"Seven gone, six returned", runs the cryptic prophecy read by Madame Yang (Lily Li), a martial arts matriarch whose husband and six sons have gone to war, defending the Sung dynasty against Tartar invaders. However, the traitorous General Pan Mei (Lam Hak-Ming), father of the young Queen (Leanne Lau Suet-Wa), despises the patriotic Yang clan and conspires with the evil Prince Yeh Li-Lin (Johnny Wang Lung-Wei) to frame them for treason and ensure their deaths on the battlefield. Only 6th Brother (Alexander Fu Sheng) returns home, embittered and enraged, so hopelessly insane he attacks his own mother and can only be subdued by his brave sisters 8th Sister (Kara Hui Ying-hung) and 9th Sister (Yeung Jing-Jing) with their amazing kung fu skills.
Unbeknownst to all, 5th Brother (Gordon Liu) has also survived. He is sheltered by a kind hunter (Lau Kar-Leung, also the film's writer-director and action choreographer) who lays down his life so the young hero can escape to the Shaolin temple on Wutai Mountain. Joining the monastery, 5th Brother endures some rigorous training. By standing under a raging waterfall, leaping off rocks and flying through the air, he develops a dynamic new kung fu style: the Eight Diagram Pole!
Of all the movies Shaw Brothers released in 1984, the last vintage year for the ailing studio, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter ranks as the most accomplished and artistically important. Indeed, the film is among the few martial arts films able to stand alongside the greatest achievements in world cinema. It is an angry, embittered film railing against injustice, its tone heavily influenced by the death of its star Alexander Fu Sheng midway through production, killed in a hit-and-run accident. He had only just recovered from an identical incident the year before. Much beloved in Hong Kong, Fu Sheng was the one Shaw Brothers star whose popularity matched that of his rival at Golden Harvest, Jackie Chan. Shortly after his death, the studio ceased producing films altogether, sacking their entire stable of actors and directors.
"Your country doesn't appreciate your loyalty", Lau Kar-Leung's character tells 5th Brother at one point. One could read this statement as a window into the veteran filmmaker's state of mind. Having devoted his life to the Shaw studio, from junior stuntman to indespensible action choreographer and eventually their greatest martial arts filmmaker, resisting temptations to go it alone or join a rival studio, and enduring their legendary, ridiculously low wage packets, he now found himself jobless. Simply because the Shaws now found it more profitable to sell their extensive film library to television than producing new movies. The story goes, employees arrived for work one morning to find the gates locked. The Shaw Brothers never bothered to tell anyone they had were closing the studio. As angry as he might have been, nevertheless, almost twenty years later, Lau Kar-Leung returned to the newly-revitalised Shaw studio to helm his final film: Drunken Monkey (2003).
Tragically, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter finds Fu Sheng giving one of his finest performances, quite unlike any role he ever played before: a ranting, raging maniac whose roar gives vent to the film's moral outrage at the betrayal of youth and idealism by a heartless government. Although Lau Kar-Leung staged his eventual comeback with a handful of big dumb action films, notably Tiger on Beat (1988), at the peak of his powers at Shaw Brothers he was never satisfied with simple action for action's sake. Time and again his finest films, from The Martial Club (1981) to Legendary Weapons of China (1982), Heroes of the East (1979) to My Young Auntie (1981), aimed to achieve the perfect synthesis of plot, action and subtext. His choreography throughout Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is energetic, audacious and amazing but subservient to the film's themes. Juggling multiple narratives, Kar-Leung touches on politics, filial duty, and martial arts philosophy. Gordon Liu, Kar-Leung's real life adopted brother, has the strongest character arc going from impetuous youth to wise warrior monk as he did in the director's earlier masterwork 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), but the film is foremost an ensemble piece. Performances are superb across the board.
Despite the hasty rewrite following Fu Sheng's death, the plot flows smoothly. Presumably the original idea was that 6th Brother would go in search of his elder sibling, but instead 8th Sister steps in. Kara Hui Ying-hung was the studio's greatest female martial arts star. The film is a great showcase for her formidable kung fu skills and substantial acting talent. She could do it all. The finale is simply astonishing, as 5th Brother - with 8th Sister strapped to his back - wields a dozen flying poles against the evil Tartars and battles atop a pile of coffins stacked like a giant game of jenga, before a cavalry charge of Shaolin monks arrive to literally knock the teeth out of the dastardly villains.
Chinese director and actor and one of the most influential martial arts film-makers of the 1970s. Kar-Leung joined the Shaw Brothers studio in 1965 where he worked as an actor and fight choreographer, before making his directing debut in 1975 with the kung fu comedy The Spiritual Boxer. A series of martial arts classics followed, including 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, Dirty Ho, Mad Monkey Kung Fu and My Young Auntie. Kar-Leung was a strong believer that fight sequences should be shot in single, wide shots to showcase the natural skill of the martial artists, which was at odds with those directors who prefered wirework and fast editing.
Kar-Leung continued to direct throughout the eighties, with period films like Shaolin Temple, starring a young Jet Li, and modern-day action flicks Tiger on the Beat and its sequel. In 1994, worked as fight arranger on Jackie Chan's Drunken Master II, but was controversially sacked from the production when his methods clashed with Chan's. In retaliation, he directed his own Drunken Master 3 later the same year. Kar-Leung's last film was 2002's old-fashioned Drunken Monkey, once more for Shaw Brothers.