Directed by Chia Ting, this early eighties entry in the massive Shaw Brothers catalogue of martial arts films puts more emphasis on oddball comedy than a lot of fans might want it to, but it's still worth a look with those who appreciate the legendary studio's output, even if it doesn't rank with their best.
When the movie begins, the emperor of China is stabbed in the back by a bad guy named Iron Fingers (Jason Pai Piao) who is out to steal the royal seal and to usurp the throne. Before Iron Fingers can destroy everything, however, he has his two sons rushed off into hiding so that they won't get murdered. The emperors soldiers trick Iron Fingers into thinking he's killed everyone off, but of course, we know that's not the case. The brothers are eventually separated, with the younger of the two, Wong Szu Tai (Derek Yee), raised by the Prime Minister of the area (Ku Feng), believing the other brother to be dead. The reality is, however, that the older brother, Tao Hung (Ti Lung), is being raised by three Shaolin monks who were also entrusted with late emperor's seal.
You'd think that Tao Hung got the better part of the deal but the three monks who raise him were actually kicked out of the core of the temple, essentially for being bumbling idiots. They're not allowed to come out of their specific area, and so they see in Tao Hung an opportunity to change that and to have him bring them things from the outside like food. Wong Szu Tai, meanwhile, is being trained in some powerful sword fighting techniques and soon becomes strong enough to wield the emperor's sword which just might allow him to take the throne back from Iron Fingers. As Wong Szu Tai and Tao Hung grow older, they become unwitting allies, never realizing their related, as they unite in their quest to stop Iron Fingers.
A strange mix of revenge and slapstick comedy, Shaolin Prince does feature some pretty impressive martial arts sequences throughout, and all of these seem to be more important to the film than the actual story. While Derek Yee's scenes lean towards the more traditional training sequences and provide some impressive and intense choreography, Ti Lung's scenes go the opposite direction. While he definitely does learn some very valuable martial arts from the three 'holy fools' who take him in, it's here that the film delves deep into the realm of screwball comedy and quirky slapstick, which can sometimes seem at odds with the more serious aspects of the plot and the film is pretty uneven in tone because of this. How much you get out of the film will obviously depend on what you get out of the comedic aspects of it, and whether or not you're willing to suspend your disbelief to accompany these traits.
As far as the fight scenes are concerned, however, Shaolin Prince is pretty good. Once the plot kicks in and the two brothers become adults, we get a chance to see both Ti Lung and Derek Yee in a few impressive bouts. Some strange supernatural elements that work their way into the plot for no obvious reason can ruin the effect sometimes, but at least they up the 'psychotronic factor' a bit. There are some impressive hand to hand sequences that work well alongside fights involving different weapons, and of course, when it all comes down to it, it's not too hard to figure out how the main villain got his name or what his trick style will be. The action scenes are definitely over the top and for that reason they're fairly unique, and despite the film's flaws there's no shortage of entertainment value to be gleamed from a viewing of the film. It's not necessarily a classic, but it's a fun, if really silly, way to kill an hour and a half.
Shaolin Prince arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer and this is another of Funimation's typically decent transfers. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and garish, just as they should be, and they really bring out the splendor of the various costumes and studio sets used throughout the film. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there, but aliasing and compression artifacts are never much of a problem. Some DNR looks to have been applied sporadically but it's minor and if you're not specifically looking for it, you probably won't notice it.
The Mandarin language Dolby Digital mono mix is well balanced and easy to follow since the optional English subtitles are easy to read and free of any typographical errors, though there are spots where the sound effects are a bit higher in the mix then they probably needed to be. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. An optional English language Dolby Digital Mono dub is also provided.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection).
Shaolin Prince is far from the best of the Shaw Brothers films released by Funimation (or any of the other licensees) so far, but if you don't mind the silliness of it all it's not a bad watch. Ti Lung is good in his role and the fight scenes deliver, even if the story isn't much to write home about. Funimation's disc is very light on extras, but it looks and sounds good. Recommended for completists, a fine rental for everyone else.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.