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
Chang Cheh directs, so… looks like blood and guts are back on the menu, boys! Easily one of the biggest surprises for me on this set, I suspect Invincible Shaolin will become one of my favorite titles on the Shawscope Volume 2 set. Invincible Shaolin features the Venom Mob, palace intrigue, ridiculous and plentiful training techniques, and geysers of heroic bloodshed. When a wicked Manchu Lord pits 3 Northern Shaolin masters against 3 Southern Shaolin masters, the Southern masters lose, but the Lord secretly murders them and blames the Northern masters. After suffering yet another defeat, the Southern shaolin send 3 champions off for extensive training. Years of bitter rivalry pass and ultimately tragedy will result, but not before our newly trained Southern masters return for revenge and before North and South recognize the true Villain and see to his demise. Much like one of my all time favorite Shaw films, The Boxer From Shantung, Invincible Shaolin concludes with our heroes fighting valiantly through hordes of enemies whilst gravely wounded; spears protrude from bellies and finger holes are punctured through organs, but yet still our heroes fight on. Chang Cheh just has a magic to him that outshines many of his other Shaw contemporaries. Invincible Shaolin has a plot mechanic remarkably similar to Five Superfighters, but his film goes down with ease and far more excitement. And it can’t go without mentioning that these training montages feature some of the most clever gadgets and gizmos of all time. Our southern masters learn new techniques thanks to massive rubber bands, progressively smaller boxes they must break out of, and one-finger push-ups with raw eggs placed beneath their hands. It’s all been done before, but Chang Cheh just routinely does it better.
Invincible Shaolin was a gory and frustrating exercise in Shaw tropes by Chang Cheh, starring the crew from Venoms. While I get working in ensembles in this kind of context could not have been easy, I think it waters down the vengeance story a bit too much. Also, the “good guys” transition a little too easily to killers, and yet are still supposed to be sympathetic because they are Shaolin Teachers. This all kind of turns into a bloodbath at the end, but it’s nearly nonsensical at times regarding what the real throughline is.
One thing I am, however, very curious about is time lines and Chinese history, when it comes to the events of these films, and how it all sort of falls into place when it comes to who’s the current bad regime. I personally think I would get more out of these films if I was better versed into the socio political landscape when each film is supposed to have transpired. That said I wish Arrow would have a guide or something, because I wasn’t completely invested in the narrative, I was more curious about why these are Shaolin Teachers who aren’t monks.
Chang Cheh, all day, everyday. Even as one of his “lesser” entries, this is easily better than just about anything in Volume 2 thus far. Cheh consistently made the best films in the Shaw catalog, as far as I’m concerned. The Venom Mob films have a particularly fond place in my heart, so even the films that aren’t my faves among them are above most of the rest of the Shaw films. So, while I can’t say this is one of Cheh’s best, it was nice after a few weeks of fatigue on what we were being fed by Shawscope Volume 2.
I think Ed and Dan cover the film’s content, ups, and downs very well, so let me highlight a feature of this disc from the set itself. Featured alongside this film and The Kid With the Golden Arm, this disc in the set also includes a phenomenal video essay entitled Poison Clan Rocks the World. This documentary accompaniment adds so much to the disc itself. A succinct but informative look at Cheh’s films from his early days to his Venom Mob work, with a focus on the Venoms era. It’s rare that a special feature is my favorite part of a Blu-ray, but this is one of those cases. Really dug the film, but dug the doc even more.
And We’re Out.