It’s been a while since I reviewed a martial arts film from Hong Kong, and even longer since I reviewed a film from Shaw Brothers. With Netflix including more and more of the Shaw Brothers filmography, now is as good a time as any to revisit the studio and their works.
Executioners from Shaolin is part of what is practically a sub genre of martial arts films – movies focusing on various alumnus of the Shaolin monasteries, who were scattered to the winds after Pai Mei betrayed the monasteries, leading to their destruction. This is set up through expository dialog over a fight between the head of the monastery and Pai Mei, where we see a recurring technique that Pai Mei uses in combat – the ability to retract his eyes and his genitals into his body, in the latter case trapping the limb of his opponent who tries to strike them. If it wasn’t clear before, Executioners from Shaolin is just a swords’ stroke away from wuxia fantasy.
The remainder of the film follows Hung Hsi-Kuan, one of the leaders of the survivors, as first he and a group attempt to spread anti-government sentiment through theater boats, and later after Pai Mei moves against the boats, living in seclusion with his wife, and later, his son while figuring out a way to defeat Pai Mei.
This is where the film’s primary weakness comes in, as we get not one, not two, but three training montages. The first comes with Hsi-Kuan preparing for his first fight against Pai Mei, then retreating after learning Pai Mei’s secret, and coming up with another training regimen from hell to counter against that. Then, after this training sequence, leading to Hsi-Kuan’s second defeat, we have Hsi-Kuan’s son, Wen-Ding, now in his teens, putting himself through our third training montage as he tries to teach himself his father’s Tiger Style Kung Fu (to supplement his mother’s Crane Style), so he can avenge his father.
That leads me to the film’s secondary weakness – the time scale of the film. Over the course of this movie, about 17 to 20 years pass. This hurts the film’s sense of urgency, and adds another narrative wrinkle. Pai Mei was already grey haired and bushy-eyebrowed (famously so). If he was no spring chicken when he betrayed the temple, after twenty years, considering the time period, you start approaching the very real risk that either he’d die of old age before you got revenge against him, or that by the time you fought him, he wouldn’t be a real challenge.
Finally, like several other Shaw Brothers films, like Crippled Avengers, there is literally no denouement.
Still, the film’s fight scenes are very well staged, and the performances are very well done. I also need to give props to Shaw Brothers makeup people, due to their doing an excellent job showing the passage of time on Hsi-Kuan’s face. His wife (and Wen-Ding’s mother) Ying Chun, doesn’t go through quite the same makup shift, but I can cut them some slack for that.
I do recommend seeing the film, as it is a well done martial arts film, but just do be aware that you’re going to spend a lot of time on training montages, and that the film’s ending is incredibly abrupt.