Shaolin Temple (1976)
The SHAOLIN TEMPLE film most people are familiar with is the one with Jet Li, but some years before that Chang Cheh made a film with the same name, and set in the same place. Unlike Jet's mainland production, Chang Cheh had to make do with some random temple, as the real Shaolin was run-down and off limits to film makers at the time.
In Chang Cheh's SHAOLIN TEMPLE depicts the final years of the temple, as the Ming government has outlawed martial arts (or is it Ching? After hundreds of movies I can still never remember which are the good guys). In order that the Shaolin martial arts may live on, the grand master relaxes the temple's rules and agrees to teach them to outsiders. Several young men enter the temple, and find that Shaolin's ways of teaching are both obscure and quite unpleasant. Much of the first hour is spent on these guys' learning kung fu, Karate Kid style. But, the government has a spy inside the temple, and he tells them it's time to attack... leading to a showdown between the monks and several hundred Ming soldiers that lasts for a good half hour.
That's pretty much the whole plot there, and though I am normally loathe to give away a spoiler I don't think its really an issue here as the plot is incredibly thin. The movie is quite an ensemble piece featuring a star studded cast that includes Alexander Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Lo Lieh and I think I spotted Yueh Hua. Of them all, the only one that gets any character development whatsoever is Fu Sheng, and even then it is minimal.
In many respects, SHAOLIN TEMPLE is quite a bad movie... except in the important one, which is the presence of lots of quality kung fu. The training I could mostly do without, except for some nice demonstrations of various Shaolin animal fists. When it gets to the one-on-ones or the grand many on many finales the movie shines though, with some great kung fu action and performances. Fu Sheng again has slightly more action than the others, and his skills impressed me quite a bit - much more than they did in Heroes Two. I still find him mildly annoying though, and (not to speak ill of the dead) there's just something about his face that I don't like.
I guess the fights are the main reason the majority of viewers will pick up SHAOLIN TEMPLE, so in that respect it gets a mild recommendation. Taken as a whole film though, it's further confirmation that Chang Cheh was in some ways the Shaw Brothers' weakest link.