The Film: Executioners From Shaolin (1977)
The Principals: Director: Liu Chia-Liang, Chen Kuan Tai, Li Lily , Lo Lieh, Wong Yu, Chia Hui Liu, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Tao Chiang, Ching Tien, Lao Shen, Johnny Cheung
The Premise: The survivors of a Shaolin temple massacre led by Priest Pai Mei (Lo) go into hiding all over China, some as members of a traveling sideshow troupe. Hung Hsi-Kuan (Chen Kuan Tai), the top student of Shaolin master Zhishan, whom Pai Mei killed, never stops his training and plans vengeance on Pai Mei. But Pai Mei has a reputation of being unbeatable with his body protection techniques and ability to shrink his balls into his body and use that move to trap the leg of his opponent. It’s how he defeated Zhishan. Hung eventually marries and has a son, Wen-Ding. Hung is a master of the Tiger style, while his wife, Ying Chun (Li) is an expert in Crane. After years of training and a prior defeat by Pai Mei, Hung tries again. When he doesn’t return, it falls to Wen-Ding, who learns elements of both Tiger and Crane, to fulfill his father’s mission.
Is It Good: It’s great, probably one of Shaw Brothers’ best. It not only has spectacular kung fu action, but a strong story that’s well acted all around. I saw this as a wee lad as Executioners of Death and have remembered much about it all these years, and only recently rewatched it. It was better than I remembered. Often, the story in some of these Shaw Brothers flicks just don’t hold up when compared with the athleticism and martial arts on display, and frequently served as just a skeleton for which the action to hang. I just saw Marco Polo last week and that’s a pretty good example. But I really shouldn’t be surprised. Executioners writer, Ni Kuang, wrote a staggering amount of scripts for Shaw Brothers. And not all of them are going to be gems. Hell, he has 14 screenwriting credits just in 1977 alone. 14. But here, he took a heavily-used premise and really put together a nice story. And Liu Chia-Liang delivered the film as a result.
And there are the performances to go with their work. Chen Kuan Tai is superb as the noble but driven Hung. He’s able to handle the non-martial arts stuff very well. Chen was a Shaw Brothers veteran of almost ten years when he did this film and he had a reputation as one of their most solid actors. In addition, his martial arts skill was likewise excellent. Hung wasn’t just some caricature looking to challenge his master’s killer. Hung was a fully realized character: playful with his friends, a loving husband and dedicated father. But his mission against Pai Mei was always in the background of his consciousness and drove him to train religiously.
Li Lily played his wife, Ying Chun, and she was every bit Chen’s equal: superb martial artist and good actress. Ying Chun was able to go toe-to-toe with Hung and was a fine teacher to their son. But the guy that commanded the screen in his limited face time was Lo Lieh as Pai Mei. The guy just screamed badass. Lo was also a staple of Shaw Brothers films, often as villains. He had a smoldering calmness and as Pai Mei, his visage when looking at Hung and later Wen-Ding simply stated, “You know you’ve fucked up by coming here, don’t you?” On the other end of the scale was Wen-Ding (Wong Yue), the playful young jester who echoes his uncle Hsiao Hu (Cheng Kang-Yeh) more than his father. Liu Chia Hui (aka Gordon Liu, aka Pai Mei and Johnny Mo in Kill Bill) had a memorable but short asskicking turn in the opening fight sequence.
But of course, this is a martial arts flick and there’s plenty of great action on that front too. There are four excellent fights, including the opening one featuring Liu, the two Pai Mei / Hung Hsi Kuan battle sequences and the final Wen-Ding / Pai Mei fight. Some good ones include Hung and Wen-Ding sparring a couple of times, including ruining Ying Chun’s laundry. One of my favorite sequences is Hung’s fight up the stairs with his staff against like a thousand Pai Mei goons with various weapons including spears, swords, and tri-nunchakus. Awesome stuff. What’s also notable is that the film set up Hung’s and Wen-Ding’s training methods and then showcased them as key attacks against Pai Mei. You could see how each man fought and when they pulled crucial moves on Pai Mei, the set up for those moves was well established, particularly Wen-Ding’s counter to Pai Mei’s foot-to-groin counter.
The score by Chen Yung Yu and the cinematography by Lo Yung-Chen are also both quite good. The scale of that second Hung Hsi Kuan approach up the stairs when he gets surrounded by Pai Mei’s troops is impressive. Executioners From Shaolin is classic, old school style Shaw Brothers kung fu awesomeness.
Random Anecdotes: Unfortunately, Wong Yu passed away from acute pneumonia in 2008 at only 52. According to a biography at Hong Kong Cinemagic, it was an all-too-soon ending to a fairly hard life after his Shaw Brothers heyday.
Cinematic Soulmates: Shaw Brothers catalogue.