The Shaolin Invincibles (1977)

Directed by: Hou Cheng
Written by:
Yang Chi-Yao
Keung Chung-Ping
Carter Wong, Chia Ling, Doris Lung, Chen Hung-Lieh, Dorian Tan, Yu Yuan & Jack Lung

In the Qing Dynasty, the evil King Yeung Chang has spread his dominance over the land. Early in the film, he orders an entire family to be executed but a monk intervenes and brings the two youngest children of the family to safety. The sisters Lu Sziu and Lu Yu go through rigorous Shaolin kung fu training at the monastery and in adulthood (played by Chia Ling and Doris Lung) they are released by the monks and set off on their deadly path of revenge against those who killed their family. The monks have sent two fighters to watch over the duo (Carter Wong and Dorian Tan's characters) and the still reigning king has gotten wind of the plot to end his life. So he prepares in the only way you should do: By arming himself with two kung fu trained gorillas to take care of business.

Behind an awfully generic title lies one of those Taiwanese martial arts movies that may not be adored but has an element or two (two, definitely two) that will turn heads. Yes, it's the one with the gorillas you might've heard of. While the combo of a serious revenge piece and an out of the blue element like animal fighters might sound like fun incompetence, one wonders if the makers were actually tired of the genre and surrounding stock story strands with the same old content. So rather than going comedic, they stick with the tried and with a straight face plant said animals into the plot. It's a lot of fun and refreshing because it isn't just an idea they put there, they execute (even if not in the costume department) and that applies to the rest of the movie too.

From the opening scroll setting up the tyranny of the world to a quick cut seeing Doris Lung and Chia Ling already grown up and fully trained for their adult mission that spells blood for blood, it's all captured well on standing but nonetheless grand temple sets complete with the requisite fine costume- and make up design. Just because you've seen a movie's technical qualities before doesn't always make it sub par and having the girls on the kung fu fighting road 3 minutes in is a good design choice for the narrative as well. It almost puts us into a place of familiarity, on the mat we always sat on as we watched these movies and then it's pulled from underneath us because then we cut to a duo of black and white wizards, their long tongues and the gorilla demonstration in front of our baddie Cheng Hung-Lieh. Able to withstand sword slashes, this is a prime example of watching and rewinding just to make sure something else wasn't spliced into your kung fu movie and that means director Hou Cheng caught us unaware.

With no real wink towards the audience that this is ludicrous, the dollar store bought suits are in no way convincing but it makes the actors mobile and hence the characters as part of the the drama can square off against the animals without choreography taking a nosedive in fluidity. You should be happy you're having fun, filmmakers sure were and now this world is open for narrative- and technical creativity as it's also revealed the gorillas have a weak spot on top of their heads. Taking bets now how the finale will play out. Amazingly enough both coherent but actually able to maintain the dignity of the basic revenge narrative combined with the outlandishness of it all, another standout is Hou Cheng's female leads. Engaging in several impressive pieces of choreography, with a hand to hand encounter with a monk and its quick and detailed exchanges being particularly admirable, Doris Lung and Chia Ling do the fury well and dispatches of hordes of opponents as the action mixes all of this with acrobatics and select wire assisted feats. The shots and editing required to make this snappy are of high standard and the makers also find a good flow stacking several fights on top of each other at one point.

Even great masters of the Taiwanese indie kung fu movie would arguably phone it in at points and leave no distinct mark but Hou Cheng has made a movie that's alive. In the latter stages we get cool genre inclusions such as a room of traps with fire and gas that while short does aid the ongoing content. Perhaps more shoehorned into the narrative than truly part of it, Dorian Tan's role and even fight scenes feel a little average and quickly conceived though but The Shaolin Invincibles doesn't forget nor neglect its highlight reel content such as the leads and lead animals plus there's the addition of a white haired villain with a knife hidden in his braid. It's all fine entertainment that benefits from an injection of the unusually competent but also crazy. Combined with Carter Wong battling his opponents (including the long tongued wizards) in a grounded fashion, a surprise fighting cameo by Jack Lung and its traditional elements gets the job done too. The laugh with the movie factor and going with the snappy movie factor is is nailed splendidly and it argues that this martial world is unpredictable to the point that it might as well contained trained fighting animals too. The movie is stoic, serious but becomes immensely fun and could even break down the wall of the stern, traditional martial arts movie fan.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson