SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: CHINATOWN KID 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!

Austin Vashaw:

While its plot is familiar (mirroring several elements of Boxer From Shantung, for example), Chinatown Kid is fairly unique among the Shaw library, trading the usual Chinese period settings for contemporary Hong Kong and San Francisco, and squeezing a surprisingly epic crime saga in its 2-hour runtime. While I’m sure most of the film was shot on stages, the various establishing location shots are pleasing to watch and provide some grounded historical (by modern standards) charm.

The film might crush under the darkness of its story of a morally idealistic young immigrant being drawn into a life of crime, if not for the B-plot of his friend, another Chinese young man who has his own struggles, unfolding in parallel and giving balance and heart to the overall narrative.

With its unusual approach and several cast members that will become part of the Venom Mob cycle of films, Chinatown Kid is a standout from the Shaw martial arts catalogue.

Humorous side note, the worst part of any martial arts film is when the British actors show up, especially if they’re A) speaking Chinese dubbed back into English, or B) playing Americans.— Austin Vashaw

Dan Tabor

Chinatown Kid operates both as a remake of The Boxer From Shantung and also as a pulpy cautionary tale, warning those in China about the dangers that await them in America.

It’s through our fresh off the boat martial artist Tan Tung (Alexander Fu Sheng) that we experience funky 70s San Francisco, after his bravado gets him in hot water with the local street gangs in Hong Kong and he is forced to flee the city. The film has some intriguing subtext about immigration as well, since part of the reason Tan Tung is continually regulated to the seedier parts of society is his undocumented status both in Hong Kong, and America. This fascinating, yet brief, look at undocumented workers in this film is something that is still very much part of the Chinese American experience, as workers are forced into almost an indentured servitude by their employers who provide them with shelter along with a meager means to support their families. Tan Tung’s status basically narrows the choices for him when he loses both his job AND home at a Chinese restaurant and quickly resorts to his fists to put a roof over his head.

Of course he rises to the top, but we all know where this is going. I found the more modern setting super refreshing and while the third act here doesn’t get close to the dizzying heights of Boxer, it’s still one of my favorite first time viewings on the set. — Dan Tabor

Brendan Agnew:

Alexander Fu Sheng gets to really stretch his legs in this deliberately paced but still action-heavy crime drama, focusing on Tan Tung (Fu Sheng), an illegal immigrant from Hong Kong, and his run-ins with various other immigrants (on both sides of the law) as he tries to make it in America. There’s definite similarities to Cheh’s The Boxer From Shantung here, but The Chinatown Kid gets to use its San Francisco setting to put the lie to the promise of the “American Dream” as Tung is consistently screwed over by locals in Chinatown and the white power structures alike.

The film also spends a lot of time on Yan Chien-wen (Sun Chien), the morally upright college student who gets positioned as the bumbling street fighter Tung’s opposite number /eventual partner. There’s a great deal of cutting between narratives as characters make their way to San Francisco, but it gives us a good grounding in their respective priorities and ideals as well as their backgrounds, with Cheh again using these threads to create a tale spanning years and continents that feels like an epic even at under 2 hours.

However, Cheh never skimps on the action, especially since he’s once again dealing with a hotheaded young newcomer who solves every problem with his fists. The film takes a similar tragic path to Shantung, but in almost a cynical ’70s American cinema sort of way rather than the operatic tones he hit before.

(Based on the 115 minute International Version — the 90 minute theatrical cut is also on the disc) — Brendan Agnew

Ed Travis:

If you’d asked me six months ago, I would not have been able to tell you who Alexander Fu Sheng was or pick him out of a lineup. While I’ve enjoyed kung fu movies mostly my whole life, Fu Sheng was just a little bit deeper of a cut than I’d really ever experienced. Yet somehow, this has become the year of Fu Sheng for me. While we’re going through these Arrow Video selections from the Shawscope Volume 1 set here, many physical media releasing companies are jumping on the Shaw Brothers catalog, and I checked out 88 Films’ release of Disciples Of Shaolin and got a bit of a crash course on the brightly shining, gone-too-soon young leading man. If I recall correctly, Alexander Fu Sheng died in a car accident and never even lived into his 30s. So it’s kind of incredible that he left behind some 40+ acting credits, and appeared in some of what many consider to be the greatest martial arts films of all time. Never attaining the international recognition that Bruce Lee did, Fu Sheng has those qualities like Bruce Lee or James Dean in that his youthfulness will live forever on film as new generations discover his work, but the tragedy of a life cut short will always linger. Having now seen at least half a dozen of his films, Chinatown Kid really stands out as being a contemporary-set picture. It’s quite jarring (and I must say exciting as someone who grew up idolizing John Woo and heroic bloodshed films) to see all these kung fu stars pumping shotguns and blowing each other away. It’s also disorienting to have watched the stone cold martial arts masterpiece Boxer From Shantung so recently (just a few weeks ago for this very column), and to see it more or less remade with Fu Sheng coming to America and utilizing his stunning martial arts prowess to rise rapidly through the ranks of the underworld, at the cost of his soul. Something about this kind of tragic rise and fall gangster narrative really speaks to me.

I’ve been reading the book These Fists Break Bricks, an exploration of how kung fu cinema impacted America, and it seems stories like Chinatown Kid, where a young man experiences oppression and poverty and is almost forced to navigate the criminal underworld in order to survive, really spoke to America’s young Black and Latino populations who were themselves feeling the sting of a system that actively tries to keep them out of it. I can see and appreciate that connection and while I come from a place of privilege, I love and appreciate righteous anger on screen and really enjoyed Fu Sheng’s most mature and heartbreaking work I’ve seen to date in Chinatown Kid. — Ed Travis

And We’re Out.

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

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