21 Apr Laughing with the Shaolin Prince By Kim August
By the early 1980s, Ti Lung ruled the Hong Kong cinematic roost as its premiere swordsman. The actor’s turn as Shaolin Prince‘s Dao Xing, a cloistered, Shaolin adept with a secret past, may not seem so out of character until you laugh at his trials and tribulations.
Yes, Ti Lung’s pitch-perfect turn as a rakish youth raised by a trio of bumbling Shaolin monks proved he could play anyone (even a Wong Jing scripted imp.) Here, the Shaw Brothers star lets his wuxia hair way down, acting and performing martial arts in a broad comedic style. It works wonderfully. In part due to the surprise of seeing Ti play a character more often assigned to the late Fu Sheng or Wong Yue.
In some early roles, Ti’s righteous men were playful to a point before the story dictated otherwise. He had moments of being funny, but nothing like this. Comparing Ti’s whimsical turn here to the powerful, solemn performance the actor delivers in Tong Gai’s final directorial effort, 1984’s Opium and The Kung Fu Master you’ll find the same thoughtful intensity channeled into making the audience laugh rather than cry.
Tong Gai and his team of choreographers make excellent use of their star’s weapons and barehanded martial prowess, but also throw him through the wild and wacky wire-fu gauntlet that was becoming popular when Shaolin Prince was in production. Ti extends his comedic performance into these fights, lending a unique charm to the hidden prince.
As Dao Xing, Ti looks like he enjoys playing such an inexperienced, but noble young waif and the filmmakers exploit this in Dao Xing’s attempts to exorcise a young lady. This set piece milks the favored horror comedies of the era while boasting one of the best examples of Ti’s innate comedic timing (His reaction to the coffin is priceless.)
Barely surviving that encounter, Dao’s troubles only escalate as Lord Ninth (Pai Pao) attempts to destroy Dao and his younger regal sibling Wang Zi-Tai (Derek Yee.)
Faithful to his talents, Ti makes Dao Xing a lovable, mischievous foil for Pai Pao’s over-the-top Lord Ninth. Watching Ti and Pai Pao battle in the final fight is a delight.
So it rests upon Derek Yee, Kwan Fung, and Ku Feng’s shoulders to provide the grounded performances when Lord Ninth and his many minions test and attack our heroes. They get their moments of wow and make the goofy bits all the better. Their characters deepen your fondness for Dao Xing and his increasingly loopy quest, but it’s Ti who makes Shaolin Prince an entertaining romp through the cinematic Jiang Hu.