Ace action choreographer Tang Chia was a creative force at Shaw Brothers for three decades but only ever directed three movies. His first effort, Shaolin Prince, a rollicking action comedy-cum-historical adventure, showcases some of the most spectacular set-pieces he ever conceived for the famed studio. Betrayed by the evil Lord 9th (Jason Pai Piao), the Emperor (Ngaai Fei) entrusts his infant sons to his faithful guardsmen (including future star Yuen Wah), who each die spectacularly explosive deaths whilst spiriting the babies to safety. While the younger prince is left with the kindly Prime Minster (Ku Feng), the crown prince winds up being raised by the “Three Dumb Masters”: Wu Zhi (Alan Chan Kwok-Kuen), Wu Li (Yue Tau-Wan) and Wu Ming (Lam Fai-Wong), three wacky monks exiled for making mischief at Shaolin temple. Having sworn never to set foot outside, their amazing acrobatic feats enable them to rescue the child without breaking their vow.
Years later, the baby grows into dashing hero Dao Xing (Ti Lung) who hones his phenomenal kung fu skills and intuition by enduring his masters’ unorthodox pranks and tricks. Such skills help Xing best bullying monk Dao Kong (Lee Hoi-Sang), who is secretly plotting alongside evil Abbott Wu Ren (Elvis Tsui) to help Lord 9th consolidate his power. Meanwhile, Xing’s brother Wang Zi-Tai (future art-house auteur Derek Yee) has grown up to become a master swordsman, but still needs to learn a few more tricks in order to best Lord 9th whose deadly iron fingers can snap a sword in two! His sword instructor (Kwan Fung) sends him to retrieve the “Shaolin Sinews Scripture” which holds the secret to balancing yin-yang energy. Ironically, happy-go-lucky Xing has already mastered this supreme skill without even realising it, thanks to his three masters. Both brothers meet when Zi-Tai helps Xing vanquish a malevolent ghost. Without realising their kinship, the heroes become friends but this bond is set to be tested.
One imagines Tang Chia had a lot of ideas bubbling away in his brain over the years, since he crams an insane amount into eighty-nine minutes. Shaolin Prince skips from historical tragedy to knockabout comedy and crazed kung fu set-pieces, switching from philosophical discourse to slapstick silliness without really missing a beat. All the more surprising given it was scripted by the king of anything-for-a-thrill filmmaking: schlockmeister Wong Jing. At one point the plot even goes all supernatural as the monks task Xing with exorcising a young widow (Lau Yuk-Pok) possessed by the spirit of her late husband. She morphs into a cackling witch with glowing eyes and hideous talons then attacks Xing with flying coffins and reanimated zombies, until Zi-Tai zaps her with his magic sword.
Typically for a film directed by an action choreographer, the kung fu serves as a storytelling device rather than empty sound and fury, conveying subtext and providing a psychological window into the characters. Wang Zi-Tai is graceful but impetuous while the ostensibly goofy Dao Xing proves far more fluid, adaptable and intuitive. Such qualities openly manifest when Zi-Tai tries to assassinate Lord 9th’s nephew, the puppet emperor (Goo Goon-Chung) whom Xing recognizes as a good man forced into a bad situation. Having played staunch superheroes for much of his career, Shaw superstar Ti Lung has a ball unleashing his zany comedic side. Equally, the actors playing the Three Dumb Masters usually pop up in brief supporting roles and seize on this rare moment in the spotlight with engaging gusto. A written description does not do justice to the jaw-dropping action scenes. Characters perform death defying stunts while on fire, stuntmen link arms to form amazing human sculptures, monks hop into battle atop pogo sticks and our heroes are entrapped by an army wielding iron hula hoops. And wait till you see Lord 9th’s transforming throne: it spins, it folds, it springs concealed swords, though of course it’s no match for the unflappable Ti Lung.