25 January 2016 | dee.reid
"Buddha's name be praised" - This was really, really good!
Allow me to back-track a bit, if you will, please...
A few years ago, I saw "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (1978), which I consider to be the next greatest martial arts film after the Bruce Lee masterpiece that is "Enter the Dragon" (1973). I must say that "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" was the film to introduce me to what I call "straight-up old-school Shaw Brothers kung-fu." A year or so before I saw that, I had seen "Five Fingers of Death" (1972) (widely considered to be the first internationally successful martial arts film) and another Shaw Brothers classic, "Five Deadly Venoms" (1978).
Today, I had the pleasure to see yet another Shaw Brothers classic, "The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter," directed in 1984 by Hong Kong kung-fu master Liu Chia-Liang/Lau Kar-Leung (who also directed "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" just six years earlier). Like the "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" and many other martial arts classics, "The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" is a story of revenge and retribution and redemption, with a strong Buddhist philosophical subtext warning against the evils of killing and taking lives under any circumstances.
Set during the Song Dynasty in China, the story concerns Fifth Yang (Gordon Liu, held over from "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin"), the only survivor along with Sixth Yang (the late Alexander Fu, who died in a car accident during filming and the film had to be extensively rewritten because of this) of the seven Yang sons, the loyal enforcers for the Song Dynasty. With the exceptions of Fifth Yang and Sixth Yang, all the Yang sons and their father were all either captured or killed by the Khitan-ruled Liao Dynasty army forces.
Sixth Yang makes it back home, but he's in a volatile deranged state that will make him unable to positively identify the primary culprit in the slaughter of his brothers and father, the traitorous Song Dynasty general, General Pun Mei (Ming Ku). Fifth Yang, however, now falsely labeled a fugitive and a traitor, makes it to a nearby Buddhist monastery in Mount Wutai, and insists that the monks take him in as their newest disciple. At first they are reluctant, due to his violent nature and revenge motives, but over time they grow impressed by his pole fighting skills and accept him as one of their own. But when he learns that his family is still in danger, he must join them - along with his sister Eighth Yang (Kara Hui, credited here by her birth name Ying Hung Wai) - despite the Buddhist vows of nonviolence that he has taken.
"The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" is as exciting and action-packed as a Hong Kong-produced Shaw Brothers kung-fu classic can get. While the film does not approach the epic greatness of "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" (which this film can probably be considered a companion piece to), "The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" stands on its own two feet as yet another worthy kung-fu classic.
One of my biggest gripes is that I expected to see Gordon Liu's Fifth Yang to actually change his ways, and eventually have his revenge motives tempered by some greater desire to help others in need. That doesn't really happen here. While his character does indeed take his Buddhist vows very seriously (or at least gives the appearance that he does), he doesn't become a better person and still retains his violent nature and revenge motives. The other problem is that the monks sort of accept this and realize that they cannot truly change him. And while the monks do accept him as one of their own, it seems, to me, that the only thing they can really do is to harness his anger and try to channel it into non-lethal means (the whole business with wolves and their teeth, which you'll see if you watch the training sequences at the Buddhist monastery). Liu's character San Te in "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" did not face these glaring ethical issues.
Maybe I'm reading things incorrectly here, so if anybody has any insight, feel free to correct me here.
On the plus side, "The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" has some of the most extraordinary pole-fighting sequences ever filmed. I've never seen anything like it prior to this. And the film is also quite bloody, too, one of the most graphically violent martial arts films I've seen, in fact, since probably "Fists of Fury/The Big Boss" (1971) with Bruce Lee. And while the boys often get the most screen time, Kara Hui's Eighth Yang proves to be a formidable kung-fu presence and can more than handle her own against the legions of disposable of bad guys sent in her general direction. In short, she's no damsel in distress - she's far from it.
Gordon Liu also delivers a powerhouse performance here. To know that Alexander Fu was originally supposed to be the lead here and with his tragic passing, the film had to be extensively reworked due to his death. Gordon Liu admirably stepped in his place to finish the film. Admittedly, it would be great to see what would have become of this film had Alexander Fu lived to complete it.
"The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" is one of the best martial arts films I've ever seen. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to bask myself in its 97 minutes of epic kung-fu craziness.