If you’re in the mood for loads of stunning martial arts action with a generous helping of goofy comedy (hammy English dubbing optional), Shaolin vs Lama belongs right at the top of your Must-See list. Contrary to the title, there is no long-standing enmity between Shaolin Monks and Tibetan Lamas, but by the five-minute mark, any knowledge of that fact is absolutely powerless to hinder one’s enjoyment of such a marvelous classic as this!
Leading the cast is Alexander Lo Rei in the role of Sun Yu-ting, an already highly skilled kung fu exponent eager to expand his knowledge by finding the best teacher he can. He develops a close alliance with a young Shaolin disciple named Hsu Shi, played by William Yen, who ultimately leads him to the very teacher Yu-ting has sought, the wise and powerful, if abrasive Grandmaster Pu Chi-eh, played by Sun Jung-chi who proves as adept at playing pranks on his new apprentice as he is at constructing torturous training regimens for him to endure. However, the grandmaster also has one former disciple who has betrayed the teachings of Shaolin and must be stopped – the duplicitous Tibetan Lama Yao Feng-lin played by Chang Shen.
Sun Yu-ting is a highly skilled kung fu student, already well-versed in numerous styles, but the time has come to take his training to the next level. He spends his days traveling throughout China challenging any well-respected master he can find to a duel, vowing to bow down to the one who manages to defeat him as his new master. Unfortunately, Yu-ting keeps winning one fight after another and fears that he may never find the teacher who can elevate him to his highest potential. That is, until he comes across the eager Shaolin disciple Hsu Shi, who regularly ventures into the nearby town to fetch meat and wine for his eccentric master Pu Chi-eh. Yu-ting knows instantly that he’s found the teacher he’s been looking for after losing their initial duel, and begs to be accepted as his student, but Chi-eh refuses to accept any more followers after his previous disciple, a Tibetan Lama named Yao Feng-lin posing as a Shaolin student, betrayed the temple and stole a priceless manual of Shaolin martial arts. Eventually, however, Yu-ting persuades the old man into taking him on as a student and he’ll need all the training he can get when Feng-lin returns with his band of followers to declare war on the Shaolin Temple.
As classic kung fu flicks from the 70’s and 80’s go, “Shaolin vs Lama” belongs in the upper one percent. It’s simply got everything – rigorous training montages, blindingly fast fight sequences, silly comic relief, wise old sages with impossibly long eyebrows, and treacherous villains who throw back their heads and cackle with abandon. It all kicks off, literally so, with that most beloved staple of countless martial arts films of the era, a stand-alone sequence in which the cast all demonstrate their skills before a black curtain during the opening credits. It’s a cliché that doesn’t feel clichéd, and “Shaolin vs Lama” includes the addition of a brief overview of Shaolin history courtesy of the narrator. Once the film itself gets going, the action is about as close to literally non-stop as you can get. There’s plenty of variety in the fighting techniques employed by the cast, ranging from grappling maneuvers from chin-na to masterful kicking techniques and plenty of good old kung fu fist fencing. There’s also a decent amount of weapons work, mostly in the form of bo staffs and swords, along with training sequences that range from painful to bizarre, and sometimes both. The latter accounts for our hero’s arduous trudge up a series of steps with weights on his arms and legs that appear to be made of solid gold, while the former is exhibited in the simple act of throwing bare-knuckle punches at a tree. Ouch!
If he tried, Alexander Lo Rei couldn’t have been more convincing as a kung fu practitioner eager to expand his skills to their highest level. Every second that he’s in motion (which feels like three-quarters of the film) he’s absolutely on fire, well-aided in the endeavor by a physique that Bruce Lee would’ve tipped his hat to. Determining his most shining moment in the film would be all but impossible, but if you’re not sold on his abilities after his first match in the film, then there’s just no reasoning with you! Given that the velocity of each fight sequence is set to “light-speed”, its remarkable how quickly he transitions from one technique to the next, and just how textbook each one looks when he does. The same goes for his top notch stance work throughout the film. Considering how long the camera holds and the sheer quantity of techniques he and the rest of the cast are called upon to execute before it cuts, the word “incredible” seems almost like faint praise. The comedy liberally spread throughout the film also never feels distracting or out of place. It is well-integrated into the action and training sequences and nowhere better than in a sparring match between Yu-ting and Chi-eh that can only be described as fighting with a chicken. However, as highlights from the film go, Yu-ting’s match ups against Feng-lin are the pinnacle of kung fu excellence. Their initial encounter sees the villain overwhelm our hero and Chi-eh with his fighting prowess, which includes some awesome kicking skills. The finale gives Yu-ting a rematch with his adversary and an opportunity to learn from his past defeat. This sees him incorporate the deadliest techniques of internal kung fu, and proves a surpassingly impressive climax on top of the past ninety minutes of already astonishing, all-out martial arts action!
When discussing classic kung fu films, one would be remiss not to name drop “Shaolin vs Lama”. As an enthralling blend of action and comedy, it’s seated squarely at the top of the heap. Whenever you hear people say “they don’t make them like they used to”, this is the “used to” that they’re talking about!
- Prior to his career in martial arts movies, Alexander Lo Rei was a taekwondo champion in his native Taiwan.
- Dialogue from the English-dub of the film is featured in songs by Wu Tang Clan members Gza and Raekwon – specifically in the album “Liquid Swords” by Gza and the song “Guillotine Swords” from Raekwon’s album “Only Built for Cuban Linx”.