Cinapse is all about cinematic discovery. This Shawscope Volume 2 column is, therefore, a watch project for our team, and guests, to work through this phenomenal set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews are designed to give glimpses of our thoughts as we discover these films for ourselves. Some are kung fu cinema experts, some less so; all 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. Arrow Video has curated a second volume of titles; an intentional way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond capsule reviews, our team also offers thoughts on the set curation and bonus features. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own
The overall premise of my approach to Shawscope Vol. 1 and our roundtable reviews was that, despite being a lifelong action and martial arts movie fan, I was pretty green when it came to Shaw Brothers classics. That’s where I was coming from a dozen or so films ago. Now, after working through the entire Volume 1 and digging into all those bonus features, etc… I’m decently well versed in the films and the studio that produced them. Lau Kar Leung happened to be a talent I was aware of before digging into these films, thanks to his presence in Drunken Master II and other films that were more contemporary to my upbringing. The man is an immense talent and I had no idea he had such deep roots in Shaw Brothers classics until undertaking this adventure. Directing and starring here, our guy wears several hats and in the end comes away with a film that is memorable but frustrating. Many of these Shaw films require our heroes to start out incredibly dumb or unlikeable or flawed so that they can level up their training and become masters by the end. This is the case here when Lau Kar Leung’s character feels the need to show off to a local villain and his actions result in the sexual slavery of his sister and the ruining of his own hands (classic). He believes his sister is dead and lives out a sad life until he trains up a disciple named Monkey (Hsiau Hou). Soon Master and Monkey will face off against the villain (the great Lo Lieh), but not before discovering that the sister is still alive just in time for her to be MURDERED. It’s just hard to enjoy this film with such a clear case of fridging going on and all our heroes’ training and attempts at redemption do literally nothing to help the sister of our lead. Mad Monkey Kung Fu has a wacky title, but is more of a tragic tale that ends up being tonally incongruous.
Mad Monkey Kung Fu was not the lighthearted comedic martial arts romp I was expecting from the title; instead it’s probably one of the meanest films on the set and this is thanks to the gut wrenching performance by legendary director Lau Kar-leung, who helmed and starred in the film for Shaw. Kar-leung plays Chen, a proud opera performer who after a night of hard drinking with a patron is framed for sexually assaulting the wife of his host. In retaliation, the host, who also happens to be the local crime boss, cripples the martial artist by mangling his hands and taking his beloved sister as his concubine. We then catch a broken Chen a few years later, a poor street performer with a trained monkey selling candy and performing for kids. The humbled master is the object of daily shakedowns by the underlings of the boss who took his sister, who about halfway through the film take the life of his beloved monkey when he fails to pay his protection fee.
Of course, there’s the disciple as in all Lau Kar-leung films, a strange homeless man nicknamed “Monkey” who, along with Chen, eventually gets revenge. But this film dwells in some dark places and it’s not just because the hits keep coming for Chen. It’s thanks to a phenomenal performance by Kar-leung who isn’t satisfied to play the stoic Shaolin strong man, but something more human and damaged and I think that’s why this film hits so hard. Unlike most films we really feel Chen’s pain thanks to his embodiment of defeat and the vengeance here feels a bit more earned.
In an interesting blend of tones, Mad Monkey Kung Fu begins with some extremely dark and serious plot devices before descending into a decidedly unserious and comedy laden Kung Fu tale. With an early plot that features a staged scene that allows the villains to wage rape allegations and a pretty graphic scene of maiming as punishment, it’s weird that the film abandons all of this hefty weight in favor of such intentional levity for the remainder of the film. Yet, even with this whiplash of tonal change, this Kung Fu revenge tale works extremely well.
The magnetism and charisma of Hsiao Ho as Monkey serves to keep the film rolling through, even as it ebbs and flows with its pacing. The action sequences are a blast and the story is compelling on the whole.
All said and done, this was a solid entry and one of the two most entertaining films in this second Shaw set so far – along with Return to the 36th Chamber.
And We’re Out.