Director: Joseph Kuo
Notable Cast: Tien Peng, Carter Wong, Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng
Heading into the final leg of Eureka’s Cinematic Vengeance box set, it’s nice to be able to see a remastered, high-def version of one of Joseph Kuo’s most iconic films - 18 Bronzemen. The original copy that I had laying around the house, a bootleg DVD with a VHS style rip of the film, was one that remained in rotation as a film to put on in the background when I was doing house chores, but after seeing this latest release - I’ve found a new respect for Kuo’s Shaolin saga of revenge.
Although it’s easy to compare 18 Bronzemen to The 36 Chambers of Shaolin for its structure and themes, it’s not necessarily a comparison that does either film any favors. As noted in the booklet that comes along with the Cinematic Vengeance boxset, written by James Oliver, 18 Bronzemen came out two years prior to the Lau Kar Leung cornerstone classic and that’s a fact that should be remembered.
In this tale, young children are brought to the Shaolin temple to learn martial arts and go back out into the world and right the wrongs of their past - including revenge for the murder of one’s father. To do so, these kids - specifically following two young men played by kung fu cult actors Carter Wong and Tien Peng, must complete a series of Shaolin challenges. The challenges range from a variety of feats of strength and speed, but also defeating the unbeatable 18 Bronzemen before venturing out into the world.
This portion of the film represents most of the first two acts and, if I’m being frank, is both the most memorable part and one of the big obstacles that 18 Bronzemen has to overcome as a film. The various challenges, including the visually stimulating titular battles with the gentlemen painted in a nice shimmery bronze body paint with the sparkliest of shorts or in massive “bronze” suits, are classic kung fu material and Kuo shoots them with the intensity of the direst life or death fight sequences. It helps that both of the stars, particularly Carter Wong who gets to deliver some impressive intensity with just his eyes, carry the weight of the struggle through the sequences. The sequences are highly entertaining and very diverse in their tones and pacing. It’s no wonder martial arts cinema fans have found a cult classic in this one.
While the two heroes going through trials and tribulations is very entertaining, it’s still only the ‘how’ for the characters to get from point A (their childhood) to point B (leaving the Shaolin temple). The ‘why’ for all of those scenes is essentially jammed into a final 30 minutes where the film feels rushed to tie up all the necessary loose ends and add in some new dynamics.
Although there is a running thread of assassins trying to kill one of our protagonists throughout, it’s only in this final act that the teased political ramifications of the heroes’ backstories are laid out. There are a ton of reveals for those backstories, a villain is finally fleshed out, and the film introduces Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng as the romantic love interest for Tien Peng and she absolutely comes in to own this film. It’s so much material, it’s almost a tragedy that it’s all jammed into the span of a measly 30 minutes - particularly the plot of Polly as Miss Lu and her connection to Tien Peng.
To be fair, 18 Bronzemen spends so much time in its first two acts to attach its viewers to our heroes and their plight, but the film may have benefitted by re-structuring a bit and creating two halves, the Temple and the Revenge. It’s not that what is on display here doesn’t work - this film has a cult following for a reason, but the final act is so damn compelling, giving it time to breathe and develop as a story could have created a stronger dynamic overall.
With that, it’s hard to deny that 18 Bronzemen is not one hell of an entertaining watch. The casting is spot on, the various scenes are all memorable and effective at building up to its finale - which wilding leaps from an urban setting to a forest on a throwaway line, and Kuo delivers a lot of intriguing writing to go with his strong direction. On a personal level, I wanted so much more from the final act in terms of substance and giving the audience time to dig into the political plotting and new characters, but it’s hardly a flaw to derail the experience. 18 Bronzemen is a shining example of indie kung fu done right.
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