The 18 Bronzemen (Joseph Kuo, 1976)
Finally an honest-to-God Shaolin film from Joseph Kuo, and of course it’s not one that has the word “Shaolin” in the title. Focusing on the Temple’s site as a center of pro-Ming resistance to the nascent Qing Dynasty, it otherwise follows a typical Kuo revenge plot: like in The 36 Deadly Styles, children are programmed from birth to take revenge on behalf of their murdered fathers, men they never knew, who were killed for reasons they barely understand. Also typical for Kuo, it’s preceded by a somewhat confusing prologue, jumping between at least three different main characters when they were children and then leaping to the present before we’re quite able to figure out who everyone is and where they are (is the Polly Shang-kuan Ling-feng character at the Temple? At some other Temple? She’s the kid with the tree right? Or is that a girl child actress playing one of the boys? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter).
But once we get to the present, things are pretty straightforward: the young men must complete their Shaolin training by mastering the 36 Chambers and defeating the 18 Bronzemen. We see a few of the chambers (no repeats from Lau Kar-leung’s version, released two years later, and I don’t think from Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple either, but it’s been awhile since I last watched that one), but the emphasis is on the Bronzemen, who generally beat the hell out of the student until they figure out which pressure point to hit on them or manage to slip by them in the maze-like hallway or otherwise defeat them. My favorite is the one where the student has to stand there getting beaten with a giant metal pole, and isn’t allowed to hide or fight back. If he can still stand at the end, then he passes the test.
The first hour of the film is focused on this training, with the final third devoted to the quest on the outside. First everyone meets up at a teahouse, then they take on the evil Qing minister. And there’s also a traitor in their midst, a sleeper agent sent into the Temple as a child by the Qing to kill the hero, who naturally turns out to be one of his best friends. The big showdown fight is pretty spectacular, more than a little reminiscent of Dragon Gate Inn, but with a bit of Chang Cheh’s bloody self-sacrifice thrown in to temper Kuo’s ambivalence toward the idea of revenge in general. The villain surrounds himself with look-alikes, which is cool enough, and then for some reason whisks everyone out of the city to the countryside for the fight, which is amazing. This is also I believe at least the fourth Joseph Kuo film I’ve seen where the final villain is dispatched by a blow to the groin.