Executioners From Shaolin (1977)
After the Ming empire falls Shaolin Temple hides some loyal patriots and trains them in kung fu, but they are betrayed by the White Brow Priest Pai Mei and the survivors are scattered to the wind. Hong Xiguan swears to take revenge for his sifu and trains for 10 years in Tiger Style so that he can defeat Pai Mei... which he then completely fails to do. He manages to escape and trains for another 7 years, whilst his wife teaches their son her own Crane Style.
The story of this era in Chinese history was fertile ground in the 1970's, with Chang Cheh bringing famous characters such as Hong Xiguan and Fong Sai-Yuk to life in his Shaolin Cycle. This early outing as director for Lau Kar-Leung doesn't deviate too far from his former boss's style - though Hong Xiquan's stubborn refusal to learn his wife's kung fu could well be a dig at Chang's habitual diminishment of female characters.
It seems like Lau didn't feel entirely free be himself yet even though he had been one of Shaw Brothers top martial arts choreographers for years, as Executioners From Shaolin doesn't have much of his usually distinctive voice. It comes through in the training sequences, which are nowhere near as elaborate as in some films but do point in the direction he was heading.
The film struggles to recapture the energy of the first scene where Gordon Liu dies fighting hordes of Qing soldiers for much of its runtime. I'm not one to complain about having Chen Kuan-Tai or Lily Li Li-Li on screen, but the story of their marriage isn't all that interesting. It isn't until Hong's first ill-fated attempt to challenge Pai Mei that the film really comes to life again.
In fact the film is noticeably more lively whenever Pai Mei is on screen, it's no surprise that the White Brow Priest has become an iconic character as he's much more interesting than the heroes - it's a shame we don't actually see that much of him here. Lo Lieh clearly understood this since his remake disguised as a sequel Clan Of The White Lotus gives its White Brow Priest more screen time. It's a shame he didn't get to reprise the character once more in Kill Bill as he sadly died before his part could be filmed (which is why Gordon Liu plays two characters).
The film also becomes noticeably livelier once Wong Yu enters, playing the grown up son of Hong Xiguan and Fang Yung Chun. His youthful energy and irreverence add some much needed levity, and he has more chemistry with both of his parents than they have with each other. His agility and acrobatic skills are also put to good use.
There are parts of EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN that are great, but the overall package is lacking something. There's no part of it that's bad, but the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts on this occasion. Apparently Lau Kar-Leung channelled what he learnt from making it into his next film, the classic 36th Chamber Of Shaolin... perhaps most importantly, not to kill off Gordon Liu at the start!