The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
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
My sense is that My Young Auntie has a ton of fans and when the Arrow Shawscope Vol. 2 set was announced it felt like there was a bunch of buzz about this title being included. I do love digging deep into these Shaw Brothers titles but I have to admit there’s… a bit of a sameness that arises watching them week after week. So I, too, was very excited to check out My Young Auntie if only as a reprieve from so much similarity. Here was a Shaw Brothers film starring a real live woman! And Kara Hui absolutely did not disappoint as a young martial arts master who marries a dying patriarch so that she can assist in executing his will in a way that bypasses their wicked relative and continues the family honor. And so, she becomes the “young Auntie” of Hsiao Ho’s Charlie. Charlie studies in Hong Kong and is a fan of speaking English and celebrating western customs. His father Yu is the heir of the family fortune and is (for some reason secretly?) a martial arts master and an honorable man. Yu is played by my guy (and the director of the film) Lau Kar Leung. Entertaining and silly, My Young Auntie is indeed a refreshing entry in this collection. Hui is dazzling as an accomplished martial artist and she brings elegance and beauty to the role. There’s lots of broad and occasionally interminable comedy. And while I ultimately enjoyed the film, I have to express a sincere frustration that despite Hui being the clear lead around which this film was built, Lau Kar Leung seems to have still been shackled to masculine tropes which led to Charlie and Yu being the big forces in the final battle, which finds Kara Hui conveniently captured and tied up and unable to truly be the final hero at the end of her own movie. It’s a highly unfortunate trope when “strong female leads” are created for films but they end up sidelined in their own movies. I wish Lau Kar Leung could have stuck the landing here as this film ultimately isn’t as refreshing or empowering as it might have seemed at first glance. All that said, I’d gladly check out more Kara Hui films!
Given the last few films were all Chang Cheh/Venom Mob beat’em ups, My Young Auntie was a much needed comedic reprieve. This film brought back Lau Kar-leung who’s both directing and acting in a film that has a young martial-arts champion Cheng Tai-nun (Kara Hui) marrying her teacher twice her age to keep his land from falling in the hands of his brother Yu Yung-Sheng (Wang Lung Wei). This is surprisingly done in a way that’s neither creepy nor robs our protagonist of her agency. This also forges the crux of the comedy, because of this marriage she is given great auntie status in this family. That has Kar-leung as a director using both her age and how revered elders are in Chinese culture for the bulk of the laughs, while also playing into the fresh off the boat trope, since Cheng travels from the country to the bustling city of Canton.
Comedy aside, the film also takes place during the industrialization of China, which was another fun change of setting. Western clothes, cars and sunglasses are part of the narrative that has Cheng-chuan’s son Yu Tao (Hsiao Ho), educating his conservative country bumpkin auntie on all these new fads and technology that he’s learned about during his time at school in Hong Kong. It’s a fun and frothy little film that thankfully even manages to side step turning into a weirder romance with Yu Tao, keeping its wholesome story of empowerment for Cheng Tai-nun. Definitely one of my favorites from the set just because of how unique it is compared to the other films on the set with its comedic story and empowered female protagonist.
From 1981, My Young Auntie is on the latter end of Shaw Bros’ classic era, by which time Jackie Chan had changed the landscape, carving out a niche for kung fu comedies. A dying man marries a much younger woman (Kara Hui) in order to legally bequeath her his estate and keep it out of the hands of his greedy brother; the film’s premise pits her as an ‘auntie’ (or elder) by marriage over her new family, including her much older nephew Yu Cheng-chuan (Lau Kar Leung, who also writes and directs), and his dipshit son Charlie (Hsiao Ho). It’s a humorous concept that buts against conventional ideas of age, gender, and seniority.
Hui’s fish-out-of-water character Tai-Nun is mostly charming and there’s some solid fighting scenes, and like most Shaw Bros films you’ll see some really familiar faces, like Wang Lung Wei as the villain, and Gordon Liu as a member of Charlie’s cadre.
I have a bit of a pet peeve that gets triggered a lot in Asian media (particularly in anime, but it pops up a fair bit in martial arts as well) – shouty dialogue where characters constantly scream at each other. There’s quite a lot of that going on here and it can get pretty grating. Charlie and his friends are all rather obnoxious and have a weird fetishization of western culture which means there’s a lot of English shouting mixed in with the Cantonese, which somehow makes it worse.
In one particular sequence, the gang tries to embarrass Auntie by making her dance with them at a Westernized costume ball; she yelps and screams in protest through the entire dance and it’s really painful to endure, both for the insensitive cruelty of the boys and for listening to her squealing non-stop for three minutes.
The definite highlight of the film is its climax, when “the uncles”, who are getting on in years but still have formidable fighting skills, join Charlie and Yu Tao in the battle to recover the Auntie’s stolen deed. It’s a blast to watch them, and in particular Lau Kar Leung, win the day – but it’s also kind of a bummer because it really should be Auntie’s fight and instead the writer-director made himself clearly the coolest character?
And We’re Out.