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 beauty of mainland China is on full display in Lau Kar Leung’s early Jet Li-starrer Martial Arts Of Shaolin. One of the few titles in either of these Arrow Shawscope sets that I had already seen prior to digging into these titles, I don’t think I was aware of how distinct it was from so many of the Shaw Brothers catalog. But now that I’ve basically been immersing myself in Shaw Brothers titles over the last couple of years, the contrast is stark.
There’s nary a set to be found here, with gorgeous mountains, ancient cities and temples, and rolling green pastures playing host to hundreds of extras in this lavish and large scale epic. I quite adore Martial Arts Of Shaolin for the incredible early physical ability of Jet Li on full display, and the grandiosity of it all, right up to the massive boat battle at the conclusion of the film. It all feels grand in a way that many of the cramped studio productions of Shaw Brothers never did in earlier eras. That said, expert Tony Reyns provides a ton of context in his recorded comments about the film included on this set. It’s clear that Lau Kar Leung was somewhat forced by the economics and geopolitics of the time to go into mainland China and to partner up with Jet Li. And while I find the results here to be pretty spectacular, apparently Lau Kar Leung and Jet Li clashed and weren’t particularly happy with the arrangement of this film. That may all be true, but I challenge anyone not to see a bright rising star when they watch Jet Li here. And, the film even contains some fairly interesting meditations on Buddhism and the limits of pacifism in the face of injustice. Completed in 1986, Martial Arts Of Shaolin offers something of an old school homage wrapped in a new school beauty and rising talent that feels a bit like lightning in a bottle.
It’s a shame that legendary Shaw Bros. director Lau Kar-leung clashed with Jet Li (as he later would with Jackie Chan on Drunken Master II) while making this movie, as the filmmaker shows a slick adaptation to the more location-focused setting and faster-flowing action here. Watching this immediately after most of the major preceding efforts from the studio really accentuate how much of a line of demarcation this was for the genre. The pacing of action and humor in Martial Arts of Shaolin recalls the more rapid-fire style of the Golden Age of Kung Fu cinema in the latter part of the decade and into the ’90s, and Jet Li really does burst into frame like a fully-formed superstar. Between Li’s off the charts charisma and acrobatic martial abilities, it’s apparent why so much of the movie is structured around letting his character Zhi Ming goof around and kick stuff real good. However, while the story itself isn’t super original or thematically rich, the cast clicks together so tightly once the “let’s all team up and fight him” framework is established that the journey and the final explosive showdown are immensely satisfying. Martial Arts of Shaolin is a rollicking 90-odd minutes that works a treat to introduce newcomers to the studio/style, as well as a fulcrum point of cinema history that still impresses nearly 40 years later.
And We’re Out.