As a Buddhist monk, Zhi Xing (Lau Jang-ling) is something of a rebel, and as such for going against the rules of his temple and the strict Abbott in charge there, he is being severely punished by having to go on a gruelling ascetic journey. While he and his master are at the point of collapsing, back at the temple the monks feel under threat from the army of Jins, but as they have taken their vows of non-violence any use of martial arts is banned. The villagers and bandits who are against the Jins wish the monks would use their combat training to fight back, and the leader of the bandits comes to see the Abbott to try and persuade him to change his mind - when this doesn't work, he swiftly escapes. But soon Zhi Xing will be pushed over the edge by the brutality of the Jins, no matter what the punishment may be...
Both lavish and unforgiving, Arhats in Fury, or Ba Bai Luo Han to give the film its original title, was a mid-eighties throwback to the historical martial arts vehicles of the nineteen seventies, only this was made on the Chinese mainland, a co-production with Hong Kong. Due to this it has a grittier feel than the glossier Hong Kong films of the period, but there's still attractive photography to be enjoyed and the spectacle of brightly clothed extras swarming around the screen. Another thing that distinguishes it is the anti-religious sentiment that was surely a consequence of the political climate in which it was made, as the Buddhists' course of non-violence, unless it's doled out as punishment, is plainly presented as a tolerance of the invaders' methods to save their own skins.
Yes, these Buddhists are supposed to be cowards, or the Buddhist leaders are at any rate, so Zhi Xing's bravery in going against the grain is seen as a ray of hope towards defeating the Jins. We see him do so when he can't help but fling himself into a conflict between the soldiers and some villagers and the customary martial arts sequences ensue. He also saves his temple from the invaders when they turn up to flex their muscles, and although the Abbott is grateful to him for his assistance, he nonetheless orders that the hero be tortured to castigate him. But does he bow down to such pressure? No, he does not, and in one bizarre scene he even calls the birds out of the sky and the monkeys out of the trees to fend off an attack by the evil army, which looks like animal cruelty for the sake of the film, more so for the birds than the monkeys. How much you enjoy Arhats in Fury may depend on how you feel about Communist China, for their authorities' point of view is stamped all over this; the action is impressive, the characterisations broad, and the scenery is eye-catching, but the not-so-hidden message may leave you uncomfortable.
[The 55th Chamber Region 2 DVD features a scratchy print, an original trailer, a plug for other releases and, amazingly for a DVD this cheap, a selection of languages so you can watch in Cantonese or Mandarin with subtitles instead of opting for the English dubbed version.]