Shawscope Collection Volume 2 Blu-ray Collection Review
Blu-ray Release: December 6, 2022
Video: 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 (Boxer's Omen and The Bare-footed Kid only)/1080p/Color
Audio: Mandarin, Cantonese, and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono (not every film includes both Mandarin and Cantonese options)
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: Various
Director: Lau Kar-leung, Chang Cheh, Wong Jing, Kuei Chih-Hung, Mar Lo, and Johnnie To
Picking up where Volume One left off, this sophomore collection of Hong Kong cinema classics draws together many of the best films from the final years of the Shaw Brothers studio, proving that, while the end was nigh, these merchants of martial arts mayhem weren’t going to go out without a fight! Armed with stunning special features and ravishing new restorations, this box set is even bigger and bolder than the last one. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, 1978)
Click here for a slightly longer look at this classic and the contents of this particular disc.
Return to the 36th Chamber (aka: Return of the Master Killer, 1980)
When a dye factory’s bosses cut wages and hire Manchurian mercenaries to manage staff, the workers enlist the assistance of a con man named Chu Jen-chieh (Gordon Liu, called Zhou Renjie in the subtitles). Chu poses as the head abbot and master of the 36th Chamber, San Te (Lee King-chue, not Gordon Liu), but is discovered by the Manchu, who retaliate against the workers. Wracked with guilt, he sneaks into the Shaolin temple in hopes of learning kung fu from the real San Te.
Following its enormous international impact, demand grew for director Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang) to revisit The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The concept of sequels wasn’t new to Hong Kong cinema or Shaw Bros. Studios, but Lau himself was reportedly not keen on the idea, despite revisiting similar themes throughout his career and the fact that previous films of his, The Spiritual Boxer (1975) and Executioners from Shaolin (1977), received the sequel treatment (albeit under different directors). It works as a follow-up, but functions better as a sort of a spoof of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, retelling much of the same story with a comically inept conman in place of the original movie's heartfelt hero. It’s a lot like a prototype Stephen Chow comedy, minus the irony and the cruelty of the average Chow protagonist. Return to the 36th Chamber ends up revisiting the first movie a bit too much and can be obnoxiously, cartoonishly broad (to give you an idea, Hsiao Ho is fitted with massive buck teeth, a unibrow, and a giant forehead mole and, later, Gordon Liu weaponizes laxatives), but Liu’s sweet-natured performance anchors the wild tonal shifts from melodrama to goofball, the cinematography is a step above, and Lau’s direction remains creative, even when he’s forced to repeat himself. Despite a lack of action throughout, the final act is a thoroughly satisfying preview of what was to come in Lau and Liu’s 1984 collaboration, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (aka: The Invincible Pole Fighters).
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (aka: Disciples of the Master Killer, 1985)
Fong Sai-yuk (Hsiao Ho) is a gifted martial artist, but he struggles with his studies, much to the chagrin of his academic father. When Fong’s insubordination goes too far, he and his brothers are sheltered by the local Shaolin temple, where they undergo rigorous training under the master of the 36th Chamber, San Te (Gordon Liu).
Five years after the first sequel and seven years after the original film, Lau once again revisited the 36th Chamber for the final official entry in his trilogy. Disciples of the 36th Chamber (not to be confused with Chang Cheh’s Disciples of Shaolin ) is more of a proper follow-up to 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It matches the original film’s ambition as a martial arts and acrobatic showcase piece, prioritizing spectacular choreography and set-pieces. The story is a similarly structured morality tale with the same historical villains, but the lead character contrasts San Te as a natural talent who must learn humility, rather than an underestimated novice. Fong Sai-yuk is a Shaolin folk hero who also appears in Chang Cheh’s Heroes Two (1974) and Shaolin Temple (1976), though Hsiao Ho’s portrayal is closer to the impish rogue Jet Li played in Corey Yuen’s Fong Sai-yuk (1993, released stateside under the title The Legend). Part of the fun of this particular movie is the idea of crossing over Fong and his mother (a folk hero in her own right) with a real-life legend and franchise star like San Te. If you use your imagination, Disciples of the 36th Chamber works as both a sequel to The 36th Chamber and a prequel to Yuen’s film. The three might even function as a better triple-feature than the officially-linked Shaw trilogy. Lau’s regulars all make an appearance, including the man himself as an under-boss of the rival Manchus.
Return to the 36th Chamber and Disciples of the 36th Chamber are among the handful of films in the second Shawscope collection to not be remastered specifically for the set. Instead, Arrow is sticking with the older, but still serviceable Celestial Pictures 1080p transfers. The main side effect is that there is a sheen of noise and some wiggly edges, seemingly caused by heavy-handed DNR. Colors are vibrant and punchy, sometimes to the point that the most intense white levels and deepest shadows glow with a slight blue tint. Both films include Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dub options, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono. Again, these movies were shot largely without sound, so there is no original language dub and the choice between the tracks comes down to taste and comparative audio quality. In both cases, Gordon Liu appears to be dubbing his own performance in Cantonese, so I’d recommend sticking with either that track or the English one, if you prefer the charm of a typical American kung fu dub. Composer Eddie Wang’s twangy Return to the 36th Chamber hero theme is a big highlight.
For a Few Chambers More (14:50, HD) – A 2003 interview with Gordon Liu conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine. This is part of the same series of interviews Ambroisine recorded with the star that appear on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin disc, but the subject matter sticks to the two sequels.
Citizen Shaw (57:42, HD) – A 1980 French TV documentary directed by Maurice Frydland, in which Sir Run Run Shaw gives an all-access tour of the Shaw Brothers backlot, including behind-the-scenes footage from Return to the 36th Chamber. It has been remastered from a video source.
A Hero on the Scaffolding (14:40, SD) – Liu, an unnamed martial arts trainer, and bamboo scaffold workers compare the film’s scaffold kung fu and the actual art of scaffolding in this 2003 Celestial Pictures featurette
Alternate opening credits – Return to the 36th Chamber HK theatrical credits (1:32, HD), Return to the 36th Chamber English title sequence (1:45, HD), and Disciples of the 36th Chamber alternate credits (4:15, HD)
Hong Kong theatrical and digital reissue trailers for both movies
Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)
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Five Superfighters (1978)
A wandering master donning a black cloak and straw hat enters town intent on defeating and humbling practitioners of weak kung fu. After fighting off an entire school, he viciously trounces an older teacher named Wan (Hau Chiu-sing) and his contingent of three students (Leung Siu-Hung, Austin Wai, and Yeun Mo). Unable to avenge their master, the students agree to travel the countryside to learn new forms of fighting and reconvene in six months time. On the road, they hook up with different teachers, each more eccentric than the last.
Five Superfighters (one word, not super-fighters or super fighters) is the one and only film from Tawainese actor/director Mar Lo (aka: John Law Ma) on the Shawscope Volume 2 set. Lo had largely stuck to drama and comedy throughout his time at Shaw Bros, but no studio regular could escape the martial arts machine for long during the late ‘70s. Arrow saw fit to include Five Superfighters on a disc with Lau’s Mad Monkey Kung Fu for the obvious reason that it also highlights drunken boxing and animal-themed kung fu, hence the alternate titles of Drunken Fighter and Monkey Kung Fu. Confusingly, Lo also directed 1979’s Monkey Kung Fu, aka: Stroke of Death, which is not to be confused with Five Superfighters or Mad Monkey Kung Fu. But I digress. Five Superfighters scores points for getting down to business and heavily prioritizing its fights and training scenes, but is one of the more middling films on this set. Those prepared to overlook the by-the-numbers plot and stock (not to mention really unlikable) characters are still in for a structurally sound and action-heavy experience. Industry veteran Hsu Hsia is credited as action director and his work is a little stale, but technically quite impeccable and beautifully punctuated by Mar’s use of still frames and slow motion. As a performer and/or choreographer, he had worked/would work under most of the era’s greatest directors, including King Hu, Chang Cheh, John Woo, Yuen Woo-ping, and Chor Yuen.
Five Superfighters had a nice anamorphic DVD release from IVL in Hong Kong and was previously available in HD on Amazon streaming. This is one of the collection’s 2K restorations and the clean-up produces decent grain and balanced levels. Cinematographer Lin Chao shot quite a bit of this one outside in the elements and a lot of scenes take place at night, which makes this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer comparatively naturalistic. The best-looking sequences stand out for their dynamic range and textures, rather than tight edges and vibrant colors. The film is presented with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dub options, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono. This time, the English sub has advantages in terms of volume, clarity, and sound quality, though the Cantonese track comes awfully close and, naturally, has the better lip sync. In the scenes I sampled, the Mandarin track was softer and had muffled music and effects. Eddie Wang’s funky original music (or what I assume is original, you can never tell with Shaw Bros…) is good enough to prioritize mix over performance.
Hong Kong theatrical trailer and UK VHS promo
Invincible Shaolin (aka: Unbeatable Dragon, 1978)
A Qing general (Wang Lung-wei) hatches a plan to invite three Northern (Sun Chien, Chin Siu-ho, and Feng Lu) and three Southern Shaolin fighters to his residence for a “friendly” duel. After the duel is completed, he murders the Southern students and has his officials blame the Northern school. Following a second deadly defeat at the hands of the Northern Shaolin, the Southern master (Chan Shen) disbands his school and orders his students (Phillip Kowk, Lo Meng, Wei Pai) to learn counterstrikes to the invincible Northern attacks. Meanwhile, the Northern masters begin to suspect treachery…
Invincible Shaolin – not to be confused with Cheng Hou’s Taiwanese Shaolin Invincibles (1977) – was the second of super director Chang Cheh’s so-called Venom Mob films was released only three months after the series granddaddy, The Five Venoms (aka: The Five Deadly Venoms, 1978), before the studio knew it had a major hit on its hands. While nowhere near the phenomenon Five Venoms was, Invincible Shaolin might actually match what became the Venom story template in the years to come, making it easy to confuse with a dozen or so other movies. Fortunately, it’s still a strong showing from Chang, who focuses on training montages and crisp, hyperviolent action (seriously, it might be the goriest movie in the set), and the cast, who elevate generic characters that are required to do borderline stupid things to serve the plot. The script, by Chang and regular collaborator Ni Kuang, also isn’t as cluttered as the later Venom movies tend to be. I hesitate to call it underrated, because Chang and Venom Mob fans are well aware of it, but Invincible Shaolin seems to have slid under some radars here in the US.
(For more on Chang and the Venom Mob, read the following entry on The Kid with the Golden Arm.)
Invincible Shaolin had nice DVD releases from TVP in Germany and IVL in Hong Kong, but, stateside, the only official disc was non-anamorphic. There was also a German Blu-ray from Great Movies that was 1080i. Arrow’s Blu-ray is in 1080p and features a new 2K restoration of the Celestial Pictures scan. Visually, this is a prototypical Chang Cheh movie with colorful costumes and production design, mega-wide anamorphic lenses, and bright lighting schemes, so it all looks very nice in HD. There are typical signs of DNR, but still plenty of texture and not too much digital noise in place of natural grain. The film is fitted with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dubs, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono. Once again, the tracks are similar, but the English and Cantonese dubs have clarity and volume advantages, especially where the Tchaikovsky-esque library music is concerned. The Cantonese dialogue track is also cleaner than the other two.
Hong Kong theatrical trailer
The Kid with the Golden Arm (1979)
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Magnificent Ruffians (aka: The Destroyers, 1979)
A group of homeless, jobless bodyguards (Philip Kwok, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng, and Wang Li) find themselves struggling to eat. They soon find themselves in the employ of a wealthy local crime boss/business owner (Lu Feng), who recognizes their skill and poses as a friend and benefactor in hopes of siccing them on his business rival and her kung fu adept son (Lo Mang).
The impossibly prolific Chang Cheh basically became a Venom Mob delivery machine during the dwindling days of the Shaw dynasty and, while he still had few classics in his repertoire, including House of Traps (1982) and the non-Venom Five Element Ninjas (also 1982), some of these films have an interchangeable quality. Magnificent Ruffians attempts to avoid the doldrums of the formula by shifting the setting to the early 20th century and emphasizing comedy over Chang’s preferred heroic bloodshed mode. I assume both choices were also made in an effort to match changing industry fads. The result is a very patchy and episodic film that deemphasizes plot in favor of set pieces – some comedic, some action-oriented. The comedy tends to fall flat, aside from a funny early gag, where a restaurant’s entire staff beat the hell out of people who can’t pay their bills, but the action is mostly up to par, especially the climax, where the surviving Venoms must avenge their friends. The funniest element ends up being the fact that Chang can’t keep up the facade of a comedy and plunges the final act into bleak melodrama and violent mayhem.
Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (1980)
A group of kung fu disciples find themselves embroiled in the machinations and personal vendettas of their Ming and Manchu-loyal masters, culminating in a series of elaborate assassinations.
On the previous disc’s extras, author/expert Terrence J. Brady argues that Ten Tigers of Kwangtung can be considered a Venom Mob film, but that it’s closer to a star-heavy ensemble movie; one like Ocean’s Eleven (1960), Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), or any of the other Rat Pack movies that exists for the sake of the ensemble, not the storytelling or even greater continuity (unlike Hollywood superhero team ups). Actually, also like those movies, this one involves gambling houses and opens with a revenge scheme patterned like a heist. It features just about every big name in Shaw’s repertoire, which becomes overwhelming by the time Chang is introducing the dozenth major character, especially if you just watched it back-to-back with Magnificent Ruffians, because the two films share so many actors and sets (more obviously than usual, that is), as well as the Qing time period. It doesn’t help that the filmmakers are assuming the audience is extensively familiar with the folk heroes the enormous cast is portraying, so they really barrel forward without pausing for exposition (unless you consider the lengthy flashbacks that make up the majority of the movie as exposition). Still, the breakneck pace and story structure keeps Chang moving from one increasingly brutal fight to the next, ensuring that Ten Tigers of Kwangtung remains an entertaining 91 minutes.
Magnificent Ruffians had zero official US home video releases, as far as I can tell, while Ten Tigers of Kwangtung had a nice DVD showing via Media Blasters. For a physical copy of Celestial Pictures’ HD scan, fans would’ve had to import recent German Blu-rays. Each film represents another 2K restoration upgrade over Celestial’s original transfers. Magnificent Ruffians is a relatively muted movie for Chang, as most of the costume and set decoration is made up of neutral greys, browns, and tans. This makes for a more even experience that is magnified by the softness of most shots. Those bloody reds really stick out, though. Ten Tigers of Kwangtung is a bit brighter, but with similar sharpness.
Magnificent Ruffians comes with Mandarin and English mono dub options in uncompressed DTS-HD. This time, the English track is the louder one and has slightly better dynamic range, so, if you’re alright with Shaw’s dubbing style, I’d recommend it – and keep your ears open for musical cues lifted from Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver score. Ten Tigers of Kwangtung has Cantonese, Mandarin, and English options, also in DTS-HD mono. The English track is softer than the other two, though Eddie Wang’s symphonic score and the usual clang-clang sound effects are quite tinny on the two Chinese tracks.
Commentary on Ten Tigers of Kwangtung by Brandon Bentley – The writer/director of such shorts as The Crossing (2012) and Honey in the Lion’s Den (2021) discusses the film’s two-part plot, Shaw Bros’ struggles at the end of the ‘70s, shifts from Mandarin to Cantonese languages, the real-world history behind the story, the careers and personal lives of the cast & crew, a television version of the Ten Tigers legend, and some of the film’s martial arts techniques.
Baby Venom (21:14, HD) – A 2003 interview with star Chin Siu-ho conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine. Chin recalls his upbringing in the Shaw system, his favorite filmmakers and collaborators, making incredible non-Shaw movies, like Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1985) and Yuen Woo-ping’s Tai Chi Master (1993), and his disre to play a wide variety of characters.
Rivers and Lakes (22:34, HD) – A brand new video essay on Shaw Brothers’ depiction of Chinese myth and history, written and narrated by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts: East Asian Fighting Styles, from Kung Fu to Ninjutsu (Robinson, 2017). This is a particularly valuable primer that covers the changes to the Shaw directives as it became an international company, the ways that pop culture stories replaced history following the Cultural Revolution, the Manchu as stand-ins for Communists, references to contemporary Triads, and various inaccuracies and anachronisms throughout the movies.
Ten Tigers of Kwangtung textless title sequence (1:16, HD)
Magnificent Ruffians Hong Kong and German trailers
Ten Tigers of Kwangtung Hong Kong trailers and US TV spot
My Young Auntie (aka: Fangs of The Tigress, 1981)
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Mercenaries from Hong Kong (1982)
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The Boxer's Omen (1983)
Click here for a slightly longer look at this stone cold classic, its A/V quality, and specific extras.
Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986)
Lin Zhi-Ming (Jet Li), a young orphan monk training at the Northern Shaolin school, learns of a birthday celebration for the tyrannical lord that killed his parents (Yu Chenghui). Disguised as a lion dancer, he attempts to assassinate the magistrate, only to stumble upon a separate assassination attempt from the Southern Shaolin school. When both attempts fail, Zhi-Ming befriends two Southern survivors, Yan Si-ma (Huang Qiuyan) and Chao Wei (Hu Jianqiang).
Lau Kar-leung’s final film for Shaw Bros. was a sequel to Chang Hsin-yen’s The Shaolin Temple (1982) and Kids from Shaolin (aka: Shaolin Temple 2: Kids from Shaolin, 1984), which introduced the world to a singular talent named Jet Li (Li Lianjie). On the set, it is referred to under its generic American title, Martial Arts of Shaolin, but it is also known as Shaolin Temple 3. It’s a bit awkward to not have the other two Shaolin Temple movies included, but they were made under Golden Harvest and Celestial Pictures didn’t prepare a new master. While there are connections to the previous films, they are generally standalone features. Like the others, Martial Arts of Shaolin was shot on location in mainland China and produced well into the ‘80s New Wave revamp of the wuxia formula, so it feels very different from the other Lau-directed films on this set. All of his favorite themes are present, even magnified by the use of real-world locations, but the scale feels much bigger, bolstered by contemporary filmmaking techniques, camera movement, and use of slow motion. The storyline is often lost in a procession of acrobatic exhibition and pageantry, but it’s worth it to see Lau and the stunt crew completely unleashed.
The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
A shoeless vagabond named Kwan Fung-yiu (Aaron Kwok) journeys to the capital city in hopes of finding a new home and vocation. There, he meets with his father’s friend, Tuen Ching-wan (Ti Lung), who finds Fung-yiu work at the Four Seasons Weaver, a dye factory run by Pak Siu-kwan (Maggie Cheung). He also meets Wah Wong-lin (Jacklyn Wu), the daughter of the magistrate’s academic instructor, Mr. Wah (Paul Chun). After finding himself in the middle of a feud with Four Seasons and rival factory Dragon Spinners, Fung-yiu joins a fighting ring, where his troubles begin to multiply.