Has any cinematic martial arts hero ever been as closely associated with the image of the peaceful, bald warrior monk as Gordon Liu has? Not likely, but who would want it any other way when the role fits him like a glove? Still one of the Shaw Brothers’ Studios go-to leading men, Liu would make his umpteenth collaboration with his adoptive brother and patron saint of kung-fu filmmakers Lau Kar-leung with “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”, another home run of the Shaw-era showcasing some of the greatest weapons combat ever put to film!
The always capable Gordon Liu steps into the driver’s seat as the fifth son of Song General Yang who dedicates himself to perfecting his combat skills after his father and warrior brothers are massacred by the troops of the Song Dynasty’s nefarious General Pam Mei. Even in his younger years, Liu was a consummate leading man in both charisma and fighting skill, able to merge the underdog with the ubermensch with every role he assumed. The late Alexander Fu Sheng portrays Yang’s sixth son and the only other surviving member of the Yang clan, and while his character is ultimately sidelined from the main story due to the mental trauma he experiences from seeing his brothers killed, Sheng’s screen presence is as strong as ever! Lam Hawk-ming assumes the mantle of the bloodthirsty Song general Pan Mei, while the Shaw Studios number one woman warrior, Kara Hui lends her martial might to Gordon Liu in the form of Yang’s eighth child!
In the midst of the Song dynasty, the stalwart General Yang and his six sons lend their services to their rulers, honour-bound to protect the ruling dynasty. Unfortunately, Yang’s treacherous fellow General Pan Mei, envious of the good favor Yang holds with the ruling Dynasty, conspires with the invading Tartar army to eliminate the Yang’s and assume their mantle. The Tartars subsequently slaughter the entire Yang clan, save for the fifth and sixth son who barely escape with their lives. The shock of seeing his father and brothers killed sends the sixth son into a mad frenzy, and he assumes himself the only survivor of the massacre. The fifth son, meanwhile, is taken in by a kindly local hunter (played by director Lau Kar-leung) who defends him from a follow-up attack from the Tartars which ultimately costs the hunter his life. The fifth son later seeks refuge at the Buddhist monastery on Wutai Mountain. Vowing revenge on Pan Mai, the fifth son begs to be inducted as a monk in order to refine his fighting skills enough to exact his vengeance, but the monks initially refuse to accept him because of his thirst for vengeance. Refusing to take no for an answer, the fifth son shaves his own head and after some effort persuades the monks to allow him to train for the purpose of serving as a bodyguard for the temple.
Eventually, the fifth son’s pole-fighting skills improve to the point where he is able to defeat an opponent without taking their life, in keeping with the monk’s insistence on preserving life in combat. However, one of the senior masters of the temple is later killed by Pan Mei’s forces in their effort to locate the two survivors of the Yang clan. Meanwhile, General Yang’s eighth child learns of her brother’s survival and begins a quest to find him and exact revenge upon Pan Mei, only for her plan to be thwarted when she and several comrades are captured by Pan Mei’s forces. The fifth son and his fellow monks later learn of her capture, and led by the fifth son, the group engage Pan Mei’s forces in a long, bloody battle, ultimately rescuing General Yang’s daughter and emerging triumphant.
The partnership of Gordon Liu and Lau Kar-leung (as well as both men individually) was responsible for some of the greatest martial arts films of the Shaw Brothers era, and “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is no exception. The Buddhist passivity embodied by the monks is embodied by Lau’s weapon of choice for the film – the bo staff, one of the most widely known weapons in all of martial arts, capable of killing without being explicitly designed to do so. Half of the fun in any Shaw Brothers film lies in the elaborate training sequences as much as it does in the actual combat, and Lau gives an added layer to the training with the fifth son beginning with genuinely lethal pole-fighting skills, contrasted with the monk’s insistence on incapacitating their enemies rather than killing them. A wooden, articulated wolf is used as the monk’s primary training tool, with the goal being to de-fang the animal, thus preserving its life while rendering it incapable of killing. The fifth son begins his training already fully capable of smashing the enemy to pieces, but finds a new challenge in controlling his power enough to defeat the opponent without taking his life. And as anyone who has spent any serious time studying martial arts will tell you, harnessing and controlling one’s own power is a challenge in itself!
Beyond the training sequences, the combat is masterful, and features an onscreen appearance from director Lau Kar-leung, as well! A world-class Hung Gar master whose lineage can be traced back to the legendary Wong Fei-hung, he was and is a commanding presence regardless of which side of the camera he was on. However, it is no understatement to say that his brief but memorable appearance in the film as the pitchfork wielding-ally of the fifth son is one to be cherished by martial arts fans. Still, the spotlight is Gordon Liu’s, and the mastery of pole-fighting he displays throughout the film is truly a thing of beauty, especially in his scenes sparring with the temple’s abbot as well as the film’s finale. The ending, by the way, is one of the better examples one could encounter of the illustrative nature of the training sequences in Shaw Brothers films. Put simply, when the monks insist to the fifth brother that they use their pole-fighting skills to de-fang rather than kill their enemies, they weren’t kidding!
Gordon Liu and Lau Kar-leung brought out the best in each other over the course of their many collaborations, and “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is proof positive of this. Some of the most balletic pole-fighting ever seen in martial arts cinema is balanced by the challenging and memorable training sequences that remain a staple of Shaw Brothers films. It even manages to find time for Lau and Liu to fight both against and alongside one another! In other words, a true Shaw Brothers classic!
- In addition to directing and appearing in the film, “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” is one of only four films that Lau Kar-leung wrote, the others being “Legendary Weapons of China”, “The Lady is the Boss”, and “My Young Auntie”, all of which he directed and all of which feature Gordon Liu.
- The film is also known as “The Invincible Pole Fighter”.
- The film was originally to feature Alexander Fu Sheng in the lead. However, Sheng was tragically killed in a car accident during filming. Rather than subject the world to another “Game of Death”-esque hack job, Lau adapted the film to focus on Gordon Liu’s character while utilizing the footage of Sheng that had been filmed up to that point. Ironically, at the time of his death, Sheng was occupying the same residence that was occupied by Bruce Lee prior to his death.