🍿A companion piece to 1974’s Shaolin Martial Arts and an entry in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin series, Five Shaolin Masters is Cheh at his most expansive. And maybe his most obsessed about dudes getting their genitals mutilated.
I haven’t seen Shaolin Martial Arts, but judging from the poster it’s about two guys. Just two. You can probably guess how many heroes there are in Five Shaolin Masters.
But it’s not just those five! There’s a matched set of five villains. And one of those five has twin bodyguards. And on the side of the righteous rebels are about a million dudes, several of which get significant screen time.
Both of these groups split up and have roughly the same plot, over and over. Good guy tries to fight bad guy, fails and learns a valuable lesson.
About an hour in to the movie, when everyone has learned their lessons, they settle on the radical plan of getting better at martial arts. From this point on the movie is pretty fun. And the last 20 minute is just one long series of fights.
Shaw Brothers made a lot of Shaolin movies in the 1970s and my guess is that when people think of “Shaw Brothers Shaolin” they aren’t thinking of Cheh’s movies. They’re probably thinking of 36 Chambers or Pai Mei. One way or another they are thinking of Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu. Both of whom were part of the making of Five Shaolin Masters.
Lau Kar-leung had been around Shaw for a while by 1974, mostly working for Chang Cheh. Gordon Liu had know Lau Kar-leung for a while by 1974 and was an adopted part of the Lau family. But he was new to acting. Five Shaolin Masters was just his 2nd film with the studio and Cheh. His part is small, but he’s clearly far more talented than the other bit-part actors in the movie.
I don’t know the details of the split between Laur Kar-lueng and Chang Cheh, but I can imagine. Chang Cheh had his set of actors and his style. Lau Kar-leung had a ton of experience, a great talent in Gordon Liu, and a desire to strike out on his own. It’s around the time of Five Shaolin Masters that the two groups go their separate ways.
1975 would see The Spiritual Boxer, Kar-leung’s directorial debut. He’s credited with choreography in a few later Chang Cheh films, but it’s hard to say when those films were made. Cheh directed 57 movies in the 1970s and some were released a long time after they were shot.
Gordon Liu would be a third-string player in a few more Cheh films before jumping over to starring roles in Lau Kar-leung movies in 1976. After 1976 I don’t think the Lau family worked with Chang Cheh again.
It’s not like this split is the “End of Chang Cheh” or some cataclysmic event. Both Cheh and the Laus continued to work for Shaws and release fantastic movies.
But it is a step along the evolution of Shaw Brothers (and HK film) away from Cheh’s style which had dominated for almost 10 years. And it freed up the Laus to make their version of Shaolin movies, which are far more fun and memorable than Five Shaolin Masters.