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Shawscope Volume 1 Is A Dream
Come True For Kung Fu Fanatics
BILL WOOD | JUNE 2, 2022
Way back when, before UFC distilled martial arts into a technical science and systematically dispelled any notion of mysticism or romanticism, us Gen X kids had some inspired neighborhood conversations. Which style was cooler; Eagle Claw or Snake Fang? How many pressure points were capable of stopping the heart immediately? Could you actually fight effectively by pretending to be a monkey, or pretending to be drunk… or both? Was Bruce Lee really the biggest badass that ever lived? Okay, so maybe everyone wasn't "Kung Fu Fighting," but Carl Douglas' 1974 ode to the martial arts craze was a Number One jam, and is to this day one of the biggest-selling singles of all time.
Welcome to the wacky world of Saturday afternoon television in the 1970s, a.k.a. Black Belt Theater on KTXL 40 in Sacramento. To us kids, kung fu was a bit like pro wrestling; we were aware that it was a performance, but how much of it was the real deal? Surely there had to be a hint of truth behind those jaw-dropping techniques! Yes, we all know that kung fu cinema has more in common with the Peking Opera than UFC, but back then we had no clue. There was no Wikipedia to consult, and seriously, who could afford karate lessons?!? Not the kids on my block, that’s for sure. All we had were our eyeballs and our imaginations. It’s no wonder most of our schoolyard “fights” devolved into benign exhibitions of shoving and slapping, no one dared to test the effectiveness of the one-inch punch in a live scenario.
Growing up with kung fu flicks in the ‘70s was a blast, but most of what was televised on local UHF stations… well, it wasn’t exactly Enter The Dragon. Poorly filmed, poorly acted and very poorly dubbed, these low-fi contests of strength and fortitude usually provided their share of both escapist brutality and unintentional comedy. I still enjoy these films, especially the makeshift costume designs that consisted of any combination of shoulder-length eyebrows, ivory-colored wigs, plastic vampire fangs, and twice the prescribed amount of taped-on beards and theatre blood. But most folks from my generation look back at the film genre dismissively referred to as "chop-socky" with the same general disinterest as comic books. They might have taken an interest as kids but they’ve long since outgrown it.
You can hardly blame them. After all, fantasy fighting is a young man’s game. And besides, with so much low-rent filler proliferating the airwaves back then, how could they have possibly known about the Shaw Brothers?
Shaw Brothers Studios was essentially the Marvel Comics of kung fu movies. In a region full of productive movie studios, including their main competitor Golden Harvest, Shaw was the undisputed king. Their many quality titles—including The Five Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—featured lavish set designs, top-notch fight choreography and a talented cast of performers. These movies were a cut above the usual Saturday matinee fare and are every bit as enjoyable now as they were back then. 12 Shaw Bros. classics are collected in Arrow ’s Shawscope Volume 1 box set, which I recently purchased. Let’s take an in-depth look at what’s included:
• High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentations of all twelve films, including seven new 2K restorations by Arrow Video
• Illustrated 60-page collectors’ book featuring new writing by David Desser, Terrence Brady and James Flower, plus cast and crew listings and notes on each film by Simon Abrams
• New artwork by Sam Gilbey, Matthew Griffin, Chris Malbon, Jacob Phillips, Ilan Sheady, Tony Stella, Darren Wheeling and Jolyon Yates
• Hours of never-before-seen bonus features, including several cast and crew interviews from the Frédéric Ambroisine Video Archive
• Two CDs of music from the De Wolfe Music library as heard in six of the films, exclusive to this collection
In other words, wow. What you’re getting with Shawscope Vol. 1 is Criterion-level curation for 12 classic Shaw Bros. flicks, along with a plethora of behind-the-scenes material from noted historians. It’s a dream come true for fans who have long wished for a definitive document of the Shaw legacy, and apparently it's only the beginning.
As for the movies themselves, here are some brief notes:
King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death) (1972): One of the more notable films in this collection as it represents one of the Shaw Brothers' earliest kung fu box office smashes and a glimpse of things to come. If '60s action movies were all about wuxia (swordplay), the '70s and beyond would be defined by hand-to-hand combat. A blood-soaked masterpiece.
Five Shaolin Masters (a.k.a. Five Masters of Death) (1974): Featuring an all-star roster of Shaw talent including David Chiang and Alexander Fu Sheng and more action than you can shake a fighting pole at, this movie delivers on all fronts. The plot is loosely based on real-life battles between the Shaolin and the Qing Army and the burning of a Shaolin Temple. Pao Yu-Lung's throwing axe deserves mention, it's the coolest fantasy weapon since the flying guillotine.
Shaolin Temple (a.k.a. Death Chamber) (1976): Long before Miyagi-san enlightened Daniel LaRusso with his "wax-on-wax-off" training technique, a group of Shaolin monks were exacting a more rigorous set of exercises upon aspiring martial artists. In fact, it's not hard to see this movie as a key inspiration for The Karate Kid's lesson of repetition-equals-perfection. An unofficial prequel of sorts to Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Temple doesn't reach quite the same heights as its predecessor but is thoroughly entertaining nonetheless.
Chinatown Kid (1977): Set in modern (well, 1970s modern) San Francisco, this action flick stars the charismatic Alexander Fu Sheng, whose light-hearted approach to kung fu acting easily could have made him an international superstar a'la Jackie Chan had he not died tragically in a car wreck at the age of 28. I don't know what's cooler about this movie, the funky '70s Chinatown setting (although much of it was filmed on soundstages in Hong Kong) or seeing members of the typically-heroic Venom Mob portraying low-life gangsters and thugs.
The Mighty Peking Man (a.k.a. Goliathon) (1977): The only non-kung fu movie in this collection, The Mighty Peking Man is a totally bizarre King Kong knockoff that feels more like Showa-era kaiju than typical Shaw Brothers. I'm not sure why it's included here but I'm certainly glad it is!
The Five Venoms (1978): Revisiting the kung fu genre as an adult, this was one of the first films recommended by a tape trader. I've since migrated from a blurry 3rd gen VHS copy to a marginally better DVD to two excellent Blu-rays (the Shawscope version is a newer transfer than the Dragon Dynasty release). This is the closest the Shaws ever got to a serious Marvel Comic vibe, with the Venom Mob decked out in stylish lucha masks. Venoms is one of my very favorite movies, kung fu or otherwise, and a great place to start for anyone new to the genre.
Crippled Avengers (1978): Once again featuring the infamous Venom Mob, this spiritual successor to The Five Venoms features a different premise (the time-tested "man overcomes life-threatening injury to become superhuman martial artist" plot device) but even more high-flying action and entertainment.
Heroes Of The East (1978): Heroes is a kung fu romantic comedy with nationalistic overtones. If that's not enough for you, this movie pits Gordon Liu against a rogue's gallery of evil Japanese villains and features more weapons and fighting styles than you can shake a bo stick at.
Dirty Ho (1979): Forget the unfortunate title (it has nothing to do with this movie), this hilarious kung fu romp features Gordon Liu at his comedic best.
Also included in Shawscope Volume 1: The Boxer From Shantung, Challenge of the Masters, Executioners From Shaolin
Arrow Films really went all out with this collection, and it shows. Each movie is as well curated as you could possibly hope for, with quality HD restorations, original Mandarin audio tracks, and loads of bonus content. The collectors' book is a really nice touch, filled with interesting facts and info. On a side note, I love where Arrow is going with the "Criterion of B-Movies" vibe (although Criterion certainly has their share of b-movies as well). There are several Arrow Blu-rays on my watchlist, including Django, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, Cemetery Without Crosses, Ringu and One-Armed Boxer. Will my favorite kung fu movie of all-time, Master of the Flying Guillotine, finally make its long-awaited debut on Blu-ray? Here's hoping!
As you can tell, I'm a massive fan of the Shawscope Volume 1 box set. It's a beautiful package that honors its source material, leaving no stone unturned with its amazing depth of content. Thanks to Arrow Films, there’s never been a better time to revisit the cinematic classics that defined the apex of ‘70s martial arts pop culture. It’s such a joy to see these movies get the treatment they deserve, and Shawscope Volume 2 is officially scheduled for a Q4 '22 release. I can’t wait!
As for the one-inch punch, I'm still hoping to perfect it. Someday. - BW
[If you're looking for a video game with that vintage Shaw Brothers vibe, look no further than Shaolin vs Wutang, a casual indie fighting game that pays tribute to the many legends of kung fu movie history.]