Men From the Monastery
"And unusually for a Chang movie, a handful of women have important roles in the film, none of them cardboard cutouts."
Men From the Monastery (1974)
AKA: Disciples Of Death
Director: Chang Cheh
Cast: Chen Kuan Tai, Alexander Fu Sheng, Kong Do, Lo Dik
Running Time: 92 min.
Plot: It is the final days of the majestic Ming Dynasty when the Chinese mainland is overrun by the Manchu troops. The disciples of the Shaolin Monastery are soon fighting alongside the patriots in their fierce struggle against the invaders--and the fate of a nation lies in the lethal hands of the Men From The Monastery.
JOE909'S REVIEW: One of Chang Cheh's "Shaolin Cycle" of movies made in Taiwan in the mid-1970s, Men from the Monastery features a unique storytelling approach, an impressive cast, and choreography from master Liu Chia-Liang. It's not nearly as good as Chang's Five Shaolin Masters, but it's worth tracking down.
The film is separated into four mini-movies, the first three concentrating on the three main characters, the last featuring the three of them united as the titular heroes. This storytelling format is one of the main things that drew me to the movie. Chang even increases the artsy quotient by introducing the actors before each mini-movie, and then finally displaying the title in the fourth and final mini-film. More artiness is on show throughout the movie, as in Chang's other Shaolin movies: namely the occasional use of black and white and colored lens gels. All of this proves that Chang was still putting solid work into his films at this time, before retiring to the quickly-produced Venoms movies of later years.
The first mini-movie (the first three are about fifteen minutes long each) concerns Fu Sheng as Fong Sai-Yuk, who decides it's time to leave Shaolin. Unfortunately, you can't just walk out, but instead must pass through the "alley of death." This is a maze of various traps Fong must avoid. In all honesty, this whole alley of death sequence comes off pretty hokey and low-budget. In fact, there is a definite low-budget feel to this movie, as most scenes take place outdoors, and those sets that are used, such as the alley, are minimal and inferior to the usual Shaws set design. Of course, Fong is able to leave Shaolin. He goes back to his hometown, only to find that it's been taken over by a Ching bastard who fights men to the death while standing on poles. Fong takes the guy on, each of them standing on poles, a bed of spikes beneath them. This fight is equal to the finale of a regular movie, but here it's just the end of Fong's story, which leads directly into the next mini-movie.
The next "chapter" introduces Chi Kuan-Chun, who plays Hu Wei-Chien. He's having trouble with a local gang of Ching bullies. They beat the shit out of Hu every chance they get, but he keeps coming back for more, regardless of his woman's pleading. Finally Fong Sai-Yuk shows up and tells him to go to Shaolin Temple, where he can learn how to fight these guys. Hu goes, and we get a super fast-forward as he instantly returns, three years later, ready to kick ass. What Fong's been doing all this time isn't mentioned, but he's there, ready to help his pal get revenge.
The third mini-film is all about Hung Sze-Kwan, as played by Chen Kuan-Tai. Hung's running a guerrilla war against the Chings, but realizes he's just one man, and can't kill them all. Eventually he hooks up with Fong Sai-Yuk and Hu Wei-Chien, and the three of them manage to get rid of some Ching spies. It's at this point the trio discovers that Shaolin has been burned to the ground. It's payback time!
The burning of Shaolin leads into the fourth and final mini-movie. The three heroes hole up with several comrades and train themselves, knowing a Ching assault is soon to come. Sure enough it does, and this last half of the movie is wall-to-wall action. At many points it gets very gory, with men getting impaled by swords and spears and bleeding profusely, but all of this is filmed in black and white, to obscure the gore. Apparently this isn't just US censorship; the Asian prints are supposedly the same. I guess we'll find out for sure whenever Celestial gets around to releasing a remastered print. Two of the three heroes give their lives for the cause, one of them dying in a particularly-disturbing manner. This finale isn't as thrilling as I would've wished, as the film lacks any memorable villains to root against.
Acting is uniformly strong, though Fu Sheng's martial abilities aren't as believable this early in his career. He's also not nearly as comedic as in other films, instead playing Fong Sai-Yuk as a grimly determined hell raiser. Chi Kuan-Chun however was always a capable martial artist, and it's hard buying it when he gets his ass handed to him repetitively throughout the first half of his story. Chen Kuan-Tai turns in the solid performance one would expect. And unusually for a Chang movie, a handful of women have important roles in the film, none of them cardboard cutouts.
Currently this film is available as a very low-grade Panmedia DVD. Only get it if you've got a jones to see the movie. Otherwise, wait for the Celestial remaster. I'm sure seeing this movie in remastered widescreen will improve the experience greatly. I'll miss the English dub, though. Whereas most old-school movies feature English dubbing by guys with British or Kiwi accents, Men from the Monastery features actors with SEVERE British accents, which adds to the fun factor. I kept expecting someone to say: "Roit, luv, drop Ôem!" or something to that effect. Several Shaw Brothers movies, such as Liu Chia-Liang's Executioners from Shaolin, Lo Lieh's Clan of the White Lotus, or Chang Cheh's Venoms flick Shaolin Rescuers could serve as direct sequels to this film, so seek those out if you want to know "the rest of the story."
JOE909'S RATING: 7.5/10