Crash Course: Shawscope Vol. 1 – Part 1

Two things I really love: kung fu movies and buying things.  Fortunately for me Arrow Video recently provided me with the means to scratch both of those itches with the release of a big fancy blu-ray boxed set called “Shawscope Vol. 1” featuring twelve movies straight from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, the premiere Hong Kong studio for the creation of top of the line Kung Fu movies from the late 60s through to the early 80s.  Naturally I’ve had the thing pre-ordered for months and relished the moment when Amazon finally delivered it to me.  So, this dropped into my position in January, there are twelve movies, and there are twelve months in the year… it seemed like my destiny to turn this into a year-long watchathon where I take in one of these movies a month over the course of 2022.

King Boxer (1972)
Before we get too into this it is perhaps important to know that us westerners have a somewhat limited notion of what the “Shaw Brothers Studio” is.  To us the studio name is synonymous with 70s kung fu movies when the studio has existed in some form since 1925 and made all sorts of movies over the course of their existence.  With that in mind it’s probably notable that this blu-ray boxed set opens not with one of the studio’s most impactful movies in Hong Kong but rather with the film that is primarily a landmark in the export of their movies to the international market.  The people making King Boxer (AKA Five Fingers of Death) almost certainly didn’t expect such great things from it, but it happened to be the movie that seen by a Warner Brothers buyer who cannily knew there would be an appetite for martial arts cinema in 1973 off the heels of the success of the “Kung Fu” television series and a dubbed version of the film would go on to great B-movie success around the world just in time for an even greater explosion in interest when Enter the Dragon hit.  Of course that success may have been less coincidental than legend would suggest as King Boxer was plainly a movie meant to be something of a response to Bruce Lee’s recent Hong Kong success with rival studio Golden Harvest.  Unlike many of the Shaw Brothers’ earlier films this was set in the early 20th Century rather than ancient times and a lot of the fighting is done with bare fists rather than swords.

The film was helmed by Jeong Chang-hwa, a Korean emigre who worked under the Chinese pseudonym Chang Ho Cheng, and would be the last movie he made for the Shaw Brothers due to behind the scenes quarrels with Run-Run Shaw.  If I were to take issue with anything in the movie it might be his direction as he makes some rather odd choices in terms of lens choice and depth of field here and there and I would also say that while star Lo Lieh is pretty good you can certainly see why he never quite had the star power of a Bruce Lee or a Gordon Liu.  Aside from that and some expected cheesy moments this is a pretty damn solid bit of kung fu cinema.  It has a number of colorful villains for the lead character to defeat (one could almost argue too many) and it gets kind of gory here and there, particularly in a scene where a dude gets his eyeballs plucked out.  Quentin Tarantino has cited the film as a favorite of his and you can definitely see the influence, most directly in its musical motif in which it uses an excerpt from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme song to heighten certain moments, and Tarantino uses the same music in a similar way in the Kill Bill movies.  That said, this should generally be thought of more as the beginning of something for the Shaw Brothers and not the high water mark, they definitely had bigger and better things in their future.
***1/2 out of Five

The Boxer From Shantung (1972)
While King Boxer was likely selected for this boxed set because of its importance in bringing Shaw Brothers films to the world, The Boxer From Shantung was the more important movie with “boxer” in the title in Hong Kong.  Of course aside from the titles these movies don’t have a lot in common aside from the fact that both were sort of meant to be responses to the success of Bruce Lee as both focused in on unarmed fisticuffs rather than swordplay.  What’s probably more important is that this film was the creation of Chang Cheh, who is probably the most important director to work at the Shaw Brothers studio and is the man behind six of the twelve films in this Shawscope boxed set.  Cheh was something of a mentor for John Woo (who worked as an assistant director on this film) and was instrumental for the development of what is called “heroic bloodshed” within the genre and this movie would certainly be an example of that.  Things in the film start out fairly straightforward with star Chen Kuan-tai arriving in a town and getting enmeshed in the criminal goings on there, a bit like Yojimbo or The Man with No Name but this guy isn’t really an antihero.  A highlight of this early section is a scene where he challenges a western strongman (Italian wrestler Mario Milano) who’s the center of a circus attraction challenging people to try to knock him down and no one else seems to be able to phase.

Later the movie starts to engage in bloodier “heroic bloodshed,” particularly in its extended finale.  I’m not sure if this is the movie that introduced the trope but all the bad guy gangsters in this run around wielding this small hatchets that they threaten people with Kung-Fu Hustle style and in the final scene one of these hand axes ends up planted in the hero’s gut and he then spends the next ten minutes or so fighting people off while trying to keep his guts in place.  That probably sounds more graphic in print than it feels in the actual movie, this is candy colored Hong Kong blood we’re talking about here.  In America this movie was retitled The Killer from Shantung and was released in a heavily cut down version with nearly 30 minutes missing.  I doubt that version of the film was any good but I do kind of feel like that distributor was correct that this could have used some trims.  At about 135 minutes this is the longest movie in this boxed set by quite a bit and the pacing suffers as a result and I also found the story to be kind of basic and not terribly interesting.  Some of the bigger set pieces here are more than worth seeing but there are limits to how much I can really endorse the overall film.
**1/2 out of Five

Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
The first two Shaw Brothers movies I looked at from Arrow’s set were both “bare-fisted” martial arts movies made in reaction to the emergence of Bruce Lee.  Like the last film this one is directed by Chang Cheh (though some suggest choreographer Lau Kar Leung had more control) but shows the studio and filmmaker kind of moving forward into what is called their “Shaolin Cycle.”  This informal grouping consisting of six or seven movies made between 1973 and 1976 are not really a series in the sense of having a real continuity between them but they are all about the legendary Shaolin group and many of them share some of the same “historical figures” between them and I think they expect audiences to have some familiarity with the legendary events even as they take all sorts of creative liberties with them.  This film, Five Shaolin Masters, is set after the Shaolin temple has been burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers in a sneak attack and follows five survivors as they try to regroup and find a way to fight back.  In a lot of ways this feels like a movie that started with its climax (five separate fight scenes that the film cuts between) and then they wrote the screenplay backwards from there finding a way to lead up to that.  On the bright side, that climax kind of slaps.  Each Shaolin monk has a different fighting style and strategy and that delivers five pretty solid fights that remain compelling even as the film cuts between them.  On the not so bright side, the film never quite gives any one of the Monks a unique enough personality and aesthetic to stand out as characters through much of the rest of the film given how many characters are being stuffed into this thing’s relatively short runtime and much of the material leading up to the climax feels a bit messy.  Not the best movie the Shaw Brothers ever made by any means, but hardly a dud.
*** out of Five

Shaolin Temple (1976)
In their boxed set Arrow pairs the film Five Shaolin Masters with the film Shaolin Temple, both of them films about the Shaolin style of kung fu from director Chang Cheh.  One could view Shaolin Temple as something of a prequel to Five Shaolin Masters as the earlier film begins with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty troops and then deals with the aftermath while Shaolin Temple is set at the titular temple and depicts the treacherous events that led up to the temple’s destruction, but the films aren’t really in continuity with one another and the characters from the earlier film aren’t all represented here.  The other big distinction between the two is that Five Shaolin Masters was made while Lau Kar Leung was still working as the fight choreographer (and some would suggest ghost director) for Chang Cheh while Shaolin Temple was made after Leung had split from the master to become an accomplished Shaw Brothers director in his own right (almost certainly the second most important filmmaker at that studio).  This is interesting because Shaolin Temple in many was feels like a precursor to one of Lau Kar Leung’s most famous directorial efforts The 36th Chamber of Shaolin… to the point where you wonder if Leung made that film in order to one-up his former mentor.  Both films are set at the Shaolin Temple and focus on them allowing outsiders to train there and focus in many ways on training moreso than combat.  It interestingly uses that “trick people into learning martial arts by having them do chores” trick that would be made famous by The Karate Kid.  It has a few too many characters for its own good and is a little rough around the edges (the film’s score is really poor and out of place) but once it gets to that finale where the pupils are fighting off waves of Qing soldiers it does find its mojo and kind of redeems it.  Definitely a Shaw Brothers deep cut, but worth a look.
*** out of Five

Mighty Peking Man (1977)
In the west “Shaw Brothers” is synonymous with Kung Fu in much the way “Hammer Films” is synonymous with horror, but the actual truth is that “Shaw Brothers” was an all purpose film studio that made all sorts of film in a wide variety of genres, and while Arrow’s boxed set mostly conforms to the studio’s reputation as the maker of martial arts epics they did choose to include one film that hints at the broader width of their work and that’s the 1977 film Mighty Peking Man, which sought to capitalize on the Dino De Laurentiis remake of King Kong with its own (bordering on plagiarism) version of the same story.  The reason this particular non-Kung Fu movie was selected for the boxed set was almost certainly a function of it having been championed by Quentin Tarantino back in the late 90s, in fact he distributed it on VHS back in the day as part of his short lived “Rolling Thunder” boutique label.  Tarantino is a man of eclectic tastes and I feel like his endorsements generally come from a place of sincere enthusiasm but I can’t help but feel that his interest in this movie is at least a little ironic because whatever enjoyment is going to come from this thing is going to be its camp value.  The story is a shameless ripoff and its effects work is largely sub-Godzilla.  It’s got some laughable rear projection and some elaborate if rather unconvincing miniature work throughout and the Gorilla costume is not very good, but in something of a charming way.  What’s much more convincing are some of the animal effects in the first half as the crew go through the Indian jungle looking for the monster.  There a scene where a dude ends up fighting what sure looks like a real tiger and another scene where the film’s female Tarzan puts a full grown leopard over her shoulders like a fur shawl… not sure how they pulled that off.  Anyway, speaking of that female Tarzan, she was played by a Swiss actress named Evelyne Kraft and spends the whole movie (including sections where she’s brought to Hong Kong) in a fur loincloth and tiny bikini top which occasionally results in noticeable nip-slips.  What makes it all the weirder is that while this doesn’t have the kind of budget that something like De Laurentiis’ King Kong it wasn’t made for dirt cheap either and some of the fundamental filmmaking is not terrible.  It’s an odd movie and one that would make a solid choice if you’re going to have a “bad movie night” with friends, but don’t make it into something more than that.
** out of Five

Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Within the context of the Shawscope boxed set I’ve been looking into Challenge of the Masters marks the first appearance of two very important figures: it’s the first official directorial effort we’ve gotten from Lau Kar-leung and the film is also the starring debut of the actor Gordon Liu.  I say “official directorial effort” because Lau was a fight choreographer on several earlier films we’ve looked at like Five Shaolin Masters and rumor has it he more or less ghost-directed a lot of movies in that capacity for his mentor Chang Cheh.  He finally broke from Cheh in the late 70s and really hit the ground running as the director of Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies right away and would become one of their leading directors throughout the late 70s and 80s.  As such he has a more manageable filmography than his mentor (who toiled for decades making dozens of movies in several different genres).  Challenge of the Masters was his third film after making a pair of less remembered minor efforts and this and the next movie we’ll be looking at really paved the way for his fifth film and major breakout: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.  That film would also propel star Gordon Liu to fame and he gets his debut starring role in this movie.  Liu was practically family with Lau Kar-leung; he trained in the martial arts with Lau’s father Lau Cham, who took Liu in as his godson.

The Gordon Liu you see here is a little different from the one who would become famous two films later, in part just because he hasn’t shaved his head yet here, which certainly makes a difference given that that would basically become his trademark.  Here he’s playing a character named Wong Fei-hung, who was a historical figure who lived in southern China from 1847 to 1925 and whose life has been heavily mythologized and featured in dozens of Kung Fu movies where he’s been played by everyone from Jet Li (Once Upon a Time in China), Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey), and Jackie Chan (Drunken Master, which was a parody of other movies about the guy).  I believe there were several movies about the guy before this as well but this one was notable for being something of an origin story for Wong, and looked at him when he was first being trained.  In this sense you can see how this could be a precursor to The 36th Chamber of Shaolin in its focus on training, albeit without the Shaolin elements.  What this doesn’t have is a particularly cool fight sequence for all this training to be leading up to and instead ends with this weird ceremony/competition involving firecrackers that I never really got my head around and felt a bit tangential to the fight training.  Kind of a transitional film, but a deep cut worth knowing about if you’re getting deeper into these movies.
**1/2 out of Five

To Be Continued in Part 2


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