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
A whole host of legends show up to bring us The Bare-Footed Kid (1993), which is the final film of the Shawscope Volume 2 set, and a fitting one at that as an almost an honorary Shaw Brothers film made as Shaw was pulling out of the film business. A remake of Disciples of Shaolin, which was recently released on Blu-ray from 88 Films and which I reviewed for Cinapse, we’re taken on a journey of heroic tragedy. Young up and coming singer and actor Aaron Kwok here plays the titular kid Kuan, our avatar for this story who arrives broke, clueless about the ways of the world, shoeless, and yet gifted in martial arts. He’s looking for a place to call home and finds it at Maggie Cheung’s fabric dyeing business. Legendary beauty and talent Cheung is captivating as ever here, bound up in a doomed romance with Tuan (the equally legendary Ti Lung), a heroic former general on the run and living under the radar. As things play out, Kuan will learn the ways of the world and be tempted by the path of wealth and corruption. He’ll attempt redemption but at the cost of the home and belonging that he felt under the roof of Maggie Cheung’s Proprietress’ home and under the tutelage of Ti Lung’s Tuan. There will be bloodshed. I mean, come on, this is a remake of a Chang Cheh film as directed this time by up and comer Johnnie To, who would go on to become one of the greatest filmmakers in Hong Kong, especially in the telling of Triad tales. Legend has it that Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung had a professional split working on Disciples Of Shaolin, and so Leung was brought back to this updated version to take another crack at the choreography and it’s a gorgeous representation of the style at that time, with grandiose wire-work, gorgeous cinematography, and larger than life action sequences. The Bare-Footed Kid may not be a masterpiece to speak of, but the combined talent in front of and behind the camera absolutely elevates this tragedy-tinged adventure.
In addition to retooling Disciples of Shaolin, there’s a lot in The Bare-Footed Kid that recalls Chang Cheh’s other “young martial artist comes to the big city and gets tragically embroiled in mob shenanigans,” The Boxer From Shantung. However, while those previous Shaw joints are more deliberate in tone and pacing, Kid gets a shot of energy from both the physicality of newcomer Aaron Kwok and Johnnie To’s dynamic and exhilarating direction. The Shaw Bros. “house style” had shifted dramatically with the ‘80s/’90s HK action boom, and coming hot off of The Heroic Trio, To proves himself as adept at capturing period wushu as he was at more modern action. At 86 minutes, you’d think there wouldn’t be much time for side characters and narrative diversions, but The Bare-Footed Kid makes remarkable use of its supporting cast (not just Ti Lung and Maggie Cheung as star-crossed lovers who’s dynamic points a straight line to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), and gives the audience ample time to settle into the neighborhood with its various characters and rivalries even as the titular kid is trying to find his feet. For all that there’s a lot of familiar “explosive action, comedic aside, dramatic pivot, tragic revelation” sequences to the story, there’s also a great deal of patience as the film both waits to unleash the full prowess of Kwok’s Kwan Fung-yu. When To does cut loose, in scenes involving either Kwok or Ti Lung (in fantastic “elder statesman star shepherding new talent” mode) or variations on both, it’s intoxicating that you can’t wait for the next one while also being terrified of what the eventual fallout would be.
Cheung really proves to be the film’s secret weapon in how it hones its tragedy to a razor edge, in spite of her “Lady Boss” character potentially coming across as underwritten on the page. There’s so much that she and Lung are able to communicate in the silences between them that there’s space for you to really feel the longing and are allowed to sit with it in spite of the film’s otherwise breathless pacing. While Kwok is undeniably the breakout star of the film, the presence of stalwarts like Ti Lung and Lau Kar-Leung in front and behind the camera brings a weight that belies the occasionally silly interludes and allows the final reel to really slam home.
It’s bittersweet ending our watch of the Shawscope set with 1993’s The Bare-Footed Kid, the loose remake of Disciples of the Shaolin. This film itself is an odd hybrid of the newer style of grittier, more realistic martial arts epics made popular by Shaw competitors like Golden Harvest, merged with the classic “Shaw on a Set” aesthetic. The film has one of my favorite Chinese auteurs Johnnie To, who’s probably best known for his rather gritty gangster epics, adapting the material and infusing it with his trademark nihilistic sensibilities. The story of a naive martial artist who is drawn into a dispute between two rival textile factories, is elevated with a more epic and melodramatic feel thanks, not to only To, but the likes of Aaron Kwok, Maggie Cheung, Ti Lung and Jacklyn Wu in some truly engrossing performances. While I would have personally liked to end on a lighter and higher note, I get the journey that’s been curated here as we definitely have an evolution of both style and storytelling on this set that’s been nothing short of a joy to experience.
And We’re Out.