SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: SHAOLIN TEMPLE Cinapse Roundtable Reviews

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!

Ed Travis:

My understanding is that Shaw Brothers studio has a well known and somewhat unique “franchise” within their oeuvre known as the “Shaolin Cycle”. Loosely connected only by theme and studio, these are a host of films simply told in and around the famous Shaolin temple of history. I’ve personally been well acquainted with 36th Chamber Of Shaolin for a long while, so even though the breadth of my Shaw Brothers knowledge has been minimal until diving into this new Shawscope set, the vibe of this Shaolin Cycle is nevertheless familiar to me, and highly welcomed. Five Shaolin Masters and this week’s film, Shaolin Temple, come together on a single Blu-ray in this Arrow Video box set we’re working through, and interestingly, these two entries in the Shaolin Cycle feel as though they could almost be continuous stories, with the events of Shaolin Temple leading right up to those of Five Shaolin Masters. And yet, they’re not intended as such, and feature some of the same actors playing entirely different parts. But where Five Shaolin Masters begins as the Shaolin temple was burned, and follows escaped students who get their sweet revenge on their betrayer after longsuffering and espionage, Shaolin Temple works a little bit more for me by taking place inside the temple and leading up to the tragic destruction. Maybe it’s because of my long-held love for 36th Chamber and so many other martial arts films, but I just find the setting of the temple itself to be a cinematic comfort food. I’m endlessly interested to see martial arts masters training up younger disciples. In Shaolin Temple we follow a couple of different waves of young men who desperately grovel outside the gates of the temple, begging to be admitted. After inhuman levels of dedication, they’re eventually brought into the temple where they’re subjected to an array of domestic tasks for a period of years. The Karate Kid films almost certainly took inspiration from Shaolin temple films, with Shaolin masters being the first to assign training regimen similar to “wax on, wax off”. Inevitably as our young devotees surrender their egos and master their domestic tasks, they understand that they’re now masters of some specialty martial art. All this comes to a head when a traitor in their midst foments an attack on the temple and our heroes are able to put up a valiant fight, even if that results in their scattering and the burning of the temple, much like the beginning of Five Shaolin Masters. Where Five Shaolin Masters felt like it suffered, for me, due to lack of a main central character to root for, Shaolin Temple doesn’t suffer in the same way because even though there are ostensibly even MORE characters to follow here, the temple itself is our beloved main character for whom we root and ultimately mourn when it is destroyed. — Ed Travis

Dan Tabor:

I really wish I had watched Shaolin Temple (1976) BEFORE Five Shaolin Masters (1974), because it felt like the original concept was a prequel made to capitalize on the previous film’s success. Also directed by Chang Cheh, the film stars some of the same actors, featuring the events that transpired before the events of the previous film. If there was a Shaw Brothers Cinematic Universe this would most definitely be retconned into being the film you see before you watch Five Shaolin Masters.

Most surprising to me was the scene stealing young punk of Masters, Fu Sheng, returns as another devil may care recruit who comes to the temple looking for the tool to exact his vengeance. The film transpires right before the fall of the Shaolin Temple as the Abbot, realizing their days are numbered, decides to take in more students to help spread the ways of Shaolin Kung-fu. The film focuses on a group of new disciples using a trope we are well acquainted with at this point, in what are thought to be their menial daily tasks assigned by the monks turn out to be specialized training for each of our reluctant heroes. This manages to prepare our five Shaolin masters for when the Manchus descend on the temple in a gory spectacle to conclude the film.

Chang Cheh is once again in the director seat and thematically digs into the brotherhood of these new recruits at the temple and that bond that is forged as they learn Shaolin Kung-fu, but from an outsider’s perspective. This piece allows the audience a bit more throughway into these new monks who may not be as pure of heart or righteous as some Shaw Brothers heroes. In fact two of our primary protagonists almost immediately jump ship as soon as their training is nearing completion to go and use their new skills to kill their adversaries and come back to the temple. It’s this piece I found the most interesting — to get a bit into the psychology of this training and the brotherhood it creates. — Dan Tabor

Brendan Agnew:

This is one of the films that convinced me to buy the set, and a firm favorite among Chang Cheh’s considerable filmography. As Ed noted above, the Shaolin Temple Cycle (with its betrayal and destruction, and various quests for revenge or to continue its teachings) is a very deep well in the Shaw Bros. production history. However, this feels like a real punctuation point in that mini-franchise, with an absolute murderer’s row of familiar faces and delightful new blood.

Shaolin Temple takes an ensemble approach to the same structure of “watch hero get smacked across the face metaphorically and physically until he learns how to whip wholesale ass” that Lau Kar-leung’s legendary 36th Chamber Of Shaolin would implement. The film rations out its 2 hours carefully so you spend a little time with everyone, and not only get to know and like the characters, but appreciate their evolving dynamics as new faces arrive at the temple. Following not only the same characters from the preceding Five Shaolin Masters (many played by the same actors) as well as folk heroes Fang Shih-yu, Hu Hui-chen, and Hung Hsi-kuan, Chang Cheh paints an epic of training, refuge, and desperate defense that recalls the tragic heroism of stories like the fall of the Alamo or the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. There’s fun palace intrigue style power grabs, non-conventional teaching sequences, personal grudges, bizarre defense systems (I love Wooden Man Alley so much), and enough Kicking People in the Face to shake a whole forest at.

But what makes Shaolin Temple really land is how it waves its Roland Emmerich-sized cast all into the martial defense and spiritual survival of the temple itself. All these micro-narratives converge into something grand and genuinely epic-feeling, culminating in our heroes’ desperate refusal to give up even in the face of calamitous destruction. — Brendan Agnew

Justin Harlan:

While this pseudo prequel to last week’s Five Shaolin Masters felt a bit stronger, it still can’t hold a candle to Chang Cheh’s top work. Nonetheless, it’s a truly enjoyable film overall.

One of my favorite things about this film is that it features a few of the actors that would later go on to become the Venom Mob. While these familiar faces aren’t all prominent members of the story here, seeing them brings great joy, as a huge fan of all things Venom Mob.

Additionally, the female monk in this film is a nice touch that feels a bit unique in my Kung-fu film experience. Her monologue is especially welcome, as it feels different from other monologues in both this film and the Kung-fu world at large.

Watching some of these earlier Cheh films really excites me for upcoming rewatches of Venoms and Avengers. And seeing them with such a pristine restored look and sound is a huge plus. — Justin Harlan

And We’re Out.

Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video

Further Reading:

Previous post The Definitive, Uncontestable Ranking of Every Pixar Movie (Part 1)
Next post Criterion Review: LOVE AFFAIR (1939)