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!
The Boxer From Shantung is just straight diabolical. Chen Kuan-tai is a leading man I hadn’t been acquainted with, but his swagger and simmering rage here are absolutely compelling as he portrays the Shakespearian/Woo-ian tragic hero Ma Yung Chen, or Brother Ma. Having very recently watched the similarly plotted Disciples Of Shaolin, a film released years after this one, but which I happened to see first, I was mentally prepared for a “pride comes before the fall” style tale of a stone cold master ambling into Shanghai from the country without a penny to his name, but with a massive chip on his shoulder to show the world his mettle.
Boxer From Shantung, however, just goes harder than Disciples Of Shaolin. Ma as a central character is dialed up to 11 and Chen Kuan-tai rises to the challenge at every level. Ma is initially incredibly earnest and naive, but his pride and belief in his almost mythical martial arts talent will combine with his wide-eyed ambition to lead him down the tragic path of a crime boss. And while he’ll continue to remember his roots in poverty, that won’t be enough to save him from madness.
This film is simply incredible, and I was THRILLED to learn that the legendary John Woo served as an assistant director to the equally legendary Chang Cheh here. Why was I so thrilled? Because before I knew of Woo’s involvement, it struck me that Boxer From Shantung is a direct ancestor to the “heroic bloodshed” subgenre that Woo helped popularize, and which is one of my very favorite (and most personally formative) subgenres in all of cinema. Melodrama mixes with breathtaking action to tell a heightened tale of epic heroism and heart-wrenching tragedy. The Boxer From Shantung loads Ma’s journey with dozens of thrilling and memorable set pieces, only to culminate in a massive bloodbath for the ages that must run upwards of 20 straight minutes and very clearly inspired Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 climax. (Tarantino owes even more to Shaw Brothers than I knew after these first two entries in Shawscope Vol. 1, which have both been first time watches for me). The Boxer From Shantung immediately shoots up to one of the greatest Shaw Brothers films of all time in my estimation. — Ed Travis
The Boxer from Shantung starts off as a deliberately paced triad thriller as young cocksure fighter Ma Yongzhen (Kuan Tai Chen) comes to Shanghai with dreams of the big time. After crossing paths with one of the two local bosses, the charismatic Tan Si (David Chiang), the two men bond and goals are set. The young man quickly rises up the ranks and is positioned by Tan’s rival Boss Yang (Chiang Nan) to hopefully take out his rival Tan. Unlike King Boxer, where heroic righteousness was the thematic glue holding the narrative together, here it’s a much darker tryst into the underworld and it’s apparent from the first act that this is not going to end well.
The first two acts are a bit light on the action given the film’s 2+ hour runtime, leaning more into criminal intrigue. But just when you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security Ma confronts Yan’s entire ax wielding gang in a tea house and shit promptly gets real. The marathon fight sequence which follows was no doubt the inspiration for House of Blue Leaves battle at the end of Kill Bill, and to be honest Tarantino toned it down a notch for his take. Having never seen this film before I wasn’t ready for the level of insanity that it then proceeded to deal out, as Ma is forced to fight through Yang’s entire gang with an ax firmly embedded in his stomach.
Bleeding out his gut and covered in blood, Ma fights through an entire army as the brawls only get more and more surreal. The pinnacle of this for me, was where Ma literally beats an opponent and picks him up and he begins using him as a blunt instrument to then kill another attacker. I was flat out floored by Boxer from Shantung and if you haven’t seen it, this madness was worth the price of the set alone if you ask me. — Dan Tabor
Chang motherfucking Cheh, baby! Talk about a set that comes out swinging, entry 2 is a rip-roaring gangland epic by way of period martial arts melodrama that just shreds the scenery to pieces — literally! Not only does the tale of the rise of Brother Ma through the local underworld point a straight line to aforementioned action classics from John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, but it also feels like a first pass at a lot of what’s going on in the Andrew Koji-starring Cinemax show Warrior. Kuan-tai Chen tears into the lead roll with real heart and unbelievable hands, making it no surprise that he’d become one of Cheh’s regular players (particularly when the role of folk hero Hung Hsi-kuan needed filling), and it’s largely thanks to his unwavering earnestness that the film’s heroic tragedy works.
One of the elements that most struck me is how deliberate this film is in doling out the action beats. It’s definitely not lacking, but at well over two hours, you can feel him building steadily from a slow burn (with some awesome flare-ups along the way, this is still a Shaw Bros. joint) to an absolute barn-burner of a finale that stands as a premiere example of one-vs-many brawls to this day. Brother Ma’s tragic flaw is his unwavering confidence that he can punch his way out of any situation, and the film is careful about establishing exactly how good he is at this to heighten the blow of when — inevitably — being “the best fighter” just isn’t enough. It’s the sort of story that makes your heart ache at the road the hero goes down, even though it leads to ripe fields of dope butt-kickery. — Brendan Agnew
Boxer from Shantung is a film that’s willing to go to some out-of-the-way places. There’s a romantic subplot that goes nowhere. The two-hour runtime is much longer than your typical action fare. And it’s easy (and expected) to cheer for the protagonist when he’s an honest and upstanding guy, but will you still be on board if he’s… kind of not?
But these very elements are the deliberate and calculated factors of an epic tale of tragic undoing. As the vagrant street fighter Ma makes a name for himself and becomes a champion of the poor in Shanghai, he’s tempted by his success and believes in his own legend, and we get the sense that even though he stands up for the downtrodden, he’s on his way to becoming just another gang boss.
The film has plenty of action spectacle, but excels most in its lopsided (and hugely influential) one-vs-many brawls where Ma faces down an army of opponents, including the blood-soaked finale that brings the house down. — Austin Vashaw
The Boxer from Shantung is one of 3 Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen so far that I gave a perfect 5 star rating. Unsurprisingly, all 3 are directed by the great Chang Cheh, who directed the Venom Mob films — which, to me, are the holy grail of Kung-fu. The opening is fierce and it just builds from there all the way to the insane finale, avoiding ever getting boring despite a runtime over 2 hours. While King Boxer was really fun, this one amps up literally everything… creating a viewing that can only be described as wonderful.
Those of you who don’t know me well may not know that my current podcast venture is called Curtain Jerkers, hosted over at The Farsighted with friend and co-host Doug Tilley. Named after the term for an opening match or wrestler relegated to opening matches, Curtain Jerkers explores films featuring wrestlers, pairing the films with matches from wrestlers’ careers. And, in the case of this Shaw brothers classic, we are treated to a spectacular extended scene featuring NWA and All-Japan great Mario Milano. In the scene, the 6’5 hulking presence destroys a host of martial artist challengers until our hero, the eponymous boxer from Shantung, steps up to the ring. What follows is a beatdown to live in infamy.
This scene and the finale are the highlights for me, but there isn’t a moment in Boxer that doesn’t work for me. Placing this one alongside The Five Venoms and Five Elements Ninjas is high praise and that’s exactly what I’m giving. This is a 5 star Kung-fu classic and watching it with my wife was surely a high point of our week. — Justin Harlan
Last week’s King Boxer was superbly effective in blending martial arts with a simplistic tale. A righteous underdog, good vs evil. The Boxer from Shantung is altogether more morally grey. But despite a grander and darker storyline, and a 2 hour runtime, the film just rips along. A dive into the underbelly of 1930s Shanghai, as Ma Yongzheng (a brooding and nuanced performance from Chen Kuan-Tai) leaves his village behind for the big city, looking to better his lot in life. He falls in with a local gang, where he’s swiftly forced to reveal his rather impressive martial arts skills. This combined with his sense of graft endears him to local boss Tan Si (David Chiang). His rise soon makes him enemies, and his sense of honor among these thieves all the more difficult to maintain.
Despite a narrative that has through lines to American fare such as The Godfather and Scarface, Boxer is undeniably a Shaw Bros. endeavor. Theatricality and bloodshed fused with this enthralling gangster tale. The set pieces throughout are ambitious, and satisfyingly connected to the overarching story, but clearly teasing at something behind held in reserve. The final act is a symphonic display of violence that wouldn’t be out of place in a midnighter slot at a genre film festival. There’s even a grittier side to the martial arts here, not a flowing and graceful exercise, something more down in the mud. A means of survival rather than an art. Also of note is the sumptuous and considered production design that went into depicting Shanghai’s underworld. Some of the symbolism and foreshadowing is deftly done; some, granted, is a little on the nose. But that’s another part of the film’s indelible charm. A cherry on top of this furious blend of violence, stunts, and emotional drama, with a feast of a finale. — Jon Partridge
And We’re Out.
Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video