Based on the generals of the Yang family, a Cantonese legend, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter was released in 1983 by the legendary Shaw Brothers and starred the absolutely incredible Godon Liu. (most readers will recognize him as Pei-Mei from Kill Bill vol.2 and Johnny Mo from Kill Bill vol.1) The film, known as Invincible Pole Fighter outside of Hong Kong, was hit with tragedy as Liu’s costar, Alexander Fu Sheng, was killed in a car accident before filming wrapped. The final fight scene was to have featured both men but was rewritten towards the end of production to deal with Sheng’s death. It’s a shame as Sheng was incredibly talented and the “could have been” with this film is huge. Not that the film struggled. Far from it. This film features some truly incredible weapons based combat; so much so that there is nary a hand to hand scene in the film. If you’ve ever wondered why the bo staff is the coolest weapon a martial artist can use, let these fight scenes be your guide.
The story is one of revenge. The message though, runs a bit deeper than that. General Yang and his sons are elite spear fighters and sworn to serve the Song dynasty. General Pan Mei, also sworn to the Song dynasty, is jealous of the standing General Yang and his sons maintain in the eyes of the ruling family. Pan Mei sells the Yangs out, to the invading Tartar army, in a battle that sees all but two of the Yang family killed. Sons five and six, Liu and Sheng, surrive the battle albeit not without consequences. Son six is mentally scared from the fight and believes his entire male lineage destroyed. He returns home to his mother and his sister a broken man unable to fight. Son five however, is taken in first by a hunter who gives his life to save the boy, and later by a Buddhist temple. It is within the confines of the temple where son five learns to control the thirst for revenge that has become his motivating force in life. The Buddhist monks have a strict no killing policy, they are Buddhists after all, and teach son five to take his already considerable skill with a spear, deadly, and apply it to a bo staff, not so deadly. In a classic training scene, son five is instructed to defang the wooden wolf he is practicing with, not bludgeon it all to hell. It’s a deep message for a kung fu flick and one that is ultimately lost a bit in the third act. One of the temple monks is killed, son five’s sister is taken hostage by the Tartars, and the temple bands together to kick ass. (spoilers: they do)
What sets this film apart from so many other kung fu films is its use of weapons throughout. Whereas most films of the area relied mostly on hand to hand fighting, with some weapons thrown in, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter celebrates exactly what it is. It is the movie that made me fall in love with the bo staff and influenced my love of certain pop culture characters, see Donnie of the Turtles, Ninja. The level of skill on display is staggering. This film is a classic in every sense of the word. Plus, look at that picture at the top of the page and this one to the right. Has anyone ever looked better as a Buddhist monk? I submit to you they have not. When you think of badass martial arts monk, Gordon Liu is who you think of. (it’s certainly who Yu Suzuki thought of when designing Lei-Fei for Virtua Fighter…)
But enough out of me. I love this film but words can only do so much to describe the sheer badassery displayed by Gordon Liu. Check out the trailer below and head here to catch the whole flick. Remember to follow me on twitter, @geekadedan and let me know what you thought.