Roaming North America like David Carradine, delivering kung fu and gravity-resistant swordfights, UCLA’s second entry in its outstanding “Shaw Brothers’ Heroic Grace” series brought its Iron Fist technique to New York’s BAMcinématek.
The prints, both original and restored, came courtesy of Celestial Pictures, an Asian distribution company currently remastering all 760 of the Shaws’ films. While Celestial has made prints available for this and other series, it has only released DVDs in China-friendly Region 3 formats. Still, the “Heroic Grace” screenings prove that nothing beats seeing these movies on a big screen in their original Shawscope glory.
“Heroic Grace I” highlighted Shaw studio touchstones, like the opera The Love Eterne, wuxia groundbreaker Come Drink With Me, and the RZA’s inspiration, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. “Heroic Grace II” disappoints slightly, by sticking to martial arts and so omitting the lesser seen musicals and romances of the early ‘60s. But the series includes oddball pleasures and cult favorites like King Boxer (1972), the first kung fu movie brought to the United States under the title Five Fingers of Death, and the oft-imitated The Five Venoms (1978).
The series highlights the works of three prime Shaw martial arts directors—Chang Cheh, Chor Yuen, and Liu Chia-Liang—showing their differing levels of gore and whimsy. Holding all the selections together is a loose “house” style, analogous to that of the old MGM musicals. It features fantastical use of Technicolor hues in widescreen, shooting on Hong Kong locations as well as in studios (these scenes underscoring the films’ brilliant artifice), and a stable of highly skilled technicians and actors trained in high and low theater (mainly the acrobatics of Chinese opera). Both MGM and the Shaw Brothers cranked out entertainment at a furious pace, with surprisingly nuanced storylines even using stock characters and hackneyed scenarios, set against a nationalistic backdrop.
The Shaw Brothers’ fighting films offer strong individuals battling overwhelming evil, as triumphant endings tend to negate themselves by acknowledging that a battle won is just one of many. In his essay, “Made in Hong Kong”, Geoffrey O’Brien observes that “beneath all the heroic fantasy, [lies] an ancient harshness grounded in political realism. In the absence of reliable, uncorrupted law enforcement or any notion of popular sovereignty, heroic action was an improvisational kind of justice, created ad hoc in the midst of emerging confrontations and shored up by whatever loyalties were available to be called upon” (ArtForum, September 2004).
The Five Venoms
The fierce male stoic is the primary focus of Chang Cheh’s films in the series, The New One-Armed Swordsman, The Five Venoms, and The Boxer From Shantung. As the romantic swordplay films of the ‘60s gave way to the harsher kung fu of the ‘70s, Chang became increasingly obsessed with almost sadomasochist themes of trial by bloody fire in a hopelessly corrupt universe. At their most relentless, his movies make “martial arts” sound like a contradiction in terms. The Five Venoms features no speaking female roles, and behind its crowd-pleasing and influential story gimmick of five fighters trained in animal-related martial arts—lizard, scorpion, toad, centipede, cobra—lie flawed and compromised characters. “We all did bad things,” one says. When they take down a despot, another shrugs, “Another corrupt man will replace him.” For the climax of The Boxer from Shantung the hero (Chen Kuan-Tai) takes on a regiment of fighters with an axe embedded in his stomach.
The New One-Armed Swordsman
Chang’s films excel in character development, streamlined stories, classical framing, and tasteful use of the freeze frame, quick zoom, and rack focus. This makes for dynamic depictions of his heroes’ struggles with their internal and other demons, as in The New One-Armed Swordsman. But when he indulges in overt pessimism, Chor’s work turns stiffer, with joyless choreography, wallowing in slushy guy’s guy melodrama like a brooding drunk with his chest thrust out.
The Magic Blade
Like Chang, Chor Yuen began his career helming swordplay epics. He continued to work in the genre long after kung fu became popular during the late ‘70s. Of his three films in the series, The Magic Blade (1976) is the best. Two fighters, good (Ti Lung) and bad (Luo Lie), team up to track down the Peacock Dart and fight an evil warlord, a story full of wuxia tropes. Chor’s endless inventiveness in the telling is what makes it so much fun to watch. Blade is stuffed to the gills with elaborate costumes, sets, gimmicky action set-ups, and colorful comic characters
More than most Shaw Brothers films, Chor’s plots are convoluted, the tone shifting abruptly from light-hearted action to gushy romance to blood-spurting mayhem. He doesn’t think twice about sacrificing continuity for an out-of-left-field scene—like two rivals battling each other on a giant chess board. Ti Lung brings a brooding intensity to ground the swirl of cackling devil grandmas, flying acrobats, and tree demons, images based in myths and folktales. However, Chor’s exasperating The Jade Tiger (1977) reveals how delicate the balance is between his gonzo style and utter confusion.
My Young Auntie
When their films bog down in plot contrivances (moral reversals, rival fighting schools, and the many mini-bosses to be defeated before meeting the final King Koopa), Chor and Chang share a baroque leadenness. By contrast, Liu Chia-Liang offers nimble entertainments. My Young Auntie (1980) is a high concept comedy about a young female fighter (Kara Hui) who is granted elder status, much to the chagrin of her cocky nephew (Lau Kar-Leung), in order to protect her deceased master’s wealth. Liu deftly uses fight scenes to accent and develop the story. An early scene establishes the auntie’s prowess, with Hui casually fighting off a gang of lecherous “rascals” from the seat of a rickshaw. Later, her confidence gives way to a charming awkwardness during a street fight that erupts at a chic Western-style shopping center. It’s disappointing that Liu then excludes Hui from the climatic battle when the villains inexplicably tie up the film’s star.
Hui appears in a crucial bit part in Liu’s masterpiece, Dirty Ho (1979). Gordon Liu plays a prince traveling undercover to avoid detection by his brother’s henchman, using his fighting skills discreetly so as not to attract attention. When challenged to a fight, he claims that Hui, an anonymous courtesan, is his bodyguard and slyly manipulates her movements (knocking her arm forward, tossing her into a jump kick), so she fights his adversary. It is a credit to Gordon’s choreography and both his and Hui’s physical agility that what sounds utterly implausible results in an expertly staged spectacle. The scene demonstrates Liu’s strengths, combining drama and action with a cheeky spirit.
Whatever their individual weaknesses, in combination Chang, Chor, and Liu make a formidable trio. The audience leaves hungry for more—and with 740 Shaw Brothers films to go, it seems likely we’ll see more “Heroic Grace” series in the future.