7 December 2008 | BrianDanaCamp
Chen Sing stars in unusual kung fu drama about Shaolin monks
THOU SHALT NOT KILL
BUT ONCE (1975, aka FEROCIOUS MONK FROM SHAOLIN) offers some unusual plot elements in a tale that would normally have been dashed off as a standard Shaolin vs. Manchu revenge tale. The hero, Yao Hao (Chen Sing), is a young man whose father, General Yao, was assassinated and whose mother was killed in an attack on the funeral procession. He survives the attack and winds up at a Shaolin temple where he insists he wants to stay and become a monk after he's been forced to go through 49 days of meditation. His beautiful fiancée (Lu Shu Chin) pleads with him to come back with her, but he refuses. The head monk, Brother Fa (Chan Wai Man), an orphan who's been at the monastery all his life and is expecting to succeed the current Shaolin Abbot, is jealous of the privileges Yao Hao has had in life and asks him questions about the outside world, including what it's like to touch a woman.
Brother Fa's weakening resolve soon finds him leaving the monastery and falling into the clutches of Lord Eagle (Kam Kong), the Manchu ruler in the area who's trying to wipe out all resistance to Manchu/Ching rule and the one who'd had General Yao killed. Lord Eagle plies Brother Fa with a woman, a pretty spy the monk had seen earlier, and offers him wealth and comfort if he goes back and succeeds the current Shaolin Abbot and directs the Shaolin monks to serve the Manchus. Meanwhile, Yao Hao is learning and mastering the ten Shaolin styles. He is ultimately forced to fight both Brother Fa and Lord Eagle in a furious finale.
The film offers some out-of-the-ordinary scenes, with good actors on hand to put them over. The scene where Yao Hao undergoes 49 days of meditation and has to struggle with memories of his previous life, seen in flashback, is given a lot more time than one would normally see in a film of this type. We are allowed to understand what he is going through. And since his fiancée is so beautiful and so devoted to him, we see exactly the extent of what he's giving up, as she waits patiently on visits to the temple during the 49 days hoping to see him when he comes out. Unfortunately, the whole thing was shot on a very low budget by a less-than-adequate director (Au Yang Chuen is the name in the credits) in some northern climate where the actors' breath is seen in most shots—even indoors! In one outdoor fight scene, snow is seen falling in a couple of shots, but not in the others. The "Shaolin Temple" on display doesn't look much like the outpost of legend we've seen in so many of these films. It's just a typical bare-bones structure with an open courtyard and a few bare rooms where the characters go to meditate.
Chen Sing stars as Yao Hao and he's superb as always. He was a great villain in kung fu films, but was even better when he played a tortured hero, as he is here (and in such other underrated gems as SHAOLIN MONK, also reviewed on this site, and THE RAGE OF WIND). Chan Wai Man, also normally a great villain, plays the conflicted monk and rival of the hero, and offers a layered portrait of a man who's not evil, but basically weak and a victim of newly planted seeds of desire. These two actors transcend the shabbiness of the production. Kam Kong, a frequent villain in these films, plays the vicious Lord Eagle, the chief bad guy, and puts on a good show, assisted by such kung fu regulars as Li Min-Lang and Shan Mao. One of three beautiful actresses in the film, Lu Shu Chin plays the fiancée. (I can't identify the other two actresses.) She was also in THE SECRET RIVALS and THE HOT, THE COOL AND THE VICIOUS, according to the Hong Kong Movie Database.
The fights, directed by Chan Siu-Pang and Cliff Lok, are competently staged, but nothing special. Because of the preponderance of drama, there aren't as many fight scenes as usual for a film of this type. I didn't mind because I found the story and characters pretty compelling. The final fight between Chen Sing and Kam Kong is okay, but should have been a little more intense and ends a little too quickly. An earlier fight between them at an outdoor "tournament" was much better.
The VHS tape I have of this film was released under the title, FEROCIOUS MONK FROM SHAOLIN, and is English-dubbed, full-frame and taped at the EP speed. The film is 81 minutes long and I wonder if the print used for this edition was cut. If a quality edition of this came out in widescreen, uncut, and with a Mandarin language track with English subtitles, I'd be interested in seeing it.