This '70s Martial Arts epic is rather unusual in that it doesn't come from the usual Hong Kong sources of the period for such material (Shaw Brothers, Golden Harvest etc.), but rather represents an attempt by mainland China to get in on the action; and like more recent efforts in that direction (Zhang Yimou's "Hero"), its tendencies lean towards lending its large-scale, big budget feast of action to the cause of serving as political propaganda for the communist authorities of the day; although, in this case -- the context of the time having long-since ceased to preoccupy the minds of contemporary Western audiences -- its anti-pacifist message seems more like simply an idiosyncratic talking-point than a sign of any dodgy sub-textual politicking.
An "Arhat" is, apparently, a Buddhist term for an enlightened one; the film uses the term in the title in an ironic way, since it's really implying that the anti-violence principles of the Buddhist monasteries (sponsored by the aristocracy of the Sung Dynasty period in-which the film is set) only served the interests of China's enemies. Indeed, the villains of the film, the Jins, really did overthrow the Sung Dynasty in Western China -- although they are portrayed in the film simply as cartoon film villains: cackling, moustachioed barbarians with nothing on their minds but rape & pillage for rape & pillage's sake.
The film starts off by portraying the harsh regime in force at a large Shaolin Buddhist temple during the Sung Dynasty, where a community of hundreds live according to rules laid down hundreds of years previously; rules which continue to be enforced by the abbot and his priestly class with severe punishments meted out to those who transgress. Monks are frequently sent on long treks across the mountainous terrain with little food or water, in order to cleanse and purify their minds. It is on one such trek that we first find the young hero of the film, a trainee monk called Zhi Xing (Lau Jan-ling) who is travelling with his master, the revered Jiao Yuan (Go Hung-ping). While on their way back to the monastery, the duo stumble across a raid in progress on a small, peaceful village by a villainous gang of Jins, who are out to steal its supply of "nitre" (a mineral used in the making of gunpowder). Zhi is unable to resist helping the people in peril and is helped-out, in the ensuing punch-up, by a fierce warrior woman with some cool kung fu moves of her own. However, despite this good deed, master Yuan warns Zhi that this episode must be kept secret from the other monks at the monastery --since Zhi committed the ultimate sin of using Martial Arts during the fight! This being a Martial Arts flick, you can gather from this that the Buddhist monks aren't exactly going to be portrayed in a positive light during this movie!
Here you'd be right. Upon returning to the monastery, they find the place is in some degree of turmoil because of the escape of a prisoner called Xing Dian. Xing has been imprisoned for advocating that the monks should defend themselves from the Jins, whose raids in the area are increasing, and who obviously harbour ill-will against the peoples of the region. Unfortunately, this call to arms goes against the authority of the abbot and the priestly class who continue to enforce the one-hundred year-old rules of tolerance and non-violence at all times. Instead of escaping, Xing Dian manages to slip into the abbot's living quarters and make a last-ditch plea for common sense to prevail; but it is no use and Dian is forced to flee. The abbot does come to realise that Dian has honourable intentions though; but he just cannot bring himself to renounce the ancient rules of past centuries.
The cruel regime at the monastery may preach anti-violence, but that seems to place no bar on the most unpleasant and extreme punishments being given to those who have been judged to have broken the rules; in punishment for Xing Dian's alleged treachery, the innocent chief of his clan is publicly executed! The hypocrisy and mendacity of the ruling monks now becomes one of the main themes of the film: when the Jins finally visit the monastery and demand that Zhi Xing is handed-over for his defence of the village, the monks try to sit it out in stoic acceptance of their fate. The Jins humiliate the monastery's most esteemed monks in front of its entire population and start cutting-down the other monks in swathes as they sit placidly in rows. It's all too much for young Xing, and he delivers himself up to the Jin leader just as an army led by Zhao Xiang, the warrior woman from the village, turn up in time for an epic battle where Xing gets to unleash his best Martial Arts moves once more. Not only that, but Zhi Xing seems to possess Tarzan-like powers of control over animals, and calls up monkeys and birds (even though he is shown ripping two crows apart with his bare hands to feed an ailing master Yuan at the beginning of the film!) to aid in the battle with the invaders.
You'd think that young Zhi Xing would be a hero with the ruling monks after this, but no! -- after calling him before the assembled occupants of the monastery, instead of giving him plaudits they condemn him to death! blaming him for bringing the wrath of the Jins down upon the monastery and for using illegal Martial Arts. Once again, Zhao Xiang comes to the rescue, bursting in on the abbot and the other ruling monks and delivering a scathing sermon before spiriting the unfortunate Zhi away. Now the poor lad is number one on both the Jins' and his fellow monk's hit lists. After his master takes the rap for his misdemeanours and is executed; and the abbot sees the error of his ways and commits suicide by head-banging the monastery wall (?!); and the Jins murder one of the old citizens of the village who nursed Zhi when he was injured; Zhi Xing ditches all that Buddhist bollocks once and for all and goes on a bloody, revenge-fuiled rampage for the last twenty minutes of the film -- which ends with him repeatedly thumping the bloodied dead corpse of the vanquished Jin leader while even Zhao Xiang looks on shocked!
"Arhats in Fury" obviously had no expense spared in the budget department: it looks magnificent -- from the detail of the colourful period costumes; the grandeur of the Buddhist temple used as the main location; to the sweeping, panoramic battle scenes; this movie is epic in every area. It looks about fifty times more expensive than the average Hong Kong kung fu flick of the period but it correspondingly lacks any major stars of the genre also. Lead, Lau Jan-ling, proves himself capable of some fantastic martial Arts routines though, and also to be a likeable screen presence. The fights scenes are fast and often surprisingly bloody, with decapitations, severed limbs and fountains of blood exploding from people's faces when a punch or a kick connects. Director, Wong Sing-Lui, keeps the pace up throughout; and although his style is replete with just about all the clichés of '70s genre cinema (over-reliance on crash zooms, overstated reaction shots and cartoon-like fight sound-effects) he captures the grand scale of the melodrama well enough and the flick will provide a good night's entertainment for fans of overwrought kung fu cinema.
The DVD by 55th Chamber looks much better than any of the other discs I've seen by the company thus far: for a start we get both Cantonese and Mandarin 5.1 audio tracks (although out of synch and of poor audio quality) as well as the usual atrocious English dub track; and compared to the video-sourced transfers we usually get, the film actually looks pretty good (although in the wrong aspect ratio). The subtitles are ill-spelt and ungrammatical though, and a spoiler is put on this release by the knowledge that the film is also available in a beautifully restored, correctly framed NTSC edition!