Kung Fu Theater: Shaolin vs. Lama

This year’s pride parade got a little…out of hand.

  • Title: Shaolin dou La Ma
  • Year: 1983
  • Availability: There is a commonly available, English-dub only DVD on the market.

As a Kung Fu fan, I have a truly tremendous pool of material that lies before me. The modern form of the industry has gone through no less than EIGHT distinct “periods” in the 50-odd years it has existed, and as mentioned, some of the studios and directors were remarkably, terrifyingly prolific, putting out near to a dozen films per year for decades. And this is compounded by the immensity of the “Shovel-ware” subdivision, as I like to call it: the quick, made-on-a-buck schlockfests that were put out in the industry’s prime to make a quick profit with as little effort as possible.

Although entertaining in a sense, you generally want to avoid these. You’ve seen them; terrible actors, awful martial arts featuring men flailing at each other stiffly in some sad facsimile of combat, and occasionally whipping out plastic “weapons” to assault the air with. Pretty much, the quintessential “chop socky” flicks that, to this very day, relegate the Kung Fu flick to niche status in the eyes of the general public.

There are telling signs: improper use of a camera, leading to everyone being slightly off-center. Terrible, repetitious dialogue in both English AND Chinese. Bad sets, costuming, fighting, it all just looks terrible. And look out also for a generic (well, more generic) title: any combinations of “Master”, “Shaolin”, “Temple”, “Monk”, “Killer”, “Vs.”, “Fighter”, “Deadly”, “Bloody” and “Bruce Lee” are all big red flags. The best of these tend to be hilarious in their way, and the worst are awful, boring affairs that will just hurt to look at.

“Bruce Lee: Big Red Flag” ironically also the name of an energy drink, coming to you this fall…

But, what happens when those red flags are wrong? What happens when, despite all the signs saying the piece should be terrible, it in fact turns out amazing? It still has all those terrible pieces, sure, but it manages to be amazing in that one, all-important way, and pulls itself up to where its flaws become charm points, and it’s strengths colossal victories? Oh, it can happen, dear readers. It can happen…

Lama-ntations of the Fallen

Grandmaster also likes to model for swim trunks in his free time.

Grandmaster also likes to model for swim trunks in his free time.

This story is incredibly thin, but for the sake of completion, let’s go over the facts. Lo Jui plays Sun Yu Ting, a hotheaded youngster out to prove he’s the bestest martial artist in the east. After mowing down the latest in a line of ill-fated challengers, he gets the idea to go to the Shaolin temple, to fight people and learn stuff. Over time, he will learn humility, true strength, and be taught by an old master with comically young looking arms.

However, as they are wont to do, a former pupil of the old monk has returned from his long sabbatical, full of malicious intent and cloaked in obvious villainy. Having previously fled after trying to steal some “secret scroll of face-raping” (note: title may be inaccurate), the evil Yao Feng Lin (played by chronic scene-chewer Chang Shan) went and learned Lama-style martial arts, the known enemy to Shaolin martial arts according to everyone in the film. Will master and student be able to overcome this phantom from the past?

Who gives a shit. I know I didn’t. These characters are drawn so broadly they’re knocking storms off-track. Lo Jui tries to be your typically endearing kung fu hero, but despite his rapid-fire gesticulation and ridiculous dub voice, not once did I buy that he wasn’t made of plastic and mullet-hair. Grandmaster looks hilariously young, the always-questionable prosthesis of the time managing to fit him even worse than most, as his usually sleeveless outfit shows his young, toned musculature, completely undermining his alleged age and making him look more like some local theater kid with a cat’s tale glued to his face.

And, occasionally, a crack addict.

And, occasionally, a crack addict.

The whole thing, from front to back, shows the extremity of its non-budget. The sets almost always look like they’re about to fall down if someone bumps into them. Weapons seem to wobble when someone touches them, and all the monks look like they stepped off a conveyor belt into the movie, with fabric culled from a mid-grade Party City. Camera angles regularly confuse more than clarify, and the night shots are so dark that one can barely see what’s happening.

Even with my knowledge of the schlock I was subjecting myself to, and the ridiculous costuming I had seen thus far, nothing could prepare me for the appearance of main villain Yao.

Holy shit.

Holy shit.

How do I even describe this? The random bird that has nothing to do with anything? The blinding red of the whole ensemble? Or those shiny silver trims that I’m pretty sure were later recycled to make the Red Ranger suit from the first season of Power Rangers. Any way you look at him, the outfit makes him look like the bastard offspring of Ming the Merciless and Ken from Street Fighter. Most scenes he was in, I couldn’t hear anything the characters were saying because his OUTFIT WAS TOO FUCKING LOUD.

Shine a Light Into the Fight

So, here I am, certain that I had made a mistake and purchased yet another in a long line of terrible D-movies. But then they started fighting, and something miraculous occurred to me.

This fighting was DAMN serious.

Well, they aren't LYING...

Well, they aren’t LYING…

I’m not kidding! I have no idea how it happened, but every fight in the movie is a superior example of speed, precision and efficiency, not lasting too long or ending too soon. Well, I do know why, actually. See, despite the terribly low budget nature of his flicks, director Lee Tso-nam had a talent for filling his movies with good choreography and gobs of effort. And this film represents the pinnacle of those ideals, mixing Peng Kong’s superior choreography with a cast who is capable of performing said choreography to its max.

It’s all down to the performers. Lo Jui may not cut the most unique figure, but damn if he can’t fight like a champ. Grandmaster’s constant acrobatics make his fights thrilling, while Cheng Shan’s opera training allows him to make his bizarre style, with it’s tremendous arm waving, look legit. Even the bit players manage to make themselves look good, even when being thrown around in shitty dime store outfits, but it’s the show-stopper fights that you stick around for.

Grandmaster fighting off Yu Ting while munching on some chicken, numerous training sequences, a wushu swordswoman throwing down with some baddies and even Yao’s ridiculously stanced, but highly interesting Lama style against Grandmaster’s traditional shaolin style. All of it looks really, really good.

The super-amazing “final attack” that Yu Ting needs to learn is more than a little silly, basically amounting to a finger point of doom. It’s even funnier due to the terrible dub making the technique’s name, the “Buddha Finger” sound more like “BuddahFingah”, which makes most discussions of its lethality sound like really edgy candy commercials. Still, even when Yu Ting is trying to poke people to death, this choreography just will not quit, and the movie is a hit parade of great bouts.

A Burning Monk of Love

Perhaps the most magical part of Shaolin vs. Lama is that, when the choreography picks up, it inspires a sort of affection for the movie’s deficiencies. Almost like knowing that the film’s ability to do this one aspect really, really well somehow makes accepting its flaws palatable to the discerning watcher. The shitty production values become hilarious and endearing, the awful outfits lending it a sort of quirky, high school production feel. The performances, formerly bland, become campy and fun.

So, in the end, what are we looking at here? Well, if I had to sum it up, I’d say we have a pretty crappy kung fu flick bolstered by some pretty amazing fighting. These things need to be seen, and actually justify sitting through the rest of the mess, even for Joe-Everyviewer. It may be a big ol’ pile of chop socky, but sometimes it’s worth digging through shit when it’s laced with this much pure gold.


The Rundown

The Movie: A terribly generic storyline filled with terribly generic characters, but at least everyone in it looks really, really enthused to be there. Admittedly, some of Grandmaster and Yu Ting’s interactions are funny, even a little endearing, but not enough to raise it out of stone mediocrity. 15/50

The Action: Comes out strong and doesn’t let up, surprising the shit out of you every step of the way. A cast of great performers give life to the movie’s disproportionately great fighting, marred only by a slightly underwhelming final bout. Still, the fact that it simply didn’t match the standards of what came before speaks volumes for the choreography’s overall quality. 43/50

The Weight: Great fighting, in my shitty non-studio production!? What a world: 8 points

Rounded Score: A come-from-behind kid, 7 out of 10 

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