It’s February and everything sucks right now, so it’s time to unwind with February Fisticuffs – a punchy look at some of the best, worst and most average boxing, kung fu and martial arts movies.
Tso Nam Lee’s Shaolin vs. Lama is one of those martial arts movies that feels like Saturday afternoon. The 1983 film hits all the markers, from impossible training montages to comic relief to fight scenes that require a rewind just to catch all the moves.
The action in Shaolin vs. Lama is nonstop, but the plot carries surprising insight. There is some twist on history, with the Shaolin school of Buddhism pitted against a strand of Tibetan Buddhists in a battle for supremacy. There’s no historical evidence of conflict, but it makes for good cinematic fun.
Alexander Lo Rei stars as Sun Yu Ting, a kung fu aficionado who wants to learn every possible style he can. He travels around challenging masters and takes lessons under anyone he can’t defeat. One day, he runs into Shaolin monk Hsu Shi (William Yen). The monk has been stealing to provide food and wine for his master (Sun Jung Chi).
Sun Yu Ting discovers that the master is a kung fu expert and tries to goad him into teaching him, but the master refuses. This leads to trouble in the Shaolin temple, which in turn leads to Sun Yu Ting and Hsu Shi getting expelled. It’s only after they rescue Miss Su (Hui-Yun Li) that they’re allowed back in to train for a faceoff with the Skyhawk Clan.
Now, there is a backstory. The Skyhawk Clan is led by the despicable Chi Kung (Chang Shan), who joined the Shaolin monks way back when but was faking it in order to exact retribution for the death of his Tibetan master. Chi Kung stole the Shaolin kung fu manual in order to learn the mysterious martial arts and now he’s back to finish the job on his Shaolin enemies.
Most of Shaolin vs. Lama is couched in themes of vengeance and mercy, with the Buddhists questioning why they should fight each other despite sharing the same beliefs. These regional disputes mean little to the grandmasters, but Chi Kung’s vengeful desires dominate ordinarily good people.
It’s interesting to note just how many people are sucked into his whirlpool of reprisal. Even Sun Yu Ting takes him on, despite only wanting to learn kung fu. Miss Su is similarly thrust into the fray after finding herself in Chi Kung’s clutches. Hui-Yun Li’s daunting martial arts are no match for the Lama army that pursues her.
The Shaolin Buddhists want nothing more than to find peace with Chi Kung, but his hostility leaves them little choice. They return to old ways of combat, with Sun Yu Ting learning top-secret techniques to help dispatch Chi Kung once and for all. Violence is inexorable, it seems.
Luckily, violence is rad. The fights are fast and furious, with a terrific blend of styles topped off by the feared Buddha Finger technique. Peng Kong’s choreography includes everything from tiger style to Chinese boxing and the performers are up to the task, with Chang Shan’s bringing an belligerence to his movements that nearly scald the screen.
For its rousing martial arts and thoughtful themes, Shaolin vs. Lama is a surprising kung fu movie. It’s not among the “big name” pictures in the genre, but it sure packs a punch. If that’s not enough, there’s even a balls-out fight over roast chicken.