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
The Category III classic The Boxer’s Omen is a psychedelic transgressive masterwork that I am honestly shocked it took me this long to see. (I was actually waiting to see it in HD, if that was any consolation). Director Kuei Chih-Hung brings to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky with his story of a small-time gangster/boxer who is brought into a spiritual battle between his twin from a past life, who is now a Buddist monk, and a cabal of black magicians. The two men are forever linked and because of that the gangster is the only one able to lift the curse on the monk who was poisoned with golden needles, thus preventing him from attaining enlightenment. Essentially he is forced to save the spiritual life of his twin or forfeit his own since if his twin dies, so does he.
The film has this bizarre, nearly exploitative relationship with Buddhism and it views these sometimes grotesque rituals that our characters are tasked with an almost fetishistic lens. The film is unlike anything from Shaw, both in its scope and scale. While Shaw was no stranger to horror films, none manages to combine the profane and gruesome with a look at mysticism that elevates the film from a garish spectacle into something much more profound. It’s now my favorite Shaw Film and I don’t say that lightly. Sure it has hand to hand combat, sure it has fantastical spiritual combat, sure it has one of the most intense spiritual journeys in the Shaw catalog, but what other Shaw film features my favorite 80s rubber halloween tarantula as a spirit totem amulet?
If you want Buddha to have your back in a battle with a demon: DO. NOT. FUCK. That is the biggest life takeaway one can glean from one of the most bonkers gross out spectacles I have ever seen in my life: Chih-Hung Kuei’s 1983 Shaw Brothers ripper The Boxer’s Omen. One plot description might make this sound like a Jean-Claude Van Damme film: The legendary on screen villain Bolo Yeung cripples Chan Hung’s (Phillip Ko) brother in the kickboxing ring, so he must travel to Thailand to get his revenge. But let me tell you, this ain’t no JCVD film. It turns out Hung, in a past life, was a twin brother to a Buddhist monk. Now that Buddhist monk is trapped in purgatory and only Chan Hung can crush the demon before both he and his embalmed former twin pass into eternity forever. All Chan Hung needs to do is swear off all worldly pleasure and become a monk imbued with the spiritual powers of a Buddhist exorcist! Loaded to the brim with chaotic and bizarre spiritual wizard battles and gross out gags that take potshots at the “exoticism” of Thailand, The Boxer’s Omen is pure exploitation that stacks up so many bizarre visuals as to be one of the truly weirdest cinematic experiences I have ever had.
Dan is our transgressive cinema guy and his take is more informed than mine, so I’m glad he really appreciates this on a fundamental level. I’m glad I saw it, grateful for how truly bizarre and committed it is to its weirdness, and appreciative of how different it is from so many other Shaw Brothers films. But I don’t know that I could ever subject myself to the chaos offered here again. PS: As you might suspect… Chan Hung Fucks, and as a result, loses some of his magic Buddha powers, which leads to a bunch of wizards gutting a crocodile, slopping its entrails all over the floor, and placing a corpse inside which resurrects into a female demon that wants to eat Chan Hung’s soul… obviously.
After my multi-week disappearing act, I’m back on this Shaw ish. Between burn out from this collection and an insanely busy life lately, I had to skip a few entries lately… but there was no way I wasn’t going to return for The Boxer’s Omen. A film that I’ve had in my collection for years, it has sat unwatched for far too long. I had been waiting and hoping for a dubbed version but if even this extensive Arrow collection has subs only, it’s clear that won’t be happening for me, so the time had come!
There’s so much to say and yet saying anything means very little with this one, as it’s truly a “see it to believe it” brand of batshit insanity. Unlike anything I’ve seen in the Shaw catalog before, it’s unique, fun, and all the best kinds of weird. It blends Buddhism with weird black magic rituals and really eye-catching demonic imagery in such unique ways. It stands out completely among the rest of the entries of this box set.
For me, my favorite moments were in the weird, hellish visions, as well as a couple of the fight scenes. There’s a decided influence from 70s European horror in this one, while still retaining some of what makes Shaw Kung-Fu films work so well.
I can’t wait to rewatch this one in short order, as it’s certainly a film my wife, who also loves horror and enjoys partaking in Shaw films with me, will take great joy in watching. Until then, I’ll be thinking often about some of the crazy images and scenes in what may become my favorite Shaw film in time.
And We’re Out.