SHAWSCOPE VOL. 1: DIRTY HO 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:

Portending the next generation of martial arts cinema more thoroughly than anything I’ve seen in any other Shaw Brothers film, Dirty Ho is a remarkable way to close out this curated box set and this column we’ve been writing here at Cinapse. I personally came into this project fairly well versed in the Hong Kong and martial arts cinema of the 1990s and beyond, having grown up on John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films and Jackie Chan’s death-defying antics as each of them spilled over into America and created a global phenomenon. I was less familiar with the Shaw Brother cannon, but very much primed to dig in and fall in love.

1979’s Dirty Ho, from the legendary filmmaker Lau Kar Leung, really does feel like a passing of the baton from the impressive choreography of Shaw’s 1960s-1970s output to a new level of balletic insanity that Leung himself would nurture through rising talents like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung in the following decades. Starring the truly breathtaking Gordon Liu and a less well known Wong Yue (not to be confused with Wang Yu), Dirty Ho morphs from comedy to palace intrigue to full-on martial arts mayhem. And while I’ve traditionally not felt that Chinese comedic sensibilities translate all that well to my own comedic sensibilities, there’s a knowing cleverness here on the part of Gordon Liu’s businessman character Wang Tsun Hsin (a secret identity) that I find wry if not laugh out loud funny. It’s unclear why Liu’s character takes a liking to the titular young “Dirty” Ho Jen, but he does… and their eventual Master/Student relationship proves salvific for Liu’s 11th Prince as the duo elude constant assassination attempts on their journey back to the castle of the Emperor for the 11th Prince’s potential coronation. Oddly the film ends before we know who will succeed the Emperor and in that regard Dirty Ho seems to be implying that its tale is all about the journey and not about the destination.

But regardless of all that, Wang Tsun Hsin, early on, poisons Ho with an infected wound on his forehead and somewhat “conscripts” the young man by forcing him to stick with him to receive an antidote. Soon Wang Tsun Hsin is himself stabbed in the leg whilst warding off an assassination attempt. So soon you have a “crippled” master and a wounded apprentice who are bonded together on a life-threatening road trip to return to the palace, and the resulting action sequences and choreography are some of the very best in any of the Shaw Brothers films I’ve seen. Gordon Liu and Wong Yue are squaring off against a villainous Lo Lieh and their dance-like fights are a sight to behold. 11th Prince and Ho have developed this “co-dependent” fighting style that is a feat of choreography that is just astounding. Dirty Ho marks an incredible high on which to wrap up Arrow’s Shawscope Volume 1 box set and our team coverage of this amazing release.— Ed Travis

Dan Tabor:

All roads have led us here…. to Lau Kar-leung’s wonderfully weird Dirty Ho.

I feel like this box set has been like an exquisite 12 course meal that has given us the tools to properly understand and appreciate this final film that is equal parts comedy, kung-fu, friendship and righteousness – these are themes and tropes that have echoed through every film so far on the set. I just love Gordon Liu here as the eccentric 11th son of the emperor who wants not to be king, but just to collect art, drink wine and practice kung-fu. This is much to the chagrin of his other 13 brothers who want him dead rather than named his father’s successor. The film’s convoluted and bizarre plot of how he gains a disciple, only to hide his kung-fu skill from him, are almost absurd as the fights where both men attempt to hide their battle from those around them. The all too groovy soundtrack only cements the laid back vibe of the film; definitely was a great way to finish the set. I simply loved Dirty Ho. It’s an odd duck no doubt, but a breezy and frothy one that allows Liu to show his comedic chops and train his own student for once. — Dan Tabor

Justin Harlan

When I watched a ton of Kung Fu in the early pandemic, Dirty Ho was by far my least favorite Shaw film. As a film that was clearly one of the most intentional attempts at comedy among the Shaw films I watched through, literally none of the humor landed for me and the film’s action sequences fell flat. I was surprised to hear earlier this week that Ed really enjoyed it, so I tried to go in with a clear heart and open mind.

Whether this film remains a lower tier Shaw film for me because of the film itself, my own fatigue, or simply wanting to disagree with Ed, I’m not sure… but it’s still not really for me. Yet, I can definitely note that there are elements that hit a bit better this go around than the first.

The opening credits made me chuckle and for that I was grateful. Albeit, the humor in the rest of the film still didn’t land for me at all. This could be a lack of cultural understanding, I’ll surely admit, but there are few funny, or even all that fun, moments for me.

While the number of great action scenes feels few for me as well, there are a few that stand out and did impress me. This is an improvement from what I recalled of my first watch.

And, it’s notable that this film looks brilliant on the new Blu. The colors and cinematography are impressive, even stunning at times. I’m fact, it was easily among the best looking films in a set of extremely great looking films, so I must commend both the original film team and the restoration team for that.

In short, there are certainly some positives to take away from this viewing, but it’s still not among my favorites of the set… which is okay as the set is, after all, full of banger after banger. Maybe one day it’ll become something I can truly appreciate. For now, I’ll just take solace in the fact that it took a solid step up from my first viewing of it to this one. — Justin Harlan

Brendan Agnew

While they’ll always be remembered for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, I love that this is the Gordon Liu/Lau Kar-Leung film that closes out this dynamite box. Dirty Ho is a puckish delight, not exactly a refutation of Lau Kar-Leung’s more serious early work, but very much a light and mischievous side of the filmmaker’s relationship with martial arts. Gordon Liu gets to play the other side of the coin from his fiery prodigy roles as a hedonistic prince trying to keep both his identity and his martial arts prowess on the down-low, and demonstrates a sense of comedic timing that deftly compliments his fighting capabilities.

While the story of Prince Wang and his blockheaded-but-goodhearted apprentice Ho and the palace intrigue, assassination attempts, and adaptational fighting methods that they get caught up in is engaging in its own right (especially the easy chemistry the leads share in the central master/teacher relationship), the ludicrously complex fight sequences are the reason to come back to this one multiple times. Imagine if Jackie Chan were doing one of his prop fights while trying to look like he was just enjoying his tea, and you’ll have an idea of both the complex choreography involved as well as the high potential for physical comedy. The “attempting to kick the shit outta each other while tryna just look like two dudes enjoying art so we don’t make a scene” gag gets pushed just far enough before everyone really puts their back into it for the Act 3 blow-out. The film is replete with insane acrobatics and deft camera work, but the final half-hour is a literal gauntlet of action that any “serious” kung fu movie would kill to claim.

Dirty Ho makes a perfect digestif to Volume 1 of the Shawscope Set, but wouldn’t be a bad way to kick it off either if you feel like going out of order. You should seek it out either way, because it’s not quite like anything you’ve likely seen. — Brendan Agnew

And We’re Out.

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

Further Reading:

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