam-bo), Jackie Chan, and their Peking Opera brothers. Certainly, without their stars, there’d be no Golden Harvest, but it took producers, directors, and choreographers to recognize the on-screen talent. One filmmaker who was important to the studio’s post-Bruce Lee period was Huang Feng, who, like studio head Raymond Chow, had started his career at Shaw Bros. where he worked with Hung. Huang collaborated with Hung and Chan in some of their earliest Golden Harvest features and is credited for discovering superstar Angela Mao, who he directed in The Angry River (1971), Lady Whirlwind (aka: Deep Thrust, 1972), Hapkido (aka: Lady Kung Fu), and When Taekwondo Strikes (1973).


Huang shot a number of his films in South Korea, both to use the region’s temple locations and to exploit the local culture, exotic martial arts, and shared animosity towards Japan post-WWII. His penultimate Korea-shot film epic was one of his most beloved, yet underseen outside of Hong Kong, Shaolin Plot (1977). Written by prolific Ni Kuang, who authored instant classics The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (directed by Lau Kar-leung, 1978) and Five Deadly Venoms (directed by Chang Cheh, 1978) for rival Shaw studios the following year, and once again choreographed by Hung, who appears in a supporting role, Shaolin Plot is a lush example as to what Huang could achieve with a substantial budget and Korean locations at his disposal (though there are still a number of obvious, Shaw-style sets utilized throughout).



Kuang’s script recycles archetypal material that showed up in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and, later, Lau’s The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), mainly a prodigal son surviving a first act attack on his family/school who runs away to be trained by Shaolin monks. There’s plenty of spy movie intrigue at the center of the story, the monks are portrayed in a more realistic fashion, and the overall film is (arguably) more sophisticated than many of its contemporaries, but the plot is still couched in familiar revenge drama and evil Manchurian tropes (once again, the Manchu appear to be stand-ins for the Japanese) – all of which generally act as a framing device for Hung’s creative choreography. His work here primarily focuses on the kind of bone-crunching fisticuffs and brutal bloodshed you might have seen from Chang Cheh around the same time. The actor himself plays a cruel Tibetan enforcer monk and utilizes a fun themed weapon in a pair of sharpened cymbals that can be thrown to behead his enemies. Other gory highlights include metal shards thrown into a monk’s face and the same monk impaling his feet on spike traps and resigning himself to burn to death (in an apparent homage to the self-immolating Mahayana monk Thích Quảng Đức).


Huang’s directing career had more or less peaked just before Shaolin Plot and tapered off the next year with his final feature, The Legendary Strike, though he and Hung did team-up for a second 1977 release in the form of Iron-Fisted Monk, which Huang wrote and Hung directed. It is considered a forerunner of the kung fu slapstick subgenre that helped build Golden Harvest into an industry juggernaut. Kuang continued writing scripts for TV and film into the early 2000s, as well as a series of novels that included the Dr. Yuen and Wisely franchises, which crossed-over as the basis for Lam Ngai-kai’s incredible horror-action-comedy The Seventh Curse (1986), starring Chin Siu-ho as Yuen (or Yi) and Chow Yun-fat as Wisely. 


Bibliography

  • Golden Harvest’s Outreach Strategy and Competitive Fronts in Thailand and Korea During its Early Years by Law Kar (from Golden Harvest: Leading Change in Changing Times; Hong Kong Film Archive, 2013)



Video

Shaolin Plot didn’t have a stateside VHS release, but could be imported on Hong Kong DVD from Fortune Star. It made its North American DVD debut in 2014 via a four-movie budget collection from Shout Factory (Martial Arts Movie Marathon, Vol. 2) and was streaming for a time on Amazon Prime. It debuted on Scandinavian BD via Sony in 2019 and UK BD via Eureka in 2022. As per usual, Arrow’s new US Blu-ray utilizes a 2K scan and restoration from Fortune Star (the same one Eureka used) and looks generally the same as the studio’s other Golden Harvest releases.


Cinematographer Li Yu-Tang’s photography is vivid, but more naturalistic than most of the studio-shot Shaw Bros. releases from the era. Black levels are quite deep, sometimes crushy under natural sunlight, but there isn’t a lot of notable haloing. Details are a bit soft outside of close-ups and the textures (including grain) have a slight segmentation issue that verges on posterization, but is closer to just being, again, soft. Note that there’s a lot of anamorphic lens distortion throughout the film and that this is not an authoring or remastering issue.




Audio 

Shaolin Plot is presented with Mandarin and English dub options, both in uncompressed LPCM mono. Apparently, the film was one of the last Golden Harvest movies to skip Cantonese dubbing. The two tracks are nearly identical in terms of sound quality with the same basic effects and music cues presented at similar volumes (the music might be a hair louder on the Mandarin track). The English dub features several familiar voice actors doing solid work, though, of course, it’s not as naturalistic or accurate as the Mandarin dub. There is no credited composer, leading me to assume that the music has been taken from library sources, as it often was at the time. Considering its second hand nature and the fact that it was crammed into a single channel, the music is pretty tidy and clean on both tracks.



Extras

  • Commentary with Frank Djeng and Michael Worth – This is the first of two tracks borrowed from Eureka’s Blu-ray and features everyone’s favorite Asian film expert, Djeng, and Worth, the martial artist/filmmaker/critic/co-producer of David Gregory’s Enter the Clones of Bruce (2023) documentary (with Djeng). This track runs through the careers of the cast & crew, Huang’s stylistic choices and treatment of familiar plot points, connections to other films (especially the work of King Hu), locations and the unclear era setting, the martial arts forms and weapons, and why Cantonese dubbing died down for a period during the mid-’70s.

  • Commentary with Mike Leeder and Arne Venema – In the second Eureka track, casting director/stunt coordinator/producer Leeder and Venema, the critic and director/co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong focus slightly more on cast histories and cultural contexts (including a more accurate history of Shaolin), often from a personal point-of-view, but also overlap a lot with Djeng and Worth’s track. The tones and information are different enough to justify listening to both tracks, just maybe not in a row.

  • Alternate English export credits (2:10, HD)

  • Hong Kong and English export trailers

  • Image gallery



The images on this page are taken from the BDs and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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