Shaolin Mantis, aka The Deadly Mantis, is the only Shaw Brothers martial arts movie I’ve seen thus far where the titular animal-themed martial arts technique is taught by the insect itself. No joke. It’s a fairly long sequence, too, set after Wei Fung (David Chiang) loses everything to a superior clan of fighters and must learn how to avenge his losses with a new style. He dances and learns moves while watching preying mantises live their lives, their shadows casting human-sized figures on the wall of their garden. Somehow, it isn’t even the high point of the film.
Directed by Shaw stalwart Lau Kar-leung and released in 1978, Mantis features a story that makes it stand out from its numerous brethren. Most immediately noticeable is its plot. The classic films feature similar settings or moral set-ups: Someone righteous is wronged and must get revenge or be avenged. Order must be restored (or the devious ones in power must be taught a lesson). Antiheroes are common, but ultimately their moral choices align with the idea of greater justice. There are sometimes strong women characters, but it’s relatively rare.
In Mantis, Wei Fung is a nerd sent by the Emperor to uproot a family suspected of assisting anti-Imperial rebels. If Wei Fung does not return a list of collaborators within six months, his family will be jailed. If he is gone for a year, they will be executed. That’s a tough spot for anyone to be in, but trouble arises when Wei Fung meets his targets and falls deeply in love with Tien Chi-Chi (Hsang Hsin-Hsiu). He’s ostensibly hired as her mentor, but he does as much instruction and together they form a lethal fighting duo. The two elope, but their union is challenged by Grandfather Tien (Lau Kar Wing), the head of the family who suspects Wei Fung of being a spy.
He’s right, of course, but what he does not know is that Wei Fung’s loyalties are tested every time he looks at Chi-Chi. The two decide to run away together, which means fighting through her entire family of experts. Tragedy ensues, and then the mantises enter the picture.
And so on and so forth.
What makes this story unique is that Wei Fung has a malleable code of ethics, and the story hinges on his tendency to align himself with short-term desires rather than any greater “good.” This sets up some lovely twists, particularly at the end of the film. For the middle, Hsang Hsin-Hsiu steals the show as an empowered woman and skilled martial artist who is head over heels for the wrong man. It sounds stereotypical but does not feel that way in practice. Their romance brings an emotional investment to the middle section’s long fights, and their tandem choreography is pretty dazzling. Although the final fights are also full of Lau Kar-leung magic, the middle section of this one is unforgettable.
88 Films is releasing a new Blu-ray of Shaolin Mantis, and as with the imprint’s previous releases, it’s a great set. The special features include two audio commentary tracks by Asian cinema experts, as well as a short video essay by David West, who does a great job contextualizing the film’s place in the broader Shaw canon for entry-level fans like myself. There is no booklet with this release, but it does include a collectible poster.
The film is presented in a 1080p presentation, with both English and Mandarin soundtracks. The restoration looks great, although in some parts, there are definite artifacts and fuzziness that probably could not be avoided given the sources available. Those are minor, minor issues, just something I noticed while watching the film.