During the Ming Dynasty, bandits attack the capital and the emperor, facing unsurmountable odds, prepares to commit suicide. Wanting his daughter (Nancy Yen) to join him in death, he cuts off her arm, but she escapes and (with the help of some Buddhist monks) soon recovers. She travels the country seeking followers to help her gain revenge, but faces failure and betrayal which eventually lead her to madness. A young butcher (Carter Wong) takes pity on her and they marry before he pursues his own campaign to kill the bandit leader.
An unfortunate reality of being a fan of kung-fu films is having to regularly deal with seeing perfectly good films ruined by a combination of wretched dubbing and crippling pan & scan nonsense. This tends to neuter possible dramatic elements, and can detract significantly from the actions scenes that are the initial draw. Which is not to say that Emperor Of Shaolin Kung Fu is some sort of mishandled gem, but it is difficult to appreciate even its meagar charms because of the glaring technical limitations.
Of course, the best kung-fu films are able to transcend such limitations, which is something that this film simply can't achieve. While obviously influenced by Chinese mythology with nods to the One Armed Swordsmen films, the episodic storyline holds few surprises and has a directional change in the final twenty minutes that is as silly as it is totally nonsensical. Nancy Yen is formidable in the lead, but the script never properly explains her motivations. Even taken as a simply revenge film (with fantasy elements), it's just too unnecessarily muddled to be effective.
Carter Wong (Big Trouble In Little China) fans will be disappointed to find he only shows up in the last quarter, and spends much of his time emoting to his mother. When he does finally get a chance to show off his kung-fu skill it's short lived and hurt by the choppy editing which neuters all of the action of the film.
However, it's the dubbing and translation which makes watching the plot limp along so painful. It's not just that the acting itself is horrific (which it is), it's that the actual lines are awkward and are obviously far removed from their original meeting. Early in the film the One Armed Princess meets up with some bullies in a restaurant. She gets off a real zinger by telling the leader: "Your father is a dog, and your mother a pig. That's why you are ugly". The line would be groan worthy in the best hands, but pair it with a robotic line delivery and an amusing scene becomes painfully sad.
The film is shot on both locations and some really fakey looking sets. Again, a colorful bright print of the film shown in its original ratio might have covered some of the problems, but directors Li Shia-Jie & Lau Chung Pak deserve criticism for the bland surroundings and lifeless kung-fu action. The film ends with a whimper (and expository voice over) as it hobbles to the ninety minute mark.
Once again taken from the Millcreek 50 Kung-Fu Film collection, the print is ragged and faded, particularly in the opening narration. The sound is acceptable, but after hearing the efforts of the voice actors you may have trouble resisting the temptation to pierce your own eardrums. Fullscreen, of course, and the dark scenes can be a little too dark as per usual.
Hey! Chapter Selections! Awesome.
Emperor Of Shaolin Kung Fu (aka The Snake, The Tiger, The Crane) would be a below average kung-fu flick in its best form, but this garbled mess is near unwatchable and an insult to the performers involved. Tai Seng have also released a DVD of the film that may be an improvement on this version, but it's improvements would have to be astronomical to bring this film out of the doldrums.