Directed by Lau Kar Leung, the man who brought you The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, 1978's Shaolin Mantis doesn't get off to the fastest start you've ever seen. In fact, by martial arts movie standards it could be considered fairly slow as its focus isn't on fight scenes (though there are a few) but on story development. It builds to a very satisfying conclusion, however, and proves to be a pretty interesting movie.
The plot of this period film concerns Wei Fung (David Chiang), a student who is hired by the Emperor to make nice with the Tien Clan and to prove that they're working hand in hand with the Ming loyalists in hopes of taking down the Ching Dynasty. Wei's under quite a bit of pressure to make sure he gets everything right for the Emperor, because the lives of his family members hang in the balance. Being a scholarly type, he figures the best way to get inside the Tien Clan is to work that angle and so he pawns himself off as a tutor and winds up working with Chi-Chi (Huang Hsin-Hsiu), the granddaughter of the senior Tien (Lau Kar Wing), patriarch of the clan.
Things are going okay until Tien figures out who Wei Fung really is and tries to kill him. Chi-chi, in love with her tutor, saves his life by convincing him to marry her and convincing her grandfather that they'll leave never leave the village, thus ensuring their loyalty. The catch here is that Wei Fung knows he has to get his findings back to the Emperor or his family will be killed, a dire situation that forces both Wei Fun and Chi-chi to have to choose between one another and their respective families.
Rather than write a story around a bunch of martial arts set pieces, here we have a film in which the martial arts set pieces are centered around the story. This isn't an hour and a half of wall to wall fights as some might want, though it has plenty of expertly choreographed combat scenes, but rather a fairly intelligent reminiscence on loyalty, a popular theme not just in the Shaw Brothers' stable but in both martial arts and Hong Kong action films in general. Lau Kar Leung's direction is controlled and calculated, keeping us interested in the story and the characters through some interesting developments and a few clever plot twists while throwing in just enough kung fu to entrench the film in action movie territory.
David Chiang does a fine job of carrying the film here, and the vast majority of its success rests, if not on Lau Kar Leung's shoulders than on his, and he uses his noble screen presence well in this picture. The inevitable scene in which his character perfects his new style which he hopes to use to overcome his adversaries may be a bit of a cliché in films like this but here it's at least a little more interesting in how it plays out and it ties into the title nicely. It's also really well shot, incorporating the bits where Wei Fung observes the praying mantis he takes his inspiration from with the requisite shots of him perfecting his style very effectively.
A nice mix of weapons fighting and more traditional hand to hand styles are employed throughout the film and while its emphasis is on story, the film isn't necessarily short on action - it's just that the action happens in context. Nicely shot, well acted, very well choreographed and interesting enough to hold your attention, Shaolin Mantis is a rock solid kung-fu film from start to finish and one well worth seeking out.
Dragon Dynasty presents Shaolin Mantis in a good 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen progressive scan transfer that looks very nice indeed. There's a little bit of natural looking film grain in some spots, though other spots show what looks like some minor digital scrubbing which results in some moderately waxy looking skin tones in spots. There isn't any serious print damage worth noting, however, and the color reproduction looks very strong. Black levels are consistent and deep enough and shadow detail remains decent throughout. There are no problems with aliasing or compression artifacts. All in all, they've done a very nice job here and the movie looks good, if just a tiny bit soft.
You've got the option of watching the film in its original Mandarin or in its English dubbed version with optional subtitles offered up in English, English SDH, and Spanish. As far as older mono tracks go, there's nothing to complain about here. The limitations inherent in the format are there, but you can't fault the DVD for that. Levels are properly balanced, there are no problems with hiss or distortion to note and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typos, even if there are a few awkward phrases here and there.
Aside from a few promos for other Dragon Dynasty titles that play before you get to the main menu screen, there's an animated menu screen and chapter selection options - that's it, this is pretty much a barebones release.
The barebones nature of the release is unfortunate but at least the image quality is strong and the audio more or less problem free. The film itself is a good one. It's a bit different from a lot of martial arts films in terms of its structure and its pacing but this sets it apart and helps it stand out. It's tense, exciting, as violent as it needs to be and overall just really well made. Shaolin Mantis deserved some extras, but that didn't happen. Regardless, the film is good enough that this release is recommended either way.
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.