Shawscope Volume Two: Limited Edition Box (Hong Kong, 1978-93, Arrow Video, 8 Blu-rays + 2 CDs, NR, 1,415 min.). This is another essential set, containing 14 films made by the Shaw Brothers during their final years producing feature films, before turning exclusively to TV productions. Four films were directed by Chang Cheh and feature his so-called basher boy band, the Venom Mob, in “Invincible Shaolin,” “The Kid with the Golden Arm,” “Magnificent Ruffians” and “Ten Tigers of Kwangtung.” Cheh’s former action choreographer Lau Kar-leung is represented by his Shaolin trilogy, starring his “brother” Gordon Liu, and the slapstick comedy “My Young Auntie.” (Liu actually is the godson of Lau’s father.) Two CDs are devoted to music from the films.

We start with the Shaolin trilogy: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978, 115 min., 3.5 stars), “Return to the 36th Chamber” (1980, 101 min., 4 stars) and “Disciples of the 36th Chamber” (1985, 93 min., 3 stars). Liu plays Liu Yude, who becomes San De in the first film, the entirely different character Zhou Renjie in the second and San De again in the third. The first opens with Liu exhibiting some training moves, including ones with steel rings on his forearms. As often is the case in these films, the Hans are rebelling against the ruling Manchus of the Qing Dynasty (1636-1911). Yude’s father is among the Hans killed, but Yude escapes and heads to the Shaolin Temple to learn kung fu. At the time, only the monks and their disciples were taught kung fu; in fact, the Manchus made it illegal for non-monks to practice kung fu.

Much of the film covers Yude’s training in the various Shaolin chambers, including such tasks as crossing logs without falling into the water and batting one’s head against sandbags. It takes him five years to complete all 35 chambers. His reward is to become a deputy monk and have control over one chamber. San De decides to create a 36th chamber, one that will train laymen in kung fu so they can defend themselves against the Manchus. There are lots of shirtless disciples going through the Shaolin training and several San De-led fights. The film helped establish Liu as a global superstar.

Extras include audio commentary by Travis Crawford; select scene commentary by Tony Rayns (74 min.); a 2003 interview with Liu (20:51); a 2006 interview with cinematographer Arthur Wong (28:34); an archival Liu interview and Shaolin history (16:02); a fine 2005 profile of Liu, during which he plays guitar (6:03); Lovely Jon discusses the musical impact of kung fu films (37:22); an entertaining 2003 documentary on wuxia films at Shaw Studios (50:21); and the alternate U.S. opening as “Master Killer.” All films come with an image gallery.

“Return to the 36th Chamber” is a comedy, as Zhou Renjie (Liu), a scammer, pretends to be monk San De to help the workers at a dye factory, who have had their pay cut after the boss hires some Manchurian “experts,” who also are physically rough. Amusingly, one can see the wire as Renjie descends from a tree limb and his co-conspirators all fall over themselves instead of by his unseen force. After one long fight with the Manchus, he decides to actually train at the Shaolin Temple, which at first refuses to accept him. However, he is given the task of constructing scaffolding, during which he observes disciple training, some of which he applies to scaffolding. Renjie then returns to town after three years to face the Manchus. One fight uses small benches.

The film is exceptional for how it introduces scaffolding as a martial arts technique. Both the humor and action are good. An extra is a 2003 look on the film’s use of scaffolding in martial arts, as well as real bamboo scaffolding (14:40).

For the third film, Gordon Liu is back as San De, but much of the action shifts over to somewhat mischievous Fang Shiyu (Hsiao Hou, who played a disciple in the first film and buck-toothed Ho Chiao in the second). Fang is a bit of a hothead and invades a Manchu Military Club, thinking San De is Manchu and would be there. Fighting follows and then he and his two brothers are sent to study at the Shaolin Temple. A rulebreaker, Fang sneaks out of the temple and mixes with the Manchus at their Lantern Festival, resulting in more (fun) fighting. However, the Manchu Governor (Pia Piao) uses Fang’s pride to get him to betray the Shaolin Temple.

This leads Fang to bringing along nine other disciples to a wedding of the Governor to a Han woman, only the disciples are given poisoned wine. San De and Miao (Lily Li as Fang’s mother) also attend the wedding and warn against the wine, but Fang drinks it anyway. The ending battle is way too busy.

Extras include a 2003 Liu interview (14:50); a 1980 French TV feature on Shaw Studios and its boss Run Run Shaw, including a studio tour (57:42); and alternate opening credits for both films.

Hsiao Hou, left, and Kara Hui star in “My Young Auntie.” Courtesy Arrow Video.

 

Hsiao Hou also stars in Lau’s “My Young Auntie” (1981, 119 min. 3.5 stars) as Charlie Yu Tao and in “Mad Monkey Kung Fu” (1979, 115 min., 3.5 stars) as Little Monkey, aka Xiao Hou. In “Auntie,” director Lau plays up the connection between dance and martial arts. Kara Hui plays Cheng Dai-nan, who weds a rich dying man so his inheritance will not go to his wicked brother Yu Wei. Instead, she inherits with instructions to turn over the deeds to the deceased’s fourth brother, Yu Zheng-quan (director Lau). She moves in with Zheng and his college-age son Tao, aka Charlie, who is about her age.

Much comedy ensues as Tao is very attracted to his grandaunt, but his father disciplines him for being disrespectful. Charlie’s next scheme is to invite his grandaunt to a fancy masquerade party, to humiliate her during the dancing. Family rivals, sent by Wei, disrupt the party, leading to a sword fight (Charlie attended as Robin Hood), and cause nephew and aunt to be detained by police, during which they steal the deeds. There is a very brief training montage as Charlie enlists several uncles to help steal the deeds back, and Wei’s property contains many disguised deadly traps, as nephew and aunt lead the infiltration.
The film features many good stunts, plot-driven fights, a song routine, dancing, and lots of humor. Extras include select scene commentary by Rayns, who points out Lau and Hui were a couple at the time (46:43); a fine 2002 interview with Hui (29:20); a 2003 feature on women in Shaw Brothers films (53:45); and the film’s 2-hour VHS English dub version.

“Mad Monkey” opens with an opera performance hosted by villain Duan Zhangyuan (Lo Lieh), who desires to make performer Cuihong (Kara Hui) his concubine, He tricks her brother Chen Po (director Lau), who plays the opera’s Monkey King, into a compromising position with his wife. Duan gets Cuihong and has Chen’s hands smashed.

When the story resumes, Chen is reduced to street performing with a pet monkey, but local ruffians take his earnings and even kill the monkey. A youth, Xiao Hou (Hsiao), befriends Chen, bringing him food, and offers to play the monkey in a new street act, after demonstrating his Little Monkey moves. After Xiao is severely beaten when fighting with the ruffians, Chen takes him to the mountain and teaches him Monkey Kung Fu. After training, Xiao learns the ruffians work for a man employed by Duan. Initially defeated and tortured, Xiao does more training and then he and Chen confront Duan and his men.

The film has a good story and another good, partially-comic performance by Hsiao. Extras include audio commentary by Frank Djeng and Michael Worth; Rayns discussing the film (19:56); a 2004 interview with Hsiao (39:59); and a piece on Shaw films’ distribution in the U.S. (32:12).

“Five Superfighters” (1979, 100 min., 2.5 stars) has a misleading title as it is about three apprentices sent to train with different masters in different kung fu styles to exact revenge on arrogant Ma Ran-dian (Kwan Fung), an expert in many styles who goes around picking random fights and defeated their Master Wan (Hau Chiu-sing). The three – Wang Fu-zhong (Austin Wei), Zhang Tian-shao (Tony Leung Siu-hung) and Zhen Liu-ji (Ng Yuen-jun) – initially lose against Ma. Zhang encounters a widow (Wong Mei-mei), an expert in Chinese boxing and kicking, while Zhen learns crane boxing from a cripple who drinks a lot. Wang learns pole fighting from a fisherman (Jamie Luk Kim-ming). When they return and face Ma, they still lose, until Wan shows his skill at drunken fighting. The final fight is entertaining and the training sequences interesting.

The remaining films will be reviewed in the next column.

Tom Von Malder of Owls Head has reviewed music since 1972, just after graduation from Northwest-ern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He has reviewed videos/DVDs since 1988.

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