Having bested the evil white-haired monk Pai Mei (Lo Lieh), slap-head kung fu hero Hung Wei Ting (Gordon Liu) is ready to settle down and start a family. Unfortunately Pai Mei's White Lotus Clan are not done with him yet. When the Imperial government release the unjustly imprisoned Shaolin monks, corrupt Governor Kao Ting Chun (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) seizes his chance for revenge by alerting his uncle, Priest White Lotus (Lo Lieh again, basically reprising Pai Mei). The clan stage a sneak attack murdering all the newly-freed prisoners including Hung's brother Ah Piao (Lee King-Chiu). Hung's fiance, Siu Ching (Yeung Jing-Jing) heroically sacrifices herself so he can escape with his pregnant sister-in-law Mei Ha (Kara Hui Ying-Hung). They find refuge with Mei's brother, Nai Shing (Lam Fai Wong), a humble maker of paper dolls. Whilst in hiding Hung trains hard to improve his kung fu so he can face Pai Mei in a rematch. But how can he hope to best a near mystical foe, seemingly impervious to all forms of attack? The answer, surprisingly, involves Hung getting in touch with his feminine side...
In Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004) Gordon Liu recreated one of the most iconic villains in kung fu cinema: the white-haired monk Pai Mei, a role originated by his fellow Shaw Brothers superstar Lo Lieh. Lo, whom Tarantino originally intended to reprise his famous role, passed away only a few years before the film's release. However, Liu delivered his take on Pai Mei by way of a tribute to his friend and frequent on-screen antagonist. Lo first played Pai Mei in Executioners from Shaolin (1976), a Shaw Brothers favourite from venerable martial arts filmmaker Lau Kar-Leung. For the sequel Lau stuck around as action choreographer while Lo graduated to director for what remains the best known of his nine films as an auteur.
Clan of the White Lotus references the destruction of the Shaolin temple by the mistrustful Imperial government, a real historical incident addressed in numerous martial arts epics from Ninja Hunter (1984) to Shaolin (2011), albeit more often than not with a heavy dose of dramatic license. With Lau Kar-Leung handling the choreography the action sequences are predictably top-notch, executed by a cast culled from his stock company of capable performers. The film reflects some of Lau's pet themes along with his ability to twist traditional motifs in unusual ways. Undoubtedly the plot is a familiar one: wronged hero endures arduous training in an unorthodox kung fu style before he goes looking for revenge. Yet while the film's beginning is formulaic and its middle somewhat sluggish, the third act sparkles with witty and inventive ideas. The wacky training sequences that dominate Clan of the White Lotus' mid-section seem like a conscious attempt on Lo Lieh's part to emulate the style of then rising-star Jackie Chan whose slapstick fu antics were just beginning to eclipse Shaw Brothers' traditionally starchy formula. Inexplicably Hung Wei Ting's training regime involves forcing poor Ah Piao to don a ridiculous paper hat and swinging him from a rope while he pounds him mercilessly. Like the florid melodrama that dominates the opening act, these strained attempts at humour are too heavy handed to tickle the funny bone.
Yet a neat twist has Hung's sister-in-law concoct a new technique to make him a match for Pai Mei. In an early role future kung fu queen Kara Hui Ying-Hung has not much to do but does enough to pave the way for those stellar turns in later Lau Kar-Leung classics like My Young Auntie (1981), Lady is the Boss (1983) and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984). Observing macho Hung's blunt force is no good against Pai Mei's impenetrable defense, she duly instructs him in the more 'gentle', fluid 'women's style' of kung fu. This involves Hung getting in touch with his feminine side so he takes to embroidery and nursing the baby between honing his skills. In it's own silly way, Clan of the White Lotus is a progressive martial arts film asserting that strength comes in a variety of forms both masculine and feminine. Twice Hung loses to the seemingly unstoppable Pai Mei. After his second bout he is revived by acupuncture and combines this discipline with his other skills for the lively, knockabout finale that memorably involves the mad monk morphing from pin-cushion to human porcupine. Interestingly in his definitive portrayal of the iconic Pai Mei, Lo Lieh forgoes the expected beard-twirling histrionics for an almost serene level of sustained malice. In a slightly farcical, if nonetheless entertaining conceit Pai Mei can not only levitate and conceal his pressure points but also retract his testicles so as to protect his lone 'vulnerable spot.' This leads to riotous scenes with Hung repeatedly attempting to punch Pai Mei in the nuts only to gasp with frustration while he remains nonchalant. Priceless. Plus you also get to see the martial arts supervillain buck naked in a bubble bath. Hubba hubba. No, not so much.