I don’t know why but there seems to be a great influx of kung fu movies coming to Blu-ray of late. 88 Films has steadily been releasing Shaw Brothers films each month for a while now. Last December, Arrow Video released an amazing-looking boxed set of nine films from the studio and now they are releasing The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, generally considered to be one of the best kung fu movies ever made.
Like a lot of Shaw Brothers movies, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is loosely based on real history and legend, mainly the stories of the Yang family, a legendary clan of warriors during the Song Dynasty. But worry not, you do not have to know anything about Japan’s storied history to enjoy this film, the legend just adds extra texture to the film.
The film begins with General Yang and his seven sons being ambushed by Pun Mei’s (Lam Hak-ming) clan. It is a massacre with one son getting shot by a dozen arrows, another son being eviscerated by a knife, and others getting taken down by the sword. Seeing his family murdered so brutally, the General bashes his head on a stone. Two of the sons survive. The Sixth Son (Alexander Fu), and yes all of the children are not given names but are only known by their relationship to their father, makes it home but is badly wounded and near-insane from the events. The Fifth Son (Gordon Liu) barely escapes, being saved by a farmer who hides and protects him. He winds up at a monastery where a group of monks nurses him back to health.
Originally, Alexander Fu and Gordon Liu were the main protagonists and presumably were going to end up in the final battle together but tragically Fu died in an auto accident early in the film’s shoot and the script had to be rewritten. This also explains why his character disappears suddenly early in the film.
Grateful for the monk’s help, the Fifth Son declares he wants to become a monk and live with them in the monastery. The head monk believes that his kung fu skills are too great, and his need for revenge to high for that to become a reality. The Fifth Son’s skills are also too great for the monks to actually kick him out and so he stays. The monks are skilled at a pole fighting version of kung fu while the Yang family are raised in fighting with spears. Fifth Son combines the two to create the titular 8 Diagram Pole Fighting technique.
In my last review, I noted how I loved how these films are often inventing types of kung fu techniques and it is true here. Most of these films involve a training montage and this film gives us an excellent one. The monks use their fighting skills against wild animals, and they train with wooden versions of them. Fifth Son walks in and shows them his new pole fighting technique which director Lau Kar-leung choreographs with great verve and features using the pole as a way to extract the fake animal’s teeth (something we’ll see later in the superlative final fight.
The action sequences in this film are unbelievably good. While most kung fu films feature one-on-one combat (or perhaps one-on-two or -three), The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter has multiple battles in which great crowds of people square off against each other. They are each and everyone choreographed to within an inch of their lives. They are magnificent.
All too often, I find myself watching kung fu movies just waiting for the next big action sequence. The actual stories can be a bit tedious. Not so here. The drama is well realized. After the initial battle, with no one in the Yang clan left alive or able to tell the story, Pun Mei makes out like they are traitors to the emperor. Back home, General Yang’s wife must find a way to clear the family name while the two daughters plot revenge. At the monastery, Fifth Son must learn to calm the anger inside him if he ever wants to truly be a monk. With a run time of just over 90 minutes, these dramatic moments aren’t given enough time to be fully and carefully developed, but what is there is well done.
But let’s not kid ourselves. It is still the action sequences that make this film exceptional. Everybody talks about the final battle in this movie and now I know why. I won’t spoil any of it as it is truly best to watch it unfold without knowing any details, but it is really, truly one of the great, all-time kung fu action sequences.
I love that all of these Shaw Brothers kung fu films are being restored and released in high definition. Arrow Video has done their usual excellent job with The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. They’ve done a 2K restoration of the video from the original negative, and included the original Mandarin, Cantonese, and English audio. There is a new audio commentary and a video appreciation. There are archival interviews with the film’s stars and an alternate credit sequence. Plus trailers, an image gallery, and an essay in the booklet.