Blu-ray Release: February 8, 2022
Audio: English and Cantonese LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 105:19
Director: Lau Kar-leung
When the former member of a failing magical kung-fu order threatens to destroy the remaining group’s reputation through his loud mouth insults and defamatory behavior, an elite band of killers is dispatched to silence him forever. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
The ‘60s and early ‘70s were Shaw Bros.’ golden era, when the studio ruled the Hong Kong movie scene, producing hundreds upon hundreds of films and redefining martial arts cinema. Often slavish to their formulas, their influence waned into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as trends changed and rival studios, like Golden Harvest, took over. In response, Shaw Bros. embraced gimmicks, infused wuxia with other genres, and ballooned the scope of action and violence. Some might consider this era too desperate for attention and too detached from the studio’s core filmmaking, but, if you, like me, love grand spectacle and exploitation cinema, it’s hard to top Shaw Bros. at the beginning of the 1980s. One of the key contributors of the era was Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang), who, after acting as fight choreographer for some of Chang Cheh’s greatest films, struck out as first unit director on enduring hits, including The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer & Shaolin Master Killer, 1978) and Heroes of the East (aka: Challenge of the Ninja & Shaolin vs. Ninja, 1978).
Between the astonishing achievements that were My Young Auntie (aka: Fangs of The Tigress, 1981) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (aka: The Invincible Pole Fighters, 1984), Lau made Legendary Weapons of China (aka: 18 Legendary Weapons of China & Legendary Weapons of Kung Fu, 1982) – a kitchen sink kung-fu classic that coupled traditional wuxia with supernatural elements, historical narratives, slapstick comedy, and a strong central gimmick revolving around the so-called Eighteen Arms of Chinese martial arts. Lau takes no chances with the audience’s attention span. Looking for hand-to-hand fisticuffs? He and co-choreographers Hou Hsiao & Lee King-Chu have you covered with some particularly intricate stunts. Prefer weapons-based fights? Well, you’re obviously going to get plenty of that, just look at the title. Fans of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin series will enjoy an appearance from Gordon Liu and detailed descriptions of kung-fu mythology and fans of Chang’s heroic bloodshed will eat up the brutal drama.
What makes Legendary Weapons of China unique, even among other kitchen sink, late-in-the-game Shaw movies, is its use of rising trends, like supernatural horror, inspired by Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980), and comedy, inspired (in part) by other studios’ success with Jackie Chan star vehicles (noting that My Young Auntie is a pretty funny movie). The lighthearted voodoo/magic fighting antics are more playful than the gory excess of Ho Meng-Hua’s Black Magic (produced by Shaw Bros. in 1975) and helped set a precedent for other kung-fu horror comedies, like Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1985) and Ching Siu-tung & Tsui Hark’s Chinese Ghost Story (1987). The combination of elements is expectedly messy and it can be difficult to follow the plot and keep track of the characters, but rarely in a frustrating way. Similarly, some of the comedy will probably become grating to modern audiences waiting for the stakes to get serious again, following some very silly interludes. Assuming you’re prepared for some patchy storytelling and over-the-top tonal shifts, however, there really are few films that compare to Legendary Weapons of China.
Besides Liu, who appears in a supporting role, and Lau himself as a master in hiding at the center of the story, the all-star cast also includes Lau’s real-life brother Lau Kar-wing as his rival, Disciples of Shaolin’s (1975) Alexander Fu Sheng as comic relief, and Mad Monkey Kung Fu’s (1979) Ho Hsiao and My Young Auntie’s Kara Wai as the young leads. Lau’s final film as director for Shaw Bros. was Martial Arts of Shaolin (aka: Shaolin Temple 3: Martial Arts of Shaolin, 1986), starring a young Jet Li, but his career didn’t end there. Post-Shaw, he directed the unrelentingly cool, John Woo-inspired shoot-em-up Tiger on the Beat (1988), starring Chow Yun-fat, and the single greatest Jackie Chan movie, Drunken Master II (aka: Legend of the Drunken Master, 1994). His final film was Drunken Monkey (2003), which was the first Shaw Bros. branded release in more than two decades. He passed away ten years later in 2013.
Shaw Bros. movies have been shared via official VHS/VCDs, bootlegs, and grey market imports for decades. Legendary Weapons of China had stateside DVDs released via Image Entertainment (solo and alongside four other Shaw Bros. movies) and Ground Zero, seemingly taken from the same Celestial Pictures-branded anamorphic transfer as the company’s R3 discs. Eventually, an HD version made it onto streaming services, as happens with several of the studio’s films (especially popular ones, like this one) and I assume that transfer was taken from the same remaster of the 35mm negatives. There are almost always issues with the HD Shaw remasters and, excepting authoring issues, they’re rarely the Blu-ray company or streaming service’s fault, but, also in keeping with other Shaw BDs, the pluses vastly outweigh the minuses. This particular 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is a bit darker (often because the movie itself is pretty dark) and has occasional over-sharpening issues, but the majority of artifacts, such as soft shots and anamorphic distortions, are built into the footage. Despite some edge haloes, details generally feel natural and element separation is tight.
Legendary Weapons of China comes with English and Cantonese language dubs, both in LPCM 2.0 mono. Being a Hong Kong-based studio at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, the classic Shaw Bros. movies would have needed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio & subtitle options. A lot of us saw these films for the first time with their English dubs and will want to stick with that, but I’m happy this disc includes the Cantonese option, which would’ve been the language most cast members were speaking on set (previous 88 Films disc only had Mandarin dubs). The English dub cast features a dozen familiar voices that successfully convey the comedy, even when the words aren’t as precisely translated as the subtitles state. The two dubs are similar in terms of effects, music, dialogue clarity, volume, and hiss distortion. The Cantonese track has slightly better bass and the English track has slightly better depth, but neither exhibit notable compression issues.
Commentary with Asian cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema – Leeder, who also works as casting director, stunt coordinator, and producer, and Venema, the director and co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong, take a playful approach to their mile-a-minute track, discussing the making of the film, its cast & crew’s careers, and other Shaw Bros. releases.
Commentary with Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng and actor/martial artist Michael Worth – Programmer, producer, and critic Djeng and Fists of Iron (1995) actor Worth also explore the making of The Legendary Weapons of China and careers of its cast & crew, but offer a valuable historical and cultural context, as well as descriptions of some of the martial arts performed in the film.
Commentary with Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng – This second Djeng commentary is an academic track and fills in some missing factoids. It is the most well-prepped of the three commentaries and arguably the best place to begin.
Eighteen Weapons (13:18, HD) – An interview with critic David West, who explores the idea that Legendary Weapons of China was designed as a meta-commentary on the history of Shaw Bros. movies and other martial arts fiction.
Gordon at Shaw (15:09, HD) – Star Gordon Liu recalls his career with the studio and the various filmmakers he worked with in this 2004 interview.
Titus at Shaw (24:33, HD) – Producer Titus Ho closes things out with a look back at his work as writer and producer with Shaw Bros.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.