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Today is Alexander Fu Sheng’s birthday. Star of films like the Brave Archer Series and My Rebellious Son, he tragically died in a car accident in 1983 while filming Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. Today I wanted to pick a film to help celebrate his career.

For my choice, I was torn between Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and Disciples of Shaolin. Even though they had to re-work the former movie around his absence, his presence is felt to its final moment because the impact his death had on the actors involved. Kara Hui’s character, Sister Yang, assumed the remainder of his arc in the rewrites and she spoke movingly of it in an interview with Celestial Pictures this year. For that reason alone, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is a worthy film to watch to commemorate his birthday. 

It was a tough choice because Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is so good and its final form was shaped by his death, but I chose Disciples of Shaolin because there is no doubt that he is the lead character in the movie. I also wanted to pick a film that struck the right balance and felt definitive. In my opinion, Disciples of Shaolin is the right blend of action, comedy and drama, giving a good overview of Alexander Fu Sheng’s capabilities as an actor. You get the wit and charm of his more comedic roles, but the tragic and bittersweet nature of this movie also lets you see his more serious side. And the ferocious action sequences are movingly captured by Chang Cheh. I am going to discuss Disciples of Shaolin but would be remiss if I didn’t also steer people who haven’t seen it to Eight Diagram Pole Fighter as well because it feels like a memorial to Alexander Fu Sheng.

Disciples of Shaolin is directed by Chang Cheh, with action choreography by Lau Kar-Leung, and stars Alexander Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-Chung. It is part of the Shaolin Cycle, but entirely approachable on its own. The history of Shaolin is almost irrelevant to the movie’s plot and the focus is one two sworn brothers of humble origins. One of them, Wang Hon (Chi Kuan-Chung) has more experience in the city, and has seen the darker side of city-life. Alexander Fu Sheng plays the other brother, a simple country boy named Guan Feng Yi, who comes to the city and gets at a job at the Xing Fao Long textile workshop run by Boss Ho (Lo Dik) where Wang Hon also works. But the rival Guiling Tong weavers, run by a Manchu named Ko (Chiang Tao), try to poach workers from Xing Fao Long because they make better quality fabric. As this rivalry unfolds, Guan Feng Yi rises through the ranks of Xing Fao Long, against the advice of Wang Hon, and becomes a supervisor. The boss rewards him with the pleasures of the city and this corrupting influence causes Wang Hon to leave. Though his Kung Fu is unmatched, Guan Feng Yi is tricked into an ambush where he is seriously wounded. Bleeding heavily he marches to Guiling Tong for revenge in a stunning climax.

There are so many things that make this movie work. Alexander Fu Sheng is perfect as Guan Feng Yi, and that is vital because this is as much a character study as it is a martial arts film. Disciples of Shaolin takes its time introducing the simple and likable man from the country, and shows us step-by-step as he is seduced by the riches of city life. It all begins with a relatable desire and need: new shoes. Guan Feng Yi’s shoes are worn and used, and one of his greatest joys early in the film is being rewarded with a new. So begins the corruption of a character who wins us over at every step. This is a theme that is greatly expanded upon in the 1993 remake, the Bare-Footed Kid.

But the film is haunted by the early warnings of Wang Hon, who tells Feng Yi not to display his kung fu. In a flashback sequence shot in black and white, we learn why. The lesson is visited again latter in the film in another black and white sequence. Both are incredibly effective and hammer home that this is a world where fighters are disposable and just tools for rich men who plunge them into life-and-death schemes so they can one-up each other at social gatherings. The stakes and rewards could not be more uneven.

The fight sequences, particularly those featuring Alexander Fu Sheng, are sharp and exciting. They feel very real thanks to Lau Kar-Leung’s attention to detail. The film opens with a solid martial form intro, which helps set the mood (and has some nice flourished by Fu Sheng), and we get some very impressive moments when fights break out later in the movie. However, the focus of Disciples of Shaolin isn’t the action but the characters.

The main character is of course, Fu Sheng’s Guan Feng Yi. We come to know him well and witness his evolution in a harrowing transformation. Still, he never becomes unlikeable. But there are plenty of other notable characters. And because Chang Cheh sets the pacing appropriately, the time spent with each character pays off by the end of the movie. One of the more moving moments is delivered by Feng Yi’s love interest, Chu Hong (Wang Ching-Ping). Revealing the details would spoil an important plot point but this is a perfect example of how the groundwork laid in earlier character development empowers the drama later in the movie. Another enjoyable character is the terrible Boss Ho. Although he has almost no regard for the lives of his own fighting men, he can be moved to tears by the deaths of his beloved fighting crickets. This aspect of his character is often done for laughs but helps highlights one its central themes.

Disciples of Shaolin is a great introduction to Alexander Fu Sheng and is my first choice for celebrating his 63rd Birthday. Watch Disciples of Shaolin with Prime Video.

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Brendan Davis is a writer, game designer and wuxia film enthusiast. You can read many of his reviews at the Bedrock Blog or watch his videos on YouTube.