2 May 2012 | BrianDanaCamp
The Five Venoms are back in a clever tale of Shaolin vs. Shaolin
INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN (1978), directed by Chang Cheh, is almost a perfect kung fu film. It's got a cast of some of the best fighter-actors working at Shaw Bros. at the time, including the five who were collectively known as the Five Venoms; it employs some excellent training sequences; and it pits three of its cast against three equally matched opponents in the film's final 15 minutes for some of the most breathtaking duels seen in any of these films. The plot involves a Manchu general (Wang Lung Wei) and the devious machinations he undertakes to root out and neutralize potential foes of the regime who are practicing kung fu at Shaolin Temple. On the pretext of recruiting trainers for his soldiers, he pits three experts from the northern branch of Shaolin against their counterparts from South Shaolin. When the South Shaolin experts die by an act of treachery, with the deaths publicly blamed on wounds inflicted by the North Shaolin men, the South Shaolin master recruits three more experts, two of whom also die in fights with the North Shaolin men. The master then recruits two more, joining the one survivor, but sends each off separately to hidden masters to train in specific techniques to combat the experts from North Shaolin. Thus, enmity is created between the two branches of Shaolin, all to serve the interests of the Manchu rulers.
We get a series of hard-hitting kung fu battles right at the beginning, followed by scenes of extensive training in different techniques. We see Lo Meng, as one of the new South Shaolin champions, forced to do push-ups on top of a well, with eggs placed under his hands. Every time he succeeds in doing them without breaking the eggs, the master gives him a new challenge, which causes him to break the eggs again. Only when he finishes the final variation without breaking the eggs will he be ready. Another expert (Kuo Chui) has to learn stick fighting, while another (Wei Pai) has to practice close-quarter combat. Each training sequence is methodically structured so we can see exactly what kind of fighting technique they're being trained in and what the end result will be. When we see the final fights, we understand exactly how these fighters developed their skills.
In the meantime, the three Northern Shaolin experts train the soldiers and romance three local girls, two fruit vendors from the adjacent town and a maid from the palace. (Kara Hui Ying Hung, a female fighting star in her own right—MY YOUNG AUNTIE, LADY IS THE BOSS—plays the maid, while Niu Niu, from BRAVE ARCHER 2 and THE SWIFT SWORD—plays one of the vendors.) In the course of these scenes, the Northern Shaolin men, played by Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng and Sun Chien, meet and have brief interactions with the Southern Shaolin men, whom they determine are worthy of respect.
Eventually, the three South Shaolin champions show up at court to confront the Northern Shaolin men. By this point, all six are wracked with doubts and suspect they should all be allies rather than opponents. They fight anyway, with not so predictable results. The fights are sheer poetry in motion, particularly when Chiang Sheng and Kuo Chui face each other. It's like watching two great dancers in a duet. The action is photographed on large, well-lit indoor sets with beautiful décor in the background. Eventually, the final confrontation expands to include the General and his men, leading to a spectacular battle which spreads throughout the palace. Wang Lung Wei, as the General, was no slouch in the fighting arts either and makes quite a formidable foe. I've seen all of the films featuring the Five Venoms and believe this is one of the best, on a par with—and maybe surpassing—THE FIVE VENOMS (1978), the film that started it all. This film once played in the U.S. under the title, UNBEATABLE DRAGON. I watched it in its remastered version, in Mandarin with English subtitles, on an R3 DVD from Hong Kong's Celestial Pictures.