Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. One Blu-ray Review: Not Quite Truly Classic, but Well Worth It for Fans

Shaw Brothers Classics Cube on display of the website

I don’t know why the Shaw Brothers floodgates have seemingly opened over the last few years, but I’m sure glad they have. For about two years now, Arrow Video and 88 Films have consistently released really nice versions of classic and fairly obscure films from that Hong Kong studio. Arrow has also released a couple of fantastic, “put them on the top shelf and show them off” boxed sets of Shaw Brothers films, and over the last few months Shout! Factory has gotten into the game having released three boxed sets of films.

Whereas the Arrow sets have focused on the more popular Shaw Brothers films made in the 1970s, this first set from Shout! Factory focuses on relatively obscure films from the late 1960s. Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. One contains 12 films made between the years 1967 to 1969. But don’t let the fact that you’ve maybe not heard of any of these films put you off; even lesser-known Shaw Brothers films are worth the watching, and some of them are pretty great.

In 1967, director Cheh Chang teamed up with actor Jimmy Wang Yu to make The One-Armed Swordsman. It changed the Shaw Brothers Studio forever. It was both hugely successful and it set the template for countless kung fu films to follow. That movie isn’t included in this set, but The Assassin, which was made that same year by the same director and star, is. Honestly, The Assassin isn’t great, it spends a little too much time on its political plot and not enough time stabbing and punching, but it does set up what this entire boxed set will be about.

In The Assassin, much like most of the films in this set, the plot centers around revenge, but there are also historical political machinations in place. The hero isn’t some powerful leader, or aligned with kings or prime ministers, his background is humble. The fighting is more sword based than the bare-chested punching and kicking as would be the standard of later-era Shaw Brothers films. There is a bit of wire work and trampoline jumping but it doesn’t overwhelm the film. And the female characters are integral to the story and not just there for window dressing.

Revenge permeates these films. Characters are revenging in the name of their dead fathers or mothers, lovers or sisters. I swear these movies don’t know any other way to get the characters to fight other than “You killed someone I love or respect and I must get my revenge.”

I don’t claim any type of expertise in Chinese history or kung fu cinema or even Shaw Brothers films so take these thoughts as being from a fan of the films – one who has seen, and reviewed quite a few of them – but not as anyone who can claim expertise.

I do find it interesting that most of these films are all about different clans. Our heroes belong to one clan or another who assemble in an old temple and study martial arts under the tutelage of and old master. In later Shaw Brothers films, each clean tends to have their own specialty style of kung fu, but in this set that seems more generic. One clan is generally warring with another, or the evil clan will do something evil and set things off. I have no idea how historically accurate any of that is but I do love how almost all of the Shaw Brothers films that I have seen all seem to boil down to clans fighting against one another.

The clans always have a code and much of the drama comes from those codes being broken in one way or another – by a rival clan member or by someone within the clan itself. Justice and honor are big themes in these films.

Most of the Shaw Brothers films I’d seen before this set involved sweaty, shirtless men using their kung fu skills in hand-to-hand combat, so it was interesting here to see so many swords in use. And knives. And daggers. There are a lot of throwing daggers throughout. In general, I prefer the later films’ fighting styles to these sword fights, but there are plenty of good ones to be found in these films. I am a huge fan of the way the characters in these films can jump great heights, run across water, and generally do deeds that would be considered magic anywhere else. Here it’s just good kung fu.

From what I’ve read, early martial arts films used female characters as not much more than window dressing – something pretty to look at. The characters were concerned with more feminine ideals, but in these films, the women are much more interesting. In a word, they kick ass. They typically aren’t the major characters, that are still relegated to the men, but they are tough, skilled, and are willing to fight for what they need. Yet they can still be romantic and loyal. They just aren’t the damsels in distress you might find elsewhere.

All in all this is a fantastic set of films from Shout! Factory highlighting an earlier, and less well-known era from the famous Shaw Brothers. The films come packaged in two disks to a case all of which is set inside a sturdy cardboard box. I don’t love the box artwork, and I wish it came with more collectibles (the first 1,000 disks came with a poster, but those have sold out). But those are minor quibbles with an otherwise excellent set.

The films included are as follows:

The Assassin (1967) – Jimmy Wang Yu is a man torn between duty and his desire to live a quiet life. A quarrel has erupted between two high-ranking officials in the Han Kingdom. It has something to do with whether or not they should align themselves with the Qin Kingdom. Honestly, I had a hard time following much of the politics of this film. And there is a lot of politics. After a bit of fighting our hero takes off to the country where he lives a nice life with his father, sister, and love interest. Naturally, he is eventually pulled back into the conflict.

The action isn’t all that well choreographed, and I found the plot to be rather dull. This film along with The One-Armed Swordsman helped define the Shaw Brothers would do over the next several years so it is worth watching for that alone. Extras include audio commentary by David West, critic and author of Chasing Dragons: An Introduction to the Martial Arts Film, and the film’s trailer

The Thundering Sword (1967) – One of several films in this set that focus on an all-powerful weapon. When the Thundering Sword (which can slice through anything) is stolen from its rightful keepers, the Righteous Clan (and I do love how in these films there are “righteous” and “evil” clans) send out Yu Chien Wan (Chang Yi) and Cheng Kun-yuen (Lo Lieh) to retrieve it. Along the way, they meet Su Chiao-chiao (Cheng Pei-pei), who also seeks the sword. But unlike the others, she belongs to no clan, righteous or otherwise, and has no problem slicing and dicing through anyone who gets in her way.

There is lots of great swordplay, and some pretty decent romance, and Cheng Pei-pei proves she can hold her own against any man (as you’ll see she stars in several more films in this set). Extras include an Interview about the transnational appeal of the Shaw Brothers with academic Leon Hunt, a new interview with Kim Newman about the western “breakthrough” films of Sir Run Run Shaw, and the film’s trailer

The Golden Swallow (1968) – This sequel to Come Drink With Me (1966) once again finds Cheng Pei-pei playing Golden Swallow. This time she is forced into violence to defend her honor when a mysterious man from her past (Jimmy Wang) begins indiscriminately killing people in her name. Eventually, those two team up alongside a gentle warrior named Golden Whip (Lo Lieh) to defeat a greater foe, but the alliance won’t last as a love triangle forms and the two men must fight to the death for Golden Swallow’s love.

The drama is handled well, the romance is actually meaningful and the action is way over the top and utterly awesome. At one point a boy is accused of stealing some fruit, to prove he didn’t eat it he slices his belly open, spilling out his insides. In another scene to prove his absolute loyalty a man jumps into a torture device chopping himself in two! Extras include audio commentary from academic and filmmaker Gilbert Po, an interview with actress Cheng Pei-pei By Frédéric Ambroisine, and the film’s trailer.

The Jade Raksha (1968) – Cheng Pei-pei continues to prove how she put female martial artists on the cinematic map. Here she plays the titular Jade Raksha, killing anyone with the surname Yan because someone with that name killed her entire family when she was a child. She doesn’t remember who the man is so why not just wipe the entire name off the planet? There is another love triangle and more jealousy. Cheng is great as usual and terrific wire work is abundant in the fight scenes. Extras include an interview with Hong Kong film expert Tony Rayns, and an interview with Peter Boczar who did a lot of English language dub work on these films.

The Bells of Death (1968) – Cheng Yi stars as a simple woodcutter who seeks revenge on three men who killed his family. With the help of a master teacher, he learns to fight. He wears his mother’s bell bracelet which rings out a warning to his enemies that death is coming. The Bells of Death wears its western and samurai influences its sleeve. There is a scene in which our hero uses the leaves of a tree like knives to extinguish his foes. God bless him. Extras include audio commentary with critic James Mudge, and the film’s trailer.

The Sword of Swords (1968) – Jimmy Wang Yu hot off his launch into stardom with the One-Armed Swordsman plays a noble swordsman out to recover a magical blade that has protected his country for centuries. He gets blinded along the way and learns that a magic sword and zero vision don’t always end in victory. Extras include two audio commentaries, one with film historian Brian Bankston and the other with critic James Mudge. Also included are two trailers for the film.

Killer Dart (1968) – Chin Ping stars as a poor villager seeking revenge on the men who killed his family and burnt his village to the ground. Armed with some killer swordsmanship and a bunch of deadly darts he joins forces with his son, an orphan named Yu, and his servant. The corpses pile up high before their violent conclusion in a castle’s dungeon full of traps. Extras include audio commentary with James Mudge, and the film’s trailer.

The Invincible Fist (1969) – Chang Cheh directs Lo Lieh as a chief constable on the search for some deadly bandits. Along the way, he falls in love with the bandit’s blind daughter (Ching Lee). Though he is called the Invincible Fist, like most characters in these early(ish) Shaw Brothers films, he mostly uses his sword (but you have to have a cool nickname, right?). The main villain uses a funky umbrella on a chain weapon and a lot of the action takes place in an overgrown rice field which gives it a unique look. Extras include two audio commentaries. The first with film historian Brian Bankston, the second with James Mudge. Also included are two trailer’s for the film.

Dragon Swamp (1969) – If you haven’t had enough Cheng Pei-pei by this point, then you’ll be exalted to know she plays two roles here. The film begins with her character’s husband stealing both the infamous Jade Dragon Sword and her daughter. Due to the rules of her clan (and this film’s plot conveniences), she is forced to live in the mystical Dragon Swamp for twenty years. Flash forward those two decades and now that daughter (also played by Cheng Pei-pei) is sent to find the Jade Dragon Sword which has now been stolen by Lu Jian (Lo Lieh). She teams up with Roaming Knight (Yueh Hu) who is looking for something himself. They enlist the powerful Dragon Swamp Master (still Cheng Pei-pei, she’s become the DSM since being banished there) and the three embark on a blood-soaked search for the magical sword.

A lot of Shaw Brothers martial arts films use a little bit of magic. Characters can often jump to the tops of buildings, or stand atop of the tallest tree branches, or sometimes use their hands to wish characters out of the way, but it’s usually hand-waived away as just really good kung fu. It is fun then to see them utilizing more mystical elements. The set designs look amazing, the lighting, which involves any character holding the Jade Sword to be bathed in green light, is wonderful and Cheng Pei-pei is great as the two characters. Extras include an audio commentary Gilbert Po and two trailers.

The Flying Dagger (1969) – Yu-ying (Cheng Pei-pei) gets herself into trouble with the Green Dragon Clan when she kills the chief’s son. He wipes out her family with flying daggers and puts her on the run. Shamefully, Cheng Pei-pei is then mostly regulated to the background as Yang Qi (Lo Lieh) comes in for the rescue. He’s a bit of a rogue demanding that Yu-ying sleep with him if he kills the Green Dragon Clan leader, but ultimately he proves himself as honorable. The action is pretty standard Shaw Brothers stuff, which is to say it is pretty great, but not exceptionally so. Extras include audio commentary with Frank Djeng of the New York Asian Film Festival and the film’s trailer.

The Golden Sword (1969) – Bai Yu Lung’s (Kal Yuen) father mysteriously disappears. After ten years of searching Bai decides to go north into the mountains (allowing the film to create some snow-covered landscapes that are unusual for the Shaw Brothers Studio). There he meets a beggar (Yeng Pei-pie) and together they continue the search. There are some terrific fight sequences (including one in which a throwing dagger is caught with chopsticks) and even a musical dance number. Extras include audio commentary with Gilbert Po and the film’s trailer.

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Mat Brewster

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