The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1983) is one of the Shaw Brothers’ darkest movies – both on and off-screen – marred by real-life tragedy when one its stars died during filming. It is also one of their best with some truly spectacularly choreographed action sequences.
Betrayed by General Yang’s right-hand man, General Pun Mei (Lam Hak-ming), whose army of Mongols ambush him and his seven sons at Golden Beach, killing them all except for Yeung Dak (Gordon Liu) and Yeung Chiu (Alexander Fu) – the fifth and sixth sons respectively. The battle itself is an astounding master class of choreography as the seven brothers armed with spears take on insurmountable odds. The fighting is fast and furious as the brothers are systematically picked off in particularly bloody and vicious fashion until only two remain.
Chiu returns home severely traumatized by what happened and Alexander Fu does an excellent job showing how his character has been driven mad, lashing out at his own family, trying to kill his mother until she is able to calm him down.
Assumed dead and declared a deserter and a traitor, Dak takes refuge in a monastery in Mount Wutai, patiently biding his time until he can exact revenge. The Mongols pursue him to a hunter’s dwelling where the man lets Dak escape while he takes on the marauders with a trident in an impressively staged action sequence.
Gordon Liu delivers a particularly impassioned performance as evident in the scene where Dak demands and then begs to become a Buddhist monk, conveying the hurt and desperation of a man with nothing left to lose. The actor gives everything he’s got in this powerful, even moving scene.
What’s interesting about The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and what distinguishes it from other Shaw Brothers kung fu movies is that it spends a significant amount of time showing how the death of their siblings affects the fifth and sixth sons. It isn’t something that is dealt with in passing but shapes and defines what these characters do for the rest of the movie.
Everything builds to the climactic showdown between Dak and Pun Mei in an inn where his sister is being held captive. His initial assault sees the monk utilizing a cartful of bamboo poles as projectiles to defeat his foes, which is an extraordinary sight to behold. It is merely a warm-up for the showdown in the inn. At one point, Dak frees his sister in the middle of the battle and straps her to his back all the while fighting his opponents. When Dak’s fellow monks show up, then the real fireworks begin. The martial arts on display in this sequence are among the finest ever seen in a Shaw Brothers movie.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter started filming in 1981. During principal photography Alexander Fu suffered a serious injury, breaking both his legs and having a head injury. Production stopped. He recovered well enough that filming was able to resume, but on July 7, 1983 he was in a car accident with his brother and died in a nearby hospital from his injuries. After much contemplation, it was decided that filming would continue but with significant script changes. Originally, Chiu was supposed to go to the Buddhist temple and become a monk. This was changed so that Dak went instead.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is considered one of the darker, bloodier movies in the Shaw Brothers canon but it is also an excellent study on loyalty while exploring the effects of physical and psychological trauma. Most importantly, it has some truly fierce and fantastic fight scenes that must’ve been a real challenge to choreograph. All of this would be meaningless if the movie wasn’t anchored by the performances of Alexander Fu and Gordon Liu as the two surviving brothers who deal with the aftermath in their own unique ways. Their performances are what makes The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter such a compelling movie.
Hatfield, J.J. “Eight Diagram Pole Fighter aka Invincible Pole Fighter Review.” City on Fire. March 1, 2011.