I've declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I've been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here's an index.
Five Shaolin Masters circles back and starts at the beginning of another 1974 Chang Cheh film, Heroes Two, with the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, but then goes off in the other direction. A narrator helpfully informs us that the Chen Kuan-tai character in that film went south and met the Alexander Fu Sheng character, but that this film is about the five survivors who went north, into central China.
Of course, Fu stars in this one too, playing a different, but similarly dopey character. Also starring are David Chiang, Ti Lung and Chi Kuan-chun, all of whom were also in Chang Cheh's 1976 film Shaolin Temple, about the events leading up to the Manchu attack. Ti and Chiang play the same characters in both films, as does Wang Lung-wei playing the traitor Ma Fu-yi, though Ma was killed at the end of the prequel, and finds himself alive and well in this earlier film. Alexander Fu Sheng plays the folk hero Fong Sai-yuk in both Heroes Two and Shaolin Temple, though in most versions of his story Fong was never at the Temple (there is a version where he dies fighting at the Temple, but that doesn't happen in any of these movies) and in the first film, he isn't there either, running into Chen's Hung Si-kuan shortly after its destruction. So basically the three films are mutually incompatible versions of the same story, in the same universe, one which bears a tenuous factual relationship to our own.
The Qing, or Manchu Dynasty, and its attempts to pacify the population of Southern Chinese loyal to the previous Ming Dynasty are common villains in Hong Kong films. They can easily be read as a corollary to Chinese Communists and their fight against the Nationalist Kuomingtang in the wake of World War II. Much of the Hong Kong population that flocked to Shaw Brothers movies were first or second generation refugees of those wars, and as a British colony were also strongly and openly anti-Communist.
Ni Kuang, who wrote almost all the best Shaw Brothers films of the period (and was a frequent collaborator with Chang Cheh) fled to Hong Kong in the late 50s, after working as a public security official under the Communists. Here's an anecdote from wikipedia:
Ni's reason for coming to Hong Kong was the fear of political persecution. When he was working for the CCP, he was tasked with writing death sentences. One time, he questioned his local party chief about why a particular man was sentenced to death, when the only crime stated on paper was that he was a landlord. The chief rebuked him and threatened him with the death sentence if he continued to ask such questions. According to Ni, he complied in fear of his own life. Nevertheless, this was not the worst death sentence he had written as there were many other questionable death sentences that the CCP carried out categorized under "others". It was from these experiences that Ni made up his mind to escape from the People's Republic of China.
It can be easy for us to scoff at kung fu films as cartoonish and cheesy. But it might help to remember that they were made by people with a real first-hand knowledge of death, oppression and tragedy. The monks of Shaolin Temple chose to harbor anti-Qing forces, though they knew it would ultimately lead to their destruction. They trained their disciples as much as they could, hoping the few survivors would pass on their learning to new generations, that Shaolin wouldn't die though the Temple burned. Chang's version of the Temple story has almost no religion, no philosophy. It couldn't be further from the mystical visions of King Hu's A Touch of Zen or the serene theology of Lau Kar-leung's 36th Chamber. Chang is a materialist, and his Temple only has power if its members can act in the world. When his remaining Masters, having rededicated themselves to their training and defeated the once more-powerful Qing in a set of one-on-one battles, gather at the end of the film, rounding up the anti-Manchu forces at the Red Flower Pavilion, it is an expression of hope, of the people uniting in the face of an seemingly unbeatable foe.
But of course, they are doomed. The Ming were not restored. The anti-Qing movement degenerated from revolutionary political activity to organized criminal gangs called Triads that still exist today. At least, that's the story the Triads tell themselves.