With titles such as Druken Master II, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and most importantly (in my view) Dirty Ho to his credit, it is only fair to call Liu Chia-Liang a master of the kung-fu action comedy genre. His kung-fu films often follow a similar patten – they are centered around a talented and well-meaning yet green and naïve protagonist who over the course of the film comes of age under the aegis of a teacher and proceeds to systematically kick the collective asses of some formidable adversaries. It couldn’t possibly get any simpler, and the genre pleasures leap out all-too eagerly from the surface, yet a kung-fu film, if done right is one of the great film-viewing joys to be had and a Chia-Liang kung-fu romp almost always delivers the goods.
Shaolin Mantis (another Shaw Brothers production) begins at the court of the Qing dynasty, with the current king being wary of rebellious activities in different parts of the country. After testing the kung-fu skills of a young scholar Wei Fung (this bit includes Gordon Liu, star of 36th Chamber and Dirty Ho in a brief and somewhat unflattering “guest” appearance), he sends him off in the country to spy on a clan of potential rebels, with a rather cruel condition that his family will get wiped out if he is unable to return within an year. Fung enters the clan family as a teacher to the grand-daughter of the family elder and unsurprisingly they fall in love. Fung though is not much of a spy – and at this moment in the film, he’s not much of a kung-fu fighter either, at least in comparison to the family members – and the family discover his identity pretty soon. It’s only some good old-fashioned emotional blackmailing from the grand-daughter that keeps our hero alive and even gets him married into the family.
To be sure, the film gets off to a slow start and builds a premise that is familiar, yet engaging – two lovers on different sides of a political conflict. It’s more engaging though because neither of the sides come off in a better (or worse) light. This is not necessarily because the characters are sketched out in great depth; in fact, the exact opposite is true. So it’s not much of a surprise when the film abruptly decides to assign the label of villainy to the rebels after a series of fights between the pair and the family leaders ends in tragedy.
But if the film suffers on account of this half-baked characterization, it pretty much makes up for that in it’s final act, when the hero, who somehow manages to escape the “evil” clutches of the family, accidentally hits upon a novel way to exact vengeance. He meets a master (who that master is can be guessed by looking at the film’s title!) and learns a bizarre yet strangely effective technique that the clan members clearly have no answer to. It is worth asking why the revenge project couldn’t take a back seat to the more important task of reporting back the rebel activities of the clan, if only to ensure the safety of his own family, but really, who’s going to argue about minor details with a guy who has just learnt how to kick ass in deadly mantis style? Besides, he is sure to make quick work of the villains and return home in no time, just like all kung-fu heroes do. If you’ve seen your share of martial arts flicks, Shaolin Mantis will reek of familiarity. It’s still amusing enough not to breed contempt.