10 Mar The Shaolin Mantis, a Kung Fu Period Thriller By Shannon Roxborough
Directed by the legendary Lau Kar-leung, the 1978 film “The Shaolin Mantis” (a.k.a. The Deadly Mantis) blends elements of an espionage thriller, domestic drama and period martial-arts action film at its traditional best, deftly balancing the always-exceptional Shaw Brothers studio physicality, not skimping on weapons-play, tangled intrigue and slashing wit.
Although the plot and subplots are twists on tried-and-true Hong Kong cinema convention, unlike the vast majority of Chinese period kung fu films, in which the hero battles the imperialist Ching Dynasty, the lead in this crafty story is an agent of the Manchus charged with helping to quell a rebellion.
Wei Fung (David Chiang), a young scholar and kung fu expert, is reluctantly recruited as a spy by an unnamed Ching emperor to infiltrate the influential Tien family, which is suspected of collaborating with Ming rebels bent on overthrowing the Government. His mission: to gather proof of the clan’s connection to a clandestine network of revolutionaries, so the emperor can justify a pre-emptive military strike. If successful, Wei will be richly rewarded. But if he fails, his family will be severely punished. After quickly passing a test of his fighting skills against a monk (Gordon Liu) and a Mongolian fighter (Hai Sheng-li), Wei embarks on his assignment.
Wei arrives in town and encounters Chi-Chi (Cecilia Wang), the obnoxious granddaughter of the Tien patriarch, who has just humiliated and fired yet another live-in teacher. He is hired as Chi-Chi’s new private tutor but conceals his martial abilities. Annoying, arrogant and abusive Chi-Chi eventually softens her imperious personality, growing on Wei and the two fall in love.
The pace starts slow but quickly gathers momentum after the grandfather (Lau Kar Wing) reveals that Wei Fung’s cover has been blown, and that he is a Ching traitor who must be executed. Chi-Chi professes her love for Wei and pleads for his life. The grandfather agrees to spare him on the condition that he marry her and never leave the family compound. But concerned about the safety of his family, Wei eventually asks if he can take Chi-Chi home to meet his parents. The grandfather’s answer: Yes, but only if the couple can run a gauntlet of highly skilled relative-fighters.
With the usual Shaw visceral intensity, the pair fight their way through a string of fierce family members. Wei manages to successfully flee but while aiding his escape, Chi-Chi and her sympathetic mother (Lily Li) meet their unfortunate ends at the hands of the grandfather.
While hiding in the wilderness, Wei studies and brilliantly imitates a ferocious praying mantis to perfect his kung fu skills before returning to the Tien estate to exact revenge for the death of his beloved Chi-Chi and her mother — and to retrieve a secret list of Ming spies. Ultimately, he uses his mastery of weaponry and newfound Praying Mantis Style to lay waste to both uncles (Norman Chiu and Wilson Tong) before overcoming the grandfather’s formidable Shadow Technique.
After Wei returns to the emperor’s court a hero, his father, a secret Ming loyalist, poisons himself and Wei, pledging his allegiance to the Ming and proclaiming his son a traitor. Wei lashes out and is immediately engaged by the emperor’s elite corps of personal bodyguards in an unusual ending. (Spoiler alert: The hero Wei Fung coughs up blood, an effect of the poison, while locked in battle when the frame freezes in a climax that leaves the viewer hanging in suspense about what will happen next.)
For all its quirks and lapses, “The Shaolin Mantis” is an underappreciated cinematic pearl from the golden age of Hong Kong action filmmaking and a must-see for die-hard Shaw fans.
The Shaolin Mantis
Director: Lau Kar-leung
Stars: David Chiang, Cecilia Wang, Lau Kar Wing, Lily Li, Gordon Liu, Norman Tsui
Shannon Roxborough is a widely published veteran freelance writer, longtime kung fu and Chinese healing arts enthusiast, lifelong Sinophile who has followed China for decades and a Shaw Brothers and martial arts movie fan since the 1970s. He can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.