This is the second part of a two-part series looking at the movies in Arrow Video’s Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set. Part 1 can be found here.
Executioners from Shaolin (1977)
At the beginning of Executioners From Shaolin we’re greeted to text talking about the burning of the Shaolin Temple and survivors fleeing from it with the intention of keeping the Shaolin style alive. Seeing this my first thought was “oh, this story yet again.” Indeed, the movie kind of feels like it’s on autopilot for much of the first half as the former disciples of the temple scatter. However, things pick up quite a bit in the second half when the movie definitively focuses in on one guy and years pass while he’s in hiding and we start focusing on his wife and son. Frankly the very presence of a woman in the movie in a fairly large role was a bit refreshing as a lot of these other Kung Fu movies were starting to seem like some real sausage fests. Women were a much bigger part of martial arts cinema in the 1960s and earlier but the whole genre got highly masculinized after the rise of Bruce Lee as a cultural icon. This film is far from feminist in its portrayal but having a somewhat healthy marriage at the center of this is distinct from some of these other movies. In fact if you’re looking for a 1970s Shaw Brothers movie to write a gender studies paper on this is probably the one to pick. As scholar Tony Rayns explains in one of Arrow’s supplemental features, the man uses Tiger style kung fu while the wife uses crane style and the son (who is somewhat androgynous in his depiction) uses a combination of both while the villain is in some ways a genderless eunuch. Speaking of that villain, Pai Mei, he’s probably the most iconic element of the movie. Mei is a legendary figure associated with the Shaolin Temple who may or may not have been historical and may or may not have been the Judas who betrayed the Temple. Here he’s definitely depicted as the traitor and is depicted as this elderly man who still kicks ass and has this long white beard and bushy eyebrows. This look was borrowed pretty much wholesale by Quentin Tarantino for his character (also named Pai Mei) in Kill Bill Vol. 2 who was played by Gordon Liu and trained The Bride in flashbacks. Again, a lot of these interesting elements don’t really come into play until the second half of the film, making the movie as a whole a bit uneven, this is definitely an important Shaw Brothers movie.
***1/2 out of Five
Chinatown Kid (1977)
We return to the world of Chang Cheh as he transitioned from making movies choreographed by Lau Kar-leung to making films with the “Venom Mob,” a group of performers I’ll be discussing in more detail in our next Shaw Brothers movie but who you can see starting to form here. Chinatown Kid differs from a lot of The Shaw Brothers most famous movies as it is set in the present and for much of its runtime isn’t even set in Asia. The film concerns a young man living in Hong Kong who flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown to escape some triad activity only to become enmeshed in a whole other gang war on the other side of the Pacific. Now, this is set in California but aside from some early B-roll establishing shots early on it’s filmed almost entirely on Hong Kong backlots, as evidenced by the fact that this San Francisco has basically no white people and the cars are all driving on the left side of the road there. The film stars Alexander Fu Sheng in what is probably his most famous role. Fu Sheng was a contemporary of Jackie Chan and at times seemed poised to have a similar career trajectory but that was all cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1983 while filming The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.
This would be the one movie in Shawscope Vol. 1 that has a “weird alternate cut” problem. The original version of the film was about 115 minutes long and played out in a mixture of Cantonese and Mandarin (because in the story one character spoke one language and another spoke the other) but a different 90 minute cut was made for markets like Malaysia which is entirely dubbed into Mandarin and removes some key scenes. For whatever reason Celestial Pictures (the company that absorbed The Shaw Brothers’ back catalog at some point) has focused on that shorter cut when it comes to restorations and home video releases so this Arrow release actually marks the first time the uncut “international” version (also known as the “Southgate Cut”) has been given a real home release in the digital age. The film itself is maybe a bit more interesting for the story behind it than for the movie itself. It’s interesting as a transitional movie for Cheh and for the platform it gives Alexander Fu Sheng and for it’s oddball mixed up take on San Francisco and some of the moments of violence, but the story itself isn’t exactly riveting and there’s some definite cheesiness to the whole thing.
*** out of Five
The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
The Five Deadly Venoms (sometimes just called The Five Venoms) is the only one of the films from the Shawscope boxed set which I had already seen prior to buying the box, and I hadn’t even watched it all that long ago, so this is the only rewatch I’m writing about but this is definitely an essential Shaw Brothers so that’s probably fitting. You can probably intuit from the film’s title that this movie was an influence on Quentin Tarantino and the basic concept of the “Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” from the Kill Bill movies was almost certainly a lift from this movie. The film opens with a young student being told by his master that he can no longer train him because several of the master’s former students (who the young one never met) have proven to be evil and need to be taken down at all costs. Each of these students has a martial arts style based on one of five different venomous animals: The Centipede, The Snake, The Scorpion, The Gekko, or The Toad. It is not clear which of these five is behind a scheme to kill people and steal a treasure, and the young student is no match for any of them, so his mission is to suss out who these students are and try to build an alliance with the ones who are on the side of good.
The real importance of this movie is that it kicked off a whole era of Shaw Brothers production by being a sort of debutant ball for Lu Feng, Wei Pai, Sun Chien, Kuo Chui, Lo Mang, and Chiang Sheng, a collective who (give or take a Wei Pai) would come to be known as the Venom Mob. The Venom Mob was something of a kung fu boy band of sorts that Chang Cheh put together who would come to define the next five years or so of Cheh’s career as performers and choreographers. But you don’t need to know that to appreciate this movie. The film just generally has a really cool high concept and it provides a great showcase for unique martial arts styles to be out front and center. The film is Chang Cheh to its core for better or worse; I don’t think there’s a single woman to be found anywhere in the movie and some of the film’s “heroic bloodshed” kind of borders on the sadistic (things do not go well for the Toad in this) and some of the sets and costumes are a little crude, however it is probably the first movie I’d point to in order to really get an idea of what that guy was all about. Between the Gekko’s wall walking wire work and some of the other more eccentric martial arts styles the film is just a blast and its five-way final fight sequence is a real clinic in how to make these kinds of movies.
**** out of Five
Crippled Avengers (1978)
After the release of The Five Deadly Venoms in the August of 1978, Chang Cheh and the Venom mob managed to release two more movies together before year’s end: Invincible Shaolin and the film we’ll be looking at today, Crippled Avengers. Crippled Avengers opens with three martial artists breaking into a home and murdering a mother and cutting off the hands of her son before the father rushes in and takes out the three of them with superior technique. We then flash forward and the son is an adult and is fitted with iron prosthetic hands and the father has clearly gotten consumed with revenge despite having already killed the perpetrators. The father has essentially become a local gangster/feudal lord and has begun having his son cripple anyone who defies him, and that’s where our heroes come in. One has had his legs cut off, one has been blinded, one has been made a deaf mute, and one has had his head squeezed until he’s been rendered mentally handicapped. The disability of that latter character especially can charitably be described as “not particularly sensitive.” I don’t think it’s the most offensive representation you’re likely to find but it does speak to the film’s age, but the film’s overall message about disability is a positive one in which the characters are able to overcome their disadvantage and become formidable kung fu avengers. There’s not really a whole lot to say about this one beyond that it’s got a very cool gimmick that gets employed in some pretty creative ways and is just generally a rip roaring good time. It’s the last Chang Cheh film in the Shawscope Vol. 1 boxed set and it finds him in good form. Oh, and side note, when this was released in the west it had an alternate title: Mortal Combat. Someone was a fan.
**** out of Five
Heroes of the East (1978)
For the last two movies in the Shawscope Vol. 1 box set we once again look at the cinema of Lau Kar Leung and his key collaborator Gordon Liu. The last movies we looked at were the two movies before their international breakthrough The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and these two were movies they made after that triumph. We start with Heroes of the East, which is an odd and interesting fusion of the martial arts film with a sort of romantic comedy. The film is about the son of a wealthy merchant who enters into an arranged marriage with the daughter of a Japanese merchant and comes to learn that she is a practitioner of the Japanese martial arts. Misunderstandings occur and long story short he ends up offending the members of a Japanese martial arts dojo and he ends up having to fight a series of duels with the masters of various Japanese martial arts disciplines. The Japanese were frequently villains in Hong Kong movies, which could sometimes border on the xenophobic in their treatment of such characters, but this movie feels a bit more interested in reconciliation with the land of the rising sun even if it ultimately finds the Chinese fighter to be the victor in the battles against them. Those fight scenes in the second half are a whole lot of fun and mix up the various stylistic matches nicely, culminating in a large scale duel with a straight-up ninja. My one complaint is that the newlywed conflict that was so fun in the first half kind of gets lost once the Japanese fighters show up and the wife really becomes a pretty secondary character. I feel like just a couple more scenes with her late in the movie could have really brought this to the next level, but even with that problem the movie is still a whole lot of fun.
**** out of Five
Dirty Ho (1979)
Okay, first thing’s first: that title is not what it sounds like. The film’s original title (爛頭何) translates to something like “what a bad head” which is something of a pun on the name of one of the film’s characters whose name is “Ho” (which is pronounced more like “huh”), so “Damaged Head Ho” or “Damaged Ho” might have been closer to the effect they were going for, but that doesn’t really scan either so the Shaw Brothers went with “Dirty Ho,” likely in an attempt to jokingly invoke Dirty Harry. This was a misguided translation pretty much from the beginning and the evolution of slang since then has been even less kind to this choice over the years, which is unfortunate because it’s a really solid Shaw Brothers movie. This is another collaboration between Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu, but the title character is played by another actor named Wong Yue and the film is a pretty even two hander between the two, possibly to a fault. In the film Liu plays a luxuries merchant who’s living a double life in that he’s secretly a kung fu master and also secretly something else I won’t spoil. Wong by contrast plays a bit of a comical doofus, but someone who can fight and becomes an even stronger fighter once Liu takes him on as a disciple.
That’s where things start to get a little odd because Liu and Wong are basically the same age, so making one the master and the other the apprentice feels a bit odd. The plot also gets a tad convoluted in the second half as it starts getting mired in courtly politics and related assassination attempts that are a bit hard to follow. But at the end of the day the plot isn’t the main thing people are looking for in a movie like this and where it matters (the fight scenes) the film has a lot going for it. The film has a lot of really creative choreography and finds unique ideas for action scenes like an early sequence where the Liu character is trying to conceal his abilities so he manipulates a woman acting as his “bodyguard” rather than fighting directly or another scene later on where he and Wong fight off a bunch of attackers while he’s confined to a wheelchair and the fact that he’s a luxuries merchant means there are some cool sequences where they need to fight around some expensive looking props. It’s not all about gimmicks though, there’s a pretty straight weapon fight between Liu, Wong, and three armed guards towards the end that’s just a solid freakin’ martial arts fight from top to bottom. The whole movie is comedic in tone, but not an out and out parody and generally kind of has a different vibe and tone from your average Shaw Brothers movie and just generally feels like it was made by Lau Kar-leung at a point where he felt the genre needed a few fresh ideas and he delivered on it.
***1/2 out of Five
Well, I stuck to my “one Shaw Brothers a month” plan and saw it through and I will say it feels like the right pace to have gone in. I’d seen a healthy handful of Shaw Brothers movies before this but I feel like watching this boxed set gave me a better understanding of some of the patterns and workings of the studio and particularly the differences between Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh as well as a deeper understanding of some of the studio’s stars beyond Gordon Liu, who I also feel like I saw different dimensions of. That having been said, I do think I could use a bit of a break from this marathon so I can explore some other aspects of Chinese and martial arts cinema next year, so while I’ve already pre-ordered Shawscope Vol. 2 and fully intend to watch that as well I think I may wait until 2024 to do it.