No longer need you feel embarrassed in mixed company to declare love for a movie called Master of the Flying Guillotine or anything with “Shaolin” in the title. Those who tried to explain the virtues of so-called chop-socky flicks to uncomprehending film snobs have studied and suffered like the bald-headed monks on their way to the 36th Chamber, and they are finally rewarded with shiny, finely chiseled, buff and muscular DVDs that can kick the butt of doubting cineastes, who must now play catch-up. Here’s how it happened.
At one of the largest studios in the world, the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong produced hundreds of films from the ‘60s through the ‘80s in many genres: musicals, melodramas, operas, comedies, crime, romance, spies, jewel thieves. Yet when people say, “I watched a Shaw Brothers movie”, they’re usually not talking about kicking back with a folk opera. To most westerners, the name Shaw Brothers is synonymous with martial arts. That’s a well-earned reputation, for the studio applied its expensive, lavishly designed, widescreen, Eastmancolor style to films that reinvigorated and redefined this staple Chinese genre.
The sheer dazzling technical quality of these films has been a well-kept secret to Americans, even those who fell in love with the choppy, faded, butchered, badly-dubbed grindhouse prints. In the video era, pan-and-scan bootlegs added incomprehensibility to mutilation, giving the impression of feeble artifacts that could only be appreciated as cheap campy crapola.
For the last several years, Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong has been releasing gorgeously restored prints on disc with English subtitle options. These Region 3 discs are unplayable on standard US machines. Until my money ran out, I made do with dozens of the VCDs, an inferior alternative format with a lower bit-rate and limited options; still, even these are gorgeous.
Slowly, some of these films are coming to the US market. Pathfinder Pictures released Master of the Flying Guillotine, a film notable for its imaginatively violent absurdity. Within the last year, Image released several important titles in no-frills editions, including The Shadow Whip with classic warrior woman Cheng Pei-Pei, and fan favorite Deadly Weapons of China. The last is one of the few Images to offer an English soundtrack option for the nostalgic, or for those who’d rather not read.
Note especially the 1978 fantasy Heaven and Hell, a jaw-dropping collage that progresses or regresses or digresses from Heaven to Earth to Hell (“They seem different but they’re really the same”), all presented in gaudy stylized flats. We expect Heaven to look like this, but it’s surprising to descend to Earth and find the same presentation, with houses represented abstractly by a window or a doorway amid the empty stage space. Martial arts was never presented more as ballet, with no attempt made to connect physically.
Most of the film is set in Hell, a kind of suffering limbo on the way to reincarnation, visited once a year by the merciful Buddha. Poor people are sentenced to be plowed up in the fields, even though they suffered on earth and never did wrong, because “it’s the same everywhere”. The evil ones wind up as guards who torment everyone. Meanwhile, Heaven is a fairy world of immortals above this world, more or less a classic empire and equally hierarchical and unjust. The film rather falls apart near the end, but it’s an almost avant-garde slice of the rich and strange.
Now come the first four Shaw releases in the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty imprint, curated by Quentin Tarantino. Like the Image discs, they bear the Celestial logo, but these deluxe presentations come with new commentaries and interviews, plus optional English dubtracks. The packaging keeps their year of release a state secret; this is an affliction of some companies who wish to plug a movie as a classic but don’t want you to know how old it is.
Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman is important for almost too many reasons. Made in 1967, it was the first martial arts movie to earn over a million US dollars at the Hong Kong box office. It introduced levels of bloody violence (if still modest) that had previously been avoided.
It made a star of Wang Yu, a tall stolid presence in the title role. Burning with class consciousness as his fellow students tease him for being a servant’s son, he brings out their cruelty. When the master’s beautiful but spoiled daughter picks a fight and impulsively cuts off his right arm (symbol alert), he staggers away onto an achingly lovely set, a bridge lit by a lantern in the falling snow. There he falls into the boat of an orphaned farm girl who nurses him back to self-respect and a southpaw style.
Like a revisionist western or samurai film, this movie questions its hero’s violent profession as he gradually realizes all this tradition is for the birds. It also triggered the handicapped-hero subgenre, which was probably inspired by Japanese films about the blind swordsman Zatoichi and reached a delirious apotheosis in The Crippled Avengers (or Return of the Five Deadly Venoms).
And it does all this within the gloriously artificial context of the Shaws’ studio-bound world as handled by master director Chang Cheh, who was also responsible for the aforementioned “Heaven and Hell”. In his commentary, David Chute (not joined by Tarantino, despite what the box says) declares that Chang isn’t especiallly known for visual interest. Ignore that. Chang was the Douglas Sirk of the Shaw lot, a supremely confident stylist at home with grand emotions and subtextual ironies.
He renders the most plot-mechanistic scenes with grace, often gliding smoothly around characters as they utter expository dialogue. In this film, talky scenes in which the bad guys explain their plans are shot with artful coyness, hiding the face of the main villain to add a layer of mystery and suspense—even though his identity is no great secret or stunning revelation.
Chang also didn’t believe in photographing tableaus of fight choreography, nor in using editing to present movements analytically; he was less interested in showing a fight than in conveying emotion through kinetic images. He thought the most important participant in any fight was the camera, and therefore the viewer. He throws us into the middle of scrambled hand-held shots, a genre innovation he claimed credit for. He also selectively used slow-motion, an effect that caught the eye of assistant director John Woo.
Indeed, Chang is so confident that often he hardly bothers to show the fights. This movie doesn’t have many of them, and what’s seen are mostly highlights, including a climactic sequence where he cross-cuts casually between a group fight in a courtyard and a one-on-one with our armless hero in another location, showing only a few moments of what other directors would stage as a major separate set-piece.
In later films, his assurance is such that he often cuts away from action, to conversations for example. He understands the important fact that nothing is happening when his camera isn’t there, and the subtle corollary that wherever his camera is, there, too, is the action. In other words, he doesn’t stage action for the camera; his camera makes the action. When he cuts to something else, you don’t feel you’re missing anything, and you aren’t.
Such is the confidence of a skilled, prolific craftsman. Someone looking for fight choreography may be disappointed and think it’s mishandled, but those looking for human drama won’t be. Besides, he knows when to get around to violence in spades; he was famous for upping the blood quotient, so it’s important to realize how much he avoided over-use of action.
Chang loved James Dean and the young Marlon Brando. He focused on brooding, rebellious heroes who just aren’t made for this world, thus keying into the zeitgeist of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He used Wang in this way, though he’s a bit more sullen than brooding. Later Chang found the ideal model in David Chiang, an open-faced hothead with a charming smirk and long black cowlick who blazes through angry tragedies like The Boxer from Shantung a Godfather-esque epic on the failure of success, and The Delinquent, a “relevant” drama about self-actualization through the Wrong Crowd.
On the commentary track, Chute and fellow critic Andy Klein offer maybe 20 minutes of information and insight padded with lots of idle chatter. The visual cue of shirtless men leads to an interesting discussion of the fact that Chang’s films, more than those of other martial arts directors, display an intensity of male bonding and a muted or absent heterosexual desire that leads to homoerotic readings, and that in the later generation a similar reading attaches to the films of John Woo, but not, say, to Jackie Chan.
The next Dragon Dynasty milestone is King Boxer from 1972, the first martial arts hit distributed to US theatres. It was released by Warner Brothers as Five Fingers of Death in 1973 to capitalize on the popularity of the Kung Fu TV series (Enter the Dragon came shortly after). The direction is credited to Chang Chang Ho, actually a Korean man named Chang-Hwa Jeong, who is interviewed in an extra.
Pursuing our analogy of popular Hollywood stylists, he’s the Samuel Fuller to Chang’s Sirk, evincing a blunt pulpy poetry against the latter’s silken operatics. But he too didn’t have much interest in “the dancing”, as he says about his approach to the fight scenes. He devised certain tricks, such as landing people flat on their backs on the hard ground, puffs of dust flying up as a visual corollary of impact.
He uses editing heavily, causing fight director Lau Kar-Wing to admit in his interview that the editor was more important than himself, and that they worked together to string shots into an impression of motion. Of course this disguises stunt doubles as well as manufacturing motion.
In a way, this is the beginning of the end for action cinema, which like so many characters in today’s cinema of Millennial Unreality, doesn’t know it’s dead. Most of today’s so-called action films are non-action films that try to fool the audience by spraying a barrage of edits in our eyes to disguise the absence of action. The only thing in action is the rapidly flickering lights, and the viewer must mentally create what supposedly happens from this impressionistic blur.
Take last year’s Casino Royale, greeted with such critical rapture. The opening set-piece pretends to show people jumping high in the air from one girder to another. We see shots of people jumping, people flying, people landing, but we never see anyone jumping, flying and landing. All this “action” marks time, filling the space where nothing is happening, either on set or, when you think about it, in narrative terms. That’s why it’s so exhilirating to see, as in The Island, an honest-to-goodness truck flipping over. You appreciate that somebody’s driving that truck and flipping it over; the editor’s not flipping it and the CGI cartoonists aren’t flipping it.
Returning to our flipping movie, King Boxer expertly follows a lot of one-dimensional characters through a story about competition among martial arts schools. The good guys, including our charismatic hero Lo Lieh (another major star), are very good, and the bad guys very bad. A couple of supporting figures switch sides and render themselves more interesting thereby, but there’s little of the elaborately plotted betrayals and ambiguities that often mark the genre.
It’s all deftly handled in its simplicity, and the final reel is a gripping series of vengeful, emotional wrap-ups. First-time viewers may think there’s not much to make a fuss about, aside from the soundtrack ripping off the siren chords from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme whenever Lo Lieh’s hands glow red. That’s the red palm or red hand technique, depending on whether you read the subtitles or hear the English dub, and there doesn’t seem to be much to it besides hitting people really hard.
For the record, all these movies basically steal their music, which was at least one reason for the problems hampering their legitimate release. They’re also presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and maybe the original films were even slightly wider because the very edges of the image seem squeezed. Shaw productions, except for a few early and late titles, were in their trademark “Shaw Scope”.
Tarantino and one of our favorite critical hipsters, Elvis Mitchell, join Chute on the lively commentary track that will appeal to film geeks who can keep up with the flying citations—and who else will be listening? They also offer insight from the viewpoints of people who saw these movies back in the day, at noisy urban (predominantly “black audience”) theatres, and the impact they had at that time on African-American culture.
The RZA of Wu-Tang Clan addresses similar issues when he joins Andy Klein on the commentary track of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” (1978). He credits these movies for helping him think politically and philosophically beyond his own context in American history as a young black teen. In an interview, he states “These films definitely resonate a lot in the black community. It’s the underdog thing, it’s the brotherly thing, and also I think it’s the escapism, because you can go there and watch these movies and it’s not even American. It’s like a whole ‘nother world.”
In 36th Chamber, shaven-headed Gordon Liu is alternately goofy and serenely unnerving as a young refugee in a Buddhist temple who learns the path, which in his case includes righteous corrective action with a three-part stick. This is the template for a subgenre that focuses on intensive training techniques before the student can go into the world as a member of the butt-kicking brotherhood. Think Full Metal Jacket, if that movie were a true celebration of pedagogy and self-actualization.
Director Lau Kar-Leung (aka Liu Chia-Liang) began as an action director working extensively with Chang Cheh, and his direction tends to show the action clearly and correctly. There’s still plenty of dynamic editing and camera work, but his movies appeal most to those who want to see the ballet of jumps, flips and counter-strikes. He also leavens the proceedings with humor, which comes to fore in the last of these four entries, also directed by him, My Young Auntie.
With a flimsy plot about the struggle for an inheritance, this 1981 comedy throws in a lot of broad nonsense about the alleged sexual tension between a young widow and a callow great-nephew. She’s a traditional country mouse to his westernized big-city sophisticate. Overlong and overdumb, it relies on the exhilaration of Lau’s acrobatic dances—the sort of performance showcase avoided by the other directors. It’s also pleasant to watch the young auntie (16-year-old Kara Hui) defend herself against gangs of punks.
Joining Klein on a commentary track that’s smarter than much of the movie, Elvis Mitchell gives this picture the most props it can claim. He likes its free-form recklessness and undercutting of genre traditions, its parody of the genre’s hyper-masculinity. He brings up Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate and Donald O’Connor when he starts riffing on how dancing and fighting express sublimated erotic impulses.
This leads to a few hilarious jokes on “pornographic” moments during the final donnybrook. The film is clearly aware of this on some level; when the nephew hurls a homophobic insult at the bad uncle and his retinue of young men, the script clumsily opens what another movie would leave as subtext.
Obviously, some Shaw Brothers movies are (much) better than others, the same as some Warner Brothers movies. And also obviously, not all can appeal to everyone. But as these movies finally receive their optimal presentation and availability, no one will have an excuse to avoid this major pocket of film history. I hope this trickle will increase to a steady flow, to include some of the truly wonderful musicals, operas, and women’s films that are also part of the Shaw legacy.