On his way to meet his future wife and in-laws, young swordsman Gui Wu (Jimmy Wang Yu) tries to intervene when he sees a convoy of treasure-bearing monks attacked by a crack team of ninja-like warriors, but is subdued by a poison dart. His life is saved by scarlet superwoman Red Lady (Huangmei Opera star Ivy Ling Po) who, after a brief chat, disappears as mysteriously as she arrived but pops up periodically throughout ensuing events to bail him out of trouble. At Jin Castle, Wu is finally reunited with his childhood sweetheart, feisty kung fu girl Lian Zhu (Chin Ping). He is warmly welcomed by the Jin family, led by the formidable Grandmother (Ng Wai) and Dragon Jin (Tien Feng) and including precocious little Ah Ling (popular child star Fung Bo-Bo), although cousin Du (Lo Lieh) resents his presence being himself in love with Lian Zhu. However, Wu’s heart sinks when he realises grandmother wields the same dragon-shaped staff as the ninja leader. His future in-laws are masked bandits! Meanwhile, the martial monks at Red Lotus temple are out for revenge...
Holding a significant position in Hong Kong film history as the very first martial arts epic from the Shaw Brothers studio, Temple of the Red Lotus was adapted from the popular wu xia novel “Legends of the Extraordinary Swordsmen” written by Pingjiang Bu Xia. The story had been filmed several times before, notably as the pioneering silent serial The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) which clocked up a whopping twenty-seven hours, and was later revived as the wildly fantastical Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery (1982) and the darkly revisionist Ringo Lam film Burning Paradise (1994). Insiders such as martial arts maestro Chang Cheh and star Jimmy Wang Yu routinely remarked how Hong Kong cinema was overwhelmingly feminine in tone until they kick-started the mucho macho era of fight flicks. Far from sexist drivel, attentive viewers can discern some of that femininity inherent in Temple of the Red Lotus.
Although as visceral as many later Shaw Brothers actioners, with plenty of spurting blood and flying severed limbs, the emphasis is on romantic dilemmas, tension within the family and character interaction rather than unrelenting action, drawing heavily on traditional Chinese opera. An astonishingly youthful looking Jimmy Wang Yu essays what in retrospect seems an uncharacteristically meek and callow hero, who does his part but is otherwise overshadowed by an array of dynamic women whose martial arts abilities outstrip his own. Little wonder he was so enthused by the defiantly masculine tone of his breakthrough film, One-Armed Swordsman (1967).
Seen with modern eyes, the film has pacing problems and is overly theatrical at times. Yet what fascinates is that its focus on family drama, romantic frustration and codes of conduct within a rigid social structure anticipate the direction Ang Lee took with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Such themes are equally prevalent in other films made by director Hsu Cheng-hung, such as The Secret of the Dirk (1970). Poor old Wu finds himself caught in a very awkward situation, faced with upholding justice or betraying his newfound family although the film keeps viewers guessing whether the Jin clan are unscrupulous bandits or actually Robin Hood types defending decent, downtrodden folk. Hsu Cheng-hung stages a clever sequence wherein young lovers Wu and Lian Zhu flee the estate but are opposed in each section by one of the feisty females from the Jin clan. It plays as an extended metaphor for the youngsters growing stronger as a couple. Strangely, in spite of that title, Red Lotus Temple barely figures into the plot till the last twenty minutes when the leads unwittingly stumble into this den of iniquity. By the film’s end, a lot of issues remain unresolved, not least the nature of Red Lady’s interest in the young couple, and were presumably picked up by the sequels: The Twin Swords (1965) and The Sword and the Lute (1967).