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!
FEATURED GUEST: Jade Lindley
The moment we are introduced to the Five Shaolin Masters in the opening credits, we are treated to a high-octane opening sequence that is well executed and extremely entertaining. The opening set the right tone for the film, and not only are we seeing a strong display of skill and agility through martial arts, but in true Shaw Bros style, it’s the theatrics that bring it home.
What really works for this film is the opening voice-over which functions like a recap. We know right off the bat where our characters are from the moment we tune in to watch Five Shaolin Masters. The reason it works so well is it allows us to understand a simple story within the first few minutes, as opposed to it being shot on film and taking an hour of screen time. If we had that as an alternative, we definitely wouldn’t have had the pleasure to see the amount of fight sequences that we do. The pacing is the unsung hero for the film. In between each fight, you are given a moment to breathe and take in the rich surroundings, but the second a hand is raised, or one of the masters is being followed by some very suspicious looking folks, you know it’s on.
The last twenty minutes of Five Shaolin Masters is one for the highlight reel. The final act makes me smile and fire up for a few reasons. We get to see multiple styles of martial arts from our characters, some with weapons, and others it’s just bare knuckles. All the while every fight has a serene backdrop setting. Each fight with the five masters all melt into one another, and all I can describe it as is pure beauty caught on film.
I have seen my fair share of the Shaw Bros back catalogue, and it’s hard not to notice how technically they know how to choreograph and shoot a fight sequence; which a lot of mainstream martial arts films do not do today. As a martial arts film fan, you can see the influence Five Shaolin Masters had on this genre for decades to come. If you haven’t seen this one, and you are a martial arts film fan, this is something that should be high up on your watchlist.
I quite liked Five Shaolin Masters. But I do have to say King Boxer and Boxer From Shantung were tough acts to follow, and this was easily my third favorite thus far in the Shawscope Vol. 1 set. Kicking off with the burning and sacking of the Shaolin temple, we’re quickly introduced to the titular masters and we’ll follow them on a quest to get revenge against those who destroyed their temple. Filled with intrigue and espionage, and plenty of training montage that leads to a bloodthirsty conclusion, it’s all quite satisfying. I particularly loved the conceit of our heroes recognizing that they’re not ready for victory, and going into hiding solely to train extensively and prepare for a final showdown. I also enjoy the Shaolin hand signals that helped our heroes rebuild their connections and resources with sympathetic cousins. I’m also beginning to really recognize and care about some of the leads, such as Alexander Fu Sheng (who plays the most youthful and comedic role here, and who shined bright and died young in real life), Ti Lung (who I’m most familiar with as a 1980s heroic bloodshed stalwart, but who apparently was a major martial arts hero long before that), and David Chiang (who also showed up in Shantung and I suspect we’ll see again in this boxed set). There’s even an early appearance from Gordon Liu who will go on to become a major star. So the deeper I dig into the Shaw catalogue, the more I appreciate these stars I hadn’t been familiar with in the past. All the intrigue and training montages lead up to a highly satisfying finale and there’s not much to fault Five Shaolin Masters on, especially under the direction of Shaw top director Chang Cheh. But I did find the single lead characters of King Boxer and Boxer From Shantung to be a little more focused and compelling than when the focus is split between 5 heroes and their various nemeses here. — Ed Travis
Five Shaolin Masters (1974) is the next film on the Shawscope Vol. 1 set and another solid fight flick by Chang Cheh (The Boxer from Shantung — 1972), with choreography by Lau Kar Leung. It’s enjoyable, albeit a bit formulaic by this point in the watch, which I can’t really hold against the film. The Shaolin Temple is burned down by the Manchus and we have five escapees out to get revenge, as they try to track down the spy who enabled them to destroy the temple. When at first they can’t beat the five mercenaries leading the Manchus, they hide away to train their Kung-fu to the next level, in the hopes of getting their vengeance. The ending battle royale does a great job at redeeming these narrative shortcomings as the monks put their lives on the line in the name of avenging their fallen monks. The high points for me were the young punk of the five Chao-Hsing (Fu Sheng) who stole the show with his devil may care attitude, and a young Gordon Liu with hair in his third feature film, who dies rather spectacularly. — Dan Tabor
It says more about the quality of King Boxer & The Boxer From Shantung than the merits of this film that I found Five Shaolin Masters something of the B-side of the group. Exploring the aftermath of the infamous burning of the Shaolin Temple by troops of the Qing dynasty (there are so many movies in this Shaw Bros. semi-franchise, often with the same actors playing the same roles over 3-5 movies), this is a fun “we gotta beef up to kick the asses of the dudes who just kicked our asses” yarn. It never rises above that admittedly solid setup, and a lot of the production seems slightly quicker and cheaper in comparison to other movies in this Shawscope Vol. 1 set.
That said, a “merely solid” Chang Cheh film is better than most martial arts movies you’ll see, and he (along with stalwart collaborator Lau Kar-leung on fight choreography duty) prove that five times over during the film’s climax. It’s also a treat to see details like the Shaolin min hand signals which certainly influenced the Chang Sing gesture in Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, and Cheh’s regulars like Alexander Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, and David Chiang get plenty of chances to strut their stuff. The enemy ranks aren’t as well-defined as the titular Shaolin Masters, but makes great use of longtime Shaw Bros. Heavy Jimmy Wang Lung-wei. I love this dude’s laid back Thicc King energy, and he makes for a great central antagonist.
Five Shaolin Masters may not feel as essential as other absolute pillars from the studio, but it still comes recommended for fans of the genre. — Brendan Agnew
This is another one from the great Chang Cheh… and while not one of his masterpieces, it’s still supremely watchable and highly enjoyable. While Five Shaolin Masters is not amongst the best Shaw films I’ve seen nor amongst Cheh’s top work, it still features the right formula and many of the important staples both of the studio and of Cheh’s filmography.
The cinematography, the color palette, and the overall look of the film are very pleasing to the eye. The soundtrack is exactly what fans of Shaw films would expect. While it doesn’t have any themes that stand out, it’s all very pleasing to the ear and works great to highlight the iconic sound effects of the film’s battles. And, speaking of battles, the action is top notch. In fact, most of the fights are as quality as anything in Cheh’s true classics, but they lack the story and pathos that set his masterworks apart from his others.
That’s where the film doesn’t fully stack up for me: the story. While I’m certainly okay with a film choosing good action over good motivation for the action, I’ve come to expect both from Cheh’s films and this one lacks much of the latter. However, the sheer volume of fights in this film does appease the ADHD film viewer inside of me that like faster pacing and doesn’t want too much talking… so it wasn’t fully unwelcome in that regard.
All said and done, it’s my least favorite film of the 3 we’ve tackled here so far, yet it’s still fantastic. This speaks to the sheer awesomeness of this box set and the Shaw collection as a whole. Bonus for me, I picked up at least one sound clip in this one that I recognized from a Wu-Tang album, which is always fun when watching old Kung-fu! — Justin Harlan
There’s something refreshingly no-nonsense about the opening of Five Shaolin Masters. Not just with a voiceover that harkens back to a 70s TV show “last time” recap, allowing the film to get down to business, but a clear act that invests you, and supports the avenging angle that propels the film along. Five titular characters who set out to exact justice upon some miscreants for the destruction of their temple. But, these survivors, apprentices of their order, are not quite ready to confront their nemeses quite yet, and must endure a year of rigorous training to prepare their bodies, skills, and their chi, for a confrontation. Cue a mix of montages, maneuverings, and muscle, as the Five Shaolin Masters rise to the occasion.
While the opening suggests there is plenty to be getting on with, the reality is that the film is on the thinner side in terms of story and character development. Compared to the first two films in the Shawscope Vol. 1 presentation anyway. While there is a joy to be had from the combined efforts of this fantastic five in the fight sequences, the film lacks the focus that comes with having a central protagonist. Energy comes in spurts, as the film is structured to deliver increasingly challenging (and impressive) set pieces, interspersed with periods where it feels intended to be meditative, but instead comes across as just a little sparse. The stacked finale is worth the wait, but easily packs more of a punch than anything in the buildup. Despite this, Five Shaolin Masters maintains that endearing and stirring Shaw Brothers feel, with a quintessential pizazz to the direction, performances, and production design. Action choreography is not just top notch, but shot well too. Precise, patient work that shows off the effort and skill put into the action. It feels like less of a defining feature for the studio, but is undeniably a damn fun time. — Jon Partridge
And We’re Out.
Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video