Shaolin and Wu Tang is a traditional kung fu movie set during the Manchu occupation of China. The story revolves around the fictional rivalry between the two schools which is manipulated by a Manchu prince who desperately wants to learn both styles and become the most powerful fighter in the world.
Gordon Liu (Chia Hui Liu) stars as Hung Yung-Kit, a young student of Shaolin style kung fu who is an expert in the "Chin Kang Fist" style. His friend Chou Fong-Wu (Adam Cheng) is a student of the Wu Tang style and master of the "8-Divine Sword" technique. The Manchu prince, played by Wong Lung Wei, asks Hung´s master to teach him the Shaolin style, but he refuses. The prince makes the same demand of Chou´s master, but this time (fearing a second rejection) he poisons the master first. Chou's master pretends to go along with the prince and tells Chou to show a couple of moves, but the master throws himself upon Chou´s blade choosing death before dishonour.
The prince decides that each school is too powerful and that they could destroy him if they combined. So, he plans a contest between them to inflame their rivalry in the hope they will destroy each other while he learns their secrets. As each side prepares for the contest it becomes clear that the two friends will meet as enemies, but must join together to prevent the destruction of their schools.
Gordon Liu made his directorial debut with Shaolin and Wu Tang. He had excelled as a Shaolin Monk in Kar-leung´s epic 36 Chambers of Shaolin, and was to some extent type cast as a result. The film betrays a slight bias to the Shaolin style which is probably inevitable but a strong performance from Adam Cheng ensures that Wu Tang skills are also given due credit. When the two spar at the beginning of the fight it is clear that they are a good match for each other, and at the end of the film both have to amend their style (as the prince is trying to learn their secrets by watching them fight) and combine both schools teachings in order to survive. Throughout the film, each style is accurately depicted and beautifully displayed, Gordon Liu preferring open handed techniques along with the classic Shaolin pole while Adam Cheng exemplifies the Wu Tang sword style (recently displayed by Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
The story is a fairly traditional tale of intrigue and revenge and makes about as much sense as they usually do. Other familiar trademarks for this genre are the surprisingly abrupt ending, some really vicious looking training methods, and amusing dubbing. However in the case of the "Eastern Heroes" edition (1995) there is another unexpected bonus - both the subtitles and English language dubbing. This throws up some beautifully contradictory translations. For example, in one scene our hero states "I never knew the Lord could be so cruel" but the subtitles translate this as "What a fierce filthy fellow". Stranger still is when the prince says "Nice boy", which in subtitles becomes "Disgusting, disgusting".
Hilarious translation aside, the plot is fairly convoluted and doesn´t really make much sense. In particular, it is not clear why Chou would believe that the Shaolin poisoned his master given that he was drinking the prince´s wine at the time, or why Hung would believe that the Wu Tang killed his sister when they were in the middle of a battle with the imperial soldiers carrying bows and she had clearly been shot in the back with an arrow not struck down by a sword. What this film does have, in abundance, is beautifully choreographed classic style kung fu.
The action choreography is limited to some degree by the formal styles required by the story. Yet, each action scene feels fresh and engaging. In one memorable scene Hung teaches a woman (who is actually the prince´s sister in disguise) kung fu techniques through prison bars so that she may help Chou to survive his incarceration in an asylum, but he must make the other guards believe he is inept and clumsy to cover his tracks. As ever, the training scenes look really sore and/or impossible. Gordon gets most of the pain as the Shaolin training rooms are given much more screen time. The final scene in which the two friends meet as enemies is beautifully choreographed, if a little too short, but their battle against the prince is very satisfying.
This film will definitely appeal to fans of martial arts, but the low production values and iffy storyline may well put others off. The incredible skill of Gordon Liu and Adam Cheng make this one of my favourite classic kung fu movies. Hopefully, Gordon's recent appearance in Kill Bill (as the yakuza bodyguard, Johnny Mo, and the kung fu master, Pai Mei) will introduce this great martial artist to a wider audience. If you want to see him at the peak of his skills, this movie is a very good place to start.