It doesn’t really happen that much any more, at least not here, but when I was a kid Saturday or Sunday afternoon would feature “Kung Fu Theater”, where one of the local television stations with nothing better to put on would show pretty badly dubbed versions of imported martial arts movies from the Shaw Brothers and other Asian studios. For a lot of us, that was our first introduction to and the root of a nostalgic affection for those movies.
I suppose that’s why yesterday, when I found myself with a free afternoon and in a “hey, let’s just hit the couch and pop on something light” mood I decided to give Five Shaolin Masters a shot.
The plot here, as expected, is pretty basic. After their temple is burned and most of their brothers killed by Qing dynasty soldiers, the five surviving monks meet by a riverside and determine that there must have been a traitor in their midst. Vowing vengeance on their oppressors and the traitor, the five at first split up to recruit others to fight by their side, then reunite and return to the temple to train for a year before taking their revenge.
Of course, the plot really doesn’t matter that much, as most of the focus is on the fight scenes and even more the monks’ training scenes as they practice new styles to better take on their opponents.
There were a couple of surprises here. First off, the version that I watched, thanks to Netflix streaming was subtitled as opposed to being dubbed, which was a pleasant surprise. The second was that some for certain flashbacks and some of the more violent death scenes, prolific Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh switches from full color to a sort of sepia tone which sets those scenes apart from the rest and makes the entire affair, while still quite bloody, less so than it might have been. It’s a stylistic decision that works very well for the film and serves to set it apart from more run of the mill efforts.
As far as the action scenes themselves, the choreography is outstanding during both the fights and the training scenes. all of the fights are staged in a way that makes then action packed but still easy to follow, and the training scenes, with each of the five masters either learning new skills or bettering their already existing ones serve well both to feature the various actors and to make their individual fights at the end, when they must take on seemingly insurmountable odds more believable.
One other element of the film that made it stand out from so many others that came from the studio is that not all of the five survive until the end, and those casualties serve to raise the stakes even further for the rest.
In the end, whether, as I was, you’re simply hit with a case of nostalgia for this type of movie, you’re a long-time fan who has never seen this one, or even if you’re new to the genre and are just wanting to give it a shot, or, for that matter, you just find yourself with an hour and a half or so and are just looking for a good action flick to pass the time, I highly recommend Five Shaolin Masters as well worth taking a look at.