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Invincible Pole Fighter

China (1983), 98 minutes
Starring: Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, Kara Hui
Reviewer: Jeremy Silman
Genre: Martial Arts
Rating: 4
Also titled Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and The Magnificent Pole Fighter, many sources call this movie a classic. It certainly has all the elements: One of those films from the Shaw Brothers Collection that is always mentioned in reverential terms; starring the legendary Gordon Liu (of Master Killer fame); the final film of up and coming superstar Alexander Fu Sheng; and featuring some magnificent martial arts choreography. Invincible Pole Fighter starts out in the midst of the historic Battle of Chih Sha, where all but two members of an honorable fighting clan (the Yangs) are butchered in a trap/double cross set up by a rival family. I found it interesting to see that instead of names, the Yang family was identified by order of birth. Thus, Gordon Liu is Yang number five, Alexander Fu Sheng is Yang number six, and Kara Hui is Yang eight.

Though there are many interesting characters, three members of the Yang family stand out: Yang six survives the battle and successfully makes his way home. Unfortunately, his mind has snapped due to his having witnessed the massacre of his father and brothers. Yang five is the other survivor and ends up at a monastery (his family has no idea if he’s alive or dead) where he refines his fighting skills while battling the demon of his own inner rage. Yang eight starts out as a background character but eventually turns into a major player who tries to find her brother, but ends up in trouble and forces the incredible final battle scene where Yang five attacks a horde of men with just a few fighting sticks in hand.

The director, Liu Chia-Liang, is known for his light, often comedic, style. This makes the somber feel of Invincible Pole Fighter very much out of character, even though it ended up giving the film added weight and depth. I don’t think the film’s heavy atmosphere was planned. Instead, it resulted from the shocking real life death of poor Yang six.Alexander Fu Sheng (Yang six) was “bred” by the Shaw Brothers studio to be a martial arts icon. After starring in several well-received films, he seemed sure to live up to his potential. Unfortunately, after doing just a few scenes for Invincible Pole Fighter, he was killed in a car accident at the age of 29. Oddly, the depression that affected every member of the production served the film well, and a quick rewriting of the script pushed Yang 8 (Kara Hui) into a role that didn’t originally exist.

In my opinion, the first half of the movie is a bit lethargic. However, once Yang five reaches the Monastery things pick up, and every scene thereafter is guaranteed to give any fan of martial arts flicks a serious dose of pleasure. It’s here that his inner struggles become apparent, it’s here that we get a close look at what Gordon Liu is capable of doing, and it’s here that we get to sit back and marvel at the frenetic chaos (his sister tied to his back as he faces impossible odds) of the final confrontation with his enemies.

On a negative note, much of the movies charm was stripped away by the usual (and absolutely horrible) dubbing, which was all you could get a decade or so ago. As a result, many nuances of the actor’s performances were lost, and the story became much more melodramatic than it was meant to be. I’ve always felt dubbing not only insults the actors (whose voice intonations are the main tools of their craft), but also insults the audience. In a way, people who like dubbed films are saying: “I can’t read very fast!” or “Read, what made you think I could read?” or “How can you expect me to read the subtitles and watch the action at the same time? Two things at once are far more than I can handle.” or “Nuances my ass, talking is talking and that’s all there is to it!” or “If I wanted to read I’d pick up a comic.”Another gripe is the unfortunate use of fullscreen (A system usually used for television that crops off parts of a scene on the sides.), which prevents us from getting a true appreciation of the fights. In a proper widescreen format we’d get to see the battles in their original glory.

Pushing the dubbing and fullscreen fiascos aside (all the more so since now copies in the original Chinese can be easily found), Invincible Pole Fighter really is a classic. Take legendary actors and filmmakers at the top of their game, stunning fight scenes, and mix it with the knowledge that you’re watching the final moments of a man who came within a hair’s breath of superstardom before being tragically snuffed out. All this comes together to create a movie that is a must buy for any true collector of martial arts fare.