The beautiful thing about the Shaw Bros 1975 film Disciples of Shaolin is that the probable reason that makes it a side-stepped sleeper is also what makes it great.
As a lead, Gordon Liu was great at being virtuous.
Jackie Chan is a perfect man in peril.
Sonny Chiba mines sleazy-heroics like no one else.
Ti Lung was just everyman tough.
Disciples of Shaolin's lead Alexander Fu Sheng was an awesome jerk. And, when I say "jerk," I mean to a Gregg Henry or 80's James Spader level of prickishness.
Fu Sheng is a pretty well-regarded star in the kung fu film community, probably lesser known to casual fans as he didn't have as many crossover English language imports during kung fu's 70's heyday. He was one of the Shaw's top box office hunks, his main selling point being his good looks. His characters often had a charming quality that reflected his (action movie relative) pinup visage and frequent grin. Thing for me is, I never quite gleaned to him in those roles. For me, Disciples shows what he really did best, play a cocky asshole.
Guan Feng Ti (Fu Sheng) is a kid from the sticks who arrives in the big city to find work and reconnect with elder brother (Chi Kuan-chun, Eagles Fist), who is working in a textile factory. Guan Feng Ti is so backwoods he's never seen a pocket watch or owned a pair of shoes. He gains employ in the factory but not as a lowly worker. Instead, despite his brother's warnings, Guan Feng Yi starts flexing his muscle to train the workers and fight against a competing textile mill that is trying to force out their rivals by literally beating them.
Now, this isn't one of the Shaw's upper tier efforts. It is clearly a quickie number for director Chang Cheh and crew. The familiar Shaw sets are always present, which always looked artificial, especially in this kind of mid/lower rung production. It's part of the Shaw charm, if you ask me, kind of like how Japanese kaiju films exist in their own alternate universe where Japan is made up elaborate scale model cities.
Chang Cheh's peak years as the top Shaw Action director for a decade(+) basically has two phases. The first, and this is where 1975's Disciples falls, was a period where he was mostly concerned with more grounded martial arts films and the occasional over the top adventure of some swordplay films or his Journey to the West fantasy entry. The latter, or Venom's phase, would see him embrace the more acrobatic side of things. For a Chang Cheh film, Disciples Hung Fist heavy action scenes are a bit paired down to his usual efforts. While you wont find any massive man against an army teahouse battles or even a villain who's skills are equal or above our "hero," Cheh and choreographer Lau Kar Lung spice the scenes with serviceable flair, like Fu Sheng mocking the bad guys or getting Cheh's favored mortal gut-wound.
Where Disciples stands out is in how it play's against the stock main character tropes. Usually a martial hero is out for some sort of noble revenge or redemption. They are wronged and build themselves back up and fight against the odds. Instead Disciples is a downward spiraling, power corrupts morality tale. Guan Feng Yi is enamored with all the benefits his fists provide him. Aside from behaving like he belongs on the Real World, he's arguably the first martial hero with ADD, bored and restless easily, out for a fight just to stay busy, unconcerned with anything that isn't going to make him appear to have high status. His downfall is that he becomes completely materialistic, new shoes, pocket watch, silk suits, laying about with whores, and further he becomes a bully. Sure, he's mainly bullying the bad guys, but his snotty attitude and blindness to those beneath him makes him an unlikable guy for much of the films running time.
The reason, I think, this one exists on simmer in the kung fu universe is due to Fu Sheng's character being a near irredeemable, self-absorbed jerk. That wasn't the usual kung fu M.O. For me, though, that is precisely what makes this movie a winner. And, without spoiling much, they dont really hold back as the film reaches its end with hard scrabble redemption. The only thing that even separates Guan Feng Yi's behavior and motivations from standard martial film villains is his innocence. It's a lesson in how one man is taught to be a great martial fighter but heeds none of the philosophy of how to ethically use that prowess.
The DVD: Image Entertainment.
The Anamorphic Widescreen transfer is as per usual with Image's Shaw Bros. acquisitions. A bit of good. A bit of bad. The print is clean, blemish free, with good color details and contrast depth but the sharpness could certainly be better. Scenes often exhibit a bit of softness across the center of the frame. Unfortunately transfer quibbles leave it with some nagging motion blurring issues, a problem period but especially apparent when you got a film with this much movement.
Thankfully Image one-ups the HK versions in one area by providing the Mono original Mandarin language track and, not on the overseas discs, the classic English dub. Usual bits of degradation, tinniness, and age limitations are present, but kung fu fans expect these things. I personally love the dub option as this is how I grew up with the films. Subtitle options are for English or Spanish. Other than an odd spelling here and there ("Practising"), no severe grammatical flaws, and they go the extra mile by providing onscreen text translations.
Nothin', just some bad remix Shaw Bros' trailers.
Disciples of Shaolin is a solid, if low aiming in scope, Shaw Brothers effort from one of their top stars and their top action director. The simple hook of having a debauched protagonist makes this one stand out among the usual hero vehicles you find in martial filmdom. Technically, the transfer has flaws. The addition of the English dub should make this one a good purchase for all the kung fu nuts who want to hear the voices that accompanied these films when we first watched them in the 70's and 80's.