At the time of the Qing Dynasty the monks of Shaolin Temple were so skilled in martial arts their mere existence was enough to threaten the Emperor. Fearful their days are numbered, the head abbot sends mighty monk Zhi Shan (David Chiang) to nearby Wen Shu Temple to learn how to make guns from sagely Master Wu Chan (Yeung Chi-Hing). Strangely, despite this seemingly crucial plot point, Zhi Shan never gets around to this, being content enough to hone his kung fu, hopping down steps while hefting heavy buckets of water, punching a giant bell, exploding jars with his palm power, and chopping wooden blocks with his bald head. Perhaps if he had stuck to the brief, he might not have come home to find his fellow monks slaughtered by soldiers working for fanatical General Yue Ying-Qi (Yue Wing). Zhi Shan promises his dying elder he will build a new temple in Southern China and heads down to Guangdong where trouble awaits.
Where would the martial arts genre be without Shaolin Temple? Not only were its legendary fighting monks responsible for creating kung fu in the first place, but its historical background inspired an entire subgenre. Among these was Lau Kar-Leung’s groundbreaking production for Shaw Brothers, 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) the success of which seemingly inspired the studio crank out this similarly-themed adventure. What we have here is a classic case of a studio cashing-in on an inspired auteur film with a vapid cookie cutter remake. Also known as A Slice of Death, Shaolin Abbot adheres to the tradition of stoic chivalry that by 1979, post-Jackie Chan, had begun to seem dated and dull. Lacking the spiritual dimension that distinguished 36th Chamber, the plot plods along aimlessly, its sole aim to underline what a pious, virtuous soul Zhi Shan is, which proves as tedious as that sounds.
Shaw superstar David Chiang sports a rare slaphead look and is simply miscast. His stock in trade were impetuous heroes or loveable rogues not solemn monks. Looking more comfortable is veteran Lo Lieh who once again essays what became his late career signature role: the villainous, white-haired monk Pai Mei or Bak Mei. Supposedly one of five legendary elders who survived the destruction of Shaolin Temple by the Qing Dynasty, Pai Mei (whose name roughly translates as “White Eyebrows”) was the Benedict Arnold of martial arts folklore, though scholars continue to debate whether he truly was as evil as all that or simply misrepresented in tall tales. Whatever the historical truth, Lo Lieh played the indestructible priest with the one vulnerable spot in such Shaw classics as Executioners from Shaolin (1976) and his self-directed Clan of the White Lotus (1980). Later another Shaw icon Gordon Liu played the part in tribute to his frequent co-star in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003).
The historical background is interesting but poorly integrated into the pulp adventure, with the mass slaughter of monks at Shaolin Temple a strangely perfunctory set-piece devoid of emotion despite a lot of soap opera speech-making. Choreographer Lung Yi-Sheng, later director of the delightful children’s film Demon of the Lute (1983) and equally excellent martial arts fantasy Long Road to Gallantry (1984) stages the pole-swinging, acrobatic action with customary verve but the talents of martial arts diva Lily Li and genre stalwart Norman Tsui Siu-Keung are wasted in stock sidekick roles. The man behind the camera was Shaw Brothers’ most versatile journeyman, Ho Meng-hua, who brings professionalism but not much else. Followed by the sequel: Shaolin Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein. Only joking.