Many of us know Pai Mei from his strict teachings of Beatrix Kiddo. In KILL BILL VOLUME 2 he’s a mean old bastard with long white hair. But he’s meaner and older than you may realize: his first movie appearance is in EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977), a movie that opens with him dueling a Shaolin priest to the death and burning down the temple with most of the monks inside. He was already an old man then, and that was 1727 (at least according to the first literary references to the alleged historical figure he’s based on).
There are some Shaolin students outside when this happens, and they try to fight back, but the army is there in army numbers to Kent State everybody with arrows. I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a protest or riot or something where there’s a tense standoff between police and civilians. Here in the U.S. they usually have tear gas and stuff, but they don’t actually point their guns at you most of the time. Even in Ferguson it was probly one maniac cop at a time pointing the gun and not a whole line of them. It’s gotta be pretty intimidating to see all these arrows slotted and aimed. And you look at them and think about how much their uniforms look like the Fantastic Four and if that makes you smirk they might take it the wrong way and shoot you.
36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN star Gordon Liu (who years later would play Pai Mei in KILL BILL) is there, so you might assume he’s gonna be the hero of the piece. I did, anyway. Instead he opts to bow out early with the most badass death possible.
Ouch! Wolverine did something like this one time, but he has more healing powers than Gordon. He was cheating.
Gordon’s sacrifice allows some of these guys, led by Hung Hsi-Kuan (Chen Kuan-tai, Gold Lion from MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS), to flee by sea and begin a new life as Red Boat Kung Fu, travelling kung fu performers. Their tiger style is good, but not good enough for stubborn Ying Chun (Lily Li, 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER), a local crane style practicioner who tries to stop them from performing in her hood. She fights Hsi-Kuan and two scenes later she’s living on the boat with him preparing for the wedding.
This is a rare case where I gotta praise the Weinstein marketing magic for luring me in with lies and trickery. The Dragon Dynasty cover depicts a long-haired version of one of the characters punching a metal practice dummy and exploding it into flames. At first glance I thought he was fighting a guy in a scary metal mask. Had I known this was not very representative and that alot of the first half hour was a wacky romantic/sex comedy I honestly wouldn’t have rented it, and I would’ve been missing out.
Hung has the most annoying guy on the boat, a grown man who teases like a little boy about these two liking each other, then about how good Hung’s “kung fu” is gonna be in bed. He just won’t quit, and tries to listen to them having sex on their wedding night, and actually ruins the night because she gets pissed and doesn’t want to do it anymore. Terrible friend. A reverse wing man.
When they do get around to consummating it really is a test of kung fu skills, because she makes it a game where she squeezes her legs together and he has to try to spread them apart. It goes on for a while, treated almost like a real fight scene. Now he must really hate crane style.
What I like about this story is that it’s about a mixed family, but not for religion, for fighting style. The two refuse to ever convert by learning each other’s styles, but when they have their son Wen-Ding (Wong Yue, also in 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER) Pops agrees to let Mom teach him crane style. Kinda like a mixed Jewish/Christian family having to make a choice of what to do about Christmas. The neighborhood kids see Wen-Ding practicing and make fun of him for using “a girlie style.” This is bullshit, the crane style can be pretty badass and in my opinion they are overlooking the influence his fashion choices may have on their impression of his masculinity. He does look like a girl. Anyway, Mom watches with secret pride when he uses his girlie style against these bullies.
Once he’s settled in with his family, Hsi-Kuan decides to pursue his dream of killing Pai Mei. I’m so jealous of the guys in these movies, I wish I didn’t have to work a day job and could just throw everything into my one passion like they do with their martial arts and their revenge. He dedicates his life to perfecting tiger style so he can go kill the asshole priest. I’m talking years of nothing but practice. The kid isn’t supposed to watch, but loves to sneak up and attack his dad for fun.
When he thinks he might be ready, he journeys to the temple and he fights a bunch of guys and makes an impressive showing but, let’s face it, he is not gonna defeat Pai Mei. Not yet. Don’t quit your day job.
But he comes up with this idea that Pai Mei is vulnerable between one and three o’clock each day. And also he is vulnerable in this one particular point, I don’t know how he figured this out, but Pai Mei is vulnerable if you kick him really hard in the balls. Just a weird little quirk that the old bastard has, the ball weakness. So Hsi-Kuan practices on a bronze dummy full of metal marbles that he tries to dislodge and catch, it has something to do with pressure points and the time of day. I’m not sure the science all checks out, but it looks fun. Kung fu practice meets pachinko.
It’s probly not that much of a spoiler to say that he still can’t defeat him. What may surprise you though is how he loses. He does indeed kick Pai Mei in the balls… but the balls fight back. Pai Mei basically pulls a Forrest Taft and lets him hit him. He literally welcomes him with open arms. “Welcome to my balls. Have at it,” pretty much. So he takes the bait, and his foot gets painfully stuck in Pai Mei’s crotch!
But how is it possible? Science tells us that during that particular time of day Pai Mei will be hurt if you kick him really hard in the balls. Did he just train really hard with his balls to make them extra strong and learn how to use them to crush a man’s foot? No, in fact he learned to switch his vulnerable spot from the balls to the head at will. He can just switch back and forth. This would be a good thing for athletes to learn I think.
These confrontations are great not just because of the weird testicular grappling but also because of the geography of the whole scene, the way he has to make his way up the stairs past a layer of guards and into the temple. Look at this! That’s him in the middle of the picture, standing at the bottom of the stairs. How is he not shitting his pants?
And the fact that his immature dipshit friend semi-redeems himself through self sacrifice… I mean I am not going to remember him fondly or even pour one on the curb for him but when pressed I will reluctantly admit that the way he died was the one useful thing that fucker ever did.
Of course it’s obvious what the lesson’s gonna be. In order to defeat Pai Mei on dad’s behalf the son will have to stop being such a stubborn baby and combine tiger and crane style, utilize both of their strengths. I give an A+ to the way he does it because it ties in with what we’ve learned from earlier scenes in a way I didn’t guess but that in retrospect seems obvious. And also it just looks funny. Pai Mei deserved to go out looking silly.
I’m not sure ultimately how wise the movie is though. On one hand, let go of old ideas of purity and learn from different ways. On the other hand, do inherit a grudge that your dad had from years before you were born. Oh well. At least we’ll never see that jerk Pai Mei again.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.