The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (Wu Lang ba gua gun)

Hong Kong (1983) Dir. Lau Kar-leung

By the 1980’s the legendary Shaw Brothers studios were no longer kings of the martial arts cinema, having been usurped by Golden Harvest in the 1970’s, and their trademark historical era productions looking a little tired against the fast moving modern day set films of Jackie Chan and American wannabes/homages.

Yet they persevered and occasionally could still produce the goods when necessary and more remarkably, could rescue a film from uncertainty following the untimely death of its original star. Mid-way through filming Alexander Fu Sheng was killed in a car accident forcing the script to rewritten to switch the focus to co-star Gordon Liu while Fu’s character quietly disappeared from view.

Sticking to what they know best, the story is pure Shaw Brothers featuring betrayal, a broken family, Buddhist monks, vengeance and of course lots of fighting! At the centre of this tale are the real life famous Yang Family, a military clan noted for their selfless and tireless devotion and loyalty to the Song Dynasty. Lead by General Yang Yip, the seven sons and two daughters were skilled fighters and defenders of the Emperor.  

The story begins with the matriarch of the family (Lily Li) reading an eerie prophecy declaring “Seven leave, six return” before quickly switching to the battle site in Jinsha where the Yang family is betrayed by General Pan Mei (Ke Ming), a traitor in league with the invading Khitan Army. Yip and five of his sons are killed in battle with only fifth brother Wu-Lang (Liu) and sixth brother Liu-Lang (Fu Sheng) surviving.

Liu-Lang manages to return home but the shock of witnessing his family’s slaughter has driven him mad. Meanwhile Wu-Lang  escapes to the hills, pursued by Pan Mei’s men where he meets a hunter (director Lau Kar-Leung), and a former soldier of Pan Mei who knew of his treachery. The hunter is killed defending Liu-Lang against Pan Mei’s men forcing Liu-Lang to flee again, this time to a Buddhist Monastery, pledging to devote is life to peace.

Of course being Shaw Brothers film Liu-Lang isn’t going to be allowed to live in peace and the huge chip on his shoulder which has left him feeling aggressive and on edge can’t be erased by shaving his head and burning knots into it. And this is just as well for the audience as this means more butt kicking action and boy, does his film pack of that into its 93 minutes.

Yet despite some kind of kung fu demonstration breaking out at the drop of a hat, this is still very much a story driven film albeit a typically flimsy one. Pan Mei’s betrayal is swift to the point of being unnoticeable, while his motives – jealousy as the perceived preferential treatment the Yang family earned for their loyalty – are revealed in passing later on. But this is enough for Pan Mei to sell himself out to the Mongol invaders, hoping to assume the lofty position the Yang’s formerly held.

In the recorded version of the real life historical events, it was the sixth brother who was the hero, choosing to fight on and impeach Pan Mei for his treachery while the fifth did indeed end up as a monk, only to join the fight later on. However, while his character did undergo a slight change of direction in the film, Fu Sheng’s death prompted the aforementioned rewrite depicting the fifth brother as the saviour of the Yang Family.

Being ostensibly a revenge tale, a moral conundrum arises for Liu-Lang after being accepted at the monastery and eventually shed his murderous intent. The monks train with staffs – and not blades like the Yangs were famous for wielding – using a wooden wolf which they “de-fang” as a benevolent way to disarm it without killing it.

When the eighth sister Yang Kei (Kara Hui) sets off to find her brother she is captured by Pan Mei and held to ransom to draw Liu-Lang out of hiding. Knowing the odds are against him, Liu-Lang is forced to control his killing intent to remain true to the Buddhist teachings. Meanwhile the peaceful monks want to help but don’t want to get violent. Surely something has to give?

We may never know how the film would have turned out had Fu Sheng survived but chances we wouldn’t have the emotionally charged performance of Gordon Liu and the classic barn storming climactic fight were it not for this tragic twist of fate. That is not to slight Fu Sheng in anyway but Liu was one of Shaw Brothers’ most reliable and bankable stars at the time, having established himself with such as classics as The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.

The opening is admittedly a little rocky with the Battle of Jinsha contested on a sadly lacking soundstage but the action is plentiful enough to distract our attention from this. Once the pace steadies after the main points have been established, Lau Kar-Leung takes us a bumpy but thrilling ride eventually climaxing with a brutal 10 minute multi-person slobberknocker that ranks among the best in the Shaw Brothers canon.

Emotionally it must have been hard for Gordon Liu to take over Fu Sheng’s spot but he channels this into his characterisation of Liu-Lang to add nuance to the otherwise angry fighter. Kara Hui is now a legend in Hong Kong cinema yet here the 23-year-old acquits herself admirably as the spitfire eight daughter.  

Once one gets past the cluttered and rushed beginning and become acclimatised to the slightly dated aesthetic, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter settles down to deliver exactly the type of kung fu action we expect from the Shaw Brothers. It may have been a production beset with problems beyond their control but the way they came back from them and the end results is awe inspiring.


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