88 Films goes all out for this Shaw Brothers release
Your job will never love you back.
Sure, this is a 2021 sentiment I’m infusing into my review of 1975’s Disciples Of Shaolin. But writer/director Chang Cheh (a legend of the Shaw Brothers studio who crafted dozens of classic films) certainly had something to say about the corrupting influence of money and the inhuman approaches corporate bosses take in managing their workforces like so much cattle to be slaughtered. Disciples of Shaolin is an angry film, replete with thrilling kung fu, to be sure, but also rife with contempt towards the uncaring elite who will literally gorge themselves on a fancy meal as their own workers battle to the death on their behalf.
It’s into this environment that young, naive, and enormously gifted martial artist Guan (Alexander Fu Sheng) saunters, searching for his brother (or Shaolin Temple friend?) Wang (Chi Kuan-Chun) in a textile factory. Guan is broke and impressionable, and Wang advocates for him to be employed at the factory. Guan and Wang have a similar past in martial arts, but they’ve diverged as Wang has chosen to set aside his training and eschew any violence. Guan, however, is excited to test his mettle. Guan will rise in the ranks at the factory as he utilizes his great skill to both train up the workers at his own factory and issue beatings to the rival textile factory run by Manchurians who’re trying to muscle Guan’s factory out.
Chang Cheh uses symbols suchs as the acquisition of newer, fancier shoes, and the novelty of a pocket watch to display what wealth and status might look like in this story’s environment, and to indicate that, as Guan begins to acquire these symbols, he is also corrupted by them. Shockingly, Disciples of Shaolin ends up being a tale of tragedy as Guan is felled by the equally corrupt factory owners, and Wang is forced to break his vow of peace to restore a righteous order, destroying both of the corrupt factory bosses’ evil empires.
The final third of Disciples Of Shaolin is almost a non-stop martial arts extravaganza filled with righteous fury, badass bloodletting, and Chang Cheh’s signature long, fluid takes capturing the incredible athletic prowess of his primary cast with a ferocity that can only be described as beautiful. It’s great that the film has so much to say and concludes with such a satisfactory denouement because honestly, this one does take quite a while to get going. But on its own merits Disciples of Shaolin more than overcomes its leisurely first act to become a formidable Shaw Brothers epic.
Beyond the film itself, you’ve got this expansive package brought to you by 88 Films, in one of their very first releases here in the United States. They’re pulling out all the stops with original artwork, multiple commentary tracks, and expansive liner notes. I bring all this up now in my initial review because this kind of thing really does impact my own assessment of the film itself. I really enjoyed watching Disciples Of Shaolin simply going in relatively cold and largely unfamiliar with the stars and the context of this particular title. But after multiple viewings with commentary tracks and essays from experts in the field, one simply gets more out of the film itself.
Disciples of Shaolin has all the bells and whistles that have long captivated fans of kung fu cinema in general, and Shaw Brothers pictures specifically. So the uninitiated would find much to love here. (On a simple visceral level, watching Alexander Fu Sheng lay waste to dozens of goons whilst impaled by a spear or watching Chi Kuan-Chun crush his enemies’ windpipe and simply walk away without so much as a glance to confirm his kill, would get any action fan hyped). But there’s also much to appease fans like myself, who have dipped more than a toe or two into the Shaw Brothers’ extensive filmography, but still have much to learn and experience. With Chang Cheh directing, Lau Kar-Leung fight coordinating (he would go on to become an influential director in his own right), and the “bright young flame” of star Alexander Fu Sheng, Disciples of Shaolin is a great example of what the Shaw Brothers studio could do.
Between this and The Chinese Boxer, 88 Films have set an extremely high bar for their first releases in the United States and for what they bring to a Shaw Brothers home video roll out. Both of these titles are absolutely packed to the gills with everything a home video aficionado like myself hopes for in a release. You’ve got a beautiful-looking new transfer, updated subtitles (I watched dubbed, which I really only do for kung fu films… it soothes me), and even spectacular new artwork. The packaging is top notch, and the supplemental material is expansive. This is simply “must own” stuff for martial arts cinema fans.
Special Features (as pulled from 88 Films’ website with my thoughts added)
- LIMITED EDITION Slipcase with brand-new artwork from R.P. “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien (Huge fan of the new artwork, & I’ll personally never swap it out for the original).
- Double-Sided A3 Foldout Poster (These are always a nice little addition, showing the attention to detail a distributor is lavishing on a release… though I never hang them up myself).
- Extensive Booklet Notes (Extensive is right. After 2 commentary tracks and all these liner notes, I feel like an expert on this film. It’s not a throwaway booklet, this is top tier stuff):
‘The Visceral Martial Arts Cinema of Chang Cheh’ by Matthew Edwards
‘An Interview With Actor Jamie Luk’ by Matthew Edwards
‘International Bright Young Thing: A look back on The Disciples of Shaolin and its charismatic star Alexander Fu Sheng’ by Andrew Graves
‘Finding Fu Sheng’ by Karl Newton
- Tech Specs: Restored HD Master in 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio, English LPCM Mono, Mandarin LPCM Mono 2.0
- Newly Translated English Subtitles
Audio Commentary with Film journalist and Author Samm Deighan. (This is the second Samm Deighan commentary track I’ve listened to in its entirety after 88 Films’ release of The Chinese Boxer. Deighan is an exemplary listen. Expansively knowledgeable, she provides fascinating historical context around the film, its stars, and its production company; not to mention the stories’ themes and peculiarities. Her commentary enormously enriched my appreciation for the film).
- Audio Commentary with Asian cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. (I’m a pretty big fan of Mike Leeder and follow him on Twitter. He’s got a wealth of knowledge and experience in the Hong Kong film industry and brings a light and humorous approach here).
- Jamie Luk at Shaw Brothers — Interview with Actor / Director Jamie Luk by Frédéric Ambroisine
- Original Trailer
- Reversible sleeve with brand-new artwork from R.P. “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien & Original Hong Kong poster artwork
And I’m Out.
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Disciples Of Shaolin is currently available in the USA and Canada on Blu-ray from 88 Films.