Fight for Survival
aka 十大掌門闖少林 aka The Fight for Shaolin Tamo Mystique aka Shi da zhang men chuang Shao Lin aka Lady Wu Tang
Written and directed by Hou Cheng
Hold on to your hats with shock, as here is a Polly Shang Kuan film where things are weird! I know, right? Who would have thought! As usual, it’s a good weird, part of the kung fu comedy atmosphere of the late 1970s. Fight for Survival/Fight for Shaolin Tamo Mystique (the much cooler name I first learned of the film as!) is packed with a bunch of big named cameos, characters who developed odd body modifications thanks to whatever kung fu specialty they have, gender bending, cornball comedy, and terrible dubbing. If you enjoy characters with extending arms and legs, who employ weird headbutts and walk on their hands, or who are randomly painted up as animals and waiting in rooms at the Shaolin Temple, then you are in for a treat.
The version I have is fullscreen and dubbed, which is a shame, as this film has a lot of neat choreography and costumes that requires a widescreen high-definition transfer to get the best effects. I guess I can expect that the same day the widescreen Monkey War shows up on remastered Blu-ray, aka NEVER! What a shame the wildest and craziest movies are also the most ignored when it comes to high quality.
In this film, Polly’s character Shih Pu Chuan sets out to recover 10 books stolen from the Shaolin Temple, each volume teaching one kung fu technique, and each technique has been mastered by the respective theif of that volume. But, if you only learn one of the kung fu skills, your body soon begins to modify itself based on that kung fu skill. Thus, the guy who learns to extend his arms has permanent long arms. The guy who stretched his legs looks like he’s walking around on stilts. The woman who stole the Positive Kung Fu book turns into a man, and the guy who stole the Negative Kung Fu book turns into a woman. The only way to not get physically screwed up is to learn all the skills so there is a balance. Even Shih Pu Chuan isn’t immune, her female character begins to turn into a man, and her sifu can’t remember how to do Negative Kung Fu. That leads him into discovering the Temple let the books get stolen and her subsequent quest. At one point it is declared that the villains can’t turn back to normal because they are evil, which might be saying that without balance, you are evil. Just remember, folks, every thing in moderation.
Of course, that also leads to yet another film where Polly Shang Kuan plays a gender bending character. This time she’s officially playing someone who is both sexes, though her long term goal is to stay a female. The only real disadvantage of turning male is gaining a faint mustache and having lots of ladies falling in love with you. As the main lady is the woman who used to be the man who stole the Negative Kung Fu book, things become tragic irony.
The main tale of the training and quest only eats up about an hour of the running time, we then have extended scenes where the many cameos attack Shaolin Temple because their followers (some of the followers were involved in the theft and some weren’t) are arrested in public. Now Shih has to defend her home from all these new people, but thankfully she now has lots of skills with which to do so.
The crazy specialties of the thieves gives us some awesome goofy kung fu, along with a whole host of guest stars who pop up when the thieves impersonate them in the beginning, and then return in the end when the real versions of the masters attack the temple. The cast is one of those ridiculously huge casts that makes me want to do a Roll Call 30 people long, and is filled with actors who aren’t identified very well. Luckily, I came to my senses, and it’s only 4 people long! We’re aren’t obsessively stupid at TarsTarkas.NET for nothing!
Like most of the Taiwanese kung fu comedies, the humor is a mix of slapstick and reaction shots. These aren’t films that are taken seriously by hardcore martial arts fans. Add to that the ridiculous dubbing and often awful fullscreen vhs presentation, and you can see why these flicks don’t get any respect. Which is a shame, because the ri-donk-ulousness is awesome! I’ll take a film that knows how to have fun over a dramafest that takes itself far too seriously any day!
The ten are worried that the Ta Mo book is missing, but Abbot Hoi Kong says the still have it. The Ta Mo book was written by Ta Mo, the founder of kung fu, and contains ten sections, each with a different secret but amazing technique.
The Abbot’s assurances are not enough for Chang Shan Feng, who states: “We ten kung fu masters are all famous, so don’t be afraid to show us!” Well, with logic like that… Abbot Hoi shows them book, but Chang Shan Feng punches Abbot Hoi Kong and knocks the book to pieces, each of the pieces are grabbed by the ten masters and they run! This is like that time I was at Borders Books (RIP) and this crazy hobo guy tried to steal one of those Ultimate Sex Guide books that were up at the front of the store on clearance for $3.99, and then he ripped up the book when security came to the alarm and pages full of naked people were all over the sidewalk. And that hobo was Kim Kardashian!
Just kidding! It was Khloe.
All of the attackers meet in the forest to divide up the Ta Mo Classics, each getting one. The next thing they do is remove their masks…they are now all different actors! Yes, they were just impersonating famous masters! The real characters show up later, so things get even more complicated. They all leave to go practice their new moves. Here is a who’s who of people who grabbed the books (and thus our famous people cameos) and what book they grabbed, listed by actor because most of them don’t have names:
- Positive Classic – stolen by Elsa Yeung Wai-San impersonating Chia Ling
- Poison Classic – stolen by Gam Sai-Yuk impersonating Lung Suen
- Boxing Classic – stolen by Weng Hsiao-Hu impersonating Wen Chiang-Long
- Negative Classic – stolen by Tang Gok-Yan (playing Nan Kum Yu) impersonating Don Wong Tao (playing Chang Shan Feng)
- Cave Classic – stolen by Fang Mien impersonating Sze Ma-Lung
- Battle Line Classic – stolen by Cheng Fu-Hung impersonating Chan Sam-Lam
- Foot Classic – stolen by Wang Tai-Lang impersonating Yuen Si-Wo
- Strategy Classic – stolen by Lee Keung impersonating Kam Kong
- Head Technique Classic – stolen by Lui Wan-Biu impersonating Chen Lei
- An Unnamed Classic – stolen by Hoh Si-Man impersonating Cheung Liu (they forgot to name this Classic!)
Shih Pu Chuan hangs out outside the Shaolin Temple, wanting to learn kung fu. She won’t be taught, because she’s a girl, and girls are gross! But two apprentice monks – Ching Fang and Ming Yuen – figure out they can use her to carry water for them for a whole year, and thus have time to goof off. After a year, the Abbot discovers their ruse and punishes them to three more years of water carrying. But he still won’t teach Shih Pu Chuan…but a crazy old monk named Uncle Lin Chiu (the 109th Abbot) says he will! The monks object, but Uncle Lin Chiu uses Shih Pu Chuan as a puppet to both fight their way inside and teach her techniques while doing so. They discover the Ta Mo books were stolen by the ten imposters, and Uncle Lin Chiu vows they will recover the volumes in three years to recover Shaolin Temple prestige.
For the training montage, Polly learns such skills as extending arms and legs, sucking in smoke, using head to break boulders, and growing a mustache! The last one is because she’s been practicing positive kung fu and become a man. She needs to practice negative kung fu to get her womanhood back…but Uncle Lin Chiu doesn’t remember it! Then he dies!
Shih Pu Chuan is allowed to become a member of the Shaolin Temple, which means she gets to carry a red hot brass bucket with dragon marks on it. Said marks are burnt into her arms while she carries it. Now she is a full-fledged member and can go on her journey to recover the tombs. She chooses Ching Fang and Ming Yuen to go with her, and while shaving gold paint off of the dead Uncle Lin Chiu for money on the trip, she discovers he faked his death.
Shih Pu Chuan has great luck in finding people who have stolen the books, as she immediately runs into clues involving a woman in red. The lady used to be the man who stole the negative book, learned the technique, became a hot chick, got sexually harassed, and now hates all men. When men try to rape this Negative Book Girl, she kills them in one blow with needles. Her name might be Nan Kum Yu.
Instead of wasting her time tracking down all these people, Shih Pu Chuan puts them on notice with a bulletin challenging them all! This is lazy detective work, but also efficient, because if there is one thing kung fu people worry about, it’s being challenged by random people. She’s also got Chang Shan Feng investigating because he was one of the people who was impersonated. Shih Pu Chuan fights him briefly, to give a bit of romantic tensions or something.
The villains begin appearing singularly or in small groups.
The first guy successfully located is the guy who has the Boxing Classic book, he has long extendo arms. Shih does as well, but hers can shrink back. “It can because I am not evil!” Evil loses and Shih has now recovered the first book.
Next up are the Head and Foot Masters: one walks upside down, the other has giant legs. There is a big stilt fight between Polly and the giant legged villain while upside down guy flips around and bashes stuff with his head. Polly captures them both (and she keeps saying “take him away” but there has been no information on where they are taken to!)
Negative Book Girl poses as a masseuse, and pretends to have come for the monks, who freak out because she is a girl. She ends up falling for Shih Pu Chuan, thinking she is a man.
Several of the other thieves engage in intrigue in order to confront Shih Pu Chuan and steal the other volumes. They try to use Negative Book Girl, but their efforts fail. They can’t kill her because her needles are too fast – the needles will kill you by first making you feel comfortable, then you die. Like eating candy. That’s what they say. I don’t know who says it, but it’s they. The Poison Classic Master bursts in and poisons all of them and forces them to work for him, or they’ll die from the poison.
Cave Classic poses as a masseuse as Shih Pu Chuan and her companions try to lure the Negative Book Girl and get him instead. He gets them all in pressure point locks, paralyzing them, and then all the remaining Classic thieves fight over the volumes Shih Pu Chuan had. Poison Master claims them all, but just then Shih Pu Chuan walks in the room. As she’s mastered all the Classics (except Negative), of course she’d know how to defend against the pressure point attacks. Her targets don’t, and she knocks out everyone with the pressure point attacks.
Shih Pu Chuan then tries to save Negative Book Girl from her poison (she got a worse dose), and while doing so Positive Book Boy and Battle Lines arrive. Positive Book Boy is the opposite of Negative Book Girl, in that she was a woman who became a man after learning the book. Also, if one of them dies, the other will die. She agrees to turn in her book to help Negative Book Girl, but Battle Lines is not about to turn in his book.
In fact, he turns invisible and lays a trap, a trap that’s not in the Battle Lines Classic, so Shih Pu Chuan will be unfamiliar with it! Shih Pu Chuan, Positive, and Negative are forced to fight, only they can’t see their opponents in the dark. Shih Pu Chuan realizes they are being attacked by men with black greasepaint on their bodies, so calls for her two friends to spray them with water. The monks do, thanks to the help of one of the captives who they fill with water and then push to make him spew it all over.
Now everyone is captured, and they return to Shaolin Temple with all 10 parts of the Ta Mo Classic. The film is over and it’s time to go home. Hmmm, things finished up quicker than usual, in just under an hour. Could there be more film? Will we find Apu singing on the roof about how he still needs the Kwik-E-Mart?
Even better! The 10 masters who were impersonated in the beginning of the film meet up and are upset that their students were arrested in public and brought back to Shaolin Temple! Since their honor has been taken, they storm Shaolin Temple and demand answers!
The Abbot explains the situation, but refuses to give back the captives until the monks have healed them from the effects of learning only 1 of the Ta Mo Classic techniques. This isn’t what the mob of kung fu school leaders want to hear, so they charge!
Expecting a big battle on the temple steps? Nope! Now we hop from chamber to chamber as there are one-on-one fights between one of the guest stars and a monk dressed up in a ridiculous costume. Not every one of the ten guest stars gets a fight scene, only four:
Yuen Si Wo battles a monk painted up with dragon-inspired body art (Ma Cheung). Sze Ma Lung battles a monk painted up with snake-inspired body art (I think he’s played by Lam Chung. And I’m pretty sure this is a kung fu battle between eagle and snake style.) Don Wong battles a monk painted up with tiger-inspired body art (actor unknown). Kam Kong battles a monk with crane-inspired body art (actor unknown). All of the painted monks look crazy ridiculous. Each of these battles takes place in what is obviously the same room, but it has different handpainted wall art for each different animal theme (dragon, snake, tiger, crane) and that’s cool. For those of us who like cool hastily made wall art!
After defeating each opponent, they are told “YOU MAY PASS!” What polite victims of home invasion! Soon all the invading masters are in the main courtyard of Shaolin Temple and ready to rumble. Shih Pu Chuan is there, for some reason not explained she’s all painted up in light gold paint and in a spa-like device (I’m pretty sure she’s getting turned 100% female again, but they don’t explain OR the explanation is missing in the English dub!) Shih Pu Chuan is powerful enough to defeat all of the opponents individually. Which is the key word, because they combine forces into an array attack! The Chin Kun Battle Line!
No one can stop the Chin Kun Battle Line! (Which looks amazingly like a conga line…) The only person who can stop this is Uncle Lin Chiu, who everyone except Ching Fang and Ming Yuen thinks is dead. They carry his body into the courtyard (and get yelled at by the Abbot) until Uncle Lin Chiu awakens and stops the battle line! He then explains the situation again and they bring out all of the students, who are now cured and back to normal form. Everyone is happy, except Uncle Lin Chiu, who has been injured too badly by stopping the battle line and dies as we end our film.
Rated 7/10 (cameo, tiger, dragon, don’t be so Negative, Don Wong, caveman, cameo)
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