I first watched the Shaw Brothers masterpiece “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” on a Saturday with my now fiancée. I knew what the Shaw Brothers and director Lau Kar-leung were capable of, but none of their former efforts prepared me for this. The effortless intensity and towering melodrama of the legendary Yang family’s downfall and Ng-long’s (Gordon Liu), the fifth Yang son, quest for revenge floored us both. The movie’s artificiality takes center stage, it’s hard to miss, but by acknowledging it and wringing it for all its worth, “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” earns its place in martial arts movie history.
Some now forgotten problem nearly ruined the day, and all I wanted was to escape in a movie. Martial arts is a genre I return to in those moments. It took maybe five minutes to realize how special this particular work is. It opens with the Battle of Jinsha, a set piece that does more in ten minutes than most movies do in 90. The Yang family is ambushed by the Song general Pun Mei (Lam Hak-ming) and his Khitan army. All but two of the seven brothers are killed, and only one, Luk-long (Alexander Fu Sheng), the sixth son, returns home. Ng-long escapes to a Buddhist temple in the mountains, but is too concerned with worldly matters to be accepted by the abbot (Ko Fei).
Much to the abbot’s chagrin, Ng-long won’t leave. Instead, he stays and guards the temple, training until he is accepted by the monks. Meanwhile, at the Yang palace, Luk-long is traumatized, retreating to violence every time Pun Mei’s name is uttered. Sadly, Alexander Fu died in a car accident before the movie’s jaw-dropping final fight sequence, so Luk-long’s story is one of a soldier who watched his family die, never to recover. It’s poignant and adds an emotional dimension to Fu’s already riveting performance.
Now, “Pole Fighter” isn’t interested in realism. Lau Kar-leung made his career by pushing wuxia’s artificiality to the extreme. Anything in the movie, from answering a door to pulling droves of soldiers’ teeth out, is treated with unyielding sincerity, and the movie is elevated for it. My fiancée and I couldn’t believe our eyes: everything you could want in a martial arts movie happens in the opening sequence and only gets better from there. I remember how she clutched my wrist, gasping loud enough to shake the house. I was right there with her and, for the first time in a while, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
And that is the power of “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter”: it is a completely realized and relentlessly engaging epic that makes no excuses for its insanity. It just is, and nothing like it has come out since. What sets it further apart is its undercurrent of real emotion. The Yang family’s struggles are heart-rending to watch thanks mostly to Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng’s gripping performances. Going further, “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” was a gift that Saturday night. It transported us in a way few movies can and gave us something beyond just watching a movie: an unforgettable experience. Watch it with friends and loved ones. It’s guaranteed to stick with you.