This would have to be the Shaw Brothers’ most well known classic.
The main character San Ta (Not Santa – no presents here) played by Gordon Liu, rebels against the Manchu Government. The violent government retaliate to this sign of rebellion by closing down the school and killing any who oppose their rule.
When San Ta’s friends are attacked and his father is killed, he runs off with a friend to escape being killed. The two decide to learn Martial Arts and talk of the Kung Fu taught at a Shaolin temple not far from where they are. The two make a plan of finding the temple, when one is killed to give the other (San Ta) time to escape, he steals a horse and barely escapes, but severely injured.
Eventually making his way to the Shaolin Temple, San Ta pledges himself to their teachings and becomes a monk. He learns the Shaolin’s Kung Fu and eventually returns and battles the corrupt government to free the town he came from.
Becoming a Martial Artist
In this movie San Ta wants more than anything to learn Kung Fu. Like most beginners he wants to sit in on the advanced class straight up, but is thrown out.
He then starts at the bottom, spending the first few months conditioning his body. He has to learn how to be light on his feet by jumping across some floating logs. He spends day and night working on his technique, trying to master it before moving onto the next exercise. The next level was interesting as San Ta had to strengthen his arms. He carries water buckets and wears some bands on his upper arms that have blades attached. These blades pokes his body if he lowers his arms whilst carrying the buckets, increasing his upper body strength. He then goes onto wrist strengthening exercises and conditions his head for impact.
Once he is conditioned he starts learning the Kung Fu strikes and weapons. He seems to excel in this area as well as the conditioning, mastering the Kung Fu in record time (a number of years). He is then challenged by a fellow monk. Whilst trying to figure out (after some losses) how to defeat his opponent, he invents the 3 section staff, and easily defeats him.
From Student to Master
After mastering the 35th chamber of Shaolin, San Ta declares that he wants to open a 36th Chamber of Shaolin and teach outsiders the art so they can defend themselves from attack. I thought it was interesting that he wanted to pass on his knowledge, to keep the art growing and evolving. Due to the Buddhists’ belief at the temple, he is forbidden from this and punished for persisting.
His punishment has him outside the temple gathering contributions for the temple when he find himself helping and teaching others, before eventually fighting the against the corrupt government and their General.
I thought the complete circle from novice to master and then on to teacher was very interesting, it shows a change in attitude and really documents (to a certain degree) the level of commitment and difficulty martial arts training needs. It was stated well when San Ta was told he has set a new record for his conditioning and martial arts mastery, by doing it in only a few years!
Any real martial artist knows that it’s an endless journey, and can take decades to achieve a high ranking in many arts. This movie does a good job displaying not only martial arts training and commitment, but a look into the Shaolin way itself, showing the high degree of difficulty training monks face to learn to Kung Fu.
The Action and Martial Arts
As usual for Shaw Brothers movies there’s an high level of weapon work that is technical, fast paced and performed almost perfectly. Gordon Liu shows off his skills with the 3 section staff extremely well, any training he previously had with it really shows.
The hand to hand stuff is a bit ordinary though, and very ’1970′s kung fu’ – waving arms and over done blocks but that’s the style of film making at the time. It mixes quite well with the weapon work and is still far better than most kung fu movies made at the time.
The real gem is the training sequences though. For anyone looking to see an interesting angle on Kung Fu training, this movie does a pretty unbeatable job. Highly traditional and intense routines that can have sever consequences are pretty normal for martial arts. Generally the ‘no pain no gain’ motto applies heavily to conditioning in martial arts, something this movie emphasises perfectly.
Would I recommend it?
It’s one of the all time classics – training philosophy, technical action and a good but simple story. As with most movies made in this period, the excitement is there, but not as fueled as movies made today. If you don’t watch many 70′s kung fu flicks, this would be a good one to start on – an absolute classic!