I always hesitate a little bit when posting reviews of kung fu films here at Forgotten Films. Fans of the genre would probably argue that my selections are not “forgotten.” On the other hand, the average film viewer is not well versed in martial arts cinema – so most films of this genre could be seen as “forgotten” in this way. The film we’re looking at today is certainly well-regarded by kung fu fans, but most folks have probably never heard of it. It’s a 1984 effort from the renowned Shaw Brother Studio, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.
The film is inspired by some tales from Chinese folklore regarding the Yang family. The film opens with a massive battle between the Yangs and the army of the evil general Pan Mei. The Yang’s end up hopelessly outnumbered. Most of the seven sons end up dying horrible deaths. When faced with death at the hands of his enemies, the patriarch of the family slams his head into a tall stone monument, killing himself…yuck. The only survivors are Yang #5 (Gordon Liu) and Yang #6 (Alexander Fu). While the fifth brother ends up wandering across the wilderness, the sixth brother returns home. Having gone completely bat poo-poo, #6 starts screaming and kung fu fighting with everyone back at the homestead, including his grieving mother and sisters.
Eventually, the fifth brother makes his way to a shaolin temple. Here the monks meditate and train in their fighting skills, however they do not use blades, focusing instead on using pole fighting techniques. They have also vowed never to kill. #5 asks them to make him a monk, but the abbott (Ko Fei) refuses, insisting he is not calm enough. This doesn’t stop the young warrior, however. He shaves his own head and burns those little dots onto his head himself.
Even when he is not allowed to practice with the monks, #5 takes it upon himself to learn their techniques. At the same time, he gradually starts to calm his spirit, earning a place among the monks. Trouble starts to brew, however, when the abbott pays a visit to the Yang family. He is killed by Pan Mei’s men as he returns to the mountain. Then, #5 learns that his younger sister, sister #8 (Kara Hui), has been kidnapped by the enemy after she was sent out to find her brother. He then has no choices but to leave the monastery and unleash his 8 diagram pole fighting skills on Pan Mei and his men, despite his vow not to kill.
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is among the best martial arts films I have ever seen. You always know you’re in for a treat when you see the bright blue Shaw Brothers shield at the beginning of a film, but this one is jaw-dropping. From the very first sequence, the kung fu action is superb. Gordon Liu had tremendous skill and it is put to full use here. The other actors are also amazing. In fact, where the action really kicks into high gear is late in the movie when Kara Hui has some real stand-out fight sequences.
The actions scenes the fill the earlier parts of the movie, however, are just a warmup for the epic and bizarre battle sequence at the film’s conclusion. It begins with enemy having created a pyramid of coffins, one of which holds Yang’s sister. He battles his way up the structure with the caskets sliding and shifting around like blocks in a giant Jenga game. Baddies pop out of the coffins swinging their weapons. Then, when Yang finally finds his sister, he does battle while she is slung over his back like backpack. But we’re just getting started! Soon the monks show up to help out. Since they refuse to kill, they use their pole fighting techniques to de-fang the enemy. They literally do movements intended to rip out the teeth of the bad guys. It’s ridiculous and glorious all at the same time – not to mention painful to watch.
As I was watching the film I kept thinking that I never would’ve pegged it for being released in 1984. It feels more like the Shaw Brothers films of the 70’s, which just helps give the film a great look at atmosphere. There are a few moments that drag a bit in the film’s mid section. Also a bit strange is the way that brother #6’s story is pretty much abandoned as the film moves on. He is completely absent from the final battle. This is actually because actor Alexander Fu was killed in a car accident during the film’s production. The film’s rough patches are minor, though. On a whole, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an amazing piece of martial arts cinema.