When Quentin Tarantino released his two-part martial-arts epic Kill Bill in 2003-4, the opening title proclaimed it was shot in “Shawscope.” In fact, quite a bit of QT’s action flick was a direct homage to the hundreds of brightly colored, hyperactive kung-fu and swordplay flicks produced and imported to the United States by Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios in the ’60s and ’70s. (Gordon Lui, who plays Uma Thurman’s master in the “Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei” section of Kill Bill Vol. 2, is a Shaw Studios alum.)
The Shaw Organization was founded in 1924 by Sir Run Run and Runme Shaw in Singapore. South Sea Film (later Shaw Brothers Studio) was created in 1930, and the coming of sound films allowed the operation to grow out through Malaysia and into Hong Kong. Despite set backs during World War II, by the 1960s the Shaw Brothers Empire owned 130 theaters and three production studios, which operated on the classic Hollywood system, with directors and actors under contract to the Shaws.
The Shaw studios cranked out kung-fu movies at a stunning pace during the ’60s — sometimes as many as 26 a year, and by exporting their films around the globe, the Shaws almost singlehandedly fueled the world-wide kung-fu craze of the ’70s. Sure, Bruce Lee — who was not a Shaw player–did his part as well, but the 1973 mega-success of Lee’s Enter the Dragon came about only because Warner Brothers had seen how rabid American audiences had become for Shaw-style chop-socky.
And what a style it was. Shaw Brothers films from the ’60s and ’70s are distinguished by brightly colored costumes, “slap-choppy” foley soundwork, and often exaggerated clownish comedy or overwrought melodrama. The fighting on display is not as naturalistic as what Lee would introduce to the world, and by today’s standards it certainly feels theatrical and a little “fakey.” But of course that’s part of the films’ absolute charm.
Yes, many of the Shaw Brothers films feel a little silly to 21st-century viewers, but watching them you cannot help but be swept away by their dazzling energy, commitment, and brass-horn bravado. You know you’re watching films made by people who loved making them — not so much with steady care, but with reckless, intoxicating vigor at a breakneck pace. You may rent these movies to have a laugh at their over-the-top style, but you’ll likely come away marveling at their magnificent execution.
Redbox just got three Shaw Brothers kung-fu films in stock, each representing a slightly different visual or narrative style, but each a recommended viewing blast.
This 1971 film, also known as Duel of the Iron Fist, is set amid the crime world of 1930s China and is the most “serious,” melodramatic, and bloodiest of the three. Directed by the prolific Chang Cheh, who would eventually be known as “The Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema,” The Duel display’s Cheh’s trademark “heroic bloodshed” — a grand, angst-ridden attitude that would later be emulated by filmmakers such as John Woo. The story revolves around Shaw star Ti Lung as a Michael Corleone-style mob son who’s drawn into a very violent feud between his own crime family and a rival organization. There’s lots of love, loss, and vengeance, and lots and lots of bright red blood spilled. Plus, Tarantino fans will recognize the nightclub set that directly inspired The House of the Blue Leaves.
Maybe the biggest and broadest of the three, this one has it all — humor, flirting with girls, dark betrayals, desperate measures, and super-tough training sessions with a demanding but caring teacher. Also directed by Cheh, the 1978 film is set at the 18th-century height of the Qing (or Manchu) Dynasty, and as a result features the sort of brightly colored costumes and palace sets for which the Shaw films became known. Best of all, it stars the group of actors that would — following the huge success that same year of The Five Deadly Venoms — come to be known as the Five Venoms or Venom Mob: Lo Mang, Lu Feng, Sun Chien, Chiang Sheng and Kuo Chui, plus Wei Pai who often appeared in the Venom movies.
This Qing Dynasty era romp is probably the most exaggerated and goofy of the three — it follows the Emperor’s two sons who are separated as toddlers when their father is betrayed and murdered. One is raised by the Prime Minister, the other (Ti Lung again) winds up the ward of three silly “Holy Fool” Shaolin masters. That means quite a bit of Stooges-style slapstick humor, but also a ton of truly spectacular martial arts feats. Filmed in 1981 and full of garish costumes, inventive fights, and even some battling ghosts, Shaolin Prince is not nearly as bloody as The Duel, but its proud artifice makes it a whole lot of fun.