Set during the Manchu invasion, 18 Bronzemen opens with an attack on the household of a notable Ming general. The general is killed, and his infant son Shao Long is passed into a family of Ming loyalists, where he begins kung fu training and brutal beatings to give him strength. The Manchu continue to terrorize the surviving Mings, and so the boy is sent to the safety of the Shaolin Temple for further training. Before his training can be considered complete he must pass through the 36 Chambers and face the 18 Bronzemen, or die in the attempt...
This was one of several kung fu films to focus on the Shaolin Temple and the 36 Chambers of testing in particular, two years before Lau Kar-Leung's famous The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The success of this film would lead to two sequels (well, same actors, different characters...): Return of the 18 Bronzemen and the aforementioned Blazing Temple (8 Masters). Carter Wong (Thunder from Big Trouble in Little China) plays the "big brother" role, the serious student who helps the bumbling Shao Long through his training.
For an independent film of the time, the production quality is fairly high. The sets of the Temple, especially the training areas, are impressive. The town setting must have been filmed at one of the studio backlots, but is very effective, and the teahouse fight scene is really good. Carter Wong's fight scenes are the highlight of the film.
One lingering question: What are the 18 Bronzemen? Automatons? Shaolin masters in gold paint?
The first two-thirds of the movie--involving the Temple and the training--work the best. Once they leave, the film starts to fall apart. It's almost as if it's rushing to move the story along. The editing of some scenes can leave the viewer wondering who people are and what is going on. I think that's a problem both with the dubbing and with cultural differences. When Polly Shang first appears, it is implied that she is disguised as a man and Shao Long is fooled by the disguise, although to the viewer it's obvious that she isn't. I got it, that it's a cultural convention for these types of stories, but the casual viewer might take it literally. There's also one of the worst jump-cuts I've seen in a kung fu film, where the fight between our heroes and the Manchu warlord goes from a city street to a mountain valley in one cut.
I watched the Tai Seng/Mei Ah DVD released in 2002 with Mandarin dialogue and English subtitles. It can also be viewed in 10-minute parts on YouTube.