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!
Honored Guest Jade Lindley:
Every Shaw Bros film, will always bring a sense of theatre, regardless of the themes and genres it conveys to us on screen. From One-Armed Swordsman, Human Lanterns and The Oily Maniac, we have seen how wonderfully that sense of theatre translates. Executioners From Shaolin is no exception to this.This film really focuses on the theme of family throughout.
Hung Hsi-Kuan (Kuan Tai Chen) and Fang Yung-Chun (Lily Li) are a couple who possess two fighting styles; Tiger Style and Crane Style. Despite their differences in style, we see a relationship that continues to blossom with marriage as well as having their own son Wen-Ting (Yue Wong). In a lot of Shaw Bros films, there is discussion of family honour, however, in Executioners From Shaolin, it’s a little different. It feels a little lighter and fun; as weird as it is to say, it has just a slight romantic-comedy vibe. Even though our characters are living what would be considered a normal family life in the Shaw Bros universe; they manage to bring the theatrical stage to the audience. The shifts in moods and performances all melt into one another perfectly. And the family dynamic and love they have for one another is superbly and strategically woven through the integral importance that martial arts has in this film. Despite all of this being such a heavy focus, especially in the second act, there are still the common plot points that we are used to seeing in a lot of Shaw Bros films, e.g. trying to overthrow a tyrannical government and fighting against what is morally corrupt.
I don’t want to alienate potential viewers of the film because there is such a huge focus on the family aspect. However, for the end pay-off, I think it’s necessary. Executioners From Shaolin is definitely one of the more slow paced films in the Shaw Bros back catalogue, but in saying that, it brings the emotional depth in spades. Despite all of the family focus, the fights we do get to see are absolutely phenomenal. The opening credit fight sequence that is filmed on a soundstage with red mood lighting really sets the tone. We are also treated to a beautifully controlled fight in the first ten minutes and I gotta say, Tung Chien-Chin (Gordon Liu) steals the show! — Jade Lindley
It’s been almost seven years since we previously covered this film on our old Two Cents column, and I was pretty game to give it a second viewing. Frankly I didn’t remember much, and it was cool to see it fresh again. I forgot how great Gordon Liu’s early show-stealing role is, and how the film surprisingly layers its tale into a two-decade family saga, eventually winding its way to a new protagonist who wasn’t even born at the film’s inciting events.
I am getting something of a chuckle out of reading our collective Two Cents thoughts on Bai Mei’s famously weaponized crotch. In reading our reviews, this phenomenon was contradictively described by the gang as “trademark mandibled genitalia”, “testicle-centric warfare”, and “retracting penis”. Interestingly, no one voiced the more reasonable theory that he was simply a eunuch, proving that it actually leaves a lot to the imagination and none of us actually quite understands just what exactly is going on down there – just that if you try to kick him in the nuts, you might lose a foot. (I’ll go ahead and throw out another wild but considered theory of vagina dentata – in seriousness, given that there seems to be a deliberate element of gender-bending in the film with Wen-Ding’s feminine appearance, this might tie into it as well).
On this rewatch, I did notice something I hadn’t realized before – there’s a great artfulness to the transitions in this film, moving the camera through space or showing the passage of time in unique ways, particularly in showing how Wen-Ding ages from an infant to a young man.
Some contrivances in the narrative that frustrated me before still remain flawed, but overall I enjoyed this even more on the second viewing. — Austin Vashaw
Easily one of my favorite Shaw Films, Executioners From Shaolin is yet another in the Shaw Brothers’ Shaolin Cycle i.e., the Shaolin temple is burned down and the narrative here is again tasked with the aftermath and a monk’s quest for vengeance. But what this film does much differently is not only an encyclopedia worth of subtext about sexual identities, but the scope and heart of its story, which ecompasses not only a charming love story between two fighters, Hsi-Kuan (Kuan Tai Chen) and Wing Chun (Lily Li), but two generations of kung-fu masters looking to take down the merciless, white haired eunuch Pai Mei (in his first cinematic appearance).
The courtship between the two masters, of different disciplines, tiger style (male) and crane style (female) , and how son Wen-Ding (Yue Wong) is ignored, thanks to his father’s obsession with avenging his Shaolin brothers, adds a layer of melancholy and longing to this story. Wen-Ding spends the film watching his father who is too busy to train him in tiger style, consumed with beating the near invincible eunuch rather than giving his son the attention he deserves. Instead Wen-Ding learns the more feminine crane style from his mother, and spends the film being berated by his friends for his choice in martial arts. Executioners has some thought provoking things to say about gender roles in martial arts cinema, since Wen-Ding is presented as more effeminate because of this choice to learn his mother’s style, but that doesn’t make him less capable in that final reel.
See, it’s after his father’s final failure and departure from the narrative that it’s then up to Wen-Ding to take up his father’s mantle, and learn his tiger style alone, and take on Pai Mei — who is the most untrustworthy of all, because he has been rendered genderless. But since the tiger style manual is torn and his father is not there, he learns it his own way, sort of making a hodgepodge of two different styles. That surprisingly is the key to taking down Pai Mei: this mix of both male and female, tiger and crane, which are more powerful together. It’s a message you don’t expect in this testosterone drenched genre, and one that is more bittersweet than anything seen yet in the set. It’s a film that, through kung-fu, Chia-Liang Liu explores love, gender and loss in a way that is playful as it is profound.— Dan Tabor
I first watched this gem when it was chosen for Two Cents a few years back. As this was before my Kung Fu obsession during the pandemic, I’m not sure I appreciated it then nearly as much as I do now. It also predates my joining Letterboxd, so I can only rely on my memory in recalling my appreciation for the film.
While my recollection was minimal before the rewatch, my Two Cents entry does highlight several of the same sequences that I found to be the standouts on this go, as well. The opening sequence, the arrow kill, and Ying Chun‘s denial of sex through use of her skill and prowess remain a few of my favorite scenes. Yet, on this go around, the humor of these and several other scenes are even more striking than before.
With far more serious entries surrounding this one, the humorous tone really jumps out. And, as I believe I’ve mentioned already in this project, I’m a huge Wu-Tang fan… so hearing the “Tiger Style” sound clip used at the start of “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing to Fuck With” in this film is a huge moment for me, personally.
For the humor, the crotch fighting, Yin Chun’s badassery, and the Wu-Tang association, Executioners is undoubtedly a high point in this set thus far… along with The Boxer from Shantung, of course. — Justin Harlan
There’s this older British gentleman named Tony Rayns who serves as the Hong Kong film expert in a lot of these Arrow Video documentaries on this set and I get a kick out of him. His knowledge about this era seems inexhaustible, and his insights illuminating. I’d seen very few films on this set prior to this column, but it turns out the Cinapse team had covered Executioners From Shaolin in our Two Cents roundtable reviews column some seven years ago. At the time I was somewhat obsessed with both the connection between this film’s villain Bai Mei and Kill Bill’s wicked priest Pai Mei, as well as said priest’s “manibled genitalia”. Well, this kindly British gentleman apparently has a more insightful take on all the genitalia stuff going on in Lau Kar Leung’s film. Apparently there’s a longstanding tradition in martial arts cinema of a villainous and powerful eunuch, who’s able to store up power in the region of their body where their sex organs once resided. (This trope also appears in the excellent Tai Chi Master from the ‘90s). And thus, Executioners’ plotline of a wicked priest wiping out the Shaolin order and a lone hero spending his life training to defeat said priest, only to be bested and then for his own offspring to use the power of the melding of his family’s differing styles to defeat the eunuch becomes an exploration of sexuality and family and the various strengths and weaknesses of these differing experiences of life. I’d honestly missed all that when Lo Lieh’s priest just straight traps dudes with his crotch and murders them on screen. No doubt the evil priest is my favorite thing about this film but this revisit was all the more enjoyable seeing this multigenerational revenge tale make a little more thematic sense than I had been able to draw out of it on my own without an experts’ contextual insight. — Ed Travis
And We’re Out.
Shawscope Volume 1 is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video