Last year Arrow Video released Shawscope Volume One. Now, with Christmas just around the corner, it’s time to check if it’s worth investing in an extra large stocking for Father Christmas to cram this ten disc behemoth into when he calls.
The format hasn’t changed since last time: ten discs, eight Blu-rays and two CDs, featuring in total 14 movies, hours of music, and a whole mountain top monastery’s worth of special features. In short, this is a very good way for someone to get their hands on a lot of Shaw Brothers content.
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The first question is: are the movies any good? As before it’s a mixed bag. The Shaw Brothers’ archive is vast, and while it’s not hard to find some utter bilge, you also don’t have to root around too much to pull out movies that are at least good. This selection gives us some pretty good choices, and a couple of absolute must-watch gems as well – exactly like the first set.
First up it’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Regarded by many martial arts fans as the greatest film the Shaw Brothers ever made, in this collection it receives top flight VIP treatment. It gets a full 4K restoration; one new full commentary and one select scenes commentary; archival interviews with cinematographer Arthur Wong and star Gordon Liu; as well as two archive featurettes with Liu – ‘Shaolin: Birthplace of a Hero’ and ‘Elegant Trails’.
Another featurette, ‘Tiger Style: The Musical Impact of Martial Arts Cinema’, gives a fascinating look into the way these movies have shaped musical culture, most notably hip hop. It’s this kind of cultural reflection documentaries that help justify these physical collections. We’re also given the second part of Celestial Pictures documentary ‘Cinema Hong Kong: Swordfighting’. But why so much razzamatazz for this film? Telling a fictionalised version of the training of San Te, a legendary Shaolin monk, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin was released in 1978 and basically created the popular ‘training for revenge’ storyline that became a mainstay of the genre.
After all of that, there are still seven more discs of features on this mammoth collection. Eight of the remaining films have received a 2K restoration, the other five have just been cleaned up a bit. When confronted with the sheer scale of the project, it’s easy to understand why some haven’t received the silver package wash and wax. After all, Return To The 36th Chamber and Disciples Of The 36th Chamber are both not great, and included only because they are the sequels to 36th Chamber, though Return is worth watching on its own merits.
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Similarly Martial Arts of Shaolin is a mid-80s cliched box ticker, made at a time the Shaw Brothers star was on the wane. The Bare-Footed Kid is interesting mostly as it is a 1993 remake of the 1975 film, Disciples of Shaolin. Other than that… it’s fine. However, My Young Auntie is a movie that deserves more than this Vauxhall Conference relegation. Most western audiences wont recognise the lead Kara Wai Ying-hung, but her work is outstanding. Here it was recognised as such, and she won Best Actress at the inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards. This is also a notable film as it showed a departure for writer and director Lau Kar-leung’s usual straight-faced stories to a more comedic film. As with the previous set, the lack of decent restoration is jarring in comparison to the love shown to other films in the set, even if it is understandable given cost and time constraints. It’s no doubt better to have these films included than left out.
It’s vital to note that scattered throughout each disc are a plethora of special features. The third part to that Celestial Pictures documentary for example? That’s on My Young Auntie. In total there are new commentaries or partial commentaries on seven of the 14 features, 15 archive features of varying length and seven brand new ones. That’s not to mention alternative cuts, versions, theatrical trailers, and stills. You get a lot!
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So what of the mid-table movies? Strap in, there’s a few. Starring and directed by Lau Kar-leung, like much of his work Mad Monkey Kung Fu is a movie that elevates and celebrates the ‘art’ in martial arts. In Five Superfighters a mysterious man in black comes to town and beats up kung-fu practitioners because their kung fu is weak. This insult must not go unpunished and so they decide to take revenge, which means going and learning to be better at kung fu, which proves the point and so you have to wonder where the insult was in the first place. But we must not dwell on such matters, and it’s an enjoyable film with good performances and some interesting multi-person fight scenes, with a fight over a bowl of eggs being an imaginative highlight.
Invincible Shaolin and The Kid with the Golden Arm are both Venom Mob films; a group of actors who often starred together and made their name in Five Deadly Venoms, featured in Volume One. Unusually, both star Wei Pei, the Venom you see least of. Invincible Shaolin is what it is, but Golden Arm, without managing to be original or involving, nonetheless gives us some great fight scenes and should appeal to all fans of the genre. The Magnificent Ruffians is a melodrama of the highest order, while the Ten Tigers of Kwangtung boasts an all-star cast that should have any lover of these movies salivating.
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Fans of the movies Wild Geese or The Dirty Dozen will recognise the tropes found in Mercenaries From Hong Kong. After all the wuxia and historical films in the set, it’s something of a palate cleanser. The Boxer’s Omen also provides a very different type of movie, with director Chih-Hung giving us a slightly bizarre horror. Additionally there are two discs of music and a 60-page collectors’ book, neither of which were available for review.
This box set is fantastic, either as accompaniment to Volume One or as a standalone entry into the world of the Shaw Brothers. Many of these movies represent some of the very best from a studio that had a huge cultural and artistic impact, and Arrow Video have created a fantastic set at a more than reasonable price. Go and buy it.
Shawscope Volume Two is out now from Arrow Video.