In a genre spanning several decades and literally thousands of films, it is difficult for a kung fu film to stand out, particularly when up against classics of the genre with big name actors or from well-established studios. One of the most noteworthy things about this Taiwanese film from 1983 is the extensive use of samples from the English-dubbed version in albums by GZA and Raekwon. This has probably contributed to its cult status, as it has a surprising number of fans considering its humble background featuring a prolific but not especially notable cast.

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Sun Yu Ting is a man who has dedicated his life to kung fu. To this end, he is in search of a master, and the acid test of someone worthy of teaching him is their ability to defeat him in combat. He bumps into a young Shaolin monk, Hsu Shi, who has slipped out of the temple to acquire items for his master, and so Sun You Ting asks Hsu Shi to take him to Shaolin so he can learn from the young monk’s master. Angry with Hsu Shi for smuggling an outsider into the temple, the master initially refuses to teach Sun Yu Ting, despite the young man’s dogged persistence.

Meanwhile, in the vicinity of the temple, Sun Yu Ting saves a young girl from the clutches of the Sky Hawk Clan, with the help of the old Shaolin master’s intervention. Angry with this, the head of the clan Yao Feng Lin, who is a Lama, decides to take his revenge on Shaolin. The abbot of Shaolin now becomes aware of the situation, including Sun Yu Ting’s desire to learn Shaolin kung fu, and after a passioned speech from the young man, the abbot agrees to make him a monk. This sets up the battle between the Lamas, monks from Tibet and sworn enemies of Shaolin (in this film anyway), and the Shaolin temple, with Sun Yu Ting as the main protagonist, and a classic showdown between him and the head of the Lamas.

Lee Tso Nam writes and directs an action-packed kung fu film which conforms to a fairly standard plot of an impetuous young man wanting to learn kung fu, perfecting his kung fu while learning humility along the way, before eventually using his martial arts skills for righteous revenge. Action moves fairly fast, shifting from one fight scene to the next with comedic elements throughout the action and the dialogue. The film deals with the recurring theme of loyalty and the dilemma faced by the Shaolin monks of abstaining from violence versus the need to eradicate evil.

Alexander Lo Rei puts in an excellent performance as the protagonist Sun Yu Ting, and we see his wide-ranging martial arts skills throughout the film. He is ably supported by William Yen as the young Shaolin monk Hsu Shi who shows off some impressive acrobatics early on (Yen was an opera trained acrobat). Jung Chi Sun is memorable as the Shaolin master, with some well-choreographed kung fu intertwined with some of the film’s more comedic elements. Chang Shan is masterful as Yao Feng Lin, leader of the Sky Hawk clan, and is convincingly evil and rather brutal in the role of the film’s principle villain.

The film moves between the settings of the local town, the Shaolin temple and surrounding countryside, which works well, and the Shaolin temple in particular provides an impressive and convincing backdrop to the fight scenes in the middle of the film. The cinematography is good and belies the likely low budget of the film, despite the noticeable loss of quality, common to many films of this era transferred to DVD. The fight scenes in particular are cut well with no abrupt scene changes or obvious splicing, and the sound quality remains good throughout. Although the English dubbing of old school kung fu can be unintentionally comedic at times and detract from them, in this case it serves to actually enhance “Shaolin vs Lama”, especially as comedy is a central aspect of the film.

Although it might not garner the universal acclaim of classics of the genre such as “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” or “Prodigal Son”, “Shaolin vs Lama” is a fast-paced and enjoyable kung fu flick, and if you like a healthy dose of comedy in your films, it is certainly worth checking out. Hallmarks of low budget kung fu from this era, such as bad dubbing and monks with flyaway eyebrows, seem to only add to Shaolin vs Lama’s charm rather than diminish in its appeal as one might expect.  It’s not difficult to see why eminently quotable lines in the English-dubbed version such as “Allow me to demonstrate the skill of Shaolin, the special technique of shadow-boxing” were sampled in several of the hip-hop group Wu Tang Clan’s solo albums, and this combined with humorous scenes like a fight involving a roast chicken only make it more memorable. A cult classic!