A crotch-grabbing smorgasbord of kung fu action, Executioners from Shaolin is directed by Lau Kar-leung from a screenplay by Kuang Ni. This 1977 picture is typical Shaw Brothers fare, with some multi-generational storytelling giving the rudimentary revenge tale some surprising layers.
At the core of Executioners from Shaolin is the one and only Pai Mei, who is played here by Lo Lieh. Known historically as Bak Mei, Pai Mei is one of the Five Elders of Shaolin. These figures of Chinese folklore were renowned for having survived the destruction of the legendary Shaolin Monastery at the hands of the Qing dynasty.
In Executioners from Shaolin, Pai Mei is a master of what’s known as internal kung fu. This has granted him the ability to retract his genitalia, which makes impervious to all manner of crotch-related techniques. Pai Mei has his army track down a group of insurgents on behalf of the Chinese government. One resistance fighter, Hung Hze-Kwan (Chen Kuan-Tai), vows to take down the villain.
Hze-Kwan reaches Canton by boat and meets the lovely and ferocious Yung Chun (Lily Li), a master of the Crane style. They fall in love and marry. Hze-Kwan studies the Tiger style as a way of defeating Pai Mei and it takes him 10 years to nail it down. When he finally gets around to having his revenge, things don’t go according to plan. It falls to his grown-up son Wen Ding (Wong Yue) to finish the job.
As the plot description suggests, Executioners from Shaolin is jam-packed with martial arts awesomeness. The tale of revenge brims with talk of different styles of kung fu and takes on a mystic feel, especially as the fighters try to figure out how to get around Pai Mei’s “window of opportunity.”
The romance between Hze-Kwan and Yung Chun takes on some captivating undercurrents, as her Crane style gives her the ability to keep her legs closed like a vice. She relies on her talents during the wedding night, which frustrates her husband to no end. Oddly, he seeks the advice of her father to crack the code.
Lily Li is a formidable talent and her Crane style is fun to watch, but Kuan-Tai’s Hze-Kwan and his aggressive, slashing Tiger style offers a nice balance. He’s shown training for 10 years and he even grows a badass moustache. When his son is born, he insists that the kid learns Crane style as well as Tiger style.
Part of the reason for these divergence of styles is that Pai Mei’s knack for handling the Tiger style is top-tier. The martial arts world of Executioners from Shaolin suggests a mythology of weaknesses, vital points and counterpoints. Consider that Pai Mei is susceptible between the hours of one and three in the afternoon, for instance.
After watching his father fall to Pai Mei and his invulnerable globes, it’s up to Wen Ding to pick up the pace. He’s learned both the Crane style and the Tiger style, which suggests that he’ll be able to make up for his father’s weakness by relying on his mother’s instruction.
It’s possible that the thrust of Executioners of Shaolin is that it takes more than a man or a woman to defeat a villain like Pai Mei. It takes a man and a woman, a Crane and a Tiger. The emphasis on genitalia underlines what is an old-fashioned story of style and revenge and makes Kar-leung’s endeavour a compelling if silly yarn.