Monday, May 12, 2008

Killer Clones: 36 Shaolin Beads (1981)

The adaptations of novelist Ku Long's fantasy swordplay novels that director Chor Yuen helmed for the Shaw Brothers during the late 70s and early 80s are movies that I enjoy on such a pre-verbal level that I've yet to write about them for fear that I won't be able to describe in words what it is that I love about them so much. That does not stop me, however, from writing about the 1981 36 Shaolin Beads, which, though it's not one of those films (it is, in fact, a Taiwanese production directed by David Lin Ta-Chao), is hard to imagine existing without them. All the elements are there: A martial world mystery with supernatural overtones, a macguffin in the form of an exotic superweapon (in this case the deadly Super Needle Gun), strong female swordsmen fighting alongside and against the male protagonists, elegant fight choreography, hidden traps and passages worthy of James Bond, and surrealistic, artificial looking sets bathed in fog and atmospheric lighting. All that's missing is Ti Lung and Ching Li!

One pleasant twist that 36 Shaolin Beads adds to the above formula is its doubling up on the usual number of wily swordsman detectives working to solve the string of murders at the movie's center. On the one hand is Pai Ying as the more rakish and cocksure of the sleuths, who has a fighting monk sidekick played by Lung Kuan Wu. On the other is Wang Kuan Hsiung, whose character is more disciplined and methodical in his search for the truth--and who teams up with a swordswoman played by Meng Chui, whose character, like his, is a relative of one of the murder victims. The result is sort of like having Ti Lung's Chiu Liu Hsiang from Clans of Intrigue and Lau Wing's Lu Xiaofeng from Clan of Amazons in the same movie. The two work at cross purposes for a good part of the film, but, as one would expect, manage to settle their differences in time for a satisfyingly swashbuckling climax.

The only problem with 36 Shaolin Beads is that the Ground Zero DVD release is your typical mastered-from-VHS affair with subtitles that are cut off on either side, making it a bit more challenging than it would otherwise be to follow the film's somewhat convoluted plot. Still, I would recommend this one to anyone who, like me, has devoured every one of Celestial's releases of Chor's wuxia films and is still hungry for more. Of course, it's not on par with the real thing, but it's close enough to provide a pleasant diversion.

No comments: