The Shaw Brothers, Runje, Runme, Runde and Run Run, were involved in filmmaking from way back in 1925. Starting off by forming the Tianyi Film Company in Shanghai, they gradually built on this and shifted locations, eventually becoming the biggest production company in Hong Kong.

Over time, they became most famous for their martial arts movies, starting with groundbreaking wuxia classics like The One-Armed Swordsman and Come Drink With Me and later, in the 70s, with a raft of kung-fu movies made to rival the popular output of Golden Harvest at the time.

It’s this latter period that Arrow Video are celebrating with their first Shaw Brothers release, an expansive boxset entitled Shawscope Volume One. Packing in a whopping 12 films, on top of 2 soundtrack CDs (in this initial limited edition release) and plenty of special features, it’s quite a collection.

The titles included in the set are King Boxer, The Boxer From Shantung, Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Temple, Mighty Peking Man, Challenge Of The Masters, Executioners From Shaolin, Chinatown Kid, The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers, Heroes of the East and Dirty Ho.

I eagerly snapped up a copy of the set to review, being the huge martial arts movie fan that I am. With the collection being so big I’ve tried to keep my reviews of each title short (though I couldn’t resist adding some extra context to many of them). Notes on the special features are at the bottom of the page, as usual.

King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death)

Director: Chang-hwa Jeong
Screenplay: Yang Chiang
Starring: Lieh Lo, Ping Wang, Hsiung Chao, Chin-Feng Wang, Mien Fang
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1972

When Jimmy Wang Yu’s The Chinese Boxer (also made by the Shaw Brothers) was released in 1970, it changed the face of martial arts movies in Hong Kong. Before that, most were wuxia – fantastical tales, built around swordplay, whereas The Chinese Boxer brought a more down-to-Earth approach where the hero used kung-fu, or unarmed combat, to defeat his enemies. The film was a huge success and, of course, the studios changed tact to jump on this new bandwagon.

King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death) was one such title but it was also more notably made in answer to The Big Boss and Fist of Fury, which had been cash cows for Golden Harvest, the studio formed by former Shaw Brothers executives Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho. Hearing that Golden Harvest planned to launch their new star Bruce Lee in the West with the upcoming HK-US co-production Enter the Dragon, the Shaws made sure to release King Boxer in the US and Europe before Bruce Lee’s films made it over. The tactic paid off, with King Boxer proving to be a huge success, kick-starting the kung-fu movie craze in the West.

As such, King Boxer is an important film, but does it still hold up?

The film sees Lieh Lo play Zhihao, a promising martial arts student whose master sends him to train with a more reputable one, Master Sun (Mien Fang), to increase his chances of winning a prestigious tournament and be named the best fighter in the region. However, the evil Meng Tung-Shun (Feng Tien) has his eye on the title, so he can rule the land and squeeze the people dry. He conspires with one of Sun’s jealous students, Han Lung (James Nam), to ruin Zhihao’s chances, culminating in them crushing the young fighter’s hands before he has the chance to fully master the famed ‘Iron Fist’ technique.

Undeterred, Zhihao overcomes his injuries and sets out to bring the villains to justice.

King Boxer may have been made quickly to jump in the queue before Bruce Lee’s films made it Stateside, but it doesn’t show as it’s a classily produced, action-packed classic that rightfully grabbed the attention of international audiences.

Barely 10 minutes ever goes by without a fight and these are well choreographed by Chia-Yung Liu and Chuan Chen. The early action scenes display pretty straightforward, solid techniques, but the standards are gradually raised, along with the drama, leading to a thrilling final act. The fights get pretty bloody as they go on too, with some shocking violence in places, most notably a couple of eye-gouging incidents.

There are some pretty strong character beats in the treachery and redemption of key characters too. The film is well constructed through how these are set up throughout the film without straying too far from the action scenes. A central love triangle adds some welcome breathers on top of this, though it has its cheesy moments.

The film is a little overlong perhaps, particularly at the end when there are several climactic showdowns to tie up the various storylines. However, ultimately, King Boxer is handsomely mounted, engagingly scripted and packed with action, making for a landmark title that still holds up very well.

The Boxer From Shantung

Director: Cheh Chang, Hsueh-Li Pao
Screenplay: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Li Ching, David Chiang, Nan Chiang, Kang-Yeh Cheng, Hao Chen, Feng Ku
Running Time: 134 min
Year: 1972

If King Boxer was the Shaw Brothers’ answer to Bruce Lee’s films, The Boxer From Shantung might be seen as an answer to The Godfather (though it was released in Hong Kong a month before Coppola’s masterpiece).

The Boxer From Shantung sees Kuan Tai Chen play Ma Yung Chen, a young down-and-out who’s left rural Shantung for Shanghai in search of fortune. Envious of the wealth and power of local gangster Tan Sze (David Chiang), Ma decides to crowbar himself between Tan and rival gangster Master Yang (Nan Chiang), forming his own gang from fellow street dwellers.

Ma indeed manages to become a success, but at what cost…

Running at two-and-a-quarter hours, The Boxer From Shantung is a little too long for what is, ostensibly, quite a generic and straightforward gangster plot. However, it’s very well made, with no expense spared on the period sets and occasionally quite stylish costumes. There’s plenty of well-executed camera movement too and great use is made of depth in the wide ‘Shawscope’ frame.

Kuan Tai Chen isn’t the most charismatic of leads but he has a good look and is suitably cool and bad-ass in the action scenes.

Speaking of which, the fights in this are less frequent than in King Boxer but spread out evenly through the film, to keep kung-fu fans glued to the screen. Like the previous film, the fights improve as they go on, leading to a spectacularly bloody and suitably lengthy finale that ends proceedings with a bang.

So, though overlong, The Boxer From Shantung is nevertheless a slickly produced, exciting and blood-soaked Hong Kong spin on the gangster movie.

Five Shaolin Masters

Director: Cheh Chang
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: David Chiang, Lung Ti, Sheng Fu, Kuan-Chun Chi, Fei Meng, Lung-Wei Wang, Ka-Yan Leung
Running Time: 110 min
Year: 1974

Chang Cheh was one of Shaw Brothers’ best-known and most prolific directors (though his name was occasionally added to films for marketing reasons, even when he did little to nothing on-set). He made a number of hit titles for the studio, including One-Armed Swordsman and the previous film in this set. Chang was such a staple fixture at Shaw Brothers that, ever since working for them, he lived in the studio’s luxury apartments for most of the rest of his life.

Chang enjoyed a little semi-independence for a short while though. After Bruce Lee rose to fame, the nature of HK filmmaking changed as Golden Harvest would back and sell films made by independent production companies rather than make everything themselves. A lot of renowned martial arts filmmakers jumped on this, to have full control over their projects. Shaw Brothers didn’t copy this tactic, for the most part, but did allow Chang to do this, due to his massive sway on the company’s success. Five Shaolin Masters was one of these titles made by Chang Cheh’s own company and was the first he made in Taiwan.

Five Shaolin Masters is the middle title of Chang’s unofficial ‘Shaolin Cycle’. It opens with the Shaolin temple being burnt down by Qing soldiers. Most of the inhabitants are killed but five young Shaolin students survive and escape together. They vow to bring the Qing culprits to justice, as well as find out who was the inside man that aided them.

The five can’t do that alone though and are no match for the Qing’s leading soldiers, so they split up to enlist the help of rebels across the region and spend time training in their individual specialist techniques in order to stand a chance.

I found the independent production background of Five Shaolin Masters to show a little as it doesn’t quite have the level of polish that most of the in-house Shaw Brothers titles have. Its Taiwanese locations aren’t particularly well-utilised and sets and costumes are a little bland.

The action comes thick and fast though and is brilliantly choreographed. There are some cool weapons used too, such as a ‘flying axe’, which lean the film a little towards the earlier wuxia Shaw Brothers titles. The styles of fighting are also enjoyably varied, through the special skillsets of each lead character. This prevents the action from growing stale and repetitive. This variety is particularly notable in the awesome final showdown where each character is faced off against their own particular counterpart.

Also keeping the film from getting dry is a charismatic performance from Alexander Fu Sheng, who plays the younger, less experienced member of the five. He brings some much-needed levity to the otherwise po-faced film, without lurching into out-and-out comedy.

Overall, though the story and structure are simple and pretty generic, this allows for an efficiently crafted film that focuses on what fans want from these titles, action. The fight scenes are what you’ll remember and the film is crammed to the brim with them.

Shaolin Temple

Director: Cheh Chang, Wu Ma (uncredited)
Screenplay: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Starring: David Chiang, Lung Ti, Sheng Fu, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Kuan-Chun Chi, Fei Meng, Lung-Wei Wang, Sheng Chiang, Hsi Chang, Feng Lu
Running Time: 120 min
Year: 1976

Shaolin Temple takes place directly before Five Shaolin Masters, telling the story of the students training at the temple just before it was burnt down. However, the Shaolin cycle portrays “alternate versions of the mythology” (in the words of Tony Rayns) rather than sequels that have continuity between them. As such, though most of the cast and setting is the same between the two Shaolin films in this set, some of the characters played vary and their fates don’t always match up.

In this prequel, we see a number of outsiders (including the stars of the previous film) gain entry to train in the Shaolin temple. Usually, this wouldn’t be allowed but the Abbot senses the temple’s downfall is imminent, due to the Qing’s dislike of the Shaolin and their martial arts prowess, so he wants to pass his teachings on to other worthy people throughout China.

Most of the film then is made up of the training of the new students, alongside the background treachery of Hai Hsien (Shan Mao) and the Qing. This might sound dull to those less experienced in classic kung-fu movies, but I and many other fans of the genre know there can be much to enjoy in the training movie format.

Like in the classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which would be released two years later, the training the Shaolin students endure is seemingly cruel and unusual. They are made to do ridiculous, seemingly impossible tasks but, over time, these turn the students into master fighters.

There’s something strangely enjoyable in watching these bizarre feats of endurance and though there isn’t a lot of actual fighting in the first half of the film, it all pays off in the finale which provides around 30 minutes of non-stop, mind-blowing carnage. In this sequence, you get to finally see how the training has paid off and there’s some excellent weapon combat as well as some impressive acrobatics.

Whilst the narrative is stripped back, in this straightforward training movie, the production values are ramped up, making for a grander, more polished prequel to Five Shaolin Masters. The slower, less action-heavy first half gives the epic final act more impact too, making for an overall stronger film.

Mighty Peking Man

Director: Meng-Hua Ho
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: Evelyne Kraft, Danny Lee, Feng Ku, Wei-Tu Lin, Norman Chu
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1977

The set takes a sharp but welcome left turn on disc 4, with Mighty Peking Man. Not content with the success of their martial arts movies, with this film Shaw Brothers decided to take on the King Kong franchise, which had resurfaced in 1976 with the release of Dino De Laurentiis’ remake of the 1933 classic.

Mighty Peking Man sees the wealthy businessman Lu Tiem (Feng Ku) come across an article in a paper about a giant gorilla reportedly spotted in India. He thinks the creature would make a fantastic investment, so commissions an expedition to find the gorilla and bring it back to Hong Kong.

Renowned explorer Johnny (Danny Lee) is hired to head the expedition. He’s at a loose end, drowning his sorrows due to catching his girlfriend in bed with his brother, so sees the job as a chance to escape his problems.

However, the expedition greatly adds to his problems, as the rest of the team sneak off after several members get killed by the various perils of the harsh environment. This leaves Johnny alone in the jungle and his fate seems sealed until a mysterious woman, called Ah Wei (Evelyne Kraft), comes to his rescue.

Ah Wei has been living alone in the jungle since she crash-landed there in an airplane as a child. We learn that she was taken in and cared for by none other than the giant gorilla, who she informs us is called Ah Wang (played by Keizo Murase in a gorilla costume, for the most part).

After spending a while with Ah Wei and Ah Wang, falling in love with the young woman and discovering the beast to be friendly and kind, Johnny convinces Ah Wei to bring Ah Wang back to Hong Kong as he’d originally promised to Lu Tiem. She agrees, and the trio head to the city to have the giant gorilla put on display in his own ‘Mighty Peking Man’ show.

What could possibly go wrong?

I enjoyed the heck out of this one. It’s a blatant rip off of King Kong and is very silly throughout, but it’s a whole heap of fun.

The kaiju-like scenes of destruction are particularly good (after some poor model shots in an early scene, at least). The special effects were handled by some members of the Godzilla team from Japan and it shows.

A lot of my enjoyment came from the camp value too. On top of the daft plot, you’ve got a romantic montage with Ah Wei swinging a real-life leopard around, a jealous giant gorilla and Ah Wei’s ludicrously skimpy outfit that she wears throughout the film (other than a moment when she’s offered something different and equally revealing to wear but takes it off as it’s not comfortable).

Saying that, the film manages to make Ah Wang a surprisingly sympathetic character, more so than Kong in his 70s outing. It takes a more blunt approach to casting its monster as a ‘good guy’ in comparison to the Hollywood interpretations, but it certainly works in its favour in the finale.

All in all, it’s pretty dumb and trashy at times but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the experience. It’s not going to trouble anyone’s affections for the 1933 King Kong but kaiju fans will have a blast.

Challenge Of The Masters

Director: Chia-Liang Liu (a.k.a. Lau Kar-leung)
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: Chia-Hui Liu, Kuan Tai Chen, Yue Wong, Lily Li, Chia-Liang Liu, Yang Chiang
Running Time: 97 min
Year: 1976

Disc 5 (and disc 8, which we’ll get to later) celebrates the directorial work of Chia-Hui Liu (better known as Lau Kar-leung). Lau was one of Shaw Brothers’ main fight choreographers, collaborating frequently with Chang Cheh before they fell out during the production of Marco Polo in 1975. Lau moved on to directing after that and Challenge Of The Masters was his second solo directorial effort after The Spiritual Boxer, leading to a string of hugely popular films in the late 70s and early 80s.

Challenge Of The Masters tells the origin story of the legendary Wong Fei-Hung (played by Chia-Hui Liu, a.k.a. Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-leung’s “godbrother”). At the beginning of the film, we see the young man ridiculed by local martial artists, as he’s totally unskilled, despite having a famous kung-fu master, Wong Chi-ying (played by Yang Chiang), as a father. Chi-ying believes his son is too headstrong to train, so has forbidden him from doing so.

When Fei-Hung shames his family at a Pao tournament and is responsible for the injury of Lin (Yue Wong), his father’s senior student, officer Yuan Zheng (Chia-Yung Liu, better known as Lau Kar-wing) talks Chi-ying into letting his son train in the martial arts. Chi-ying won’t do it himself though, so sends Fei-Hung to his master, Lu Ah Tsai (Chen Kuan Tai).

Just before Fei-Hung leaves for his training though, Yuan Zheng is killed. Owing a great debt to Zheng and being the only one who knows who did the crime (He Fu, played by Lau Kar-leung himself), Fei-Hung vows to take revenge after he has completed his training.

Challenge Of The Masters isn’t as fight-heavy as some of the other kung-fu titles in this set, with no true evenly matched contest appearing until about 40 minutes in. The second half is largely taken up with training too. However, the film still works very well.

One thing I appreciated was the fact that the few fights that do occur are built up effectively, giving each one weight and drama rather than throwing skirmishes in for the sake of it.

The story too, though fairly generic, is well executed and results in a surprisingly wholesome ending that promotes forgiveness and humility in what initially seems like a typical revenge plot. This conclusion works better than it might sound too.

So, with its welcome thematic twist at the end, Challenge Of The Masters is a well-thought-out and engaging film with a few strong fight scenes to keep genre fans happy.

Executioners From Shaolin

Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Lieh Lo, Yue Wong, Lily Li, Chia-Hui Liu, Kang-Yeh Cheng
Running Time: 100 min
Year: 1977

The other Lau Kar-leung title on disc 5 is Executioners From Shaolin. It’s another dramatised account of a legendary figure in the martial arts world, this time Hung hsi Kuan (a.k.a. Hung Hei-gun, among other names).

The film opens in a similar way to Five Shaolin Masters with the Shaolin temple being burned down by Qing Dynasty soldiers, led by Priest Pai Mei (Lieh Lo) and his top disciple Kao Tsin Chung (Tao Chiang). The pair massacre the Shaolin disciples fleeing the inferno, but some manage to escape.

Among the survivors is Hung hsi Kuan (Kuan Tai Chen), who only manages to get away thanks to the heroic sacrifice of his martial brother Tung Chien-chin (Gordon Liu). Hung vows that day to avenge his brother’s death, but knows he doesn’t stand a chance so bides his time whilst developing his skills and hiding out with the rest of the Shaolin survivors.

In the meantime, Hung falls in love with Fang Yung-chun (Lily Li), a travelling martial artist, and the pair get married and have a son, Wen-Ding. As the child grows up (by then played by Yue Wong) we find that he’s been trained in the Crane style by his mother. It’s a style typically only learnt by women, so other youngsters tease him, but his father refuses to teach him Tiger style.

Hung believes he himself has mastered this to a sufficient degree to take on the mighty Pai Mei though and heads off to face him. Hung is, however, no match for the master, who uses his powerful internal kung-fu techniques to defeat him.

Hung manages to get away and vows to try again after further training. Yung-chun suggests he train in the Crane technique, so he can use a combination of styles to defeat Pai Mei, but Hung refuses. When a second attempt at facing the formidable master ends tragically, it’s left up to Wen-Ding to get revenge. He’s taking his mother’s advice though and secretly trains in Tiger style on top of Crane.

Though covering a lot of familiar ground with its tale of the surviving Shaolin disciples and themes of revenge and combining styles etc, Executioners From Shaolin manages to set itself apart from many of the swathe of similar titles through its gender representations. There are plenty of martial arts films with female fighters, but here we’ve got a male hero, Wen-Ding, brought up and trained in a very feminine fashion, using both masculine and traditionally feminine styles of kung-fu to fight a villain that uses special techniques to draw his genitals into his body to grab opponents with his groin.

On top of this, the film provides a surprisingly natural depiction of marriage and a couple in love. The early scenes with Yung-chun and Hung, when they first court and later get married, are often played for laughs (including an amusing use of a kung-fu stance in the bridal chamber) but this humour only acts to make the scenes more humanistic.

Kung-fu fans might find the film a little slow and lacking in fights, but when they do come they’re well built-up and choreographed, and the training sequences are particularly imaginative, in places. One issue I had with the action though is that the first fight, when Tung Chien-chin sacrifices himself, is absolutely spectacular and oozes drama, but none of the later fights reach this standard, making me feel a touch let down by the film’s conclusion. This isn’t helped by a very abrupt end that quickly cuts to a caption telling us what happened.

Overall, however, Executioners From Shaolin is still a successful family and revenge drama, with some decent fights (particularly in the opening scenes) and high production values (I neglected to mention the film looks great).

Chinatown Kid

Director: Cheh Chang
Screenplay: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Based on a Story by: James Wong
Starring: Sheng Fu, Shirley Yu, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Jenny Tseng, Chien Sun
Running Time: 115 min (+ 90 minute alternative version on the disc)
Year: 1977

Next up is a contemporary kung-fu film, directed by Chang Cheh and starring the great Sheng Fu (better known as Alexander Fu Sheng), Chinatown Kid. In it, Sheng plays Tan Tung, a young man we initially find living with his grandfather in Hong Kong. They’re struggling to make ends meet, but Tung remains cheerful, using his kung-fu skills to squeeze oranges by hand to save money on getting a machine to do so, allowing them to sell orange juice with few overheads.

The local gangs see Tung use his talents though and try to get him to work for them. When the good-hearted Tung disobeys one of their orders and frees one of their prostitutes, he’s targeted and is forced to escape to San Francisco, helped by the father of the rescued woman.

Once in the States, he gets a job and basic accommodation at a restaurant in Chinatown and there he meets Yang (Chien Sun), another fresh immigrant who’s in San Francisco to study.

It doesn’t take long for Tung to cross paths with the gangs once again though, and he gets caught up in a gang war between the White and Green Dragons. Tung is eventually recruited by the former and enjoys the rewards of being a big shot. However, when he learns the true extent of the evil activities of the gang and sees what the drugs they sell do to Yang, who becomes a user to keep on top of his studies and work at the restaurant, Tang attempts to put an end to all criminal activities in Chinatown.

Like most of the Chang Cheh titles I’ve reviewed here, Chinatown Kid is a well-produced, decent kung-fu film but feels a touch too long. It must be noted, that I watched the longer 115-minute International Cut, so perhaps the 90-minute alternative version is tauter, but reportedly a fair amount of violence is cut in that and 25 minutes is an awful lot to cut out, so I imagine the storytelling will suffer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to watch both versions for this review.

As a drama, the film is surprisingly effective though. The ‘drawn into a life of crime’ story is a well-worn one, but the tragedy of it adds weight to what could have been a straightforward fight flick.

Also, whilst the length means there are some slow patches here and there, there’s still a fair amount of action in Chinatown Kid and, when it comes, it’s very good. Sheng really throws himself into the fight scenes, with some acrobatic and hard-hitting moves. He’s backed up by a great cast of Shaw Brothers regulars too.

Overall then, this crime drama might be a little drawn out and generic, but it’s effectively done and has several top drawer action scenes peppered throughout.

The Five Venoms (a.k.a. Five Deadly Venoms)

Director: Cheh Chang
Screenplay: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Starring: Sheng Chiang, Chien Sun, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Pai Wei, Feng Lu, Lung-Wei Wang
Running Time: 102 min
Year: 1978

The penultimate disc in the set focuses on Chang Cheh’s Venom Mob series. Between 1978 and 1982, the director made a whopping 19 titles starring the group of actors. The first of these and the first to feature on this disc is The Five Venoms (a.k.a. Five Deadly Venoms or Wu du).

The film opens with the dying master (Dick Wei) of the Venom clan telling his final student, Yang Tieh (Sheng Chiang), that he is worried his pupils are using their skills for evil, bringing down the clan name. He asks Yang to track down Yuan (Feng Ku), a former colleague, to help find the whereabouts of his five other former pupils, who Yang has never met so won’t recognise.

Once he’s found them, Yang must enlist the help of any honourable clan members to fight and kill the dishonourable ones, restoring the good name of the Venom clan. With Yang’s martial brothers keeping secret identities and scheming to get their hands on their master’s treasure though, the mission will be far from simple.

The Five Venoms was less action-heavy than I expected. As such, on top of high expectations, I was a little disappointed. Having said that though, the story is quite unique and compelling for a Shaw Brothers kung-fu film. An air of mystery and intrigue is maintained throughout, with pieces of information gradually given up to the audience and between characters, as the film moves on. This keeps you watching whilst you wait for the inevitable showdown.

Chang’s penchant for torture and brutal, bloody violence crops up again here. We get a vicious iron maiden device with extra spikes (called the ‘coat of a thousand needles’ here), as well as some horrific methods of undetectable murder involving large needles and hooks. These are particularly unpleasant and, when added to the mystery elements, give the film a bit of a horror vibe.

The usual high production values of Chang’s Shaw Brothers films are here too, with great use made of colour, particularly in separating the titular Five Venoms. Some boldly coloured lighting is even effectively used in a stylish sequence where the skills of the Venoms are visualised. I also liked the design of the disused secret training area, with its thick cobwebs and torturous-looking equipment.

Overall then, The Five Venoms is a little slower-paced and less action-orientated than most of the other titles in this set, yet it stands out through its more involving and original plot, as well as some rather nasty moments. Not my favourite, but still a decent watch.

Crippled Avengers

Director: Cheh Chang
Screenplay: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Feng Lu, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Meng Lo, Chien Sun, Sheng Chiang, Lung-Wei Wang, Chen-Tu Tan
Running Time: 106 min
Year: 1978

Chang Cheh’s Crippled Avengers, which once again features the ‘Venom Mob’, opens in shocking fashion with a gang of martial artists choosing to take the self-aggrandizing master Du Tiando down a few notches by chopping the legs off his wife and arms off his son. When his wife dies but his son survives, Du vows to make his boy train in the martial arts and gives him iron arms, so that he can become an unbeatable fighter.

We jump forward to find the son, Sheng (now played by Feng Lu), now an adult. He and his father are heartless bullies that severely punish anyone that displeases them. Four members of the Venom Mob are among their victims, being disabled in various ways by the wicked Dus.

The four victims, aided by one of their masters, work together to overcome their disabilities and exact revenge on the villainous father and son, so as to put an end to their reign of terror.

Chang Cheh races through the film’s setup, cramming the opening Du tragedy and individual crippling of each of our heroes into the first half an hour or so. This pace never really lets up on a surface level as there’s plenty of action throughout. However, once the team are trained up I found the reasons for not directly approaching our main villains a little convoluted, merely drawing out the running time for the sake of some extra fights.

It’s hard to argue that a fight scene or two should be cut though, as the action is so good here. The choreography is often quite acrobatic and the ways our heroes’ disabilities are dealt with makes for some clever quirks. The action can be pretty brutal too, particularly in the horrific early scenes.

I did find the final face-off between Master Du and our heroes a little underwhelming though, it must be said. It’s not a bad fight but feels a little brief and isn’t as impressively choreographed as some of the dust-ups that precede it.

Overall, though the simple revenge story feels a little strained over 106 minutes, the action is superb and plentiful, which will be enough for most Shaw Brothers fans, myself included.

Heroes of the East

Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: Chia-Hui Liu, Yuka Mizuno,Yasuaki Kurata, Chia-Liang Liu, Kang-Yeh Cheng
Running Time: 105 min
Year: 1978

The final disc in the set once again focuses on the work of ​​Lau Kar-leung (or Chia-Liang Liu, as he’s sometimes credited). First up is Heroes of the East (a.k.a. Zhong hua zhang fu, Shaolin Challenges Ninja or Challenge of the Ninja).

The film sees Gordon Liu (a.k.a. Chia-Hui Liu) play Ho Tao, a martial artist living in Shanghai, whose wealthy father has arranged to marry a Japanese woman, Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno). Initially, all seems peachy with the marriage but Yumiko’s obsession with Japanese martial arts and stubborn dismissal of Chinese martial arts and culture causes friction between the couple.

The husband and wife end up literally fighting over the matter, arguing about which country has the best martial arts skills whilst demonstrating the techniques on each other. Eventually, Yumiko ups and leaves, heading back to her father in Japan.

In a short-sighted bid to win Yumiko back, Tao sends her a letter, challenging her to settle their nation’s martial arts differences once and for all. However, Yumiko’s long-standing training partner and possible old-flame, Taneko (Yasuaki Kurata), sees the letter and takes it as an affront to Japanese martial arts as a whole. He assembles a team of some of the best martial artists in the country and travels over to Shanghai to take up Tao’s challenge.

Tao, who is a decent but not exceptional martial artist, is forced to quickly swot up on new techniques, helped by his master and brothers, as he faces off against each Japanese opponent, one a day over the course of a week or so.

I enjoyed this one a lot. What I tend to prefer in ​​​​Lau Kar-leung’s work over Chang Cheh’s is the healthy dose of humour in his work. Whereas Chang’s heroes are largely very po-faced, Lau’s tend to feel more human. This is most apparent here in the first half of the film, where Tao and Yumiko’s ​​relationship is developed. Some kung-fu movie fans might balk at the culture-clash romantic comedy elements taking centre stage here, but I found it charming, with a nice balance of humour and genuine chemistry between the couple.

The arguments between the pair also brought up some fascinating facts (though these might not be all that accurate) about martial arts history and techniques. These are further developed in the second half, where the action takes over, leading to 40-odd minutes of practically non-stop martial arts mayhem.

This second half is absolutely stunning, with a wonderful range of fighting styles on display, all expertly choreographed and performed. Liu certainly deserves a lot of kudos for getting his head around such a wide variety of fights, as he’s in every one of them.

My only gripe in this second half would be the fact that the central relationship becomes pretty much forgotten. Yumiko appears on the sidelines and there are some subtle but clear suggestions that she’s made up with Tao but you don’t get the reconciliatory scene you’d expect or the characters deserve.

This is a fairly minor quibble in an otherwise fantastic film though. Opening with some enjoyable romantic comedy, ending with a jaw-dropping smorgasbord of martial-arts action and all presented with high production values and visual flair, it’s sheer class from start to finish and probably my favourite film in the set.

Dirty Ho

Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Screenplay: Kuang Ni
Starring: Yue Wong, Chia-Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Lung-Wei Wang, Hou Hsiao, Wilson Tong, Lung Chan
Running Time: 103 min
Year: 1979

And so we come to the end of the set with another classic from Lau Kar-leung, the unfortunately titled Dirty Ho (a.k.a. Lan tou He). This once again stars Lau’s adopted brother Gordon Liu, here playing the 11th Prince of Manchuria, Wang Tsun Hsin.

We open with Wang assuming the identity of a jeweller, competing for the affections of a group of courtesans against the young, arrogant thief Ho Jen (Yue Wong). Wang seems to take a brotherly/fatherly shine to Ho though, so when the police come to arrest him, Wang uses his influence to keep him out of trouble.

Wang, whilst endeavouring to keep his true identity from Ho, forces the upstart to follow him as his pupil, even though Ho has been shielded from seeing the prince’s true martial arts prowess. Wang trains Ho to become his bodyguard and the pair form a close bond whilst Wang’s scheming brother, the 4th Prince, sends assassins to kill him, so that he won’t be considered as the next heir to the throne.

Like Heroes of the East, Dirty Ho has a nice balance of comedy and action that works like a charm. I didn’t feel it came together as a whole quite as successfully as that previous film though. For one, the character motivations behind the setup aren’t well established, so the actual purpose behind Wang’s teaching of Ho is unclear, making for an unsatisfying narrative, despite being intriguingly built-up initially. The ending is also quite underwhelming, with a final gag-shot that comes out of nowhere and leaves you puzzled more than anything, never even answering the question of who will be heir to the throne.

Story issues aside though, the film works incredibly well as a kung-fu movie. There’s plenty of action and it’s all staged with great flair, as you’d expect from Lau Kar-leung, who acted as action choreographer as well as director. There’s a lot of comedy in the fights too. A particularly enjoyable one sees Wang skillfully manipulate a courtesan’s limbs to make it look like she’s fighting Ho. It’s an idea I’ve seen done in another couple of kung-fu films but it’s pulled off incredibly well here.

As with most of the films in the set, the film is well-photographed, with great use of camera movement. The production design is even better than usual too, with some lavishly decorated sets. The courtesans’ ‘pleasure boat’ is particularly rich in colour.

So, though an intriguing setup soon fizzles out into a paper-thin plot, the humour and inventive fight scenes make up for it. Another cracking piece of martial arts entertainment then, to round out the set.

Shawscope Volume One will be released on 20th December in the UK (28th December in the US) in a Limited Edition 10-disc Blu-ray and CD set from Arrow Video. The transfers are almost all immaculate, with beautifully rich, natural-looking colours and detailed, crisp textures. Five Shaolin Masters and Heroes of the East seem a touch waxy compared to the others but they still look very good. Chinatown Kid is the odd one out though, with a print that displays some visible damage and less stable colours. With it being presented as a long-unavailable cut though, a weaker picture is understandable and likely due to being taken from a print rather than a master negative. I’ve used screengrabs throughout this review, to give you an idea of picture quality.

Audio is largely solid too (I watched with the first-choice Mandarin/Cantonese tracks every time), though Shaolin Temple sounded distractingly harsh on any ‘s’ sounds.

LIMITED EDITION BOXSET CONTENTS

– High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentations of all twelve films, including seven new 2K restorations by Arrow Films
– Illustrated 60-page collectors’ book featuring new writing by David Desser, Terrence J. 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

Disc One – King Boxer

– Brand new 2K restoration by Arrow Films from a 4K scan of the original negative
– Newly restored uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio
– Newly translated English subtitles for the Mandarin audio, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
– Brand new commentary by David Desser, co-editor of The Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema and The Cinema of Hong Kong
– Newly filmed appreciation by film critic and historian Tony Rayns
– Interview with director Chung Chang-wha, filmed in 2003 and 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with star Wang Ping, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with Korean cinema expert Cho Young-jung, author of Chung Chang-wha: Man of Action, filmed in 2005 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu, the first in a three-part documentary on Shaw Brothers’ place within the martial arts genre produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003, featuring interviews with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, Sammo Hung, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-leung, Cheng Pei-pei, David Chiang and many others
– Alternate opening credits from the American version titled Five Fingers of Death
– Hong Kong, US and German theatrical trailers, plus US TV and radio spots
– Image gallery

Disc Two – The Boxer From Shantung

– Brand new 2K restoration by Arrow Films from a 4K scan of the original negative
– Newly restored uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio
– Newly translated English subtitles for the Mandarin audio, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
– Interview with star Chen Kuan-tai, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with assistant director John Woo, filmed in 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with star David Chiang, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Conversation between stars Chen Kuan-tai and Ku Feng, filmed at a Shaw Brothers reunion in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Hong Kong and German theatrical trailers, plus US TV spot
– Image gallery

Disc Three – Five Shaolin Masters / Shaolin Temple

– Uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio for both films
– Newly translated English subtitles for both films, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
– Newly filmed appreciation of Chang Cheh by film critic and historian Tony Rayns
– Interview with star Kong Do, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Elegant Trails: David Chiang and Elegant Trails: Ti Lung, two featurettes on the actors produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003
– Alternate standard-definition version of Shaolin Temple
– Alternate opening credits from Five Masters of Death, the US version of Five Shaolin Masters
– Alternate opening credits sequences for Shaolin Temple
– US and German trailers for Five Shaolin Masters
– Hong Kong and German trailers for Shaolin Temple
– Image galleries for both films

Disc Four – Mighty Peking Man

– Uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio
– Newly translated English subtitles for the Mandarin audio, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
– Brand new commentary by Travis Crawford
– Brand new interview with suit designer Keizo Murase, filmed in 2021 by Daisuke Sato and Yoshikazu Ishii
– Interview with director Ho Meng-hua, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with star Ku Feng, filmed in 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Behind-the-scenes Super 8 footage from the archives of Keizo Murase
– ‘Unrestored’ standard-definition version
– Alternate opening credits from Goliathon, the US version of Mighty Peking Man
– Hong Kong, US, German and Dutch theatrical trailers, plus US TV spot
– Image gallery

Disc Five – Challenge Of The Masters / Executioners From Shaolin

– Brand new 2K restoration of Challenge of the Masters from the original negative by Arrow Films
– Uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio for both films, plus Cantonese mono for Challenge of the Masters
– Newly translated English subtitles for both films, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dubs
– Newly filmed appreciation of Lau Kar-leung by film critic and historian Tony Rayns
– Interview with star Gordon Liu, filmed in 2002 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Interview with star Chen Kuan-tai, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Textless opening credits for Challenge of the Masters
– Alternate English credits for Executioners from Shaolin
– Hong Kong theatrical trailers for Challenge of the Masters
– Hong Kong and US theatrical trailers for Executioners from Shaolin
– Image galleries for both films

Disc Six – Chinatown Kid

– Brand new 2K restoration of the 115-minute International Version from original film elements
– 90-minute Alternate Version
– Uncompressed original Cantonese audio for the International Version, with newly translated English subtitles
– Uncompressed original English audio for the International Version, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles
– Uncompressed original Mandarin audio for the Alternate Version, with newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentary by Terry Brady, author of ‘Alexander Fu Sheng: Biography of the Chinatown Kid’
– Select scene video commentary by co-star Susan Shaw from 2021
– Elegant Trails: Fu Sheng, a featurette on the actor produced by Celestial Pictures in 2005
– Hong Kong, US and German theatrical trailers, plus US TV spot
– Image gallery

Disc Seven – The Five Venoms/Crippled Avengers

– Brand new 2K restorations of both films from the original negatives by Arrow Films
– Uncompressed Mandarin and English original mono audio for both films plus Cantonese mono for The Five Venoms
– Newly translated English subtitles for both films, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dubs
– Brand new commentary on The Five Venoms by critic Simon Abrams
– Interview with star Lo Meng, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Chang Cheh: The Master, a featurette about the director produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003
– Hong Kong and US theatrical trailers for The Five Venoms
– Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Crippled Avengers
– Image galleries for both films

Disc Eight – Heroes of the East/Dirty Ho

– Brand new 2K restoration of Dirty Ho from the original negative by Arrow Films
– Uncompressed Cantonese, Mandarin and English original mono audio for both films
– Newly translated English subtitles for both films, plus English hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dubs
– Brand new commentary on Heroes of the East by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts
– Newly filmed appreciation of both films by film critic and historian Tony Rayns
– Interview with Heroes of the East star Yasuaki Kurata, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine
– Alternate opening credits for Shaolin Challenges Ninja, the international version of Heroes of the East
– Alternate English credits for Dirty Ho
– Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Heroes of the East, plus US TV spot
– Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Dirty Ho
– Image galleries for both films

Discs Nine + Ten:
– MUSIC FROM SHAOLIN TEMPLE, MIGHTY PEKING MAN AND CHINATOWN KID (CD)
– MUSIC FROM THE FIVE VENOMS, CRIPPLED AVENGERS AND DIRTY HO (CD)

Wow, where do I start with all this? The King Boxer commentary with David Desser is excellent, providing context to the film’s place in cinematic history as well as analysing it in considerable detail.

Forgive my laziness, but I’m going to clump all the archive Frédéric Ambroisine interviews with cast and crew across the discs together, as they all serve a similar purpose. Through the collection, you get to hear from a wide range of the film’s major contributors and hear about their lives, careers, relationships with the Shaw Brothers and major directors/producers, as well as thoughts on the individual titles included here. They’re mainly all a decent length too – around the 20-40 minute mark, so they’re quite detailed.

Standouts from the archive interviews include Chung Chang-wha, who’s quite honest and interesting. Chen Kuan-tai and Ku Feng have nice chemistry together in their interview too, having worked with each other for several years at Shaw Brothers and in Chen’s other interviews elsewhere in the set he’s equally as ebullient. Ho Meng-hua’s interview is also entertaining and it made me keen to see more of his work as his films sound fun. It’s always a pleasure to hear from Gordon Liu too, so I appreciated his interview here.

Going back to individual extras on the King Boxer disc, the interview with Cho Young-jung is a little weak, to be honest. It might just be an issue with the language barrier (she’s speaking in English but it’s clearly not her native tongue) but she doesn’t have a great deal of value to say and repeats herself a bit so it’s not one of the stronger features.

Tony Rayns, on the other hand, provides a fascinating potted history of the Shaw Brothers and the cinematic landscape that shaped King Boxer. It’s as well researched and compelling as you’d expect from Rayns.

The jewel in the whole set though is the ‘Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu’ documentary. It provides a potted history of kung-fu movies, cramming a great deal into its 50 minutes, covering the early Wong Fei-Hung films, the emergence of Bruce Lee, the influence of Shaw Brothers and the popularity of kung-fu comedy and Jackie Chan. It’s an excellent film that provides an enjoyable introduction to the genre to newcomers as well as a nostalgic look back for fans.

Moving on to the Boxer From Shantung disc, you get a short interview with John Woo, who was an AD on the film. He describes how working with Chang Cheh and watching his films influenced his own work.

Disc three has an excellent piece by Tony Rayns discussing the work of Chang Cheh and his relationship with the Shaw Brothers.

The Elegant Trails featurettes on that disc have some amusingly outdated graphics but offer short but sweet interviews and footage of David Chiang and Ti Lung in the early 00s.

The Mighty Peking Man commentary with Travis Crawford perhaps spends a little too much time listing other films people have been in but, away from that, it’s an informative and engaging track.

The Behind-the-scenes Super 8 footage on the Mighty Peking Man disc isn’t very exciting to begin with, spending a few minutes looking at the scenery rather than the shoot, but it gets much more interesting as it goes on, providing a glimpse of how they made the special effects sequences in the film.

The new interview with Keizo Murase complements this nicely, giving a first-hand account of the creation of the film’s special effects. He discusses working with a largely Japanese crew, separate from the Chinese crew who did the standard dramatic scenes with the actors. He has some interesting stories to tell.

Disc five sees Tony Rayns back once again, this time running through the career of Lau Kar-leung and pointing out interesting elements of the two of his films included here.

Disc six has a feature-length commentary that isn’t listed on Arrow’s site, by Terry Brady, author of ‘Alexander Fu Sheng: Biography of the Chinatown Kid’. It’s an excellent track, well researched and loaded with background and stories about the principles.

Susan Shaw also provides a selected scene video commentary on the film. She has some interesting stories to tell, including a claim that Chang Cheh got his assistant director to direct the women in his film as he wasn’t interested. She also speaks very highly of the reportedly very kind Alexander Fu Sheng. Towards the end of the commentary, she gets in the habit of just relating the film’s narrative though, frustratingly.

Also on that disc is another Elegant Trails short, this time offering an affectionate and occasionally touching tribute to Alexander Fu Sheng, who died tragically young.

There’s also an alternative version of the film here, 25 minutes shorter than the ‘International version’. I didn’t have time to watch the compromised cut, unfortunately.

Simon Abrams’ Five Venoms commentary is much more analytic than most of the rest in the set. As such, it’s maybe a little drier and more academic than typical martial arts fans might be used to, but it has many interesting points to make.

The archive featurette on Chang Cheh on disc 7 contains contributions from a host of big names, including Tsui Hark and John Woo. There are plenty of clips from his extensive filmography too, making this an enjoyable retrospective.

The Heroes of the East commentary with Jonathan Clements is loaded with interesting facts and analysis, often focusing on martial arts history. It also has an amusingly personal slant as the commentator was married to a Japanese martial artist so can all too closely relate to our hero. It’s a wonderful commentary, the best of the bunch in my opinion, maybe even the best commentary I’ve heard this year (and I’ve heard a lot). I was, however, devastated when he related the history of the ninja, revealing they never actually existed!

The Tony Rayns interview on disc 8 is, as usual, very well-informed. Among many other things, he discusses why he thinks the relationship dynamics and ending of Dirty Ho are fascinatingly vague. I didn’t appreciate those elements myself, but it’s an interesting take.

I was very happy to see the two CDs included in the set. I wish more distributors would do this, as I love a good soundtrack and they can be hard to come by for old genre movies like these. The discs here are a lot of fun too, with a mix of rousingly dramatic cues and funky 70s numbers.

I didn’t get a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.

All in all then, it’s a stunning package. I may not have given any of the films themselves 5 stars, but the overall quality of them is remarkably consistent for a 12-film set and each title is hugely enjoyable in its own right. Plus, you get countless hours of extra material to enjoy, so the set as a whole has to get the maximum score. If any martial arts fans haven’t pre-ordered this already, shame on them!

Disc/Package:

Shawscope: Volume One - Arrow
Films
Disc/Package
5.0Overall:
Reader Rating: (2 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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