The team & guests cover Shaw Brothers classics from Arrow Video’s Blu-ray box set!
Cinapse has always been, and will always be, about cinematic discovery and discussion. Our Shawscope Volume One: Round Table Reviews column is, therefore, a watch project allowing our team, and guests, to work our way through this phenomenal 12 film Blu-ray box set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews from a variety of writers are designed to give quick glimpses of our thoughts on all of these films as we discover them for ourselves. Some of us are experts and some of us are new to the world of Shaw Brothers studio and kung fu cinema in general. All of us are excited for the adventure.
The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. But with the vast output they generated, it can be hard for modern audiences to wade into their catalogue and find the diamonds in the rough. Fortunately, Arrow Video has curated their first Volume of 12 titles; a phenomenal way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond just capsule reviews, our team will also offer thoughts on the curation of the set and bonus features found within. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out to us on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own contributions!
King Boxer has it all when it comes to beloved kung fu cinema tropes. You’ve got a young hero (the handsome and compelling Lo Lieh as Chi-Hao) humbly tasked with the most menial of chores by his martial arts master, only to montage his way into greatness through training. Then you get ANOTHER level unlocked when the hero’s hands are broken and he must bounce back via healing montage. THEN you’ve got a mildly supernatural component with our hero learning the Iron Palm technique entrusted to him by his master and wielded despite his injuries. And THEN you’ve got a martial arts tournament at the end to wash down all the awesome you’ve already been served throughout. It’s a grab bag of martial arts madness that’s somehow also held together with a pretty dramatically satisfying character arc as well, something not all kung fu films can boast. With a hero you can genuinely root for, murdered masters leading to righteous revenge, plenty of plucked out eyeballs set to the very same alarming sound effect Tarantino borrowed to great effect in Kill Bill, and more, King Boxer is just plain cool as hell, and a fantastic way to kick off this Shawscope Vol. 1 watch project.
Digging into Arrow’s Shaw Brothers Box Set, I started off at the beginning with Disc 1, and their new 2K restoration of King Boxer or The Five Fingers of Death, as it was primarily known in the US. I actually owned a 16mm print of the TV trailer, which I can still quote verbatim, that is included here on this set. I hadn’t seen this film since the 80s on Black Belt Theater, which aired saturday afternoons on PHL17. But seeing this new UNCUT presentation — with a much more robust film vocabulary, helped me appreciate not only how Hong Kong cinema got to this particular point, but how many have cribbed from this action masterwork since. Not only does the film hold up well, as it hits the requisite action beats, punctuated with some truly brutal fights, it also has some surprisingly engaging performances. That being said I couldn’t help but notice a borrowed shot here, a stolen music cue there; it’s easy to see the DNA of this film in so many others, and how it has been so influential in propelling the stateside Kung-Fu movie phenomenon.
King Boxer is about as perfect a way to kick off this set as you could ask for. I’m not nearly as familiar with director Jeong Chang-Hwa as I am with other Shaw Bros. stalwarts like Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh, so filling in this sizable genre gap was an absolute treat. King Boxer / Five Fingers of Death is like 3 different material arts movies in one, and all of them whip unholy amounts of ass. In addition to being a variable cavalcade of “oh, that’s where so-and-so borrowed thus-and-such from” for longtime fans of the genre, it’s an enthralling action saga (albeit a svelte one at 104 minutes) with a powerhouse performance even by Lo Lieh’s standards.
Such a clear milestone of the genre gets genuine capital-letter Presentation in this set, from the gorgeous retro artwork to the sharp restoration. It feels like an ideal jumping on point for newer fans as well as being an evergreen classic on its own terms. Those iconic sirens and familiar poppin’ sound effects combine with Chang-Hwa’s deft visuals to create something that’s still vital and unique even 50 years and thrice as many imitators later.
Even as someone who considers myself a Shaw Bros fan, when it comes to the studio’s huge output, even if pared down to just the martial arts films, I’ve only scratched the surface. Case in point, with Arrow’s new Shawscope box set, I’ve seen less than half of the dozen included titles. Korean director Jeong Chang-wha’s brutal and seminal King Boxer, though, is a familiar favorite. It has a lot of traditional kung fu subplots — rival fighting schools, an upcoming tournament, and a quiet young hero standing up to bullies, avenging his masters, in a love triangle with affections for two girls. But the film’s heavy stylization imbues it with a ton of character, with close-ups on Lo Lieh’s eyes to show his feelings, his orange glowing fists illustrating a secret kung fu method, and a wailing siren (from Quincy Jones’ Ironside theme) that signals when shit’s about to go down. Fans of Kill Bill, of course, will recognize some of these elements, along with the eye-plucking incidents, borrowed and homaged from this movie. Rewatching this martial arts favorite is a perfect way to jump into this box set and get excited for the rest of the films.
Early in this pandemic era, my wife (who is planning to hop in on at least a few of these Shaw reviews with me) and I dove head first into the works of Kung-fu — an admitted blindspot for both of us. Of course, the best films in the genre tend to be the Shaw films. And, while not a Venom Mob film (which are absolute peak entries in the Shaw catalog), King Boxer is certainly among the more solid and fun Kung-fu films of the classic era. Thus, it’s a great place to kick off the box set and our look at the set.
As my brethren and sistren in arms here at Cinapse have most certainly highlighted the actual film, I wanted to highlight the extra features on this particular disc. It’s jam packed (as is the entire set, of course) with commentaries, new and old interviews, alternate credits, and my personal favorite feature, documentary Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu. This first part of a 3 part series was fascinating and new to me, even if originally put together nearly 20 years ago. Featuring big name talking heads and tons of interesting stories, it’s a must for the Shaw fan.
I’ll raise my hand and officially admit I’m popping my Shaw Bros. cherry with this escapade. I thought I was jazzed to start, and after King Boxer, my enthusiasm has soared. King Boxer, aka Five Fingers of Death (on top of laying down a template for a golden age from the studio), feels like the cumulation of efforts to refine and distill the genre, while maintaining plenty of tradition. The visual composition and literal lifting of musical cues (hello James Bond) also feels like an opening up of the film to the west. It feels like the seed of many films like Rocky or The Karate Kid began with King Boxer, along with more obvious homages to the film being evident in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World.
Appealing in its simplicity, a classic underdog tale, Chih Hao (Lo Lieh) seeks to master his fighting skills to avenge his loved ones against a thoroughly disreputable crew in a martial arts tournament. Good vs evil, the righteous vs the unjust. Being on the right side of a moral clash always makes the violence being meted out all the more satisfying. Action wise, the calm and mesmerizing movements of wuxia morph into something far more explosive. Intense action, shot and shown with clarity and flow, and just the right amount of over the top, artistic flourish. The violence is notably brutal at times, but feel like extensions of the narrative, adding a poetic or karmic layer to an assault. What really elevates the affair is how much the film is stacked with memorable characters. Superbly cast, committed, and elevating the drama and adding a theatricality that complements the action. King Boxer is a bloody, brutal, straight up banger. A perfect way to kick start Arrow’s Shawscope Vol. 1.
And We’re Out.
Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video