Shawtember: 10 Shaw Brothers Films That You Need To See

When Kill Bill: Volume 1 first premiered in theaters and the opening credits were a visual of the Shawscope logo, with those trumpets sounding off, how many viewers actually knew what that meant? For many others, it was a geek freak out that brought back tons of memories of crazy martial arts action; Shaolin monks battling ninja, evil masters with crazy long eyebrows, intense training sequences, one-armed swordsmen, absurd monsters, and so much more. Not that long ago the Shaw Brothers ruled Hong Kong Cinema. Despite no longer making movies, their influence is still strong today. This can be seen by the filmmakers Quentin Tarantino and Tsai Ming-Liang paying tribute to the studio, the character of Pai Mei being used and veteran Shaw actors such as Gordon Liu still making appearances (1)

The Shaw Brothers had been involved in the film industry since the 1920’s, but the Hong Kong studio wasn’t founded until 1958 (2). Before Shaw came onto the scene; the major stars were women, the primary dialect used was Cantonese, and musicals and romances ruled the box office (2). But everything changed in 1967 when they released The One-Armed-Swordsman, Chang Cheh’s “macho, blood-soaked, Mandarin language martial-arts movie that captured the rage and social turmoil of the sixties, and a studio was born” (2). At its height, they had one of the largest working studios in the world. Called Movie Town, it had somewhere near “850,000 square feet of sound stages, processing labs, residences for casts and crew, and a back lot…of temples, fortresses…and battlefields from 5,000 years of Chinese history” (1). They employed around 1,500 actors and technical employees, 500 of which lived on the studio (3). They were able to produce around 40 films a year and since there was no union, the actors could work as long as 24 hours a day (3). They shot the pictures without sound in order to save time and then recorded the sound later, similar to the Italian film industry. They also invented their own machine for making martial art effects sound (3)

Their reign started to end when other filmmakers branched off to create their own studios, such as Golden Harvest (2). Shaw decided to focus on its television station TVB, and stopped making motion pictures in 1986. Many of Hong Kong cinemas great directors and actors got their start either working on a Shaw film or on their television station Television Broadcast Limited, commonly known as TVB (2).

Come Drink with Me 1966
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An epic wuxia masterpiece directed by King Hu, is considered to be one of the greatest Hong Kong films ever made. A group of bandits kidnap a General’s son in exchange for the release of their imprisoned leader. Golden swallow is sent to rescue the boy, along the way a local drunk named Fan Da-Pei comes to her aid and they eventually battle the bandits and their evil leader.

Everything is top notch in this movie, which is why it’s considered to be one of the greatest ever. King Hu’s directing was meticulous, with strong visuals, art direction, and costume designs (4). One interesting visual that he used is the addition of smoke into various scenes; Hu thought that it made the scene look more appealing (4). One production story was that he spent over two hours on the set working on the Drunken Master’s clothing, in order to make it just right (4). The style of fighting employed was different than in previous cinematic martial arts fights. It was more based on the Peking Opera Style and a ballet, where the fights are more layered (4). Another big difference between this and most of the future Shaw Brother movies are the roles that females play. In this movie, golden swallow plays the main character and she does not wear the typical ornate dresses that had been common for female actresses. Hu was concerned with having dominant female characters and “grace: the fleetness of motion and lightness of touch” (1). The other leading director for Shaw at the time was Chang Cheh, who was more interested in “yang gang (staunch masculinity)” (4). King Hu left after completing this production because he was not happy with the standards of the female and male roles (4).

Flying Guillotine 1974
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“Protect Your Neck!” (5). The emperor is nervous and wants his critics to be eliminated secretly, so he puts Sing Yang in charge. He creates a new weapon called the flying guillotine, which can behead a man from one hundred paces away. After having it created, the emperor orders twelve guardsmen to master it. Ma Teng and Fend Ku excel at the weapon. But Ma Teng ends up disagreeing with the assassinations and becomes a hunted man, which sounds similar to Finn’s story arc in The Force Awakens. Director Meng Hua Ho and writer Kuang Ni have broken away from the traditional martial arts genre elements in this film, with fewer and more believable fight scenes. This is done in order to focus further on the actual weapon and the dramatic story elements. 

The film became a huge success around the world and a grindhouse hit in the U.S. It spawned similar guillotine movies from other studios, most notably Master of the Flying Guillotine starring former Shaw Brother actor Jimmy Wang Yu. The popularity is most likely due to the combination of historical figures, well developed characters, and a weapon that has been rumored to have existed. The emperor Yung Cheng ruled the Manchu Dynasty from 1722-1735 (6). The film and DVD extras state that both the events and weapon are real, but the weapon had to be fabricated because no one had survived in order to give details of its design (7). They apparently all lost their heads like in Alice in Wonderland. This movie most likely has the distinction of having the most on screen decapitations, at around twenty five. The decapitation scenes are quite dramatic. As with most Shaw Brother’s productions, the sets are excellent and there is a great deal of locale shots. Chen Kuan-Tai’s acting is good in this as well, playing the more humane character that tries to escape and start a family. The final fifteen or so minutes of this are pretty intense, despite the lack of traditional martial arts action.

Executioners from Shaolin 1977
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“A fight for vengeance ends in death!” (8) This tagline is a fitting description for a movie that features the evil historical figure Pai Mei, who has some mad skills. In a trademark Chia-Liang Liu opening credits scene, Pai Mei and a Shaolin master have an epic battle set against a red backdrop. Some of the Shaolin students are killed, the rest escape and are able to join a traveling opera group that is a front for the revolution. The son of one of the students trains in order to challenge and defeat Pai Mei.

This is worth watching just because Pai Mei is in it. You just can’t pass up the chance to watch his internal kung-fu, where he is able to retract his man parts up into his groin. Lo Lieh is masterful as this character. Chi-Liang Liu changed martial arts cinema for the Shaw Brothers by “revolutionizing fight choreography in ways that have yet to be surpassed. Liu made lightning-fast movements not only intelligible but  indelible, and the pas de deux he designed for competing modes of combat-short/fast Southern Shaolin styles vs. Wide/weaving Northern Wudang styles-are as essential to any study of dance in cinemas the disparate dazzlements of Fred Astaire or Maya Deren” (1).

Shaolin Challenges Ninja AKA Heroes of the East 1978
heroes of the east

A categorical masterpiece brought to us by Chi-Liang Liu, who displays an exhibition of both Chinese and Japanese martial arts. Gordon Liu plays Ho Tao, a kung fu student who is forced into an arranged marriage with a Japanese woman. Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno) knows karate and Ho Tao finds it to be violent and too masculine. There is conflict between both of them over which country has the superior martial arts and miscommunication leads the Japanese to send a group of Karate experts to challenge Ho.

What transpires because of this challenge is simply martial arts movie magic. The combination of Chi-Liang Liu’s direction and choreography and Gordon Liu’s martial arts skill and physical ability in this film can be compared to any of the greatest filmmakers in our history. Yes, it is that good. There are roughly thirteen fight scenes using close to twenty different weapons plus various styles of martial arts; including Karate, Judo, Crane Style, Drunken Style, Ninjitsu, Kung Fu, and yes Crab Style. While not as well known as Bruce Lee, Jet Li, or Jackie Chan because he never acted in an American motion picture until Kill Bill, Gordon Liu is one of the greatest martial arts actors of all time.

36 Chambers of Shaolin AKA Shaolin Master Killer 1978
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“The Kung Fu Classic That Started It All!” was the tagline for what is considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films (9). Gordon Liu plays legendary monk San Te, who starts off as a revolutionary in a local rebellion and ends up joining the Shaolin monks and training in martial arts. The training includes a series of 35 different levels of tests, in which the student must master one before advancing to the next level.

For many fans and literary critics of the genre, this “ranks as one of the all-time classics of Asian martial arts films and was at the forefront of a new form of martial arts moviemaking that showcased the skill and practice of Shaolin Kung Fu” (10). It has influence beyond just the film industry. In Wu Tang Clan’s first album Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), there’s a line that goes “Yo Meth, where my Killer tape at” which is referencing a VHS tape of Master Killer (10). While this may not be Gordon Liu’s greatest movie, it sent him down a path of playing a Shaolin monk for the quite some time.

Crippled Avengers AKA Return of the Five Deadly Venoms 1978
5 deadly venoms

Featuring the group of Shaw Brother actors referred to as the Venom Mob, there is a lot of mayhem and mutilation in this action packed adventure. A ruler goes insane after his enemies kill his wife and cut off his sons forearms. The son ends up getting mechanical arms and has a bad temper and cripples anyone that he dislikes, like King Joffrey from Game of Thrones. Four of these men seek out a kung fu master in order to get revenge for being crippled by the martial arts master and his son.

The story has a darkness that is similar to a Shakespearean tragedy. There are intense training scenes that showcase all of the actor’s talents and acrobatic abilities, while also focusing on the theme of brotherhood and being united. The action is simply amazing. The storyline of crippled martial artists was copied in a movie called Crippled Masters, in which actual amputees are the actors.

Five Element Ninjas AKA Chinese Super Ninjas 1982
chinese super ninja

This was the first Chang Cheh movie that no longer featured the Venom Mob, with most of them “jockeying for space” and three returning to Taiwan to make films (11). Cheh found a new star in Tien-Chi Cheng, who plays Shao Tien-Hao. Two rival martial arts schools have a competition when Chief Hong challenges Yuan Zeng. Hong brings in a Japanese samurai to be one of the competitors, who ends up being defeated by one of Zeng’s students. The samurai in defeat commits suicide and has a letter sent back to Japan asking to be avenged. The five element ninjas show up and all out craziness ensues.

This is quite possibly Chang Cheh’s most violent and bloody movie, which is one reason why it is so popular and falls in the realm of a cult classic. The ninja costumes and different weapons used stand out. Add to that the story of the hero creating techniques and weapons in order to defeat them makes it quite memorable. The action and fight choreography is outstanding, especially the last twenty or so minutes for the final battle.

Demon of the Lute 1983
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This is a beautiful and bizarre fantasy based martial arts motion picture that is a strange hybrid of a Chang Cheh blood fest and a G rated anime. It would almost be like if an American studio made a movie that was a combination of The Neverending Story and The Teletubbies. A mythical lute has resurfaced after some time and the possessor, called the Demon of the Lute, is going around killing all of the martial arts masters with it. The only way that it can be destroyed is by using the two other martial treasures, a fiery bow and arrow. Both have also been missing. A group of heroes is sent out on a quest to find the missing treasures and save the day, wait that’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This is the definition of what a cult film is. It may be obscure or unpopular for a Shaw Brothers production, but it needs to be seen at least once in a lifetime. It has good action and an endless amount of madness; hermaphrodites, villains with extending beards and appendages, a giant pair of golden scissors, a flying disco ball, a villain with a giant red afro and his thunder flying wheels, attacking trees reminiscent of Evil Dead, among others.

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter 1984
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The film is loosely based on the Yang family who were defeated by the Mongols. After their deaths, the fifth brother goes to a Shaolin temple to improve his pole fighting skills in order to seek revenge. He is able to persuade the abbot to teach him the monk’s pole style.

This was both Chi-Liang Liu and Gordon Liu’s masterpiece. The story and acting is strong, the training sequences are excellent with the wooden wolves, it has the best pole fighting ever, and the final battle is just outstanding. Even though kung fu movies were going “out of fashion;”Jackie Chan and Tsui Hark were both redefining the genre in their own way and yet this “film shows that Liu could match, if not surpass, any of his rivals” (12).

Return of the Bastard Swordsman 1984
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This movie is simply a total phantasmagoric mind-fuck. It’s a melting pot of ninjas versus Chinese clans versus each other; add in wizard sorcery, wire fu, sci-fi special effects, silkworm style, fortune tellers, Shaolin monks, spraying blood, fishing, a swordfight by the sea, acupuncture, medicine men, a bunch of drums, great hand fighting, and stunning swordplay. Oh, and of course killer heartbeat style and the phantom technique, which makes your heart burst out of your mouth. Cult film fans eat your heart out.

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Works Cited

1. The Shaw Brothers' Elephant. Stephens, Chuck. 2004, Filmcomment, pp. 52-57.
2. Out of the Ashes. Hendrix, Grady. 2014, FilmComment, pp. 28-30.
3. Dunlop, Geoff. Taste for Adventure; Fists of Fire. 1975.
4. Hu, King. Come Drink With Me Extras. 1966.
5. IMDB. IMDB. [Online] 1 20, 2016.
6. Global Security. Global Security. [Online] 1 20, 2016.
7. The Flying Guillotine Extras.
8. IMDB. IMDB. [Online] 1 21, 2016.
9. IMDB. IMDB. [Online] 1 21, 2016.
10. Fu, Poshek. China Forever. Chicago : University Press, 2008.
11. Meyers, Ric. Films of Fury. guilford : emery books, 2011.
12. Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters. New York : Wallflower Press, 2003.