Screen Reviews
The Shaolin Plot

The Shaolin Plot

directed by Huang Feng

starring James Tien, Chan Sing, Sammo Hung, Casanova Wong, Kang Chen

Golden Harvest / Arrow Video

Recent events have brought consumers up to speed: license and access to cloud content is fleeting and uncertain. In an environment where niche and even mainstream content gets lost in the shuffle of app programming, physical media may prove to reign supreme.

In this landscape, Arrow Video has become a purveyor of prestigious and epic polyester discs, rife with excellent packaging and Blu-ray extras. Whereas Criterion’s catalog is mainly certifiable arthouse cinema, Arrow Video has charted a divergent-yet-similar course of cult sci-fi, horror, and Asian cinema, picked up and polished in a manner befitting a warranted level of cachet.

Lost in time somewhere during a global martial-arts craze between the death of Bruce Lee and the advent of Star Wars is one of these hidden gems of martial arts film, 1978’s The Shaolin Plot, which stands as touchstone, crossroads, and anomaly.

The Shaolin Plot, Arrow Video
courtesy of MVD Entertainment
The Shaolin Plot, Arrow Video

Prince Daglen (Chan Sing) wields power with his brutal knowledge and mastery of martial arts secrets. He is a hoarder-completionist determined to possess the full library of available martial arts techniques. The only ones beyond his grasp are those of the Wudang School and the Shaolin Temple.

To retrieve the Sword Manual, Prince Daglen sends his henchmen, led by a “Rogue Monk” (Sammo Hung), to punish and ultimately kill Master Gu of the Wudang School. This launches his son, Little Tiger (James Tien), on a hero’s journey to join forces with Shaolin monks, retrieve the stolen manuals, and seek revenge, ending Daglen’s tyranny.

At a quick glance of its storyline, The Shaolin Plot has all the conventions of a stereotypical martial arts film, but in its execution, it manages to both subvert and elevate the genre simultaneously.

It has incredible action, graphic violence, gonzo weapons, barrel-distorted ultra-wide lenses, and even the older and original sound effects that would soon make way for something more realistic, but where the masterpiece manages to be unique is in its direction and pacing.

Working in Chinese martial arts films is a journeyman’s career, and Huang Feng spent much of his career as a writer and part-time actor before taking on directing. He lends his writing chops to provide a very deliberately paced film. There are extended scenes and plenty of character development and meaning, versus simply surrendering the characters to the action, setting the stage, and taking advantage of the rich, lush, and historic environments, locations, and Buddhist temples available and unique to South Korea.

The nature of the story and how it’s told seems more akin to modern cinema than its time. But it’s this pacing that may have worked against The Shaolin Plot, as it clocks in at nearly two hours — significantly longer than its contemporary audiences were prepared to tolerate.

This is likely a film that only a master movie maker could make late in his career, and The Shaolin Plot is a transitory film having a lot of the hallmarks of second-generation martial arts movies while managing to provide a glimpse of things to come.

The Shaolin Plot is the first film where Feng’s mentee Sammo Hung is action director. Sammo would go on to be the fight choreographer for Jackie Chan and help define Hong Kong New Wave cinema.

It’s obvious Sammo relishes playing the role as the heavy “Rogue Monk,” but where he really shines is in the amount and variety of talent and skill evident in The Shaolin Plot. With its focus on Prince Daglin’s quest to secure all the secrets of martial arts, the bones of The Shaolin Plot’s story are an excellent excuse to bring in and showcase plenty of weapons and a large variety of fighting styles from hand-to-hand combat, traditional kung fu, and taekwondo, and ultimately climaxing with the wizardry of “Human Tornado” Casanova Wong’s flying kicks.

Especially in Arrow Video’s pristine presentation, The Shaolin Plot manages to not only subvert expectations in presentation and story, but also encapsulate everything martial arts movies were and could be in the 1970s, all while setting the standard of everything yet to come.

The Shaolin Plot Limited Edition Blu-Ray


Recently on Ink 19...

Dark Water

Dark Water

Screen Reviews

J-Horror classic Dark Water (2002) makes the skin crawl with an unease that lasts long after the film is over. Phil Bailey reviews the new Arrow Video release.

The Shootist

The Shootist

Screen Reviews

John Wayne’s final movie sees the cowboy actor go out on a high note, in The Shootist, one of his best performances.