Shaolin kung fu student Chun Kit (Gordon Liu) and Wu Tang apprentice swordsman Fung Wu (Adam Cheng) are buddies. Even though their masters are fierce rivals who insist neither school can learn anything from the other. Yet the Manchu Prince (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) fears both schools' formidable skills could threaten his absolute rule. So he invites Fung Wu's master to a 'friendly' game of chess, poisons the old man then offers the antidote in exchange for the secrets of the Wu Tang sword style. Instead the master tricks Fung Wu into killing him. Whereupon the Prince throws Fung Wu in jail and starts spreading rumours that those dastardly Shaolin monks were behind the murder. Chun Kit and his kid sister Yan Ling (Ida Chan Yuk-Lin), who has a crush on Fung Wu, hatch an ingenious scheme to spring him out of jail. Yet this only ignites a string of misadventures and misunderstandings that pit friend against friend. Unless Chun Kit and Fung Wu can figure out some way to combine Shaolin shadow boxing with the Wu Tang sword style to take out their true enemy.
36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) cemented Gordon Liu as the definitive screen incarnation of the heroic Shaolin monk. Similarly Adam Cheng was widely perceived as the archetypal wu xia ("swordplay film") hero thanks to a run of high-profile television serials and films like The Sword (1980), Night Orchid (1982) and especially Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983). Thus Shaolin vs. Wu Tang came about, the second of Liu's two outings as actor-director following Breakout from Oppression (1978), as sort of a two-great-tastes-taste-great-together kind of deal. Here two icons of their respective martial arts movie sub-genres come together for an epic clash with an underlining philosophical message. Despite minor flaws the film remains an enduring favourite among genre fans. Among them hip-hop legend the RZA who famously used audio samples from the English dub in the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). One such noteworthy line ("I may have been expelled but I’m still the best! Wu Tang!!") caps off the near-legendary opening title sequence. It features what might best be described as a kung fu conga line of Shaolin monks showcasing a dazzling display of acrobatics and weapons mastery.
It is easy to see why Shaolin vs. Wu Tang appealed to a predominantly black urban audience overseas. Co-screenwriters Katy Chin Shu-Mei, wife of Shaw Brothers director Pao Hsueh-Li and author of among others The Lady Professional (1971) and Deadly Angels (1977), and Huang Pa-Ching (more active as a character actor although he also co-directed chopsocky fan favourite Prodigal Boxer (1972)) fashion a story wherein a ruling elite sow social divisions among two gifted minority groups in order to maintain their hegemony. Shaolin vs. Wu Tang chastens prejudice and cultural narrow-mindedness in Chinese society but could just as easily stand in for any other racial or cultural divide. Indeed the film makes a point of showing that Chun Kit and Fun Wu learn something from each other whenever they match skills in a friendly fight. The social commentary has much in common with the films of Gordon Liu's stepbrother and mentor Lau Kar-Leung, most notably Heroes of the East (1979). He served as action choreographer here. His touch is evident in the spectacular and visceral nature of the fight scenes but while some sources credit him as "executive director" this is very much Gordon Liu's film. Among the cool set-pieces: Fung Wu slowly losing his sanity in a prison full of crazy women; Chun Kit transferring supernatural kung fu skills to another character to help Wu escape; and the climactic three-way duel combining multiple kung fu styles with eye-and-mind-opening results. The film only stumbles in its midsection where Liu brazenly restages key sequences from 36th Chamber of Shaolin to generally inferior effect. Even re-casting the same actors in exactly the same roles.
Other than that Liu fashions a compelling, emotionally charged plot. One that draws forth an impassioned performance from Adam Cheng as his character moves from debonair ladies' man to shell-shocked prison inmate and finally righteous avenger. Liu himself, very much the Donnie Yen of his day, had a much more limited range. Yet he tailors the film to his strengths. Wisely, he also introduces some feisty female characters as a counterpoint to the stoic machismo of the main plot. Adorable Ida Chan Yuk-Lin spars winningly with Adam Cheng, until the plot springs a surprisingly grim twist, and veteran Shaw Brothers actress Ching Li injects feminine grace as Fung Wu's enigmatic cellmate with a secret to hide. All the same it is the two leads that carry the film, etching an almost childlike friendship that, for a bone-crushing kung fu flick, is really rather sweet.