When their films bog down in plot contrivances, Chor and Chang share a baroque leadenness. By contrast, Chia-Liang offers nimble entertainments.
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.
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 New One-Armed Swordsman
The Magic Blade
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
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.