It's time for week three in the 36 Styles Season and today we're going to taking a look at the hardcore classic that is Shaolin vs Lama. If you're fairly new to kung fu cinema and haven't heard of Shaolin vs Lama, don't worry. It's a fairly obscure title to new comers and is popular among some of the more hardcore fans of martial arts cinema. It's a Taiwanese production as opposed to Hong Kong but is often misidentified as such. This is a very common mistake as Taiwanese productions did often feature Hong Kong talent so telling them apart can be tricky.
The thing that gives away the fact it is a Taiwanese production is it's star Alexander Lo Rei, himself a Taiwanese native. Lo Rei was an action star who appeared in many, many low budget independent films and Shaolin vs Lama is considered by many to be one of his best. Having seen it, I can easily understand why. With it's combination of efficient story telling and surprisingly good fight choreography, Shaolin vs Lama is well worth your time.
Lo Rei is Yu-Tin, a wandering kung fu expert who seeks out masters of different fighting styles in hopes of learning new techniques and finding a master who can turn him into the ultimate fighter. One day he saves a young Shaolin Monk, Hsu Shi (William Yen) ffrom being beaten. Yu-Tin persuades the novice monk to take him to Shaolin Temple so that he can improve his Kung Fu. The rest of the monks do not like him being there and he is promptly discharged from the monastery. Suddenly a former monk appears (Chen Shan) who now practices the Tibetan Lamanistic arts and hopes to wipe out the Shaolin for good.
Shaolin vs Lama isn't anything special when it comes to the story. If you've read my reviews when it comes to old school fight flicks, I often mention the story is very by the numbers. Shaolin vs Lama does nothing to try and buck this trend in any way shape or form. Classic stories of good guys vs bad guys are the oldest stories ever told. For good reason too. They're simple and easy to tell. So if you're a low budget movie producer and you don't have the time or money to work on a complex story with three dimensional characters and with a well told narrative then you go with what you can do within your limitations and choose a story that can be told given the resources available. So I tend not to hold that against a movie. After all, if I wanted to see a different story with each Kung Fu movie I watched then I don't think I'd be a fan of genre at all.
In fact, it's the unoriginal story that helps the film as it allows it to flow at a very quick and easy to follow pace and makes the film all the more watchable and ultimately more enjoyable. The cast is pretty good too. Lo Rei shows he was a competent leading man and it's a wonder he wasn't a bigger star. Had he been able to work with some of the bigger names in the industry he could have gotten the recognition he deserved. As it is though, Lo Rei is just one of many actors that never hit it big for one reason or another but he does have legacy that he should be proud of and celebrated. He wasn't a terrible actor by any means and he could do lots of good looking and varied action. I do have some of his other films on DVD so after watching this I feel compelled to check them out.
The rest of the cast are quite good as well. William Yen as the young monk gets some nice little moments of acting as well as showing off his skills as a screen fighter. He doesn't get much to do but what he does show is very good. The other cast members I don't want to talk about except Chen Shan as the main villian. He's a Taiwanese native much like Lo Rei and is an expert in Tae Kwon Do. He made a number of films over a twenty year career but many fans say that Shaolin vs Lama is the best that he's done. He makes for a good bad guy. He's sufficiently mean looking and has some absolutely cracking fight scenes.
That's another thing. There was a lot more action in this then I was expecting. You would think I'd be used to that sort of thing but it still surprises me when certain films have a lot more action then I expect. Also, the choreography is damn good. A lot of independent films had very mediocre choreography. It was very stiff, slow and boring but there's none of that here. They were put together by someone called Peng Kang who did the action on films such as The Chinese Stunt Man and Life of Ninja. He has a very fast, frantic style to his fights and seems to favor punching combinations but he does throw in a few kicks but he does seem to favor a lot of grappling moves, there's even a couple techniques I'm almost certain seemed to have been slightly modified from professional wrestling.
There wasn't a single fight I didn't like during the entire run time. I could go into detail about them all but that would take far too much time. One which I will talk about is a scene that see's Yu-Tin's Shaolin Master go up against Chen Shan. There's some really fast exchanges and lots of acrobatic leaping. It's also the first scenes which sees Chen use the Shadow Boxing Style. It seems to be a style crafted specifically for the film and derives movements from Drunken Boxing and Mantis Style. It's a very unorthodox form but looks good on screen and allows Chen to show off his skills. I liked this scene because the impact of the moves looked extremely painful giving the fights a very brutal edge to them I didn't expect. As I watched it I couldn't help but be reminded of Jet Li's Shaolin Temple. Not only was the familiar look but the choreography of that film had a very similar feel to it. I find it interesting that Hong Kong weren't the only country capable of doing tremendous action scenes.
There's also the jaw-dropping finale which has Lo Rei fight Chen Shan in a one on one duel. I loved this fight, it was so insane. The choreography was absolutely perfect and it showed that a lot of hard work went into it. Both fighters push themselves to show they are good at what they do. Another neat little idea is when Lo Rei busts out the Buddha Finger technique which has the practitioner use the knuckle of their middle finger to give their punches extra impact and allow Lo Rei to find Chen's weak spot. That sort of thing was always coming up in films like this and it does give the fight just that little bit more brutality whenever a hit is landed.
Shaolin vs Lama is yet another must see in the canon of martial arts cinema. It's not hard to track down and can be found at a fairly cheap price so picking it up should be a no brainer to you at all. With it's simple story and excellent fight choreography I urge you to try and see this as soon as you can.
36 STYLES offers two different designs inspired by the film so if you want a spiffy looking shirt to go with the film then click HERE and HERE
That's all for this week. Come back next time when 36 Styles Season will be coming to a close and I'll be reviewing a film that I can't wait to talk about, it is of course, Born Invincible!