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‘Shaw Brothers Classics: Volume Two’ (review)

Previously in this space, I reviewed Arrow’s exemplary ShawScope Vol. 2 set, and called it a must-buy for fans of old school kung fu and anyone curious about the height of Hong Kong action in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death.  Since that set’s release, Arrow has been taking its own sweet time in getting together the follow up and it has been Shout! Factory that’s picked up the baton from Arrow and 88 Films as the label that’s ruled the Shaw Brothers roost.

Don’t believe me?

The label is releasing a staggering FIFTY-ONE motion pictures across FIVE box sets this year.

That’s intimidating even for a superfan like me.

While 88 Films and Arrow concentrated on martial arts films in the latter period of Shaw’s history that were generally well known, Shout! Factory’s box sets have distinguished themselves by loading up on pre-boom wuxia pictures from the late 60’s and early 70’s.

As a result, unless you’re an absolute Shaw Brothers fanatic who knows all these films by heart, or the type of fan who just has to get them all you might be curious about this slate of martial arts adventures as to how they stack up as movies.

To that end, this column will give you a nice overview of all twelve films, what they’re about, and how I think they stack up. After reading this column, the hope is you’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether this set is worth your $130.

A little formal info to get out of the way before we discuss the films: the box set has six individual cases with two discs in each. Production values on the package are high and the poster that accompanies the limited edition set is handsome.

Every film in the set has at least one commentary track and about half have more than one, and every film has a wonderful mono Mandarin DTS track, while only five have the English dub if that is important to you. I have no issues with the packaging, restorations, or special features of the set– this is an item of quality.

And without further ado, the films:

Lady of Steel (1970)

We open with a Cheng Pei-Pei (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) vehicle, and I’ve noticed Shout has really built their first two sets around her output which is refreshing considering how so many releases like this have been dominated by either Gordon Liu or the Venoms. Here she’s paired with veteran Shaw director Ho Meng-Hua (Mighty Peking Man) who provides a surreal visual charm to what is otherwise a flabby and formulaic wuxia film. Every genre has its pitfalls it can fall into: in general, whereas the later open hand Shaw Brothers films can be a bit breathless and short on story when they’re not careful, pre-1973 wuxia generally has the opposite problem if the main story isn’t strong enough it can sometimes be swallowed in plots and sub plots and feel a bit listless owing to its origins in Chinese pulp literature. That said, the film is never bad and the final twenty minutes are really excellent. This is a middling thumbs up, and a strange film to open the set with.

Brothers Five (1970)

ALL KILLER, NO FILLER. Lo Wei (The Big Boss, Fist of Fury) directs this breathless, preposterous, amazing wuxia classic but the secret sauce is Sammo Hung (Knockabout) in one of his first outings as action choreographer pulling out literally all the stops. Tien Feng (the bad guy from Five Fingers of Death) kills a rival master and Cheng Pei-Pei brings his five sons (including a very game Lo Lieh as the youngest) together to get their revenge and it absolutely slays– each brother is visually distinct thanks to the unique weapons they get and the first 80 action packed minutes serve as prelude to final battle that will blow even hardened Shaw fans away. This is easily the best direction I’ve ever seen from Lo Wei as he seamlessly flows from fight to fight overwhelming the viewer in an embarrassment of action riches. Huge thumbs up. By the way: Mortal Kombat fans will be delighted to see where Kung Lao got his lethal hat from.

The Crimson Charm (1971)

Director Huang Feng is most famous for his classic work with Angela Mao at Golden Harvest, who recruited him after Raymond Chow broke away from Shaw on the strength of this movie. The Crimson Charm has acquired a reputation as a lost classic of Shaw wuxia, and so I was a bit bummed to find that other than its unusual one armed swordswoman gimmick and her brother’s retractable sword, it didn’t feel like it was bringing anything new to the table and after Brothers Five the action felt like it was underwater. After the maiming that makes one of our heroes one armed, the film picks up and gains focus but I was expecting a lost classic and got a guilty pleasure. Middling to thumbs down.

The Shadow Whip (1971)

Lo Wei and Cheng Pei-Pei are back and the set picks up momentum again. Cheng Pei Pei is crossing a deadly mountain pass in the snow when she’s accosted by bandits, but it turns out (as it so often does in this set) that she’s got a history with these particular criminals and is ready for them with the titular whip– a vicious chain whip that kills in a flash. The snowbound setting livens up the typical Shaw period production values and its nice to see a Cheng Pei-Pei vehicle where she is unapologetically the lead and not subbed out for her masculine co-stars at some point.

This is the film that got director Lo Wei the offer to come to Golden Harvest, which changed the entire course of Hong Kong cinema TWICE when he ended up drawing the assignment of directing the first two Bruce Lee films and then left the studio to form his own production company built around the talents of then unknown stunt performer Jackie Chan. In general his Shaw output to me seems more visually assured than either his Golden Harvest or self employed projects. Thumbs up.

The Delightful Forest (1972)

CHENG CHEH HAS ARRIVED ON THE SET. However, before we get too excited let me make a small recommendation if you’ve purchased the set and are following along at home. Take this film out of the player and watch the eighth film in the set, The Water Margin first. This film adapts one portion of that legendary epic novel and this film assumes you’ve got a working knowledge of it. So go on down to the eighth review and read that one and come back… I’ll wait.

OK, so if you read The Water Margin  review you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find out this film is a focused, streamlined narrative concerning Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow) as Tiger Killer Wu Sung. Now again, it’s attached to a world of lore…but the actual story here is a lot more satisfying than the main film and the climax is one of the bloodiest in Cheng Cheh’s oeuvre and that’s saying something. Thumbs up.

The Devil’s Mirror (1972)

Sun Chung (The Avenging Eagle, Human Lanterns) makes his debut for Shaw Brothers with an… energetic horror wuxia hybrid. This film is an example of a subgenre of wuxia film called “Clan Fiction” which details, as you might expect, the plots and treacheries between large families of fighters.

In this case, they’re pitted against one another by an evil witch because they’ve got the artifacts that can kill her. Now, Clan Fiction can get kind of slow going for Western audiences because they’ve very complicated plots with large casts condensed down but Sun Chung cuts through this particular Gordian Knot by just making everything really, really, violent.

This is one of the bloodiest wuxia pictures I’ve ever seen, completely embracing the horror elements. It’s not the cinematic opus of the Run Run Shaw regime, but I can’t imagine anyone being bored for a moment watching it. Thumbs Up.

Man of Iron (1972)

Chen Kuan-Tai’s big break was 1972’s The Boxer From Shangtung, one of the best loved pictures of the kung fu boom, and this semi-sequel reunites him with Cheng Cheh (who returned as the nominal director while Pao Hsueh-Li once again handled most of the day to day work).

This film is kind of an odd duck as the first was a classic gangster rise and fall story and this story is set 20 years later in the same part of town with Chen once again playing a very similar character to the one he played in the first film (who did not survive the proceedings) but this time in a smaller scale story where he’s more clearly “the good guy.” Conventional wisdom is that this is a somewhat disappointing follow up and while it lacks the grim determination of the first film’s ending, I found it to be better paced and an easier watch. Easy thumbs up.

The Water Margin (1972)

So, if you’re here from The Delightful Forest let me give some context: The Water Margin is one of the “Four Classics” of Chinese literature– an epic of impossible scope and scale and filled to the brim with characters and stories that form the bedrock of the Chinese cultural understanding of the world. Now, The Water Margin the film only adapts three chapters of the novel (66-68) and The Delightful Forest only adapts a portion of one chapter (24) but this film is the one that provides the necessary context for what is going on and I find that the other films in the “Heroes of the Marsh” series are enhanced by a working knowledge of this film, which is sadly a bit incoherent on its own without a working knowledge of the various characters and Chinese history. Good action from Lau Kar-leung, though. Middling to thumbs down.

The Bride From Hell (1972)

Every Shaw set needs an “oddball” (read: non martial arts) picture and in this one we have a true change of pace. This film was produced in Taiwan, and it shows when you compare the period production values to the other films in this set, and it’s a ghost story rather than a wuxia. It was made before the Category III designation and plays like a fast and loose poor man’s version of the Japanese classic Kwaidan. Film actually has a neat little twist towards the end but  everything takes an eternity to get going. Thumbs down.

Heroes Two (1974)

My personal favorite of Cheng Cheh’s “Shaolin Cycle” stars Alexander Fu Sheng as Fong Sai-Yuk, a character popularized in the West by Jet Li’s film The Legend. After the burning of the Shaolin Temple by murderous Qing soldiers (which opens almost all the films in the cycle) Fu Sheng is manipulated into taking on a virtuous rebel, played by the excellent Chen Kwan-Tai. The jovial Fu Sheng and moody Chen are perfect kung fu costars and Lau Kar-Leung’s choreography reaches its apex, or at least its apex until he’s directing his own films. This or Brothers Five is the highlight of the set, and sure to bring back fond memories for anyone who first watched these films during the early 70’s boom period.

The Flying Guillotine (1975)

The most iconic weapon in kung fu makes its debut here. While not nearly as good a film as Jimmy Wang Yu’s 1981 Master of the Flying Guillotine, this Shaw entry lives up to its memorable reputation thanks to a solid lead performance from Chen Kwan-Tai as a Qing assassin given the titular weapon who begins to have second thoughts about the Emperor when he sees how casually he’ll order it used. Look, there’s nothing more fun than seeing the heads come off and even though the film has lost much of its shock value that it had in its debut, the climax retains its tragic violent power. Easy thumbs up.

The Dragon Missile (1976)

Sometimes incorrectly identified as Flying Guillotine Part 3 (That would be The Vengeful Beauty) this is nonetheless a film clearly made in its image as Lo Lieh plays a hired tough working for a corrupt lord who has dispatched him to a remote pharmacist to bring back a poultice that will save his life.

The film feels much less polished than most Shaw stories, probably because of all the location work rather than backlot but its still eminently watchable thanks to the always great Lo Lieh in the starring role and the titular “Dragon Missile” a fatal boomerang that decapitates anyone standing in its way.

Another easy thumbs up.

In conclusion this box set has fewer all time classics than either ShawScope set and lacks both a signature Gordon Liu performance or a Venoms Mob movie BUT if you’re a fan of the wuxia period of the Shaw’s history or curious about the studio at the height of their success it’s an easy recommendation. If you’re budget conscious I would wait on this and Volume 1 and focus on Volume 3 first though as it has the best stacked line up.

Recommended.

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