By Jeremy Carr.

All involved on this set from Arrow Video make a strong case for how remarkably varied and complex these movies were, from the economic, political, and social conditions of their making to the thrilling end results.”

If the casual moviegoer is even remotely aware of the Shaw brothers, their similarly-named studio, and their movies, it’s probably thanks to Quentin Tarantino. The impassioned director has often championed the work made under the auspices of these Hong Kong moguls and his Kill Bill movies alone contain copious allusions to the Shaw’s kung fu benchmarks, from the Shawscope opening banner and accompanying fanfare to the aural punctuations, fight scene citations, and the casting of one notably familiar Shaw star. Tarantino paid loving homage to what have become, for many, cult classics, and for the aficionado few, pillars of martial arts cinema. Still, these spirited nods are largely superficial, and kung fu films are generally viewed along the most rudimentary lines, known primarily for their routine scenarios, elaborate action sequences, and chronically shoddy qualities like poor dubbing and consequently peculiar performances.

Enter Arrow Video and its Shaw Brothers boxset, Shawscope, Volume One. Making available a dozen Shaw productions, accompanied by a staggering wealth of bonus features, this collection testifies to what was in fact a multifaceted, technically and physically impressive, and surprisingly diverse genre, especially during its 1970s heyday. Just as welcome as the films themselves, however, perhaps even more so, is the extensive history lesson provided by Arrow in the form of detailed, clearly enthusiastic essays, notes, interviews, and invaluable video primers with British scholar Tony Rayns, whose contextualizing and breadth of knowledge is essential to a full appreciation of the Shaw features showcased. All involved make a strong case for how remarkably varied and complex these movies were, from the economic, political, and social conditions of their making to the thrilling end results. Shawscope: Volume One (8-Disc Limited Edition) [Blu-ray] : Lo  Lieh, Chen Kuan Tai, David Chiang, Danny Lee, Gordon Liu, Jeong Chang-hwa,  Chang Cheh, Ho Meng-hua, Lau Kar-leung: Movies & TV

The assembly kicks off with King Boxer, a 1972 release that sets the tone well with its high-flying, acrobatic skirmishes. By way of several creatively-choreographed contests, many using backdrop elements to great effect, the film tells of Zhao Zhihao (Lo Lieh), who seeks martial arts guidance from Master Sun (Fang Mien) and hopes his edification will place him in good standing for an upcoming tournament. He’s not the only one vying for prestige, though, and his adversaries enact their own analogous, more dubious preparations. Renamed in the United States and distributed as Five Fingers of Death (Rayns regularly notes the Westernization of these films, their titles, and the names of their stars), King Boxer was a significant, trendsetting production for Shaw Brothers, described by Rayns as their “flagship film” and considered by director Chung Chang-wha his “magnum opus.” The film was vital to the Shaw’s expansion and was something of a countering to the parallel popularity of one Bruce Lee; as Simon Abrams puts it in his notes on the picture, Lieh Lo “walked so Bruce Lee could run.” According to Chung, King Boxer hit on several key, enduring themes of these kung fu films, evinced throughout this set, including betrayal and retribution. But it also epitomizes the occasionally-outlandish nature of their characteristic action conceptions, in this case having opponents flung through ceilings and applying a red glow to the arms and hands of Zhao as he perfects the debilitating “Iron Palm” technique. And aside from a healthy dose of bloodletting—eye-gouging is a particularly efficient practice—King Boxer even allows for the levity of a romantic slow-motion reverie.

Like King Boxer, The Boxer from Shantung (also 1972) features a barrage of embellished musical cues, camera zooms, character movements, and expressions of exaggerated exertion. Directed by stalwart Shaw operative Chang Cheh and co-written by Ni Kuang, who, according to the trivia Arrow includes, “also wrote or co-wrote the screenplay for every film in this boxset except for King Boxer,” this film centers on Ma Yongzhen as he endeavors to overcome his humble origins. He’s a righteous defender of his fellow underclass, seeking the opportunity to do better in life while also doing what is right—“I might be a bum,” he states, “but I can fight.” His pride and defiance affirm his ambition, and his comic swagger when he eventually comes into money signals his affable disposition (nearly every film in this set is sprinkled with a dash of humor, offsetting the sometimes-strained seriousness of their dramatic circumstances). A shift in Ma’s temperament is nicely executed by actor Chen Kuan-tai as he balances honor with what could become a morally gray motivation. The hierarchical, territorial squabbles that also emerge are par for the course, but The Boxer from Shantung distinguishes itself with some markedly imaginative fighting components, including villains with hatchets up their sleeves, an increased amount of character mobility, and a nicely established ambush finale, a fantastically arranged, lengthy, and rather messy denouement in which Ma soldiers on even with one of those hatchets jutting from his stomach. One can easily see how assistant director John Woo was influenced by Chang Cheh’s formal tendencies.

Five Shaolin Masters Mandarin Movie Streaming Online Watch
Five Shaolin Masters

Chang was also at the helm of Five Shaolin Masters (1974), which picks up after the burning of the Shaolin temple and the slaughter of most of its inhabitants. Surviving the massacre are the five titular students, who vow to regroup and ratify their vengeance on the Qing perpetrators. The film has an action-packed opening, this time with nature serving as an integral scenic milieu, and again there is some creative martial arts activity, including one opponent who wields a flying axe blade tied to the end of a rope (the maneuvering of which is a feat in itself) and, more curiously, another who touts his “pigtail technique,” which is exactly what it sounds like. The teaming-up aspect of Five Shaolin Masters works nicely, sustaining a firm distinction between manifest squads of good and bad, and Alexander Fu Sheng as the youngest and more inexperienced of the five protagonists has been rightly applauded for his charisma. But as Abrams notes (though it’s hardly a condemnation), a film like Five Shaolin Masters plays “fast and loose with historical events and often [ends] with a hard-earned symbolic victory for the temple’s remaining students against the Qing dynasty’s otherwise implacable emissaries… .”

The same could also be said for Shaolin Temple, also directed by Chang. Rayns spends a good deal of time discussing the director, obviously one of the most prominent Shaw Brothers filmmakers, and aside from exploring frequent themes related to Chang (male bonding and some loosely-related, somewhat stretched homosexual undertones), Rayns also notes how he may not have necessarily directed every film for which he is ascribed, as frequent collaborators habitually shared directing duties if not always the corresponding credit, an unusual approach star Kong Do also confirms.

Nevertheless, Shaolin Temple, released two years later, in 1976, is a semi-sequel to Five Shaolin Masters, though it is actually more of a prequel, beginning at the intact temple as students and masters uphold the reputable nature of the facility and its teachings, and individual trainees attempt to secure their own positions of esteem and ability. With its interior separation and initial lack of adversarial aggression, Shaolin Temple is more static and subdued than most of the films featured in this collection—at least to start—and is instead an earnest demonstration of the rules and regulations of martial arts instruction, as well as a showcase for the ornate design of the temple and the advance of its rituals, trials, and initiation processes. The development of an espionage plot seems secondary, but the two narrative threads do tie together when the obstacles become entwined and all that has been absorbed and demonstrated is put to the test in an extravagant, 25-minute final battle.

Crippled Avengers‘ brutality is countered by some of the Shaw’s most inventive and frankly exhausting physical feats.”

The scenes at the temple of Shaolin Temple validate many of the overriding facets not only present in these Shaw productions, but martial arts films in the main. There is the importance of discipline, the power of belonging to a strict society, and the sincere admiration of martial arts practice and competence. Accordingly, most every film here applies substantial weight on the time spent training, emphasizing the work involved, the mastery, and a veneration of the assorted forms and functions of combat, be they fabricated for cinematic purposes or wholly authentic. Physical endurance, commitment, and the shock of seeing seasoned elders achieve what the younger can only dream of likewise punctuate many of these Shaw productions. The use of weaponry, like a knife, can be seen as something of an affront to the tried-and-true traditions of hand-to-hand combat, while matters of honor conflict with envy and shame and domains of conspiracy, rival schools, and the desire for regional supremacy prod narrative progress.

On the other hand, there is a film like Mighty Peking Man, the Arrow set’s 1977 oddball inclusion. Call it a “kaiju knockoff” or a blatant example of “Kongsploitation,” this nutty addition is wildly ridiculous. Directed by Ho Meng-hua, Mighty Peking Man begins with a journey to India, where a wealthy businessman, Lu Tien (Ku Feng), hopes to capture a giant gorilla roaming the land. He enlists a downtrodden explorer, “Johnny” (Danny Lee), to assist in the capture and what follows is an insane succession of earthquakes, quicksand, rambunctious wildlife, and the appearance of a scantily-clad Evelyne Kraft, playing a blonde woman who grew up in untamed isolation with the gorilla as her only acquaintance. After she and Johnny also get acquainted, in predicable fashion and following some hilariously overstated frolicking, the enormous primate is ultimately “persuaded” to Hong Kong, where chaos inevitably ensues. Even with the recruitment of Toho designer Keizo Murase, the Japanese sculptor behind such films as Mothra (1961) and King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), the miniatures of Mighty Peking Man are more than obvious, the back projection is substandard, and, though this can’t be pinned on Murase and his team, the acting is atrocious.  

And yet, Mighty Peking Man has its so-bad-it’s-good champions, and is actually more entertaining, and has somehow aged better, than 1977’s Chinatown Kid, directed by Chang Cheh. Alexander Fu Sheng stars as Tam Tung, a decent young man tending to his grandfather in Hong Kong. Perpetually short on money, Tam puts his muscular talents to use by squeezing oranges for orange juice, which is sold with reasonable success. But after local gangsters attempt to co-opt his faculties, perverting the purity of his kung fu incentive (another recurrent violation), he flees to San Francisco (mostly shot in the Shaw’s “Movietown” studios) and meets fellow immigrant Yang Jianwen, played by Sun Chien. The reprieve proves short-lived, and although there is a 90-minute cut of the film available, at its full-length of 115 minutes, the movie is tedious, dated, and the least engaging of the 12 films collected here.

Celestial Pictures | The Message From Chinatown Kid: Don't Mess With Fu  Sheng's Friends
Chinatown Kid

Chinatown Kid is the exception, though, and Challenge of the Masters (1976) happily returns to the norm with an origin story of legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung, played here by Chia-Hui Liu, AKA Gordon Liu. Directed by Lau Ker-leung, Challenge of the Masters features Wong in the formative years of his tutelage, overcoming the ridicule of his failures, despite having a kung fu master as a father, and pursuing revenge for a murder that hits close to home. The film moves along in accordance with young Wong’s energy, as he evolves beyond eager neophyte and enters a threatening province of intrigue and animosity, and Gordon Liu is aptly up to the task, conveying sincerity and, of course, tremendous skill. “If I didn’t learn kung fu,” he states in an interview, “I wouldn’t consider myself a Chinese person.”

Challenge of the Masters (see top image), like most of these Shaw films, makes extraordinary use of the widescreen format, which is shown to be deliberately well-suited to compositions teeming with individuals from all sides, clamoring together in crowd scenes, cautiously approaching one another in multitudes during the fight sequences—balancing the choreography of the action with vacant space—and incorporating certain scenic aspects as visual decoration or elements integrated into the conflict. The Pao competition that acts as a narrative framework in Challenge of the Masters is equally emblematic of how these Shaw films can revel in their attractive textures and vibrant colors (the seven of 12 films restored in 2K are all first-rate), with clothing, banners, and floral arrangements adding graphic dimension in unison with the excitement of lively crowds.

Executioners from Shaolin, released in 1977, has one of the more interesting story structures of the films Arrow brings together, becoming a generational tale of retribution. Qing soldiers decimate Shaolin disciples as they ravage the sanctuary, but managing to escape is Hong Xiguan (Chen Kuan-tai), thanks to the sacrifice of his compatriot, Tong Qianjin (Gordon Liu). Biding his time before he can pursue the requisite reckoning, Hung marries Fang Yongchun (Lily Li) and the two have a son, Hong Wending. As the boy grows older, and is now played by Wong Yue, he too begins his training, courtesy of his mother. The father-son positioning, though disconnected due to discrepancies in styles and standards, stresses the prevailing desire to right the wrongs of the past, and the conclusive enactment is performed with outstanding visual and physical variety (including the villain’s inexplicable crotch hold). Yet the domestic scenes of Executioners from Shaolin are what set the film apart. In the aftermath of the destruction, the courtship scenes between Hong and Fang are endearing and feisty, especially as Fang, one of the more prominent female characters seen in these films, uses her kung fu skills to thwart Hong’s advances by playfully, though effectually, keeping her knees tightly together (based on the child they eventually have, she doesn’t keep it up for long).

Lau Ker-leung, who directed Executioners from Shaolin, is called by Rayns the “single most important director to the company,” and Rayns praises this marital sketch and the film’s sophisticated gender play. Even more notable in terms of sexual dynamics is Lau’s Heroes of the East (1978), a light, funny, and refreshingly unique entry in this Shaw set. Gordon Liu is Ho Tao, who has recently been arranged to marry Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno). The rom-com setup has the two surmounting their initial resistance to the romantic preparation only to find they don’t exactly see eye-to-eye when it comes to preferred methods of martial arts, he favoring Chinese and she, Japanese. The sounds of Yumiko practicing are assumed to be the sounds of Ho beating her, her dowry shipment ends up containing weapons, and the two are constantly engaging in bouts of rather dangerously mounted nuptial one-upmanship. Before long, the conjugal discord grows out of proportion and becomes an international incident, pitting the Chinese martial arts styles against those of the Japanese, in a series of superbly-staged challenges that highlight the best of both forms, all essentially in the name of domestic harmony.

Tickets for Deuce Comes to Dormont: Five Deadly Venoms (1978) in Dormont  from ShowClix
The Five Venoms (aka, Five Deadly Venoms)

A dramatic shift in tone comes with The Five Venoms (or, Five Deadly Venoms), one of the best films included in this Shaw collection. Released in 1978 and directed by Chang Cheh, the film follows student Yang De (Chiang Sheng) who, at the behest of his dying master, begins to track down the older members of the Venom clan as word of their dastardly misuse of power causes concern. Concealing their identities, searching for treasure, the five rebels are defined by their respective skills, each named after, and emulating, a venomous animal (the introduction of these traits is a Shaw Brothers highpoint). Clandestine corruption, a parallel criminal investigation, and internal quarrels merge with the execution of the creature features in martial arts form, heightened by lighting accents and stylish maneuvers and all perfectly realized by Chang’s aesthetic and the film’s enjoyably defined cast of characters.

Chang’s Crippled Avengers, from 1978, features another squad of assorted individuals, this time unified by their ostensibly incapacitating physical or mental impairments. Du Tiandao (Chen Kuan-tai) is devastated when his wife has her legs chopped off, is murdered, and his son has his arms mercilessly removed. He bestows upon the boy irons arms and the two plot their pitiless future (all this before the opening credits). Years later, however, they are no longer the victims but are instead bitter bullies, and among their prey are four men who are successively handicapped in their own way: blinded, made deaf and dumb, crazed, and sans legs. Still, these virtuous castoffs overcome their infirmities and plot their revenge on the depraved father and son, and the film’s brutality is countered by some of the Shaw’s most inventive and frankly exhausting physical feats.

Lau Kar-leung directs the final Shaw feature of this set, 1979’s Dirty Ho, in which Gordon Liu appears as Manchurian Prince Wang Tsun Hsin, who adopts the guise of a jeweler and reluctantly allies with thief Ho Jen (Wong Yue). The film’s gorgeous opening, a colorful sequence where men frivolously compete for riches and pleasurable girls, soon gives way to a slightly muddled premise (here and elsewhere, Rayns mercifully clarifies and illuminates certain plot points where possible). But the madcap master-disciple relationship and some downright bizarre battles gradually guide the picture into the traditional realm of “tournament film,” with a resourceful integration of inanimate objects rightly praised by Rayns in his dialogue.

In his “Brief History of the Shaw Brothers Studio,” David Dresser writes that “Shaw Brothers Studio HK … was arguably the most important, certainly the most prolific, and undoubtably the most influential film studio in the history of not just Hong Kong cinema, but of any Chinese cinema anywhere in the world.” And to that end, Arrow delivers a suitably deferential package, which includes an illustrated 60-page collectors’ book, featuring discerning writing about the individual films, their stars, and some of the genre’s defining qualities, and bonus discs containing soundtrack music from Shaolin Temple, Mighty Peking Man, Chinatown Kid, The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers, and Dirty Ho. Fans of these films, be they new to the scene or longtime enthusiasts, will undoubtably be left wanting for little else from Shawscope, Volume One—except perhaps Volume 2.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. He is the author of Repulsion (1965) from Auteur Publishing and a contributor to the collections ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press, and David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretationfrom Fairleigh Dickinson University Press (December 2021).

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