Most Mainland martial art movies showcase wonderful displays of Wu-shu; the acrobatically inclined Mainland-bred brand of martial arts. Unfortunately, these movie’s action scenes, for all the breathtaking physical virtuosity by the performers, usually lack the edge and distinct dashing flair found in most H-K martial art productions. As said by this writer in a review of SHAOLIN TEMPLE (soon to be put up on the site ) the very first martial art film ever made in Communist Mainland China; “it (SHAOLIN TEMPLE) felt rather like a symphony being performed in a beautiful opera house and played by a topnotch orchestra but being lead by a competent but unimaginative conductor”, a description that would probably apply to most Mainland martial art productions.
Fighting disciples of the Shaolin Temple have been a thorn in the side one time too many of the powerful Lord Wang, the commander of the ruthless Royal Guards. To put them out of the way once and for all, the nobleman devises an especially devious plan to oust the monastery’s high abbot and replace him with his own hired assassin, Yu Tianyuen. But though Wang and Yu do manage to raid and take over the temple, Yu can’t be officially enthroned as a handful of young fighting monks have escaped with the holy cotton robe, a relic once worn by Shaolin’s ancient sage Bodhidharma. The robe is needed to sanctify the high abbot’s office. Ultimately, the fate of the Shaolin Temple rests in the arms of Hui Neng the most gifted of the young fighting monks, as well as of Ying a feisty Mongolian girl whom Hui meets while fleeing. With Yu in hot pursuit however will the young heroes manage to escape and save the Shaolin Temple from Lord Wang’s dastardly plan?
Arguably the film’s best fighting sequences are the first extended fight scene between villainous Yu Rong-guang and the Shaolin high abbot, the final showdown between Yu and the heroic leads as well as the brief but pugnacious scuffle seen near the end between Yu and the captive Shaolin fighting monks where they exchange some blows and blocks while separated by a jail’s bars. But while Tsui’s Peking Opera based style supplanted the Wu-shu approach for the fight scenes, he still made ample use of the latter for the film’s many training scenes. This way HOLY had therefore the best of both worlds. (For a more comprehensive and detailed explanation over Wu-Shu and Peking Opera’s distinct screen fighting approach see the special annex following this review)
Beyond it’s rocking action, HOLY ROBE’s other qualities are the beautiful shots of natural scenery as well as a musical score that has considerable zest for both the action and the narrative sections of the film and give the move an enchanting “lyrical vibe”. With his smooth cool look and cunning feisty eyes, Yu Rong-guang makes for a great villain. Naturally, his best moments are his fighting ones and one of his most striking traits is a fighting scowl, which occasionally makes him look even more fierce and scary.
By contrast as mentioned already, except for a nice set of puppy eye, Chui Heung-tung is rather bland. His ocular assets are well use however for an ill-fated romance subplot between him and the film’s fighting lady. Hardly original since it had already been done in Jet Li’s SHAOLIN TEMPLE but perhaps more touching in a way thanks the sad quality of Chui’s eyes. Originally a Wu-Shu medal champion like Jet Li, Chui is curiously enough credited on HOLY ROBE’s DVD cover as “Donnie Lee” quite an unlikely name for a Mainland Wu-shu performer in the mid-Eighties. More likely the unscrupulous distribution company which released the film on the video market merely made up the name; aping the one of better known movie martial star; Donnie Yen of course. Further the monk picture shown on the DVD showing a fighting monk does not come from the film itself.
Chui Heung-tung only other known appearance is in Yuen Woo-ping’s semi-classic WING CHUN (94) as Michelle Yeoh’s arrogant opponent in her famed tofu cube fight. He may have made other Mainland martial arts pictures but they are unrecorded on the HKMDB. On the other hand Yu Rong-guang went-on to a fairly solid action film career, eventually relocating to H-K in the early nineties. Unfortunately, his Mainland origin and unconventional looks meant despite his huge action talent and screen presence that he never received the high recognition he deserved although he had once in a while a terrific role, most notably in IRON MONKEY (93).
Overall HOLY can be assessed as worthwhile, but not necessary viewing. Its energy and action flair is its strongest point, the bland hero its biggest drawback. It also has some value as an atypical Mainland martial art piece, as Yu Rong-guang’s film debut as well as his sole entry into a classic martial art production by one of H-K cinema’s great-unrealized talent.
Wu-Shu and Peking Opera a brief disgression:
Both Wushu and Peking Opera are art forms whose students carry out for k-f movies, essentially a stylised, acrobatic martial-arts “dance”. However, there is a crucial difference in the way each group carries themselves and performs their routines. Indeed, Wu-shu tends to emphasize a relentless yet precise display that transforms the performer into a veritable human whirlwind, and the speed and power of this spectacle builds a general sense of awe in the viewer. The precision of Wu-shu however could also be viewed as its limitation, as it tends to lack a sense of spontaneity. The performers can seem somewhat confined by the heavily structured nature of their routines. Put another way; it was as if the perfection of the physical performance took precedence over the illusion of actual fighting and compared to Peking Opera stylists, Wu-shu artists rarely actually come into violent contact with their adversaries.
Peking Opera performers by contrast do tend to include more pronounced interaction and physical contact in their combats. They usually bounce to and fro with a bombastic back-and-forth rhythm, falling to the ground, and springing back to their feet with great regularity to meet the next strike. The pace of their combat is more varied, with pauses within the heat of the action to emphasise specific movements or attacks. The Peking Opera style, in its cinematic form, also relies far more than Wu-shu on the frequent dramatic delivery of stunts, falls, impacts, and intricate fighting manoeuvres. All of this combines to create a rougher, more visceral edge in the fight performance.
Just as important as the physical performances themselves, is also the ways in which Wu-shu and Peking Opera performers are typically shot on film which are also quite distinct from one another. Indeed with their sweeping gestures and spectacular Northern kicks, Wu-shu performers tend to move around a great deal, and cover more ground than their Peking Opera brethren. Consequently, they are often filmed in long, wide shots that better encompass the sheer breadth of their display.
On the other hand, whether it is due to the traditionally more constrained spaces of the Opera stage, or their longer association with the cinematic medium, Peking Opera plays seem to be more conscious of the possibilities and limitations offered by the film medium, and tailor their acrobatic spectacles accordingly. With the use of such cinematic techniques as close-ups, zooms, slow-motion and rhythmic editing, the coherency, drama, and expressive power is enhanced, and the viewer is placed inside the intimate and claustrophobic space of the battle, rather than in the position of a distanced onlooker, as in the case of Wu-shu styled combats. The result of these techniques can of course be seen in the ways that the martial arts movies of Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo Ping and Jackie Chan differ from mainland spectacles such as SHAOLIN TEMPLE.
(Written by Zac Campbell and Yves Gendron)
The rating for the film: 7.0