I’m sure this kind of thing happened all the time in the Taiwanese film industry of the 70s: A director would be putting the finishing touches on his perfectly respectable little martial arts film, and then someone with his hand on the purse strings would say something like, “You know, I’ve always wanted to see Judy Lee fight a gorilla.”
That is, at least, what I have to assume happened in the case of Shaolin Invincibles, a film now widely known as “the one with the gorillas.” The thing about Shaolin Invincibles, though, is that it—unlike other Taiwanese martial arts film, which included all kinds of outlandish elements to distract from their technical and narrative shortcomings—is a very well-crafted and wildly entertaining movie, replete with charismatic performances, energetic pacing, and a boatload of exciting fight sequences. Yet there are the gorillas.
For the scholars among you, the film is set during the Ching Dynasty, though all that matters for the rest of us is that it is a time when a fearsome despot has cast his shadow over the land. As we join the action, that despot, King Yeung Chang (Cheng Hung Lee) is having the entire family of a low level functionary slaughtered over an imagined slight. Fortunately, a heroic monk intervenes just in time to save the two youngest children of the family, the sisters Lu Sziu and Lu Yu. The girls are taken back to the monastery and rigorously trained in the art of Shaolin kung-fu for twelve years, after which they flower into adult womanhood in the form of actresses Chia Ling and Lung Chun-ehr.
Chia Ling is today probably best known by the name under which she was introduced to Western audiences, Judy Lee. This was one of many attempts by producers at the time to increase a kung fu performer’s box office clout by intimating some kind of vague familial connection between them and Bruce Lee (Lee being such an unusual name for a person of Chinese descent that it would be impossible to conclude otherwise.) In Chia Ling’s case, this appears to have been effective, as it is reported that quite a controversy arose once her relation to Lee was proved bogus. Anyway, what matters most is that, by any name, Chia Ling is a massively underrated performer, gifted both as an actor and a martial artist, who deserves to be considered alongside Angela Mao as one of the most iconic female stars of the Martial Arts genre. (Which is not to say that her co-star, the beautiful Lung Chun-ehr—also known as Doris Lung—was any slouch either.)
Anyway, after turning Lu Sziu and Lu Yu into unstoppable killing machines, the monks see fit to release them into the populace. The two girls split up, pledging to later rendezvous in the capital city, where they will enact their plan of vengeance against the King. Lu Sziu (Lee) then makes haste to her old village, where she makes short work of murdering a magistrate who was complicit in her family’s deaths. This act serves to announce Lu Sziu’s presence to all interested parties, including the King’s crony Governor Lei (Yee Yuen.) Lei has assured the king that all of Lu Sziu’s family has been killed, and so is anxious to have the living refutation of that claim that Sziu represents eliminated post haste. He orders that his “best men” be put to the task.
Now this reference to “best men” might not prepare you for what we see next—which is the king being introduced to a pair of kung fu trained gorillas by a pair of freaky wizards with long, tape measure-like tongues. Now I’m not saying that the idea of gorillas as kung fu assassins is necessarily stupid; I suppose that the right director might be able to pull it off, given his gorilla costumes were convincing enough. Unfortunately, it is the appearance of the gorillas in Shaolin Invincibles that render them so egregious. Keep in mind that otherwise this is a very nice film to look at, with colorful, eye catching costumes, spectacular historical locations, and attractive stars, all filmed to lovely effect by an uncredited cinematographer. The gorilla costumes, in contrast, look like old shop stock at a costume rental store; moth-eaten and ill fitting, flopping and sagging pathetically around the bodies of the actors who’s sneakers can be seen poking out from the the legs. Oh, and lets not forget to mention the clearly visible zippers.
None of this is helped by the fact that these gorillas are hyped as the ultimate weapon, not just of the king and his cronies, but of Shaolin Invincibles itself. Thus is the eventual confrontation between them and the Lu sisters endlessly hyped and foreshadowed throughout the film. Thankfully, this leaves time in the interim for a number of well-staged fights with other opponents of a less inherently silly nature—which is saying a lot given that, among those opponents, are the guys with super long tongues and another with a bulging eye that I kept expecting to pop out every time he was punched.
That said, I have to admit that the fight with the gorillas, when it comes, is actually pretty exciting. This is testament to the abilities of director Hou Cheng, who clearly knows his way around a brawl. This is a film with an impressive number of fights, and each boasts credibly bone-crunching choreography, minimal (or, at least, well concealed) wire-work, and kinetic action marked by lots of aerial flips and somersaults, all of which is filmed and edited for maximum legibility and impact.
It is after this fashion that Lu Sziu wallops her way across the countryside, leaving a trail of clobbered minions in her wake. And when she is eventually joined by two fighters—played by Carter Wong and Dorian Tan--whom the monks have assigned to watch over her, the body count increases exponentially. Once she and her sister are reunited, the two women, under false identities, take jobs as housekeepers at the King’s trap-laden castle, hoping by that means to clear the way for an eventual siege.
As someone who likes nothing more in an old martial arts film than a trap-laden lair, I have to say I was disappointed by how few of these alleged gizmos we got to see put into action. The only exception, really, is a trap door that delivers Lu Sziu into a spike-laden underground dungeon. This she escapes, in a sequence reminiscent of The Count of Monte Christo, with the help of a prisoner in a neighboring cell, who turns out to be the castle’s ill-fated architect. Armed with a map he has given her, she and her fellow fighters head into Shaolin Invincibles’ conclusion, which is just as spectacular a mosaic of parallel action as the film has been priming us for all along, with each of the stars’ considerable fighting skills being showcased to dazzling effect.
If you are a long-time reader of this blog, it is likely that Shaolin Invincibles' reputation has preceded this review by a considerable measure of time. In that case, you will probably be surprised to learn that I give the film my unqualified recommendation—and not as some kind of "WTF" kung-fu oddity, but as a thrilling and well-made example of its genre. It may lack the lofty pretensions of a King Hu film, but, as a nuts-and-bolts martial arts action film, it delivers everything you might want in high style. Thus its shitty looking gorillas are, to my mind, not a fatal flaw, but something for which it has earned a well deserved dispensation.