Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. Two Blu-ray Review: More Martial Arts Fun From Shout Factory

With Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. Two, Shout! Factory continues to release films from the legendary studio famous for its martial arts films. This set contains 12 films from 1970-1976. This period shows the studio in transition from the more traditional historical revenge dramas filled with sword fights and wire maneuvers to historical revenge dramas filled with fantastically ridiculous weapons and hand-to-hand kung fu fighting with occasional horror aspects. Maybe that’s not such a huge transition, but this is a studio that figured out what worked and what audiences wanted and pretty much stuck to it. Only periodically making minor tweaks to the formula, so we can’t expect revolutionary changes to be made during any period.

But who cares? What they did was continually make really fun martial arts films. I will admit that watching so many of them in such a short period found the formula wearing a little thin, but mostly I still enjoyed myself.

My only minor complaints are that in this set Shout! Factory did not include the English language audio tracks. I’m generally an original language purist but I grew up watching these films with English dubs and I still enjoy them that way. Also, the English subtitles include a lot of translations of the various signs in the films. It makes sense that you would translate the names of villages or mansions that a character is entering or will spend time in. But I don’t need every single sign translated. A film will be in the middle of a massive battle and suddenly a subtitle will pop up telling us that the shop next door is called “Bob’s Blacksmith” or whatever. Or there will be a big dramatic moment inside a club and a subtitle will let us know the signs on the wall say “Righteousness” or “Honor” or some such thing. The worst is when they translate those signs on multiple occasions so that it will translate “Bob’s Blacksmith” or whatever when the camera first sees it in the background, and then we’ll get an edit facing the other way, only to see “Bob’s Blacksmith” translated a second (or third or fourth) time whenever the camera view switches positions again. It is absolutely distracting.

But other than that this is yet another fabulous set of Shaw Brothers martial arts films.

The movies included are as follows:

Lady of Steel (1970) – Fang Ying-qi’s (Cheng Pei-Pei) entire family was slaughtered when she was but a baby. She surely doesn’t remember anything but we are treated to one of the more brutal Shaw Brothers fight scenes which includes a dude getting a dagger stuck straight into his forehead (he survives long enough to kill a few of his enemies and hand the baby off to a friend). Twenty years later and she’s a master swordsman looking for revenge.

Along the way, she teams up with Qin Shang Yi (Elliott Ngok), the leader of a beggar’s gang. The killers have changed their names and become respectable members of the Flying Dragon Clan. Fang must use a myriad of disguises to infiltrate the clan and get her revenge.

With a runtime of 88 minutes, Lady of Steel is almost non-stop action. There’s tons of sword action, some terrific dagger throwing, multiple trap doors, booby traps, and a button that unleashes some quick-acting stakes from out of a wall. There isn’t much to hang all that action on, but it doesn’t matter one bit. Extras include an audio commentary by cult film critic Ian Jane.

Brothers Five (1970) – Teng Lung Manor is a place of evil men who are led by Master Lung Cheng-feng (Tien Feng). Years ago, he killed the father of the titular brothers who were since separated and have gone on to live their own lives, never knowing their father’s fate or that they have brothers. Miss Yen Hsing-kung (Cheng Pei-Pei) knows their story and reunites the brothers in order to kill the evil Master Lung. That’s it. That’s pretty much the story. It is about as simple of a revenge plot as you can get.

It is a film that doesn’t need much story as it is back-to-back action. Each individual brother has his own reasons for coming to Teng Lung Manor and at first they fight the evil master alone, always losing. But over the course of the film Miss Yen brings them together to form an invincible conglomeration of themselves. They jump on top of one another like one of those cheerleader pyramids but with swords.

Director Lo Wei (who is probably better known as the director of several Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films) assaults the audience with an endless parade of battles. To mix things up he throws in all sorts of weapons – whips, throwing knives, and a golden claw on a chain. One brother has a hat made of steel that works like Captain America’s shield, another one has a big hammer like Thor; I swear if any of them wore a suit of armor or were big and green I’d call them the “Kung Fu Avengers.”

The nonstop action can be a bit tedious at times. There are so many scenes you can watch with a cavalcade of swordsman encircling our heroes, but Lo Wei mixes it up enough to keep things interesting. Extras include two audio commentaries – one by James Mudgethe other by Brian Bankston – and the film’s trailer.

The Crimson Charm (1971) – A father and daughter enter a tea house and are mistaken by the Crimson Charm Gang for members of the Chung Chow Sword School. The gang kills the father and attempts to rape the girl. Before they can do that, the actual father/daughter duo step in and destroy our villains. The Crimson Charm Gang vows revenge and they kill all but three of the Chung Chow Sword School. Those survivors (Chang Yi, Shih Szu, and Ling Po) then vow revenge against the Crimson Charm Gang. After that rather convoluted beginning, our three heroes spend time training and then seek their revenge.

The Crimson Charm has just about everything you want in a Shaw Brothers film and a little bit more. There are cool villains dressed up in horror costumes (one of them carries a skull connected to a spine) with excellent names like White-Faced King of Hades & Blood Granny. There are cool weapons like the Holy Sword and a sword with a blade that comes out like a switch-blade. It has a cool-looking scene in the snow and lots of great fight sequences. Extras include an audio commentary with film historian Brian Bankston, and two trailers.

The Shadow Whip (1971) – While Shaw Brothers films of this era implement a lot of different types of weapons, the standard hero instrument of death is still the classic sword. Over a dozen films into these two Shout! Factory sets and I’m always thrilled to see something different pop up. The Shadow Whip is a person, not a weapon, and he’s played by Feng Tien. He was wrongly accused of a devastating robbery years ago that resulted in multiple deaths. Since then, he’s been hiding out with his protege Mis Yun (Cheng Pei-pei), who is also deadly with a whip. Several groups of men come looking for revenge and it is up to Mis Yun to discover the truth, save the day, and kick some ass with a whip.

With a run time of just over 70 minutes, The Shadow Whip wastes no time. The story moves along a a quick clip and the action sequences come fast and furious. Rare for a Shaw Brothers film, the setting here is the snow-covered mountains of North China, which gives it a nice change of scenery over the normal grassy plains and dry forests. There is lots of great wire action as well with characters flying out of windows, across the tree tops, and onto building roofs. The white snowy backdrop does allow several instances where you can easily see the wires, but this only enhanced my enjoyment of the film. The whips are put to great use and it is a lot of fun seeing how that simple change of weapons completely mixes things up with the fight choreography. Extras include audio commentary with critic David West and the trailer.

The Delightful Forest (1972) – Water Margin is one of the earliest Chinese novels written in the vernacular Mandarin. It tells the epic story of how 108 outlaws rebelled against the government and were later granted amnesty and asked to help defend against other rebels.

The Shaw Brothers adapted different stories from the novel several times (including twice in this set). The Delightful Forest tells the story of Wu Song (Ti Lung), one of the 108 outlaws. Here is sets out to avenge his brother who was killed by his adulterous wife. Being a righteous man, after he kills his sister-in-law he turns himself in to face punishment. Being a righteous man he wins over the prison guards and is set free once he agrees to help one of the guards to get rid of a thug causing problems in a town called the Delightful Forest. Before you know it, he finds himself framed for another crime and lands himself back in prison where he gets entangled in an assassination plot. The fights are a-plenty and the violence is especially bloody. Extras include an audio commentary by critic Ian Jane, a new audio commentary with film historian Brian Bankston, and the film’s trailer.

The Devil’s Mirror (1972) – I love these Shaw Brothers martial arts films. Really and truly, I’ve never seen a bad one. They so perfected the genre they live in, the type of film that they made, that I think they could have made them in their sleep. They could have put production on autopilot, but I don’t think they ever did. That doesn’t mean every film is a masterpiece, in fact very few, if any, are, but they were able to consistently make really good films over and over again.

However, watching these films back-to-back-to-back binge style for my review of these two sets sometimes grew tiring. There is a sameness to these films that becomes rather glaring once you’ve seen half a dozen or so within a few days. So, it was with great pleasure that I watched The Devil’s Mirror and noted how different and imaginative it was, while still carrying the Shaw Brothers’ magic.

Speaking of magic, this film is all about the dark arts. It seems that the Bloody Ghoul Clan, led by the Jiuxian Witch (Lee Ga San), is wreaking havoc across the land. In order to rule the martial arts world, the witch must steal two magical mirrors from two clans. They will have to join together in order to stop the evil witch from taking over.

The Devil’s Mirror mixes in lot of horror and fantasy elements into the usual martial arts mix. The fights are a notch above the standard fare and are bloodier than any of the films in these sets. Shaw Brothers’ sets are always top-notch but they go above and beyond here. One of the clans has a sprawling mansion with a high tower and a long bridge giving the scenes there plenty of visual flair. The witch’s lair contains a large skull and lots of inventive lighting. The whole thing is so much fun to watch and a real treat from the usual fare. Extras include an audio commentary with film historian Brian Bankston and the film’s trailer.

Man of Iron (1972) – A sort-of sequel to Boxer From Shantung (1972) where none of the characters return but it is set on the same street some 20 years after the events of the original film. It tells the same basic story, albeit in a condensed form. It focuses on Zeng Gen Bao (Chen Kuan-Tai), a man attempting to rise amongst the gangster ranks.

There is a bit of romance but mostly, it is street brawl after street brawl which might be more exciting if I hadn’t already sat through over a dozen Shaw Brothers films in the last couple of weeks and probably a hundred similar action sequences. Extras include audio commentary with critic James Mudge, a new audio commentary with Chris Poggiali and Brian Bankston, a 77-minute documentary on the rise and fall of the Shaw Brothers movie empire, and a couple of trailers.

The Water Margin (1972) – Yet another movie based upon the epic novel The Water Margin. This one tells the story of how the Jade Unicorn (Tetsurō Tamba) comes to join the 108 outlaws. At 120 minutes, it is one of the longest Shaw Brothers films, and frankly, the dullest one I’ve seen. They clearly tried to make it an epic story, telling one of the greatest Chinese stories of all time, but the studio isn’t really cut out for epic dramas. They enlisted nearly every actor in their formidable roster (each actor’s name and character’s name appears on the screen whenever they are introduced throughout the entire film), created multiple large sets, and allowed for extensive exterior shooting. In other words, they spared no expense. But they forgot to make it interesting.

It is such an expansive story that they spend the first hour introducing the characters and setting up the story. Shaw Brothers films are known for their fight sequences – that’s pretty much why everybody watches them – but this film has very few action sequences. Instead, it relies on its drama, which simply can’t hold my attention. There are so many characters and so much going on that I was lost most of the time. It all culminates in an epic battle that is pretty good, but not nearly worth the wait. Extras include an audio commentary with film historian Brian Bankston, a TV spot, trailers, several short features on the actors, and an extended love scene.

The Bride From Hell (1971) – An early horror entry from the Shaw Brothers. Yun Peng (Yang Fang) stops with his companion at a country inn to escape some spooky shenanigans. When he happens to spy the beautiful innkeeper Anu (Margaret Hsing Hui) undressed, he is forced into marrying her. All is well until Yun’s family notices a green glow eminating from Anu and they realize she is possessed by a spirit from the netherworld. With a runtime under 80 minutes, the story is rather slim, but it has some great horror/fantasy effects that make it well worth a look. Extras include an audio commentary by critic James Mudge, a discussion from historian Tony Rayns on the Shaw Brothers horror films, and a couple of trailers.

Heroes Two (1974) – After the Shaolin Temple is burned down by the Manchus, Shaolin student Hung Hsi-Kuan (Chen Kuan-Tai) goes on the run. He is accosted at every turn by the Manchus (giving us plenty of enjoyable action sequences). The Manchus convince another Shaolin student, Fang Shih-Yu (Alexander Fu Sheng), that Hung is a devilish character and they get locked into some more kung fu battles.

Heroes Two feels a bit like a standard Shaw Brothers film, but it is notable for being one of the earliest films to engage in hand-to-hand kung fu instead of the (up until that time) standard sword fights. Many films would follow in its footsteps. Extras include a new audio commentary by critic David West and a few trailers.

The Flying Guillotine (1975) – A slightly mad emperor (Chiang Yang) is looking for a more efficient way to kill his enemies. Luckily, he’s got Xin Kang (Feng Ku) on his payroll. He invents the titular flying guillotine – something like a hatbox on a chain that when thrown correctly will slice the heads off of its victims and return the head, sans body, back to the thrower. Xin then trains 12 elite warriors in the ways of the flying guillotine to become the Emperor’s personal assassins.

Ma Teng (Khan Tai Chen) becomes the master, but when the Emperor begins tasking him with killing off not traitors but political enemies and anyone else that displeases him, he balks and flees the Emperor’s service. He then meets a girl, has a son, and does a little farming, but you just know the Emperor’s men are going to find him in the end. When they do, it is an epic battle of flying guillotines.

The Flying Guillotine was a big hit in Hong Kong and abroad. It spawned numerous unofficial sequels and at least one official one. The film leans a little too heavily into exposition and has almost zero actual kung fu. The flying guillotine is a ridiculous weapon that almost certainly would not work at all in real life. But boy, does it look cool and there are enough beheadings to make up for any other faults. Extras include an audio commentary by critic James Mudge, a new audio commentary with Chris Poggiali, an interview with actor Kai Kan, an interview with dubbing artist Joseph Ellison, and a couple of trailers.

The Dragon Missile (1976) – Here’s a movie where someone at Shaw Brothers studio saw the success of The Flying Guillotine and went “Let’s make that again.” The dragon missiles are two boomerangs carved to look like dragons that are capable of slicing through just about anything, and for some reason, spark violently whenever they hit anything but human flesh and spend most of its time slicing off heads. That makes them not quite as goofy (or fun) as the flying guillotine, but still quite unique and enjoyable.

Sima Jun (Lo Lieh) is the guy with the dragon missiles; he’s an unquestioning servant of Lord Qin Yuan (Ku Feng), a ruthless tyrant will a killer boil on his back. The only cure is some root thing located in some far village. Sima Jun is sent there to pick it up (but not before being ordered to decapitate the Imperial Physician who told Lord Yuan about the root because he was impertinent or something).

Lord Qin doesn’t exactly trust Sima Jun so he sends several assassins to follow him and then kill him once he’s got the magic root. And so the rest of the film is a chase with Sima Jun trying to obtain the root and then a whole lot of other folks trying to get it from him.

The kung fu action is adequate, but the dragon missiles are quite wonderful. They almost always return to Sima Jun regardless of where he throws them, they cut through everything, sometimes even exploding rocks but then they are ultimately foiled…well, I won’t spoil the end, but let’s just say they are ultimately done in by something so ludicrous it makes his fight with the blind grandmother look plausible. Extras include an audio commentary by James Mudge, an interview with Jim Marcovic about the kung fu boom of the 1970s and 1980s, and a slew of trailers.

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Mat Brewster

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