Holy Robe of Shaolin

Reviewed by Yves Gendron with special contribution by Zac Campbell

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.

Dating back to 1984, THE HOLY ROBE OF SHAOLIN (a.k.a. Holy Robe of The Shaolin Temple) is an interesting exception to the rule, as its fight scenes do display the cinematic vigour and flair that’s usually missing in Mainland martial productions and it also has an engrossing lyrical feel in it’s visual and narrative that is rarely seen even in H-K films. HOLY ROBE is the work of Tsui Siu-ming, brother of the superbly limber action-player Tsui Siu-keung (better known in the West as Norman Chu) and a valued martial art filmmaker who unfortunately never had the career some of his films seemed to promise. HOLY ROBE’s true call to (relative) fame, however, would be that its the film debut of one of the top action players of the nineties: Yu Rong-guang; one of the stars of Yuen Woo-ping’s classic offering IRON MONKEY.

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?

HOLY ROBE’s plot is fairly generic and while Hui has undeniable Wu-shu skills, the actor playing him, Chui Heung-tung, is rather bland, although he does have a nice set of puppy eyes. While the film does sag a bit in the middle, it usually runs at a fairly good pace, and of course, the action rocks in a bombastic, edgy way, unlike most other Mainland martial-arts movies.  The reason for this difference lies in the casting of some genuine Peking Opera performers (including Yu Rong-guang) alongside Mainland Wu-shu ones, and of course the involvement of Tsui Siu-ming as director and chief action choreographer.  Unlike other Mainland martial directors like Zhang Yin-yan, the SHAOLIN TEMPLE’s helmsman, Tsui was originally a stunt-man turned action director turned a fully fledged director and was part of a very select group of filmmakers including Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, who all specialised in the performing, staging and filming of a peculiar brand of cinematic action dubbed by this writer as “Peking Opera style”.  As such, Tsui had therefore not only a far greater feel, not to mention expertise for action than any other Mainland martial director but a quite a different vision of it.
Typically, Mainland martial art’s brand of action is of Wu-shu players performing a relentless yet precise display which makes them into veritable human whirlwinds; usually captured on screen in long shot to better encompass the sheer breath of their displays.  It’s a very impressive approach, but perhaps most of the time it is somewhat mannered looking and with limited physical interaction between adversaries. In HOLY however, with his Peking Opera based action expertise in hand, Tsui had his players tumbling widely across the screen, making brutal contact with one another as well as making frequent use of props and creative use of the surroundings. All of this is captured on screen by varied film techniques such as close-up, zoom, and editing to increase the coherency, drama and expressive power of the fighting and putting the viewing inside the intimate and claustrophobic space of the battle.

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)

Besides the fight displays there doesn’t appear to be any other overt Peking Opera influences and HOLY has a most definite Mainland martial film outlook - except for one minor but very noticeable detail. When a player of any importance first appears, Chinese script springs on the screen for a second to name the characters, as they are usually striking a pose or doing an action move. This sort of introduction is frequently used in H-K martial movies and can be seen for example in the literary based swordplay of Chor Yuen as well as a good deal of the Peking Opera-based films of Yuen Woo-ping.

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.

HOLY ROBE is distinguished by a couple of very impressive stunts. One of them is an extended “living torch” sequence as a Shaolin monk is set on fire. At first nothing that fantastic as it’s a fairly regular stunt seen in Hollywood/American productions. Usually though, they tend to be short in duration as even fireproof insulated gear has its limitations.  Here though the living torch goes on and on and this stunt feat is topped when a second monk comes to join the first to share his fate in a fiery communion as they are both totally engulfed by a blaze of fire. A simply jaw dropping vision. This image of torched monks was likely inspired by one of the South-Vietnamese Buddhist monks who starting in the early sixties martyred themselves as protest against first the brutal and corrupt Southern regime that ruled their country at the time and later on against the war itself. Tsui Siu-ming had a flair for spectacular stunts, measuring up often to Jackie Chan’s level. As HOLY was more a martial art film than a stunt inclined action film, Tsui was limited in the amount of stunts he could do but he would make up for this in two of his later movies, MIRAGE (87) and BURY ME HIGH (89) which had a couple of the most stunning action stunts ever filmed.
Part of the film was shot in some Northern steppe region of Mainland China presumably Inner Mongolia or somewhere near. This allowed Tsui to showcase some showy horse riding stunts performed in long shot by probably locally hired horsemen. The location also allowed him to shoot an impressive horse stampede, some of it from the air. Besides the already mentioned flair for martial art action and stunts, Tsui also had a talent in capturing natural scenery that went beyond the mere photogenic vistas typical of Mainland films. But while the horsemanship and natural scenes are indeed breathtaking, these sequences are unfortunately a bit undermined by the close-up shots of the lead players in pseudo-riding action; effects which look overtly fake and clunky.

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).

A fate similarly shared by Tsui Siu-ming himself, as both MIRAGE and BURY ME HIGH showed that he was a major directorial talent joining an undeniable H-K action mastery with a near David Lean like epic vision. Sadly, his film-career never reached the level that one would have expected - in effect as Bey Logan called him “the super-star director that never was”. H-K cinema it would seem was not able to sustain such a brand of filmmaker while he on the other hand may have lacked the strength of conviction to continue on the path he had begun. Tsui would eventually enter television and become a producer as well.

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