Silver Emulsion

Film Reviews

Uncle Jasper reviews: The Eighteen Jade Arhats (1978)

The Eighteen Jade Arhats [十八玉羅漢] (1978)

Starring Polly Shang Kuan, Lee Jan-Wa, Lo Lieh, Chang Yi, Phillip Ko Fei, Lung Fei, Ching Kuo-Chung

Directed By Jen Chieh Chang

Oh Eighteen Jade Arhats, you looked so good when we first met. You presented yourself with nothing but class and promises of wonderful times. How my heart fluttered at your awesome box art full of white-eyebrowed old men in dexterous kung fu poses and bizarre multi-limbed training machines. Your plot summary read like a smorgasbord of wu xia thrills and edge of your seat action, a veritable buffet of tasty kung fu goodness. Your opening credit sequence featuring a duo of seasoned martial artists fighting a twenty foot tall, 14 armed robot-statue nearly brought tears of joy to my eyes. Oh where did it all go wrong? I thought we had something special. Instead, our love fizzled out in a sea of dizzying confusion and broken promises.

That’s the gist of it. The Eighteen Jade Arhats, in its eager attempt to give you the world, throws a little bit of everything at you at such a frantic, breakneck speed that it ends up playing out like a collection of Shaw Bros. trailers instead of anything resembling a real motion picture. At one moment you have a dizzying, treetop wire-assisted fight scene, and at the next you have a supernatural kung fu zombie thriller. This would of course be acceptable, welcome even, if there was a shred of coherent storytelling holding the funky mish-mash together. But instead we are left scratching our heads as the film carelessly jumps from subplot to subplot like a drunken frog looking for a specific fly in a vast sea of horseshit. Hell, sometimes subplots are discarded or flat-out forgotten altogether. The viewer of course, is so batshit confused by this point that they either won’t notice or simply won’t care.

Not to say that the film is without its merits. If you are willing to accept this film for what it is, a string of mildly entertaining kung fu scenes hiding behind the guise of a half-assed, unfairly convoluted mystery, you will walk away with at least some decent payoff. You get Polly Kuan in a wobbly balancing act as she duels Philip Ko atop giant, rolling iron balls. You get Shaw Bros. small-timer Lee Jan-Wa being seduced by a trio of beautiful temptresses who turn into killer witches within the blink of an eye. And you get an unskilled, phony swordsman con-artist getting kicked in the balls and crushed by a door for no reason. These moments serve as brief rest stops along the headache-inducing, poorly presented hack-job of a journey this film presents.

When I read the plot summary of this film I was intrigued because it sounded like a wu xia detective story come to life. Being a huge fan of detective fiction and genre-benders in general, I was more than ready to watch Polly Kuan and Lee Jan-Wa run around in the woods playing Ming-Dynasty Philip Marlowes as they tracked down the mysterious killer of a respected kung fu master. I am willing to give a little more leeway than normal to murder mysteries in terms of plot, because untangling the web of clues is part of the fun. However, the piss-poor execution here makes any attempt to unravel the mystery pretty much useless. The film tosses like twenty characters and about as many plot points at you in the span of the first half-hour making it damn near impossible to follow along. Seriously, you’d have to be cracking algebra like a fucking android in order to keep up with this shit.

When the film is at its strongest is when it’s tossing random challenges at our two heroes like stacked levels in a video game. At one point, a rogue Buddhist monk flies out of nowhere to challenge Lee Jan-Wa to see which of them is more successful in chopping down trees with their bare hands. Immediately after, a soft-spoken nun challenges Polly Kuan to balance atop a tall stalk of bamboo for as long as possible without falling. Polly wins of course, but only after talking mad shit to the quiet nun who tries desperately not to break from her meditative state. If the film gave us 90 minutes of this stuff and nothing else, it would fly leaps and bounds above what was ultimately delivered.

The ending is halfway decent even though it contains about three plot twists too many. I got the impression that there was a genuine attempt to tie this jumbled mess together in a semi-respectable fashion. The martial arts are a little uneven, but these guys were at least smart enough to save the best stuff for the end. Other than that, Polly Kuan gave a lively if sometimes irritating performance, Lee Jan-Wa made for a decent male lead, and Lo Lieh was good in his 10 minutes of total screen time.

It may sound like I ripped this movie to shreds, but that’s not entirely the case. There is a good film buried somewhere under here. Shoddy direction and meandering screenwriting just unfortunately obscured it. This would actually be a decent candidate for a remake, which I almost never support. With a little tightening and a lot of trimming this film could actually live up to its original intentions. Perhaps then, Eighteen Jade Arhats, we could finally have our requited love.

August 26, 2010 - Posted by | 1970s, Foreign, Martial Arts, Movie Reviews, Uncle Jasper Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. It doesn’t sound like the most well put together picture out there, but I don’t think I can resist the 14 armed robot statue and the rolling ball fight. Gonna have to check this out.

    I love your opening too!

    Comment by Will Silver | August 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Thanks! It definitely has its moments, but you have to go into this movie knowing that any attempt to rationalize anything going on is completely useless. I know you remember Kung Fu Cult Master… good movie, fun scenes but I could not for the life of me even begin to describe what the fuck it was about.

      Comment by Uncle Jasper | August 26, 2010 | Reply

      • yeah man, Kung Fu Cult Master is one of the toughest movies to follow. If I remember right doesn’t it just end mid-scene? The copy I had was so awful, I wonder if it’s out on DVD now. It would be fun to re-watch that one.

        Comment by Will Silver | August 27, 2010 | Reply

        • Yeah. They were supposed to make a trilogy out of the movies or something and the next was supposed to pick up where KFCM left off. Not that it mattered though. The story was beyond comprehension anyway. I just remember Jet Li jumping like 300 feet in the air, throwing hadoukens and shit at dudes in the sand.

          Comment by Uncle Jasper | August 28, 2010 | Reply

          • Yeah that’s right it was supposed to be a series. I’m willing to bet I’d enjoy it more now though, despite the lack of story. I remember it having some good stuff in it.

            Comment by Will Silver | August 28, 2010

  2. Wow you weren’t fooling when you said incomprehensible. I gave up about a half hour in and just tried to have fun with the kung fu scenes. I also thought those scenes with the tree-chopping and pole-standing were the best. I did like the on top of balls fight too, even though it looked stupid.

    Maybe the new Tsui Hark Detective Dee movie can fill our desire for a good kung fu detective story.

    Comment by Will Silver | October 3, 2010 | Reply

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