Director: Joseph Kuo
Notable Cast: Wen Chiang-Long, Yi Yuan, Lu Ping, Liu Hsiu-Yun, Yee Hung, Yuan Shen, Yeung San-San, Tseng Chao, Yen Chung, Hu Chiu-Ping
While the phrase “never judge a book by its cover” can easily be translated to cinema, it’s not the poster that’s the initial obstacle for Shaolin Kung Fu. On the contrary, the original artwork (as seen at the top of this review) is quite incredible in its own right. What is the speed bump in getting audiences to watch this Joseph Kuo underground classic is the title?
It’s fairly easy to play the “kung fu movie name generator” game by just remixing some generic words like ‘sword,’ ‘ninja,’ ‘Shaolin,’ or ‘kung fu.’ In the case of Shaolin Kung Fu, it’s a shock that they couldn’t at least think of one more word to tack on there to make it slightly more distinct. It’s a film about a rickshaw company, maybe throw that in there somehow? Hell, I’d even take Shaolin Kung Fu Vengeance to designate the tone of the latter half.
Nonetheless, we are left with Shaolin Kung Fu and in spite of its forgettable title, the film is surprisingly one of Joseph Kuo’s best. It’s fairly straightforward with its plotting and characters, but a breakneck sense of pacing, a sweet marriage at the center, and some visceral fight sequences make this a hidden gem in the martial arts world. If anything, it’s perhaps the biggest surprise for fans in the Cinematic Vengeance box set from Eureka.
Granted, for those who enjoy the more outlandish Joseph Kuo films like The Mystery of Chessboxing or Born Invincible, then Shaolin Kung Fu might feel a bit mundane. Don’t let its simplicity fool you, it’s blue collar attitude toward working-class rage and how the classicism of its story seethes under the surface. If anything, this is a film that certainly owes its stripped-back and punchy concept to the success of Bruce Lee over at Golden Harvest just a couple of years previous, but it’s distinctive in its building tension and explosive bursts of violence from the frustrations of its characters.
Its simplicity in storytelling, where a villainous rickshaw company is using violence and political/criminal connections to oppress their competition and the various citizens in the town, which allows the characters to be grounded in their emotions. Wen Chiang-Long serves as the charming hero with relative ease, serving as a charmingly loving husband to his doting wife while bursting into the anger and frustration of a man craving justice with strong conviction.
His relationship with the townsfolk, and more importantly his wife, fuels the heart of the film and as the villains continually push him to violence, his reaction and how it spins wildly out of control is an effective narrative that makes its stripped back layers work. As the action escalates, in the usual basher kung fu manner, it’s heightened by the character work and the tensions that have been building in the plot. It’s smartly executed while maintaining that classic mid-70s kung fu entertainment value.
If anything, the carnage around these two rickshaw cart companies in the film is far better than expected, both in terms of its efficient action pacing and its character work. It’s not the most original story, as if follows the established formula of the time period, but it’s executed in such a way that it’s easy to match its step. There’s an intensity and honesty to the film that resonates so much louder than expected. While the Cinematic Vengeance box set contains a ton of kung fu gems, Shaolin Kung Fu might be one of the most pleasant surprises.
So yes, please don’t judge this film by its mundane title.