Film

Legendary Weapons of Hong Kong

Michael Buening

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.

King Boxer

"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.

Dirty Ho

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.

Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.