SHAOLIN MANTIS: A Masterpiece of Acting, Design, and Choreography

11 May

I recently re-watched SHAOLIN MANTIS (1978), one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made, for the first time in seven years and I wanted to highlight three elements of the Shaw Bros. production that really strike me now as key to its success. (The film’s English-dubbed edition was known as DEADLY MANTIS when it played theaters in the U.S. and ran on American television in the 1980s. For the record, I watched the Dragon Dynasty Region 1 DVD edition, in Mandarin with English subtitles, for this review.)

First of all, SHAOLIN MANTIS, directed by Lau Kar Leung, is that rare kung fu movie to have a romantic relationship at the center of its story and one that propels most of the subsequent action, despite a framework of intrigue involving Ming rebels plotting to overthrow the Qing Emperor.

It’s a very believable romance, too, arising out of the remarkable chemistry between the two leads, David Chiang as scholar Wei Feng and Cecilia Wong Hang-Sau as Zhizhi, the spoiled teenage granddaughter of Master Tian (Lau Kar Wing), Lord of Five Sun Manor in Qiping Province, Jiangbei District. Wei Feng is hired as a tutor by Zhizhi after he stood up to her brash behavior during a confrontation in the street after she chased away the last of 18 previous teachers. Her family is wary of such a young teacher coming into the house, but they reluctantly agree to let Feng move into the tutor’s quarters and begin instructing Zhizhi. The grandfather thinks a younger teacher might have a better chance of getting through to her.

The flighty girl, however, prefers to practice martial arts during her study time rather than read the classics or practice calligraphy, but Feng’s hands-on approach and gentle manner soon win her over, not to mention his ability to withstand her surprise attacks while pretending to be hurt in order to disguise his own considerable fighting skills. When he sits her down to practice writing and takes her hands in his, she begins to fall in love.

Aged 22 at the time of filming, actress Wong boasts all the energy and exuberance of a free-spirited teenage girl, bounding around the house and garden, leaping on and off furniture, pulling David hither and yon, playfully breaking into impromptu kung fu routines, and charming her stern-faced family members every chance she gets.

When the grandfather and her three uncles suspect Feng of infiltrating their home with an ulterior motive, Zhizhi breaks down in grief and begs tearfully for his life, asserting that she’d rather die with him. When Master Tian relents, provided Feng marry Zhizhi and stay in the manor for the rest of his life, Zhizhi is overjoyed and rushes to tell Feng who gratefully agrees while hiding his real feelings and actual plans.

I’ve seen many great performances by female stars of Shaw Bros. kung fu films—just look at Cheng Pei Pei in her greatest roles—but I don’t know that I’ve seen a character in this genre quite like Zhizhi who goes through so many emotional extremes here. Wong Hang-Sau is one of the most charming and delightful actresses I’ve ever encountered in a kung fu film and I’m equally impressed with her fighting. She does not appear to be doubled in any scene and participates in at least five such bouts, some of which are quite grueling.

She’s been in many other kung fu films and I’ve noted her work in the past, but she made only a few films at Shaw Bros. I’d have to revisit her other films to see if she ever had another part as good as this.

It also helps that David Chiang, 30 at the time of filming, was one of the more handsome and youthful looking stars at Shaw Bros. and worked very well with the studio’s many great actresses. He could be charming and tender in a way few of the studio’s other kung fu actors could. (Jimmy Wang Yu had romantic scenes in a few of his Shaw movies, but he always looked like he was about to cry in them. As Feng, David at least seems to enjoy Zhizhi’s company.) In terms of fighting fervor, David may not have been intense as Gordon Liu or Alexander Fu Sheng, but he more than held his own against all manner of determined opponents.

I should add that a romantic relationship of sorts is also at the heart of HEROES OF THE EAST (aka SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA), also directed by Lau Kar Leung in 1978. However, even though the two leads in that film, Gordon Liu and Yuka Mizuno, seen in two shots below, portray a mixed marriage of Chinese and Japanese, their relationship is based more on competing fighting styles with each trying to prove to the other the superiority of their own country’s martial arts. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of love or affection between them and the focus of the film is on Liu’s series of bouts with a wide array of Japanese martial artists brought over to fight him. (The stone-faced Liu, in fact, would be the last actor at Shaw Bros. I would have hired for the lead in a love story, but since this film was not at all meant to be a love story, it works just fine.)

The other actors in SHAOLIN MANTIS are all superb also, as usual, with Lau Kar Wing (the director’s brother) playing the grandfather and the fiercest opponent of all (he was 34 at the time) and Lily Li, a female kung fu star herself, 28 at the time, playing Zhizhi’s mom. The uncles are played by frequent kung fu actors Norman Chu, Wilson Tong and the criminally underrated John Chang (SNAKE IN THE MONKEY’S SHADOW).

Of course, the audience knows all along that David’s character is indeed a spy working for the Qing Emperor (Frankie Wei Hung). The son of a court scholar (Ching Miao), Feng is given his orders personally by the Emperor in the very first scene of the movie and instructed to infiltrate the Tian family and obtain evidence of their plans to mobilize Ming patriots and stage a rebellion. This goes against the grain of kung fu movie convention which typically portrays the Ming rebels as heroes and the Qing officers as villains and oppressors. In this film, however, every character has their position to protect and it’s hard not to sympathize with every one of them. On the surface, there are no bad guys except, perhaps, the Emperor himself, although one can argue that he, too, has a position to protect. And every character in the Tian family has Zhizhi’s welfare at heart. You can see the anguish in all their faces when confronted with a tough decision. In the face of what happens, they show remarkable restraint. Feng does, in fact, obtain a list of rebel leaders, but is unable to get it out once he is married to Zhizhi. In the meantime, he faces deadlines of three, six and twelve months, at which point increasingly horrible fates await his parents and family. He passes two of those deadlines while enjoying romantic bliss with Zhizhi.

Eventually, before the third and final deadline, he decides to escape with Zhizhi who never allows herself to believe he is really the spy her grandfather told her he was. All hell breaks loose as the couple has to face five tests, battling in turn each of the three uncles, the mother, and the grandfather. It’s a deeply painful task for all of them and a heartbreaking spectacle. (I wondered, after this latest viewing, what Zhizhi would actually have done if faced with unmistakable proof of Feng’s obvious betrayal of her family.) The film examines issues of family obligation and loyalty in a more nuanced way than found in most kung fu films dealing with this kind of conflict. Both lead characters have to weigh their romantic devotion to each other against their duty to their families.

Things take a tragic turn and the final section of the film becomes a more conventional kung fu training-and-revenge adventure as Feng, in hiding, studies the movements of a praying mantis and develops a new style enabling him to go back and fight the uncles and the grandfather again in a series of one-on-one battles. There’s a surprise twist at the very end, however, that overturns our previous assumptions about a particular issue at the heart of the film.

Aside from the performances, the other element of the film that struck me as well above average was the production design and background décor. This has more lavish, large-scale sets in it than any other Shaw Bros. kung fu movie I’ve seen. (Some of the studio’s historical dramas like EMPRESS WU, THE MAGNIFICENT CONCUBINE, VERMILION DOOR and THE EMPRESS DOWAGER are even more impressive in this regard, but they didn’t have kung fu in them.)

I’m guessing that director Lau used existing sets in the Shaw studio soundstages, but that doesn’t mean a lot of careful artistic work wasn’t necessary to transform them into Five Sun Manor and its varied suites, four of which have names: Flying Dragon, Crouching Tiger, Phoenix Dance, and Galloping Horse.

Every standing set and piece of furniture had to be cleaned, spruced up, and, I imagine, much of it repainted. Carpets had to be rolled out and vacuumed. We even spot actors portraying servants cleaning the sets on camera, as seen on the right in this shot. (How economical!)

Props and furniture had to be chosen. Flowers, whether real or artificial, had to be selected (or manufactured), placed and maintained. Paintings, ink drawings, calligraphy and wall screens had to be chosen for the backgrounds. I imagine that studio artists had to create new art for some scenes or find it somewhere.

Costumes had to be designed or selected out of the Shaw studio’s existing wardrobe. For the character of Zhizhi, I’m betting lots of new ones were made for the star, since she has several lovely outfits in the film.

And it all had to be roughly period appropriate. Johnson Tsao is listed as art director as he is on 211 Shaw Bros. productions from 1959 to 1983. SHAOLIN MANTIS was one of eight films he worked on in 1978. Surely, he delegated numerous tasks to various studio craftspeople who made sure everything was ready when the lighting crew began to light the massive sets. Except for Tsao, the costume designer and two lighting people, all these unsung workhorses go uncredited.

And then these same sets had to serve as the backdrop for at least twelve fight scenes. Director Lau and the film’s co-star, Wilson Tong (3rd Uncle), directed these scenes. As I watched I kept my eye on all the vases and art objects on the mantles and walls. Surely all these swinging lances and thunderous kicks were gonna knock something down! But no, everything seemed fastened in place.

The only things that got broken were breakaway panels specially built for characters to go smashing through. Here’s such a set in an early scene, again, being cleaned on camera:

…and in a subsequent fight scene:

Director Lau has choreographed tons of films where combatants go at it, with or without weapons, in close quarters and he was a master at it. He loved battles involving poles or lances and he tried to include those when he could. There are a lot of swords and knives used here as well, but I tend to like the fist-to-fist fights the best. Late in the film, Feng uses the skills he learned watching the mantis movements for a one-on-one hand-to-hand battle with Master Tian, the grandfather, in the final fight scene in the film. It’s pretty spectacular. This is, I believe, the only starring role David Chiang had in a Lau Kar Leung film and it just may be the most rigorous fighting role of his career. (In his early films for Chang Cheh, e.g. BLOOD BROTHERS and THE NEW ONE-ARMED SWORSMAN, Chiang was usually directed by Lau in the fight scenes.)

I was intrigued by the mantis scene. It sure looked to me like a real praying mantis and I believe it was. It appears to move on cue, responding in specific ways to Chiang’s various touches. They probably filmed for as long as it took to get enough random movements to intercut with Chiang’s shots, although Chiang is often in the shot with the mantis. It’s an amazing sequence. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in kung fu film.

I should point out that SHAOLIN MANTIS is one of three kung fu masterpieces that Lau Kar Leung directed in 1978, all for Shaw Bros., the others being THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN and the aforementioned HEROES OF THE EAST (aka SHAOLIN CHALLENGES NINJA). I now have five different copies of SHAOLIN MANTIS, two on VHS and three on DVD, each one an upgrade in some way. I’ve seen it many times, but I wait a few years between each screening so it will appear fresh to me and it always does. (The surprise ending always shocks me.)

Finally, this is the one ad I could find (courtesy of Chris Poggiali at Temple of Schlock) proving that the film played for a week in a Times Square theater under its DEADLY MANTIS title back in November 1983. (It was also a big favorite on 42nd Street.)

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