The 18 Bronzemen

This reasonably entertaining film doesn’t have much of a plot beyond the basic “you killed my father and I must take revenge” motif, but it does have some very interesting scenes of training that take place before that revenge can be meted out. In fact, the training portion takes up the vast majority of the film and the aftermath is nearly a footnote. The film revolves around the training at the Shaolin Temple and the 36 tests that must be passed. I had initially assumed that this film was a by product of the popular 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but upon further reading I realized that 18 Bronzemen was made a full two years before 36th Chamber (1976 vs. 1978).
Tien Peng and Carter Wong
When the Qing dynasty comes to power they send killers to do away with a Ming General and his family. Only the baby boy, Shaolung, escapes and he is placed with the Shaolin monks at the age of five. Another young boy, Tianjun, also joins the Shaolin Temple and the two of them eventually become friends over the years. Shaolung grows up to be Tien Peng, while Tianjun becomes the morose Carter Wong. Both have been told from a young age that they have a special mission to perform when they leave the temple - Shaolung to kill his father’s murderer, but Tianjun’s remains a mystery.

When they enter their early 20’s both men feel it is time to attempt to pass the 36th tests. These tests must have been devised in part by the Marquis de Sade. In fact, from watching this film and its sequel, the tests must have killed more Shaolin monks than the Manchus ever did. They are brutal and dangerous in which one misstep or momentary loss of concentration will likely end in death. The first 35 are relatively easy – being trapped in a room with knives, arrows, needles and tiny iron balls being shot or thrown at the person from hidden slits in the walls or having to walk through two converging walls with needle sharp spikes embedded in them or being placed within a giant bell and having it struck until a stream of blood pours out of your nose and ears. Finally comes the 36th test – passing the 18 Bronzemen.

In a labyrinth of rooms and narrow corridors, 18 Bronzemen (monks either painted in bronze or enclosed within bronze robot like armor) try to stop the testee from passing even to the point of killing them. The 18 Bronzemen are quite nifty – not so much the ones encased in metal that look to have escaped from the Forbidden Planet, but the painted ones are lean and swift and look very fashionable.
After a few failures, both men pass the final test – burnt with the dragon symbol into their forearms - and are allowed to leave the temple. Shaolung goes to meet his destiny and Tianjun tags along. What is his true mission? Along the way they bump into Polly Shang Kwan (initially disguised as a man) and she too begins to travel with them. Up ahead their target knows that they are coming and prepares for them.
This isn’t really my kind of film – not enough fighting (if you discount the 18 Bronzemen) for a kung fu film and not nearly enough Polly (she is in only two fights), but it has some nice visuals, some effective scenes and moves along quickly. The film did quite well at the box office though - the highest ranked kung fu film in that year (thanks to Yves for this information) - and so a sequel was quickly thrown together.

My rating for this film: 6.5

Return of the 18 Bronzemen

Though the same three co-stars appear in this sequel made in the same year, their characters are completely different and both Tien Peng and Polly are in it only for a few minutes. The film takes an unusual viewpoint as it completely focuses on Carter Wong, but Wong is the villain in this piece. There really is no hero at all in the film. If you are not a fan of Carter, this might be a tough film to get through. He gives a surly but very physical performance, but at no time in the film does he gain your sympathy.
He is a Prince in the Qing dynasty and when the Emperor dies he changes the will to make himself the successor. Soon news comes to him that the Shaolin Temple is in revolt against him and this sends him into a flashback that takes up nearly the remainder of the film. He goes back ten years when he chanced upon an attractive maiden being attacked and comes to her rescue. He attempts to court her in his gruff manner, but she is engaged to Tien Peng. Carter challenges Tien, but is easily defeated and when Carter learns that Tien was trained at the Shaolin Temple, he decides that he must do the same.

Though he is much too old to begin training, his perseverance impresses the monks and they finally take him in – though they have no inkling of his true identity. While most monks don’t attempt to pass the 36 tests until after a decade of training, Carter attempts to do so after only one year. He fails – and nearly dies but he continues to come back. Finally he is forced to leave the temple when his real identity is revealed. Back to the present. Now the Emperor, Carter plans his revenge on the monks when Polly attempts to assassinate him. As we have only seen her once before in his flashback, we have no idea why. She is rebuffed and escapes. End of movie.

Huh? I suppose that there is either a sequel to this or at least there was one planned because otherwise it all makes little sense. The entire film is taken up with the training and there are many loose ends left unexplained. Polly has this final fight and one earlier in the flashback but is wasted other than that. There seems to be a slapdash feel to the film in which the producers used the sets of the first to quickly make the second. Some of the training scenes are interesting but lots of it feels like a repeat of the first film.

My rating for this film: 4.5