Temple of the Red Lotus



Reviewed by Simon Booth

Well, a while ago I made the claim in my review for COME DRINK WITH ME that "this is where it all started". It turns out I have to take that back, 'cause 1 year before COME DRINK WITH ME was TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS... and "it" all seems pretty well in place here.

Jimmy Wang Yu has the starring role, as a young kid who heads off to Dragon Valley to meet the childhood friend who was promised as his bride. When he gets there, he finds that the family of the bride might not be an entirely honest bunch of people though. What is the story behind their feud with the monks at the Temple Of The Red Lotus, for a start?
The movie is a luscious period drama featuring a strong story and excellent   performances from the entire cast, especially young Wang Yu in his star-making role, and the gorgeous Ching Ping as his bride. The sets and costumes are as sumptuous as any Shaw Brothers period piece, and it’s all beautifully filmed. TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS has a truly compelling plot, full of drama and emotion, and a nicely developed intrigue. Unlike many other swordplay movies, there is never any trouble following the plot and the cast of characters are all easy to keep track of. The script is very tight, and more solid and professional than most HK movies.
Most surprising to me though are the action sequences, featuring exciting and dynamic swordplay choreography that's filmed just as well as anything in COME DRINK WITH ME. In fact, though King Hu definitely introduced some dramatic style of his own, I'd go so far as to say that TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS actually has better action than his seminal work... or indeed any other 60's film I've seen so far. So, is this where "it" started. Apparently, it is. I don't even know who was responsible for the action direction here, though Tong Gaai and Lau Kar Leung are all listed as extras at HKMDB, so it would seem quite possible that this is some very early work from those legendary choreographers. If that's the case though, I don't know why it's so much better than their work a year later in THE JADE BOW. Yuen Wo Ping is also listed as an extra, but surely he was much too young to be action director at that point.
Looking at the movie it's hard to believe it was made in 1965, as it stands up easily to pretty much any swordplay of the 60's or 70's (or any time). I've never even heard of director Chui Chang Wang before, and HKMDB only lists 15-20 movies for him. I hope that this beautifully remastered Celestial DVD will help to make his name as well known amongst the fans in the west as equally visionary peers King Hu and Chang Cheh. I am especially looking forward to the two sequels to RED LOTUS, THE TWIN SWORDS and THE SWORD AND THE LUTE.

Highly recommended (9/10).


Reviewed by Brian

I have to confess to being fairly disappointed by this offering overall though it certainly has a number of plusses in its favor. From a historical perspective it is considered a very important film in the development of period martial arts films that came to dominate Hong Kong over the next few decades. In his book Hong Kong The Extra Dimensions, Stephen Teo credits it with being perhaps the first film in the evolvement from the cinematic male romantic hero to the wuxia hero. Most male characters in films up to this time were portrayed as rather limpid sensitive fellows and the martial art films in the 60’s (in particular those from Chang Cheh) were to radically change that image to one of masculine hunks.

The thing is though that while watching this I found myself being amazed at what a wimp Jimmy Wang Yu’s character is. Wang Yu looks astonishingly young and slender in this film – his scenes of self-imposed massed carnage still off in the future – and he gets beaten up by just about everyone in the film! His character is suppose to have had ten year’s sword training, but his swordplay struck me as very awkward looking and Wang Yu had clearly not developed his slashing powerful sword style yet. Not only does Wang Yu constantly get defeated and is saved primarily by his pout – but his opponents are mainly all women in this very female driven film that has a household of women from different generations that one suspects could take on an army of men and make quick ends to them.
The film does have a lovely look to it and an intriguing plot that I am eager to see continued in the sequels. There is also a fabulous cast  - many who were to become quite famous over the next few years from Wang Yu, the lovely Ching Ping, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng as the father, Petrina Fung Bo Bo who was already famous as a child actress, Wu Ma as one of the bad guys, Ivy Ling Po as the mysterious woman in red and many extras who were to grace martial arts films for years to come. My main complaints were that the action looked very so-so to me and that the film was poorly paced and didn’t flow particularly well.

My rating for this film: 6.0


Reviewed by Yves Gendron

THE TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS is part of a string of pioneering movies from the mid-sixties which brought a vibrant new style for H-K swordplay movies, made them into a hugely popular genre and started a new era for Chinese martial art cinema that would last twenty years. So to look at TEMPLE is to look at the very dawn of modern martial art cinema. Made by the Shaw Brothers Studio TEMPLE also saw the film debut of the studio’s two newest acting recruits who would go on to have a tremendous careers: the already brooding, sour-faced Lo Lieh and martial art cinema’s would-be first male superstar: Wang Yu.

Shaw had dabbled in martial art films before, as with the 1961 film THE SWALLOW starring the studio lead female super star Linda Lin Dai, but only occasionally as the genre was considered too low-brow for their would-be glamorous and sophisticated studio. Things changed however when Shaw’s chairman Run Run saw the local success met by Japanese samurai movies such as the Akira Kurosawa productions YOJIMBO (61) and SANJURO (62) as well as the film series ZATOICHI which began in 1963. Wanting to capture a whole new audience, Run Run therefore shifted some of his studio resources to make a home grown swordplay film and commissioned his directors and screen-writers to view and study Japanese martial productions so as to copy their film techniques and borrow plot ideas.  He also started hiring Japanese directors and cinematographers to upgrade technical quality of Shaw’s movies. At one point he even sent some of the studio’s own technical staff to Japan to learn local techniques.
While not the first martial art movie made under Shaw’s new guidelines, TEMPLE nonetheless would appear to have been the studio’s most ambitious and accomplished early martial art effort; as the film was Shaw’s first attempt at a lavish, colour, scope two-parter martial art production, (the second instalment being THE TWIN SWORDS). The film also cast the studio’s latest stars Wang Yu, Lo Lieh and the pretty Chin Ping as well as the already established veteran Ivy Ling Po and child star Fung Bo Bo
Wandering young swordsman Gui Wu(Wang Yu) unexpectedly comes upon an ambush in which black-hooded bandits are plundering what appears to be an official escort.  Wounded in his attempt to help out, Wu quickly recovers thanks to the providential help of the “Scarlet Maid” (Ivy Ling Po) a famed swordswoman who was nearby. Wu then arrives soon afterwards in the territory of the Jin Clan, in order to learn their famed dart throwing technique but also to rekindle his romance with the clan master's daughter Lianzu  (Chin Ping) to whom he was betrothed in childhood. Once the wedding takes place however, Wu begins to notice some strange things going on with his new in-laws, most notably that their household keeps being attacked by the henchmen of the mysterious Red Lotus Clan. Wu eventually concludes that his in-laws are actually the bandits who wounded him and he is unwilling to remain in an outlaws’ s den. He wants to leave with his lovely wife, but in order to do so the couple will have to pass through the gauntlet of the clan’s female members, each one a formidable fighter. And while all of this is occurring, the Red Lotus henchmen are still lurking in the shadows.
TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS actually opens with the sight of a small pool of blood having come out of the mouth of what appear to be a corpse. At the time of the movie’s release this was a strong sign that the film would differ from H-K martial art cinema’s normal depiction of violence in which there was never any blood shown even if two duellists fought for an extended time. The Japanese samurai films appeal greatly stemmed in their realistic and edgy brand of action in which the swordplay was fast and the fighters really seemed to cut each other in bloody fashion. Thus TEMPLE followed suit with its own depictions of sword slashing, limb chopping and lethal dart throwing. It may seem rather stagy and tame by today’s standard but was considered quite exiting and gruesome at the time. A large bulk of H-K made martial movies were fantasy oriented with the heavy use of special effects to depict such abilities as the palm power or weapons like the flying sword. Therefore, TEMPLE’s edgier more realistic brand of action along with the film’s lavish production values, polished film techniques and the use of colour and of the scope format made the movie a whole new martial cinema experience for a Chinese audience. It was as exiting as the Japanese samurai films but with a distinct Chinese flavour to it.
If TEMPLE displayed some radical changes from the way martial art movies had been made previously, it still kept some typical features as well. Thus, despite some of its polished film techniques the movie still remains dominated by stagy Peking Opera aesthetics especially in its sets, use of music and theatrical action. Strong female characters also dominated Hong Kong cinema at the time with lead males usually depicted as weaker than their female counterparts; so likewise in TEMPLE. Wang Yu’s Gui Wu is a shy, awkward kind of a guy who’s only barely adequate with a sword and who has often to rely on his wife to make it through a fight. TEMPLE has actually not one, not two, but a full bevy of strong female characters which include a wife, an aunt, a sister-in-law, a cute kid, a granny and lets not forget the Scarlet Maid - all strong willed, martial experts and any of them more than a match for Wang’s skills. No doubt, in TEMPLE we are a far cry from Wang Yu’s later cool, gloomy and angst-filled screen persona as well as the male-centred bloody martial universe of Chang Cheh.
Another characteristic often found in old martial movies was that because of the dearth within the film industry of action choreography experts (whose position had yet to be firmly defined and established) the emphasis in these productions was not so much on action proper but on melodramatic and convoluted plotting. Now while TEMPLE did have indeed half a dozen martial fights full of sound and fury, there was still some difficulty in making the film’s action and drama fully blend together seamlessly and with an edge. This peculiar failing is best exemplified by the dramatically key series of sequences where the young heroic couple have to escape the family household by going through, one at a time, four female guardians with the clan’s stick wielding matriarch actually the most powerful of the lot. But it’s more by begging than actually fighting that the young couple manage to succeed in a rather anti-climatic and tedious resolution from a potentially promising action scene. TEMPLE does eventually deliver an impressively edgy and dynamic fight scene when the evil henchman of the Red Lotus gang surrounds the heroic couple. In it Wang Yu finally sheds, if only momentary, his clumsy fighting skills and gets to unleash a dashing display. This is a scene though that comes at the very end of the film, a nice way, probably to hook the viewer for the film’s next instalment.
In any case, viewing TEMPLE actually gives a greater appreciation to the tremendous groundbreaking accomplishment achieved by King Hu in his seminal swordplay COME DRINK WITH ME; another Shaw new wave swordplay production released eight months after TEMPLE in July 1966. King Hu understood that in cinema the less plot there is the better the stylish action delivery could be; so with his own inspired action vision in mind and through his own successful cinematic synthesis of both Japanese style action and Peking Opera aesthetic he pushed H-K swordplay beyond its stagy and literary boundaries right into true, pure cinema. Still, despite it’s drawbacks and limitations TEMPLE must be given it’s due for having been one of the films that started the “new style” process that would be extended by COME DRINK WITH ME.
TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS was made by Chui Chang-wang (Xu Zeng-hung in Mandarin) a then young director with a background in cinematography, who had been one of the Shaw staff sent to Japan to learn their film techniques. It was future martial art film master Chang Cheh who wrote the film’s script, as at the time he was Shaw’s script supervisor and he also served as special advisor to Chui who had been the cinematographer for Chang's own "new style" martial debut TIGER BOY. Released in February 1966, three months after TEMPLE, TIGER had much of the same cast; Wang Yu, Lo Lieh and Chin Ping, but it was a black and white production that it seems had been made nearly three years earlier back in 1963 but was not released until after TEMPLE. Chui also directed TEMPLE’s two follow-up movies - TWIN SWORDS  (released in December 1965) and THE SWORD AND THE LUTE (April 1967). This series of works give him consideration as one of the key figures in the establishment of Shaw’s new style martial art “wave”, but he was much more a film technician than a real martial film author in the way both Chang Cheh and King Hu were. Although he produced and directed more than a dozen martial movies well into the seventies none of his works appear to have gained much of a classic status.
In an interview, Chui actually credited Lau Kar-leung and Tong Gai (Mandarin name Tang Chia) as TEMPLE’s action choreographers. This is a problematic statement as it’s well known that Tang and Lau were discovered and immediately hired by Shaw on the basis of their ground-breaking action choreography work in THE JADE BOW which the HKMDB web site cites a release date in January 1966, three months after TEMPLE’s own release. Chang Cheh’ s MAGNIFICENT TRIO, released in November 1966, is the Tang/Lau team’s first official Shaw piece of work. So Chui would appear to have made a mistake, which is quite possible, as memory is known to be tricky. The other explications could be that either the HKMDB has a date wrong or that the Shaw bosses managed somehow to view JADE BOW well before its release and promptly hired the pair to work on TEMPLE, which was started, completed and released before JADE BOW, but this is hypothetical. Unfortunately, the HKMDB does not give TEMPLE’s action choreography credit so the issue remains clouded.
Wang Yu, Lo Lieh along with COME DRINK WITH ME co-star Yueh Hua were Shaw’s first generation of male martial art stars, having come to a Shaw advertised recruitment call along with hundred of others and became the sole chosen candidates following an arduous selection process. After an acting and martial art course both Wang and Lo Lieh were launched into the limelight with TEMPLE. While Wang Yu received a matinee idol type of role, Lo Lieh was the brooding “other guy”, the male star's rival which was to be his stock screen role for a couple of year before coming in to his own toward the end of the sixties as both a heroic lead and arch-villainous foil.
Wang Yu’s female co-star Chin Ping was also a newcomer but with already one movie under her belt, CRIMSON PALM (64) a previous martial hit by Shaw. Cutie pie and bashful looking, Chin hardly looked like fierce sword woman material in this film. Very cute yes but she was most definitively not Cheng Pei-Pei in terms of screen presence and it’s pretty obvious her action capabilities were quite limited. Hard to believe now but Chin Ping (along with Pei Pei) was one of Shaw’s top sixties female martial stars as she did at least a dozen martial films in her eighteen-film career. A bit more convincing in her swordswoman role was special guest star Ivy Ling Po as the Scarlet Maid. Although she makes only very brief, occasional appearances and doesn’t draw a sword at all, she does have the requisite screen presence to pull off her role. TEMPLE’s other big special guest star was H-K cinemas own Shirley Temple, Fung Bo Bo as Chin Ping character’s adorable spunky niece. The daughter of crooked mouth character actor Fung Fung as well as the sister of future notorious toad faced screen villain Fung Hark-onn (to whom even as an adorable kid she shares a family resemblance), little Bo Bo even at a mere ten years of age was actually one of TEMPLE’s veterans having been cast in nearly eighty film productions since the age of six.
TEMPLE also had an early appearance by future famed character Wu Ma as a Red Lotus henchman. He was in his mid-twenties at the time and had just begun his film career. Other Shaw Brother regular players include; Tien Feng and Ku Feng as elder male members of the Jin Clan, the Japanese born Feng Yi as a slimy evil abbot and of course the ubiquitous character actor Kok Lee-yan as a magistrate. Another supporting player worth notice would be actress Go Bo-shu (also known as Kao Pao-shu) as Chin Ping’s sword expert aunt, who would become in the seventies one of the extremely rare martial art female directors.
TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS is the screen adaptation of an extremely popular “wuxia” novel dating back from 1928; Legend of the Strange Hero by a writer named Xiang Kain (wuxia=martial art fiction as the Chinese called it themselves). It had been immediately adapted for the screen as THE BURNING OF THE RED LOTUS MONASTERY, one of the first martial art movies ever made and proved so popular that eighteen subsequent episodes were filmed thus initiating the earliest golden age of fantasy martial art movies. Sadly, just like TIGER BOY no print of the serial is known to have survived to this day. The novel was adapted on at last two other subsequent occasions, both in H-K. First in 1956 with STRANGE HERO, then once more in 1963 under the BURNING OF THE RED LOTUS MONASTERY appellation starring in the male lead role Cho Tat-wah and choreographed by Simon Yuen Siu-tien, the future Drunken Master himself. Consisting of more than one hundred chapters, most of Legend of the Strange Hero’ s film adaptations have tended to focus on certain significant episodes, probably the most important of which was Gui Wu and Lianzhu’s escape from the latter’s evil family.
As filial piety is a virtually sacrosanct virtue in traditional China, the very idea of children seeking to leave the clan was considered a revolutionary idea when first written in the 1928 novel and was used in all the subsequent film adaptations.  Shaw’s version of the story differed radically from the other films however as the in-laws clan turned out not to be villainous after all; only mistaken as such.  Another major difference was in the way the story was presented; in a realistic gritty fashion in TEMPLE while all of the others had been quite fantasy oriented.  BURNING 1963’s bizarre and fantastic imagery has even been described as “almost Daliesque”. Both the 1957 and the 1963 version were shot in black and white with Cantonese dialogue as it was H-K Cantonese cinema which had specialized in martial art movie making before the advent of Mandarin cinema's New Style swordplays.
Interestingly, TEMPLE was actually one of the earliest movie productions done in post-production synch-sound, which would soon become the established practice for decades to come. In the end, what the three latest versions have in common was that all of them were conceived as two-parters. The Legend of the Strange Hero’s novel may have been adapted once more at a much later late as a Taiwanese movie bearing the title BURNING OF THE RED LOTUS MONASTERY that was released in 1982, starring martial art actress Pearl Cheung Ling. Strange Hero’s idea of the young couple seeking to escape their evil family was so compelling that it was used in a couple of other unrelated movies including most notably Lau Kar-leung’s 1978 martial art production; SHAOLIN MANTIS.
Unlike COME DRINK WITH ME, which remains to this day a superb timeless classic, TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS could be more aptly described as something of a haphazard antique prototype. It is overall a sound, polished, visually colourful and good-looking film, but a bit on the plain and awkward side in regard to its fight scenes, drama and character appeal. Still TEMPLE has a great old-fashion charm going for it and remains an entertaining piece, especially worthy of a good chuckle or two for Wang Yu’s dopey matinee idol hero character and Chen Ping’s bashful swordswoman. It’s also quite interesting and instructive to see a Shaw swordplay before it started to get all gloomy and angst-filled as it later became.
As stated before, TEMPLE OF THE RED LOTUS was meant to basically establish both the characters and the situations that were to be resolved with more drama and action in the second part. This accounts for much of TEMPLE’s dramatic and action drawbacks. The second part, THE TWIN SWORDS, was released six weeks after TEMPLE on December 22nd, 1965. For now though, Celestial has not made any plans to release this film this year, leaving the viewer on a ledge as to what is going to happen next.

Overall merit: 6.5 but with quaint charm and chuckle comedy: 7

Sources: A Study of  Hong Kong Swordplay film (1925-1980) , Hong Kong Urban Concil



ABOUT TIGER BOY.

Released in February 1966 three months after TEMPLE, TIGER had actually been produced up to two or three years earlier and is considered as Shaw's first modern martial art movie. It had much of the same cast as TEMPLE, Wang Yu, Lo Lieh and Chin Ping, but was a black and white production. TIGER was meant as a prototype to see if the Shaw Studios were able to make a convincing Chinese swordplay and to judge whether a Chinese audience would accept it. Despite it limited distribution; it appears to have been successful enough to convince Shaw to go ahead in their martial art initiative. Preserved on a friable brand of celluloid, none of the TIGER BOY prints appear to have survived to this day and it is nowadays considered as a lost movie.