Dragon Dynasty has rolled out another handful of remastered Shaw Brothers classics. This latest batch includes Liu Chia Liang’s Executioners From Shaolin. How does it stack up against past Dragon Dynasty offerings? Komplicated contributor Scott Wilson offers a detailed review.
Under orders from Priest Pai Mei (Lieh Lo), area governor Kao Tsin-chung (Kong Do) burns the Shaolin temple to the ground. Displaced disciples flee in every direction, ultimately accepting the strong willed Hung Hsi-Kuan (Kuan Tai Chen) as their leader. They take refuge in a traveling opera company that moves from town to town by way of red junks. Hung meets and falls in love with Wan Yung-Chun (Lily Li), a master of Crane style Kung-Fu . When Kao locates and destroys the junks, The couple retreat to the country side and raise their son Hung Wen Ding (Yue Wong) to adulthood. All the while, Hung His-Kuan has not forgotten his vendetta against the ruthless Priest Pai Mei. He trains in tiger style Kung Fu in preparation for his inevitable confrontation with Pai Mei. Will the deadly it be enough to topple the seemingly invincible Priest Pai Mei?
The Shaw Brothers classic Executioners from Shaolin finally comes to DVD courtesy of the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty Imprint. It comes billed as the film that officially put director Liu Chia Liang on the map, as well as the first to feature perhaps the most infamous villain in the history of martial arts cinema: Priest Pai Mei. It’s not quite as iconic as some of Liu Chia Liang’s later offerings, namely The36th Chamber of Shaolin, but it’s still a solid example of his storytelling sensibilities and expert martial arts choreography.
Priest Pai Mei easily emerges as the most intriguing character of the piece. American audiences may recognize him as Beatrix Kiddo’s sadistic teacher from Kill Bill Volume 2. Those familiar with the Shaw Brothers extensive catalog might also know him from the similarly themed Clan of the White Lotus. Pai Mei is as smug and invincible as they come. He is able to corral all of his weakness into a single vulnerable point on his body, which he is able to shift at will during combat. This leaves his opponent struggling to locate said weak point during the course of a fight. This leads to some truly outlandish moments, as when Pai Mei is literally able to suck his testicles inside his groin, shielding them from attack. Despite such comically exaggerated touches, Pai Mei’s retains his fearsome aura.
Part of the fun of rediscovering these Shaw Brothers classics, at least for Hip-Hop fans, is spotting all of the dialogue and musical cues that have been used in songs by The Wu-Tang Clan. Of course, hardcore fans were able to do so immediately upon hearing those them. Executioners of Shaolin contains Pai Mei’s utterance of the phrase “Tiger Style,” which was looped into oblivion on the Clans classic “Wu-Tang Clan Ain't Nuthin' Ta F' Wit.” It also contains the musical cue and sound effects that open their classic debut single “Protect Ya Neck.” It’s great to here all of these things on a cleaned up soundtrack, instead of from a severely degraded bootleg video tape.
Overall, Executioners from Shaolin feels a bit more mannered and stiff than later offerings from Liu Chia Liang. The obvious yet undeniably funny slapstick of Heroes of the East and Return to the 36th Chamber is noticeably absent. It’s definitely not quite as much fun as the relatively light hearted Clan of the White Lotus. Still, it contains some top notch fight scenes throughout, as well as genuine drama. Sadly, there is nary a special feature to be found on the disc. That’s par for the course with Dragon Dynasty, who managed to pack earlier Shaw Brothers releases with trailers, commentaries, and the like. Those supplements have become fewer and fewer over the past four years, and are now non-existent.
Executioners From Shaolin shows the venerable Liu Chia Liang evolving into the master he would later become. It also blesses cinema with one its greatest and most outrageous villains. Though this release is sorely lacking in extras, it’s great to be able to enjoy choice titles from the Shaw Brothers library in a more official capacity. Directors like Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang specialized in super hero cinema long before Hollywood began adapting every comic book it could get its hands on. Now, via celestial pictures and imprints like Dragon Dynasty, the work of those great artists can be reconsidered.
So it seems that Executioners from Shaolin is fit for inclusion in any self-respecting martial arts fans catalog, alongside almost 50 other Dragon Dynasty titles.
Scott Wilson is a native of Bronx, New York and loves Kung-Fu movies like nobody's business