Film

On DVD - Four Shaw Brothers’ Kung Fu Classics

There are basically two kinds of martial arts movie fans. The first is the most common. They are the aficionado who grew up loving the format’s freak show leanings, the combination of physical grace and personal goofiness (usually accented by badly dubbed English voices) all wrapped up in eccentric traditions and mind blowing mythos of the Asian culture. For them, the outlandish sound effects and insane fighting styles (mad monkey kung fu) were part of an overall desire by the filmmakers to entertain at any costs. But for anyone lucky enough to catch these films uncut and uncensored, presented in their original aspect ratio and native language, the experience was far more revelatory. To them, they were art. In the mind of these outright obsessives, Westernization of the genre diluted its power, turning it into something cloying and kitsch, when the opposite was clearly the case. Hoping to keep both sides happy, Genius Products and The Weinstein Group have founded Dragon Dynasty, a DVD label with the intention of reviving the lagging fortunes of old school chop socky with the digital format’s newfound ability to act as motion picture preservationist. It’s been a godsend for both the casual and critical enthusiast.

Representing titles 11 through 14 in the label’s ongoing release schedule of classic and contemporary Asian cinema, the latest Dynasty offerings represent a veritable history lesson of the Hong Kong kung fu film. Again drawing from the amazing vaults of the seminal Shaw Brothers, we are treated to the rising in popularity of the martial arts movie (1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman), the internationalization of the genre (1972’s King Boxer - Five Fingers of Death), perhaps the quintessential example of the category’s cinematic approach (1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), and the moment when many fans feel that comedy began to dilute the overall potency of the artform (1981’s My Young Auntie). More fascinating than the fight choreography or historical codes of ethics and honor are the motion picture grandeur and filmic scope these productions provide. Many dismiss these movies as examples of fisticuffs over finesse, but the truth is, each one is a major accomplishment of acting, scripting, art design, and direction. The stuntwork is equally important, but not the only reason to respond to these films.

Take The One-Armed Swordsman, for example. Following a tradition of swordplay storylines, Shaw Brother’s in house auteur Cheh Chang decided to mesh some well known literary motifs into these movies, resulting in narratives that are powerful in their emotional as well as athletic pull. Our hero, Fang Gang, feels unappreciated and picked on at his teacher’s martial arts academy – and with good reason. The son of a servant who laid down his life for the noble Master, the other students undermine him mercilessly. When one of their pranks goes horribly wrong, Fang Gang is left disfigured and desperate. He meets up with noble country girl Hsiao Man, and after nursing him back to health, she hopes the two of them will start a quiet life together. But Fang Gang is constantly pulled back in to the life of a vigilante. First, he defends a local festival from a group of thugs under the tutelage of the repugnant criminal Smiling Tiger. But when the mobster’s older brother, Long-Armed Devil, decides to unseat Fang’s former teacher (with the help of a new weapon), our hero must protect his mentor’s honor.

Scattered throughout this amazing movie are sequences seemingly ripped right out of an old fashioned Hollywood melodrama. When Fang is injured and falls into Hsiao Man’s tiny boat, the Shaw soundstage is decked out in a riverside set so delightfully detailed that you can literally sense the snowflakes falling along the frost-covered landscape. Similarly, several showdowns between Smiling Tiger and the disciples of Fang’s teacher Qi Rufeng take place in a wooded wilderness stolen from MGM’s Wizard of Oz backdrop. This highly stylized approach – matching much of the ancient chest pounding and sense of duty – helps alleviate some of the celluloid stress these films induce. Since this is a civilization far removed from ours, one seemingly steeped in traditions so deep that no one can circumvent their import, such fanciful elements help jumpstart our suspension of disbelief. It also helps us accept the almost invincible technique our hero has with only one arm and half a sword.

The One Armed Swordsman is also a great beginning point for any newcomer’s journey in the ‘60s/’70s concept of martial arts moviemaking. Again, they are more films than fight clubs, and there are long passages where our characters converse instead of trying to carve each other up. The plots can also get very intricate and involved. Surely, there are moments that seem purposefully placed within the tale to take us away from the drama and back to the action (a proposed kidnapping of Qi’s daughter, a last act battle between Fang and Smiling Tiger on a deserted bridge), but the balance between exposition and ass-kicking is nicely maintained. And since the sequences of swordplay and martial artistry are so well done (thanks in part to Cheh Chang’s excellent work behind the lens) we don’t feel the burden of all that inter-institutional intrigue. Bloody, bombastic, and quite beautiful at times, The One Armed Swordsman proves that there was always more to this genre than round house kicks and throwing stars.

Of course, King Boxer took it all another sensational step in 1972. Cited as the film that revolutionized the acceptability of kung fu films in the West (it came out two months before Enter the Dragon, and was a solid hit for American studio Warner Brothers), its battle royale narrative hid a far more forceful tale of power and betrayal. With an all important martial arts competition set to start in a few months, the instructor at Chao Chi-Hao’s school decides to send him away. It’s not because the pupil has no skills. On the contrary, the old man believes he can’t properly train the boy to be the champion he’s capable of becoming. Arriving at his new academy, Chi-Hao is immediately caught up in some inter-familial issues. The son of his new master is jealous, and wants to ruin his rival’s chances of making the competition. Even worse, a competing school is so desperate to win that they hire a hit man from Japan who, along with his samurai sword wielding bodyguards, begins eliminating the other contestants. After suffering a devastating setback, Chi-Hao masters the deadly “Iron Palm” technique, and seeks revenge on the corrupt instructor and all who have wronged him.

Playing like a Sino-Spaghetti Western (complete with bountiful bloodshed and gore), King Boxer is a remarkable movie. It gives us a soft spoken, almost passive hero who allows many horrible things to happen to him over the course of 90 minute, only to turn into a hands-on version of the Terminator towards the end. As he learns the value of his five fingers of death technique, and draws the connections between the adversarial school and its seemingly endless collection of crazed henchmen, director Chang-hwa Jeong persistently pushes the pace into overdrive. If we’re not experiencing another inventive fight sequence, we’re witnessing potboiler plotting amongst a cartoon character collection of creeps. One of the highlights of this bright spot laden effort is the number of times our hero can be humiliated by various villainous foes and still come back swinging. This is especially true after an attack which sees his hands beaten mercilessly. There are moments when we wish Chi-Hao wasn’t such a lethargic lox (it takes him awhile to get his retribution groove on), but thanks to the filmmaking employed, we never grow bored.

Indeed, King Boxer is best when it’s thwarting convention. Toward the end, when the major third act competition is about to begin, we are startled by a particularly nasty fight between Chi-Hao’s old master and the Japanese hit men. Then said shock is repeated when the jealous brother takes on the corrupt instructor and his thugs. While it takes away from the final contest showdown, that’s apparently part of the plan. Indeed, once a winner is determined, we get more double crossing, another few deaths, and a sensational confrontation in a locked, dimly lit room. The stylistic flourishes employed – shadows crossing faces, jump cuts confusing the logistics of the fighters to increase the suspense – really sell us on this film’s artistry. But more than that, the bucking of narrative convention keeps us on our toes, and allows us to become much more involved with the characters. Along with the next film in the series, King Boxer argues for how fully formed and complete these efforts really were.

Perhaps the pinnacle of everything the Shaw Brothers was striving for in their kung fu epics, The 36th Chambers of Shaolin remains, even by modern standards, a solid masterwork. While the story may be familiar to any fan of the genre – pacifist student seeks out the help of the Shaolin, those monk masters of the martial arts, to teach him to fight to defend his family’s honor and his village – the approach is breathtaking in its depth and scope. Our hero, San Te (a stunning turn by Chia Hui “Gordon” Liu) is a reluctant rebel, a student helping his instructor defeat the totalitarian forces of local General Tien, When their efforts are discovered, a bloodbath occurs. Left for dead, Te heads to the Shaolin temple, where he hopes to learn the secrets of self-defense in order to take on the onerous oppressors. But he soon discovers there is more to martial arts than learning how to fight. There is discipline, mental clarity, a discarding of self, and of course, lots and lots of training. After completing his courses, he recruits a group of followers. It’s not long before honor is being avenged and General Tien’s troops are destroyed, one by one.

Beginning with a remarkable sequence where Liu, decked out in nothing more than a black pair of pants and several weighted metallic arm bands battles such odd elements as rain and a waterfall, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin represents a directorial tour de force for the star’s brother (by adoption), Chia-Liang Liu. It’s a sumptuous film to look at, a movie that takes its varying fight facets very seriously. The training, in particular, is flawlessly executed, using a combination of cinematic methods (slow motion, close-ups, quick cuts) to amplify the aesthetic qualities. Of course, a lot of this is the result of Liu’s performance. Note for note one of the best acting jobs you will EVER see in a Hong Kong kung fu film, the intensity and drive that San Te shows is a direct reflection of his creator’s personal passion. During one incredibly effective sequence, our hero has to learn how to circumvent a water hazard that leads to the monastery dining room. Failure to do so will result in humiliation – and hunger. Watching Liu literally throw himself into the test is heart-stopping. His determination is like a laser leaping off the screen.

Thanks to his sibling’s work in the director’s chair, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as much spectacle as sport, a movie that really celebrates the excesses of the artform with sweat, blood, and lots of well choreographed resolve. The bad guys are unbelievably evil, the confrontations violent and purposeful. Even the finale, when Te must face his adversary alone on a vast remote vista, crackles with the kind of energy that makes these films instantly addictive. Indeed, the difference between the Asian action movie and the American version is a question of outward attitude. No matter how hard they try, a Western fist fight just can’t match the seismic shockwaves generated when two Hong Kong pros go head to head. It’s more than just the choreography. Because the skill is founded on attack and counterattack, defensiveness as important as offense, there is never a dull moments in the melee. Every warrior is working to both strike and protect, win and avoid losing. This is especially true of Gordon Liu. Like a skilled chess player, you can literally see him plotting out his next move. It’s written all over his matinée idol face.

Of course, not every actor in the Shaw stable was as visually viable as Liu. Similarly, the explosion in popularity (thanks to the new international appreciation of the genre) led the company to try different dynamics within the films. A few went overboard into historic period and accuracy, while others went directly for the comical and crazy. You can see the shift inside My Young Auntie. Exploiting his power as a director, Chia-Liang Liu decided to create a showcase for his girlfriend (star Kara Hui) and mesh as many cinematic styles as he could into a simple story of a adolescent widow sent to deliver her late husband’s estate to the rightful heir. Of course, there is a bastard brother who should rightfully gain the inheritance, but is being left out of the will because of his criminal ways. A capable kung fu expert, our villain decides to steal the probate papers, and this leads his minions in direct conflict with the gal, her elderly nephew, and his college aged son. Wildly inventive and lovingly languid in its pace, Liu’s clash of cultures (country vs. city) and clans (good vs. evil), is like a compendium of every manner of moviemaking thrown together.

My Young Auntie is actually divided into two distinct acts. The first focuses on the arrival of the main character at the home of her elderly nephew. The confusion her appearance causes, and the effect she has on her kin (especially the kooky college age grand nephew who is instantly smitten) drives a great deal of the narrative. We witness battles over honor, misidentification, and oddly enough, the juxtaposition between the old world and modernization. After an hour, we wonder if the filmmakers have remembered that this is a kung fu film. Then Liu kicks into overdrive with a signature sequence that instigates the almost hour long finale. At a costume party, rival forces from the disinherited elder appear, and soon, the dance floor is awash with combative kick turns and high flying swordplay. The moves are so intricate and expertly timed that you frequently feel you are watching an actual musical number, not a life or death struggle for familial supremacy. It’s at this point where the comedy tends to trickle away as well. There are more jokes to be found – especially when our young hero battles a muscleman whose entire body is impervious to pain – but the second half of the film is all vendetta and violence.

It has to be said though that Liu really does push the envelope in My Young Auntie, challenging what makes up a standard chop-socky spectacle. There are many convention breaking conceits, including the lack of onscreen deaths (the defeated are shamed instead of bled), the placement of Hui as the most confident fighter, and the overall cartoonish tone. Unlike the previous films discussed here, the fisticuffs are played for both their power as fighting, and their outrageous, hyper-stylized mannerism. It was a switch in the presentation of this material that would alter the next two decades of martial arts movies. Previously, audiences responded to the strength and dexterity. After Auntie (and the similar movies before and directly after), kung fu was pitched like silent film comedy. It became centered around elaborate set-ups, multi-faceted payoffs, and inhuman levels of endurance and physical tolerance. When critics complain about the sudden shift in Hong Kong action films, it’s this exaggerated aspect that gives them the biggest issue. On the other hand, fans who’ve only seen the pan and scan, poorly dubbed versions of these titles may not notice the tonal twists.

When taken together, there are several reasons to celebrate these DVDs. First and foremost, they rescue these films from the ridicule they typically experience from purists and cinephiles. Since the Shaw Brothers catalog was basically unavailable on home video until the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, viewers had to suffer through n’th generation copies, incorrect aspect ratios, editorial inconsistencies, and horrendous English language tracks. It’s what elevated many of these otherwise well meaning films to the level of ludicrousness and camp that has been both a benefit (commercially) and detriment (artistically) to the genre. With such pristine presentations now available, the films regain their status as cinema. The second reason is the addition of an incredible amount of context. Each disc here offers commentary (including passionate takes by critic Elvis Mitchell and true fan Quentin Tarantino), interviews with the important actors and crew members, and various gallery presentations that help us understand the amount of effort that went into these films. Finally, Dragon Dynasty wants to open up the appreciation of these efforts beyond a few noted offerings. By rescuing the catalog of the Shaws and others, they help instill a sense of integrity that other packages fail to proffer.

As an excellent introduction into the world of Hong Kong moviemaking, as a quartet of important titles that illustrate the industry’s beginning, mainstreaming and commercialization, you can’t do better. The One Armed Swordsman, King Boxer, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and My Young Auntie are the perfect primers for learning what made the Shaw Brothers so important in their native land, as well as among film fans worldwide. Each one holds its own unique treasures, but together they suggest that there are dozens of differing layers to the kung fu/martial arts movie. While they may not make the artform more popular, they will definitely redefine the scholarly take on such supposedly silly fare. Indeed, it’s time to put the ridicule away. Respect is what these fascinating films truly deserve.

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