The cunning of the snake and the strength of the crane.
Ah, kung fu movies. Gangs of people beating the crap out of each other in choreographed fights featuring overdone sound effects that put The Three Stooges to shame. You have to love this type of stuff. Of course, there are inherent weaknesses with kung fu movies, like a general lack of plot. These weaknesses are generally overcome by the myriad of fight scenes.
Of course, kung fu movies have grown up a lot in the past thirty years, and this trend culminated with the genre-bending Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which combined Eastern-style action with a Western sense of romance in an epic-style film. Even last year's Iron Monkey was a far cry from the old days of quickly filmed and sloppily-edited kung fu movies, such as Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin, a movie significant due to the fact that it's one of Jackie Chan's earlier starring roles. Previously only available in full screen, Columbia TriStar has now provided an anamorphic widescreen presentation for everyone to enjoy.
Facts of the Case
Back in The Olden Days things were a lot simpler; lions had riches, kings and queens beheaded people, and people roamed around China beating the crap out of each other with kung fu. The latter is one of the immutable laws of kung fu movies that you just have to accept. Eight Shaolin masters protected the arts of kung fu of each of their respective schools, and each year they would gather to beat the crap out of each other except for one special year. On this one occasion they decided to combine their respective knowledge into one unbeatable form of kung fu and then beat the crap out of each other. This new form of kung fu was called Snake and Crane which, as far as I could tell, involves cupping your hand into the shape of a snake's head and poking your opponent in the chest really hard before beating the crap out of them. The eight masters then recorded this new knowledge into a book and entrusted it with one of their own, also giving him the Dragon Staff to show his new position of power. The only problem is that the eight masters then disappeared without a trace. Some say they went off to follow the Grateful Dead, but you know how these rumors can be. For all we know they joined Shadow Puppet Theatre for the Snake and Crane Shadow Puppet Tour, but I digress.
Several years later a young wanderer named Hsu Yin-Fung (Chan—Rumble In The Bronx, Rush Hour) is seen roaming about the countryside beating the crap out of various miscreants and ne'er-do-wells. (Does anyone else sense a running theme here?) Hsu enters a town and meets a young lass dressed as a boy begging in the streets, so he buys her a meal at the local tavern. As usual in The Olden Days, the meal is interrupted by a group of louts who notice that Hsu is carrying the mysterious book of the eight Shaolin masters; the book containing the secrets that, should they fall into the wrong hands, would allow any rakehell to control the world of kung fu and, in doing so, control the world. Anyway, they fight and manage to pretty well destroy the bar, not noticing that Hsu is being watched by a mysterious stranger.
After the fight a group of people bring Hsu to a clan leader, a woman who demands the book because she needs it to find her father. So they fight and Hsu leaves.
When Hsu returns to the inn he's greeted by a Klingon, who fights him. The Klingon then explains that he's the leader of the Beggar Clan and also wants the book, but will no longer fight him for it.
And then the women of The Black Dragon clan summon Hsu and they fight him, only this fight is interrupted by the mysterious stranger who stabs all the women to death. The leader of The Black Dragon clan, Chien Tse, is naturally furious because he must have the book.
Hsu returns to the tavern and yet another fight ensues. Somewhere in this mess we learn that he's looking for a man with a scar on his shoulder, but is convinced that this man will find Hsu instead. With everybody looking for the book it stands to reason that one of them is actually this mysterious person in question.
We then learn that Hsu was trained by the one remaining Shaolin master who gave him the book to lure a murderer into the open. The other Shaolin masters were poisoned after the book of The Snake and Crane was completed, and the killer was wounded on the shoulder as the surviving master escaped (using the Snake and Crane technique to deliver a near-fatal blow). Once everything is revealed, there's a big kung fu battle at the end to determine who will get the book.
The purpose of these kung fu movies wasn't really to tell a compelling story or showcase great acting. The purpose was to placate the masses with mindless action on a minimal budget, and with this in mind Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin delivers. There's virtually no story to it, and what little story the movie has is merely an excuse to get to the next fight scene. I'm not entirely sure if this is the first film Jackie Chan served as a fight coordinator on, but there were a number of trademark Chan moves showcased throughout this film. In that sense the movie was certainly fun to watch. Chan's work has improved greatly in the 25 years since Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin, but you can certainly see the start of a film legend. This movie lacks the truly insane stunts Chan typically performs in a film, but with a meager budget what could an audience possibly expect? In all honesty, if you haven't seen Jackie Chan in action I would highly recommend checking out one of his films, preferably The Legend of Drunken Master, Jackie Chan's Police Story or Rumble in the Bronx.
The video transfer is pretty crummy, and that's probably being kind to Columbia TriStar. I'm not entirely convinced everything is Columbia's fault in this case, since I would hazard a guess that the master print of Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin is in pretty bad shape. The picture pretty much looked like the master print had been run over a sheet of sandpaper at some point, causing a huge amount of scratches. At various points the scratches were so numerous that it appeared to be raining during several scenes, never minding the fact that they might have been indoor scenes. Additionally there was a great deal of fuzziness and blurriness, and I honestly couldn't tell if this was due to the degradation of the film stock or from poor camera work and directing. Aside from that, I think it's fairly obvious that Columbia TriStar made no efforts to do any clean up work. The anamorphic transfer is a decent one, but it's impossible to judge with the overall low quality of the video. The audio sadly doesn't fair any better, and I'll leave it at that. As far as extras go, you get a trailer for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which, as you may have guessed, is a shameless plug for another Columbia TriStar release. At least they don't have a blaring "Are you ready for DVD?" ad that some other studio-that-shall-remain-nameless has.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While the fight scenes are pretty cool (although somewhat redundant), the story is set up in such a way that if you think about it for more than 30 seconds your head will explode. I'm betting that there weren't too many scriptwriters assigned to kung fu movies back in the '70s with all the holes in the plot of Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin. For example, the mysterious stranger who helps Hsu against The Black Dragon clan by killing Black Dragon members turns out to be working for Chien Tse. I can see setting up a situation to have someone gain Hsu's trust in order to get closer to him and the book, but why kill your own people in the process? How about killing somebody else's clan instead? These are not brilliant villains. There are subplots that are hinted at but never dealt with by the end of the film (the missing father) and that also boggles my mind.
And when I write about a lack of story, it was probably no more apparent with the lack of any sort of resolution to the movie as a whole. The final fight between Hsu and Chien Tse ends with Chien Tse dropping to his knees in defeat, and then the screen cuts to black immediately. Where's the hero savoring his victory? Where's the villain vowing revenge for the sequel? I just don't get it.
Maybe somebody who's more schooled in ancient Chinese mysticism can clue me on what's so special about snakes and cranes. The tagline says that snakes are cunning and cranes are strong. I should point out that I've never seen a particularly cunning snake, and I base this on the fact that you can't teach snakes to jump through fiery hoops or fetch sticks. And isn't a crane a bird? Since when are birds really strong? Certainly ostriches are really strong, but you have to realize that the rest of the bird community generally considers ostriches to be mutant steroidal freaks. I've never really had any nagging fears that a crane would mistake me for a breadcrumb or anything. So we have a fighting style based on a non-cunning slithering animal and a weak, gangly bird. This might explain the superimposed picture of Chan trying to punch a woman in the face on the cover of the keep case. (Note to Jackie Chan: please don't hurt me.)
Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin is for true fans or collectors of Jackie Chan only. If you want some more accessible kung fu movie action, I'd recommend something else, like A Chinese Ghost Story, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Rumble In the Bronx or Iron Monkey.
Columbia TriStar is guilty of a poor presentation, and for providing even fewer extras then the original full screen version managed. Everyone else involved will be set free, since this court recognizes that Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin was made at a different time, and we refuse to hold something that is 25 years old up to modern scrutiny.
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