After the destruction of the Shaolin temple by the Manchu and a traitorous Shaolin disciple, five survivors (Ti Lung, Meng Fei, Chi Kuan Chun, David Chiang, and Alexander Fu Sheng) must join up with Han patriots and defeat the oppressive invaders. With their training unfinished, they must each master their own specific techniques to defeat the formidable Manchu fighters.
Chang Cheh directs this tale of revenge and unity with some of the biggest stars of Shaw Bros. Studios. A typical affair, the film is action-packed and while not as blood-soaked as some of his more well known efforts, not everyone makes it to the end credits. With fight direction from Lau Kar Leung and Lau Kar Wing, the fights feature long cuts, good movement, and a solid variety of unique techniques. Mixing up weapon fights with kung fu, the Lau brothers utilize the great talent on screen.
A star-studded affair, any one of the five main characters could and have carried a whole picture alone. Together they help to develop background and personality beyond the typical student looking for revenge. Along the way they encounter various factions and seek to unify them against the Manchu. Actors like Gordon Liu, Lo Dik, and Jack Long populate these roles and help round out a cast that will have long time fight film fans pointing and remembering. The villains are equally as well known; the incomparable Wang Lung Wei, Fung Hak-on, Yueng Kar Yan, Kong Do, and Choi Wang provide formidable adversaries to our heroes.
Production is good on the film, definitely a higher budget was involved than is typical of other Shaw works from the period. Large sets and numerous outdoor scenes showed a willingness to leave the famous studio grounds and shoot in real exteriors. Music is solid but hardly memorable; it does serve its purpose though and that is transition scenes and guide non-dialogue moments cleanly.
The action is the main attraction here with numerous and varied fights and a finale that is terrifically long and exciting. Another point where the film excels is in the stellar training sequences. Chi Kuan Chun especially delivers some great forms and his showdown with Fung Hak-on is probably the highlight of the film.
Five Shaolin Masters is a solid entry in director Cheh’s filmography and definitely worth watching for the kung fu aficionado. With one of the best casts ever assembled for a martial arts film and some terrific fights and physical performances, this is a “classic” that deserves the moniker.
You may enjoy this film if you liked: Heroes Two, Executioners from Shaolin, and/or Eight Diagram Pole Fighter