The 1978 Shaw Brothers martial arts film Shaolin Mantis (also known as The Deadly Mantis) is almost like several films in one. While the first half is heavy on romantic and comedic elements, the second half provides nearly non-stop showdown sequences. Even with tonal inconsistencies and a twist ending that could be seen as frustratingly unearned, Shaolin Mantis is engaging from beginning to end.
The story follows scholar Wei Fung (David Chiang), who is sent to infiltrate a clan of Ming loyalists by the emperor. If Wei Fung fails to spy on the clan in a certain amount of time, the emperor promises to imprison and eventually kill his family. While he is able to find placement as the tutor to the clan leader’s granddaughter Tien Chi-Chi (Cecilia Wong), Wei Fung’s plans are almost thwarted when his connection to the emperor is discovered. It is only because Tien Chi-Chi falls in love with him that spares his life, and Wei Fung is married into the disloyal clan.
The complexities of loyalty are at the center of the story, as both Wei Fung and Tien Chi-Chi are forced to choose between their love for each other and their family. Tragedy inevitably strikes Wei Fung, leading to a series of showdowns as the film shifts focus to themes of revenge. In order to accomplish this, Wei Fung must train to take on the specific skills of each martial arts master. Rather than the typical training sequence featuring an old master, Wei Fung learns new skills by studying the behavior of a praying mantis.
The fights are spectacular and the romance is cute, but the story feels secondary to the battles. This is especially clear by the end of the movie, with a twist that insulting diminishes the significance of much that came before it. This is not enough to ruin the film but prevents it from feeling like one of the best from Shaw Brothers. The way it jumps from genre to genre is also a bit disorienting, and I found myself wishing the film would stick to one and commit.
The new Blu-ray release from 88 Films contains a high definition presentation of the movie, remastered from the original 35mm negatives. The film is available to be watched with newly translated English subtitles in the original language, though the English-dubbing for the North American release is also available. The special features include the following:
-Audio commentary with film critics Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
-Audio commentary with critic Frank Djeng
-Complicated Families: David West discusses Shaolin Mantis
-Uncle Tien Chung: An interview with John Cheung
-Hong Kong Trailer
-A slipcase and reversible sleeve with new artwork by R.P. “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien
-4 collectible art postcards with still images from the film
-A double-sided foldout poster.
Entertainment Value: 7.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 7/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 8/10