Of all the Shaw Brothers films that I’ve watched over the last few years of my life, I just keep coming back to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. I loved the ultra-violent Five Element Ninjas, and I just recently viewed the dark and moody Ti Lung film, The Magic Blade, so the studio definitely knew what it was doing when it made this immense, yet diverse library of action films year after year. So in one sense, this movie shouldn’t have stood out that much. On the one hand, 8 Diagrams is a by-the-numbers tale involving personal and familial dishonor, but on the other hand, it’s an action-packed whirlwind of mayhem featuring some of the best fight choreography imaginable. Director and fight coordinator Lau Kar Leung has helmed many, many excellent films for the Shaws throughout his career, including the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, My Young Auntie, Heroes of the East and Martial Club, but what makes 8 Diagrams so powerful is its raw blend of savagery, angst, betrayal and retribution. There’s no doubt that this film has some flaws, but I guarantee you that it will be one of the most memorable Shaw Brothers offerings one can ever recommend to those who love kung-fu films.
The first thing that needs to be fleshed out about this film is the basis for the plot. 8 Diagrams is loosely based on a collection of mostly fictional folk tales, novels and plays about the Yangs, a Song Dynasty military family known for their strength, bravery and loyalty. Led by patriarch Yang Ye, the large family helped to defend China from both the Khitan-ruled Liao Dynasty and the Tangut Western Xia Dynasty. Most notably, Yang Ye had seven sons who he apparently rode into battle with and two battle-hardened daughters, all with his wife She Saihua, who was adept in both martial arts and archery. However, as some of the stories indicate, Yang Ye’s fellow generals had grown jealous over his exploits, including Pan Mei, who would be one of the main antagonists of the film. These rough details would eventually become the backbone of the 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.
The film basically begins with the jealous Pan Mei, as he, more or less, bullshits his daughter, a consort to the Song Emperor, into sending troops out to wreck the Yang family during their Northern campaign against Liao invaders. From here, we cut away into battle where Yang Ye and his seven sons are introduced, fighting against the Liao. They wreck the invaders with their immense spear-fighting, but out of nowhere, Pan Mei emerges . With a Liao General and the Liao Prince (portrayed by the amazing Wang Lung Wei) by his side, it’s revealed that Pan Mei has laid a trap for Yang Ye in order to not only get rid of his rival, but to help the Liao Dynasty take over. The Yangs are furious, but the Liao have a new weapon under their sleeve that’s basically a staff that ensnares the Yangs’ spears and makes their spear-fighting obsolete. With this new weapon, the Liao make short work of the Yang family as brother after brother is slaughtered. One is hung up by spears. Another is trampled to death. One is stabbed in the belly and so on, and so on. Amidst this chaos, only Yang Liulang (the 6th Son, played by the late Alexander Fu Sheng) and Yang Wulang (the 5th son, our main character, portrayed by Gordon Liu) are left, while Yang Ye, cornered by Pan Mei to surrender, commits suicide instead.
With Gordon Liu’s character lost in the wilderness after the battle, Fu Sheng’s 6th Son goes insane and straggles on home. It’s through him that much of the film’s angst and dishonor is exemplified once he encounters both his mother and sisters. This scene is particularly gripping given that the 6th Son details the deaths of all of his siblings under a spell of child-like madness while both his family and servants react in horror with each new grisly revelation. The scene ends in what would be one of the film’s penultimate scenes, where the 6th Son finally reveals the fate of his father to everyone. His Mother’s faints, the sisters kneel in mourning, and these actions ripple out as the surrounding servants all kneel in sadness as they take in the realization that the entire family is finished.
After this, the rest of 8 Diagrams’ running time is spent cutting back and forth between what happens in the Yang household and the fate of Yang Wulang. Much of what happens at home relates to how the family deals with the 6th Son’s madness while She Saihua, his mother, navigates new obstacles once Pan Mei names the family as traitors. As for Yang Wulang, I think it’s safe to say that it’s almost a retread of the 36th Chamber to some degree as he, after surviving a narrow escape from Liao pursuers, decides to leave worldly matters to become a monk at Wutai Mountain in Shaanxi Province (notice that this is NOT Shaolin Temple in Hebei). Before doing so however, he angrily says goodbye to his life as a soldier by chopping off the blade of his spear, turning it into a staff.
What follows is a riptide of self-reflection, anger and training as Yang Wulang does his utmost to earn his keep as a monk. The training sequences in particular are a highlight for their focus on staff-fighting with a wooden wolf dummy (a canny metaphor for the film’s antagonists). Another thing to note is the amount of time it takes Wulang to ‘mellow-out’ his war-like temperament. This is exemplified in an impressive training sequence where he uses his staff to untangle a bundle of tree vines. It’s all about self-cultivation here, and for some brief moments in the film, Wulang’s desire for vengeance slowly goes by the wayside.
However, things all go to hell once the great Kara Hui is involved. Through a series of situations that will probably spoil a great deal of the film, Kara’s 8th sister tries to get in contact with Yang Wulang, but unfortunately for her, Pan Mei gets a whiff of this and decides to intervene. Luckily for us, Wulang get wind of this himself, and feels compelled to save her. By this time in the film however, Wulang is already a high ranking monk who is, more or less, a shadow of his former self. The Grand Abbott, portrayed to amazing effect by the late, great Phillip Ko, senses this in his pupil and challenges him, giving us one of the most remarkable fights ever put into film. Seeing this one fight on YouTube alone was THE reason why I sought out this classic, especially since it features some very complex set pieces. If you don’t believe me, see it below.
However, a Shaw Brothers film isn’t complete without a final fight, and by all regards, it is MONUMENTAL. I refuse to spoil the details but all in all, it’s a whirlwind of mayhem, revenge, blood, screaming and a demolished inn. It’s one of the most satisfying brawls that I’ve ever laid eyes on and it continues to call out to me whenever I need my Shaw action fix. If anybody is STILL on the fence about this film, then definitely see it for this last fight alone.
Overall, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is, to me, one of the best offerings I’ve ever experienced from the Shaw Brothers library. It not only illuminates a little-known piece of Chinese history to Western audiences, but it does so with drama, angst and god-tier fight choreography. Gordon Liu, Kara Hui and the rest of the Lau Kar Leung gang are at the peak of their powers here, and it’s a total shame that more couldn’t have been done with Fu Sheng’s character due to his death on set. If there was anything else I could say that were negatives about the film, it would probably have to do with the inaccurate subtitles from Dragon Dynasty, along with the film’s brief conclusion. Otherwise, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an amazing film that not only deserves repeated viewings, but it demands a spot on your DVD shelf, reminding us all how awesome Hong Kong action films used to be.