Last month in my review of Disciples of Shaolin, I noted how much I loved old kung fu movies as a kid. In those days I didn’t really pay attention to the names of the movies, or who directed them, or starred in them, or indeed what studios were making them. As I have recently reignited my love for these films, I’ve started paying attention to those things and am slowly building up my own knowledge of that tradition of films. If you have even the slightest cursory knowledge of kung fu cinema, then you know the name “Shaw Brothers.” Hell, if you’ve seen Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films (or heard him talk at any length at all about them), then you’ve probably heard of the Shaw Brothers. At one time, the brothers owned one of the largest movie studios in the world, producing nearly 100 movies a year at its height during the 1970s and early ’80s. Though it produced films in all types of genres, it will always be remembered as popularizing kung fu cinema throughout the world. So much so, that the Shaw Brother Productions with their iconic Shaw Scope logo (which Tarantino paid homage to at the beginning of Kill Bill) has become synonymous with excellent kung fu cinema.
It is actually a grand time to be a Shaw Brothers fan. Arrow Video recently released a massive boxed set filled with 18 of their most iconic films and 88 Films has been steadily putting out a few of their films each month. They just released The Flag of Iron (1980) and Legendary Weapons of China (1982) in handsome-looking editions with cleaned-up audio/video and some nice extras.
The Flag of Iron stars most of what became known as the Venom Mob, which was a group of actors who were friends from childhood, studied at the same acting school, and who made many films with the Shaw Brothers. Their name comes from their most popular film, Five Deadly Venoms. They also choreographed many of their own stunts and remain popular amongst fans of the genre.
It begins with a couple of members of the Iron Flag clan having a few drinks and noticing that a different couple of dudes seem to be carrying a woman wrapped up in a bag. They stop the men to learn that the woman is being taken to the local brothel run by a rival club. They don’t mind girls in brothels so much but when they are being taken against their wills, well, that breaks a moral code. A few kicks and punches later and the girl is set free. The Iron Flag leader is told of this illegal activity by the rival club but before anything can be done about it the other gang comes a-fighting. A big battle ensues leaving a few men dead, including the Iron Flag leader. Much discussion is had but eventually, Iron Tiger (Lu Feng) is elected clan leader, while Iron Leopard (Philip Kwok Chun-Fung) is forced into hiding as the rival clan went to the police claiming Iron Flag clan started it all, and thus Iron Leopard became the scapegoat.
Whilst away, Iron Leopard is attacked by multiple assassins for no explicable reason, including a man decked out in all white dubbed the White-Robed Rambler (Lung Tien-Hsiang). You gotta love the names the characters get in these films. Eventually, Iron Leopard’s buddy shows up and brings him back home where he discovers that Iron Tiger has taken over the gambling house and brothel that started this whole mess in the first place. Not only that but no one has solved the murder of the original clan leader.
Things get convoluted from there, but no one comes to kung fu movies for the plot. There is plenty of action to be found in The Flag of Iron. Our heroes all fight with long spears with flags attached to them which they furl and unfurl at opportune times, giving the battles a cool theatrical flair. My favorite two bits are when one of the assassins attacks Iron Leopard, and just as he announces that he is one of China’s top ten unbeatable deadly assassins Iron Leopard kills him with a broken plate. Later, one of those flag spears is thrown clean through the abdomen of a character (complete with a fantastic shot of the blood-soaked spear exiting the body). The guy looks down at the gaping hole in his body, ties a shirt around it, and proceeds to fight off half a dozen men.
Now that, as Martin Scorsese would say, is cinema.
Not to be outdone the Legendary Weapons of China adds sorcery to its kung fu mix. The Boxer Clan practices spiritual kung fu and is perfecting the art of invulnerability to weapons. They’ve mastered not being hurt by traditional weapons such as swords, axes, and the like, but new weaponry with bullets still penetrates. Lei Kung (Lau Kar-Leung), leader of one group of Boxers, disbands his clan as he’s tired of his students being shot to death while his masters try to figure out how to make them invulnerable. He then goes into hiding.
A call goes out to assassins across the country to find and murder Lei Kung. It is rumored that Lei Kung is living in a nearby village but nobody remembers what he looks like. All anybody does know about him is that he is a master of the 18 legendary weapons of China. The plot gets really complicated really quickly after that. Various assassins come to town looking for Lei Kung. One of them, Fang Shao Ching (Kara Hui), comes disguised as a man, accidentally learns that Lei Kung is posing as Uncle Yu, a woodcutter, but before she can kill him, she learns that reason he disbanded his Boxers clan was to keep them safe, and joins his side.
Meanwhile, a local shyster is paid to pose as Lei Kung and puts on a fake battle in the streets in order to draw the real Lei Kung out. This leads to a real battle in a series of outhouses along a riverbank leading to this fantastic bit of dialogue:
You’re covered in shit and unworthy of fighting me. Take a bath first!
There are voodoo dolls, magic fire, flying knives, and the longest final battle in history involving all 18 of those legendary weapons. The fight sequences are incredible. The magic adds an interesting flair to the mix as the sorcerers can conjure up fire and smoke. The practitioners of spiritual kung fu use bits of their clothing as shields. Knives and throwing stars will be launched at them and they’ll undo their shirt, wave it about, and catch all the projectiles as if they were made of paper. Others are able to hide under their cloaks making themselves nearly invisible. All of which is a lot cooler looking than I just made it sound.
The film mixes comedy in with its kung fu action. One of my favorite scenes involves two rival gang members fighting in the attic of the hotel. Another gang member (played by the always wonderful Gordon Liu) enters the room below, causing the fighting duo to go into silent mode as to not have another fighter enter the mix. When he hears something, the hotel steward suggests it must be a cat chasing a mouse, leading the couple in the attic to go back to fighting whilst making animal noises. It is a great gag, but the filmmaker doesn’t allow it to lesson the actual fighting.
Magic, fantastic action, and comedy. What more could you want from a kung fu flick? The final battle does run just a tad too long as they really do use all 18 of the legendary weapons, but otherwise, this is a grand bit of fun.
Both films come with new masters from the original film negatives and they both look quite good. Both also come with a colorful slipcase, a full-color booklet with an essay on the film, plus a nice little double-sided poster. Extras for The Flag of Iron include a spirited audio commentary from Mike Leeder and Arne Venema. They tend to talk about kung fu cinema in general and the Shaw Brothers studio in specific rather than what is happening in the actual film, but it is still a good listen. The commentary on Legendary Weapons of China from Mike Leeder and Arne Venema sticks closer to the film at hand and is a bit more academic, but it is still worth your time. It has a few more extras including an interview with Gordon Liu, and another one with producer Titus Ho, and a video essay from David West.
Both of these films will make an excellent addition to your kung fu video library.