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The Shaw Brothers: Shaolin Memories and Five Deadly Recommendations

It’s no exaggeration to say that I adore movies: at the theater or at home, alone or with friends, there are few things I appreciate more than the experience of sitting down and allowing a great film to take me with it. So, if movies and I are carrying on a love affair, nothing gets the blood pumping faster than the work of the legendary Hong Kong studio– Shaw Brothers. Those golden letters embossed upon frosted glass illuminated by funhouse lights and accompanied by trumpets of fanfare get me more excited than anything else. They shout out to my soul that I’m once more about to be transported upon a great adventure with heroes from halfway around the world.

When I was very young, I fell in love with world cinema by chance. I worshiped at the altar of Jackie Chan and the local Blockbuster carried half of his films in Action and half of his films in the World Cinema section. Exploring that section led me from Jackie to John Woo, and then to Takeshi Kitano, Wong Kar-Wei, and finally Jean-Pierre Melville who took me all the way. When I got old enough to buy my own films on DVD, that love for Asian cinema led me to collect everything released by the late, lamented, Dragon Dynasty label. About a year into that label’s existence they began to advertise “The Shaw Brothers Collection” and I could not believe what I was seeing: gorgeous Technicolor photography, incredible fights, and a whole world of kung fu that I had never explored.

I had only known about the Shaw Brothers from the autobiography of Jackie Chan where he characterized the action cinema of Hong Kong before Bruce Lee as hokey and stilted. My dim recollection of Black Belt Theater from Saturday afternoons didn’t help– those films were butchered with awful prints, horrendous dubbing, and nonsensical editing.

So it would not be hyperbole to say that when I popped in that first remastered Shaw Brothers DVD, The One Armed Swordsman, I was blown out of my chair. I felt like a cinematic explorer who had discovered, like Professor Challenger, a lost continent. Instead of extinct animals found alive I found discarded films remastered and resurrected into their original glory. Presented in their original letterboxed format, in all the clarity DVD could provide, mostly free of the ridiculous edits that destroyed any story momentum between fights, and subtitled in their original language, all of the distractions were gone and what was left was just a magnificent adventure worthy of Ford or Kurosawa. The stylized sets of the Shaw backlot gave the title the look of a “memory play”, and the handheld photography and samurai inspired choreography was a thrilling combination.

I dove deeper and bought dozens and dozens of their films. Each time I return to collecting from a break it is the promise of new Shaw releases that draws me back in. At date of writing Koch Media, 88 Films, and Arrow are all doing stellar work with new restorations presented and sold with the kind of love and care that’s never been shown to these films before.

So now you know a little personal context, but just what do the films have to offer?

In this space I’ll mention a few I think are particularly good for beginners, and why they’re representative of what made the Shaws such a special studio that their name alone reigned supreme over Chinese language cinema for more than a generation.

THE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER

This 1982 masterpiece is, in many ways, not only the finest kung fu film ever made, but the supreme achievement of the Shaw Brothers studio. Lau Kar-Leung (Liu Chia Liang in Mandarin, all names given over henceforth will be in their Cantonese variants unless otherwise noted), the finest filmmaker of the latter days of Shaw’s film empire expertly condenses a sprawling wuxia epic into 90 minutes of focused, martial arts perfection. That the film is so well constructed is something of a minor miracle as its star, Alexander Fu Sheng, tragically died during filming and the third act of the film had to be radically restaged to focus Gordon Liu’s character instead. Here you will find action choreography that beggars belief– the penultimate fight in which Liu “earns” the right to leave the monastery by demonstrating that his skills have so surpassed those of the abbot that he is no longer dueling to defeat him is jaw dropping and the fusion of thrilling action and spiritual depth that Star Wars tried to imbue its lightsaber duels in the prequels, but to no effect. This film is part family tragedy, part man’s search for meaning, and part meditation on the possibility of pacifism in a pernicious world. See it!

 

CRIPPLED AVENGERS

Forgive the somewhat gauche title because Crippled Avengers is the “Venom Mob” film par excellence. As Lau Kar-Leung was unleashing potent martial arts moralism on the public in the late 70’s, his former boss Chang Cheh formed an entire Justice League of brilliant martial arts actors into the Venom Mob (so named for their debut film, The Five Venoms). In this absolute banger Chen Kwan Tai plays a former great hero whose family is massacred and his son has his arms chopped off. After building his son new metal arms, he and his clan have become petulant sadists who inflict crippling injuries upon passers by for the smallest of grievances. A group of warriors who have been so injured band together and with the help of a local kung fu master conquer despair and become a fighting force in order to take their revenge. If 8 Diagram was Shaw studios at their most philosophical, then this film displays their manic energy and merciless appetite for violent, interwoven, revenge plots.

THE AVENGING EAGLE

Sun Chung was the lost great director of the kung fu boom: seemingly no one talks about him as a truly great filmmaker but he helmed a number of highly stylish, original, and indelible films for Shaw over his career. Undoubtedly his finest work is The Avenging Eagle where superstars Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow) and the previously mentioned Alexander Fu Sheng team up to destroy an evil clan that brainwashes orphans into killers. The simple revenge plot spirals out of control when Fu Sheng learns that Ti Lung used to be the clan’s right hand man, and even participated in the crime he’s seeking vengeance for. Tarantino is endlessly evoked as having been influenced by this film’s unusual structure and prickly rivalry between the leads but for the life of me this feels so much like the work of Sergio Leone transmuted into a fantastic ancient China. This is held by many to be the best Shaw film of all time, and while I do not agree, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

OPIUM AND THE KUNG FU MASTER

The first three films discussed are stone cold classics, they’re on any list of great Shaw films you may happen across. For this film and the one that follows, I decided to get a little bit more obscure.

Tang Chia was Lau Kar_leung’s partner, but there was no dispute that caused the two to split in the early 80’s, just a need for experienced directors. Here we have his finest work. Ti Lung and Chen Kwan-Tai from previous films recur here as protagonist and antagonist and this film has a loose and free spirited quality to it. Ti Lung is a town’s beloved kung fu master but the nasty triads who want to take it over exploit his weakness for opium until he’s got to kick the habit before he kicks anything else.

Here we get a great overview of the way comedy was combined with action in Shaw’s filmography. Though this film is very funny, it never tries to hide behind a sheen of irony. Heroism is taken seriously in these films, and many carry with them a subtext of overcoming despair or another personal weakness in tandem with learning new styles or a new weapon. Kung Fu is really the strength of character needed to overcome the limits of self, and as a consequence, the limits placed on you by others are easily traversed.

VENGEANCE

Finally we get the Shaw’s answer to James Bond as David Chiang navigates through 1920’s Shanghai in his Chinese tuxedo and stylishly massacres the gangs that killed his best friend until a finale that is so ridiculously violent that even in 2022, it hasn’t lost any of its power to shock. Chang Cheh is again the nominal director but this film has a completely different style– a product of how hands-on his assistant directors were on some projects. Here we get film noir like compositions and characterizations and a nasty pulp tone that recalls Point Blank as easily as it does Goldfinger. The combination of Cheh, David Chiang, and Ti Lung (who plays the doomed friend here) was so reliable that fans referred to them as “the Iron Triangle” and this film is the jewel in their crown.

Give these films a rent on Amazon Prime and you too will find yourself transported to a world of beautiful sets, stunning action, and maniacal energy. There are too many classics to possibly discuss them all in a column of this size and the most fun aspect of being a Shaw fan is “discovering”, decades after the fact, a new classic that not only have you never heard of but that no one else seems to be talking about.

Happy hunting!

 

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