Blu-ray Review: Shawscope Volume One

Shaw Brothers was the biggest studio in Hong Kong during the mid-20th Century. The brothers Runje, Runme, Runde and Run Run had been producing films in China since 1925. In 1958, they set up Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong and more importantly built Movietown. This massive studio complex allowed them to make films around the clock. Their actors, stuntmen and even production crews lived on the complex. The studio dominated Hong Kong’s output in the ’60s. By the ’70s, they felt a bit of heat from former executives that went off to start Golden Harvest with Bruce Lee as their big star. Shaw Brothers were more than up for competition in the world of martial arts and put out numerous films that played in theaters around the world. The studio made nearly 1,000 films during its glory days. Not all of their films featured flying fists. Even with a shorter list, a novice fan looks at the studio’s output can get overwhelmed pondered “where do I start?” The good news is Shawscope Volume One is a prime introductory sampler as it touches upon the studio’s brightest talents that busted up everything on the screen in the 1970s. The boxset also delivers upgrades to their classic titles for longtime fans.

Shawscope Volume One features 12 feature films including quite a few of the gems of the Shaw Brothers’s vault. They’re presented in a way that you can go King Boxer to Dirty Ho and feel like you’re in the midst of a great film festival.

Exclusive artwork reveal for Arrow Video's Shawscope Volume One Shaw  Brothers Blu-ray box set

King Boxer (1972 – 106 minutes – Directed by Jeong Chang-hwa) is considered the first Asian martial arts film to play in America. Warner Brothers picked up the movie and distributed as Five Fingers of Death before releasing Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon. This was a smart move since it allowed movie goers to get a taste of what’s to come. Zhihao (Lieh Lo) dreams of being the best martial arts fighter in his area. He’s so good that his teacher sends him to a greater master so he can learn the fabled Iron Fist. This doesn’t quite go to plan since a major competitor at the upcoming tournament gets jealous, organizes a gang and beats Zhihao into a bloody pulp. But Zhihao refuses to give up and rehabs himself. But is it enough to claim revenge and the title? It’s easy to see how this movie astonished audiences that weren’t used to such explosive and dynamic fight sequences. King Boxer made them realize there was more to swapping blows than the brutish boxing moves Hollywood had embraced for decades.

The Boxer From Shantung (1972 – 134 minutes – directed by Chang Cheh) delved into the gangster aspect of life in China. Ma Yung Chen (Kuan Tai Chen) is a kid from the sticks who arrives in Shanghai. He is impressed by the wealth of certain people in the city. Instead of going to a factory to work his way to the boardroom, Chen puts together his own mobster crew and begins to make a name for himself against rival gangsters. But how long can he last in the cutthroat city? The film was released in US as Killer from Shantung. The boxer in the title would have probably thrown off American viewers imagining a tale involving fights inside a boxing ring.

Mighty Peking Man (1977 – 90 minutes – Ho Meng-hua) was the Shaw Brothers trying to get a piece of the giant monster market. In the wake of Dino De Laurentiis, the studio hired guys who worked on Toho’s Godzilla to create a creature that will stomp Hong Kong like Tokyo. The film is different from King Kong in that the beauty (Evelyne Kraft) that tames the beast lives with the giant ape in India. The film didn’t arrive in US cinemas until 1980 when Dino’s King Kong was long gone. The movie was renamed Goliathon and gained a cult audience for its weirdness. During the time that Quentin Tarantino had his own home video line, he put out Might Peking Man on VHS.

Five Shaolin Masters (1974 – 105 minutes – Directed by Chang Cheh) takes us back to the Shaolin Temple. This monastery featured monks who taught their unique and valued version of Kung Fu. The government didn’t like this happening, so they sent their troops to the temple and burned it down. Five students survive the carnage and split up so they can keep teaching the lessons of the Shaolin. Their goal is to raise up a fighting force and attack. The movie stars Alexander Fu Sheng. The young actor had the moves and likability that made him the new Bruce Lee without copying Bruce Lee. He would die young in a car crash. The film was released in America as 5 Masters of Death. Director Chang Cheh was all about groups of five fighters in his Shaw Brothers epics.

Shaolin Temple (1976 – 120 minutes – Directed by Chang Cheh) is a sequel that’s the prequel to Five Shaolin Masters. This takes us back to when the masters showed up at the temple hoping to be students. We get an explanation why the monks bent their rules and took taught them their martial arts skills. We also see the outrageous challenges of the various chambers inside the temple that the students must master. The last part of the film is a massive fight sequence that puts the students to the extreme test. The movie was originally released in America as Death Chamber which looks impressive on a downtown marquee.

Challenge of the Masters (1976 – 97 minutes – Directed by Lau Ker-leung) allows Godon Liu (Kill Bill) to play the legendary Wong Fei-Hung. The film takes place in the early years when the character was not legendary. In fact, he isn’t much of a fighter and rather jerkish. His Kung Fu master doesn’t think Wong can learn the necessary skills. After losing badly at a tournament, Wong ends up assigned to a new master (Lau Ker-leung) except the student-master relationship ends abruptly thanks to outside forces. Wong swears he’ll complete his lessons and get revenge with his new skills.

Executioners From Shaolin (1977 – 100 minutes – Directed Lau Ker-leung) gives us an opposite view of the Temple. The film opens with the soldiers burning down the temple except we’re given Priest Pai Mei (Lieh Lo) and his student Kao Tsin Chung (Tao Chiang) killing the Shaolin monks. Hung hsi Kuan (Kuan Tai Chen) escapes and swears revenge on the duo. While training for his comeback, he falls in love with Fang Yung-chun (Lily Li). They have a son although the dad refuses to train the kid in Tiger style. All the son knows is Crane style which is what women use to fight. The revenge gets nasty and the son has to figure out a way to get involved at taking on Pai Mei.

Chinatown Kid (1977 – 115 minutes – Directed by Chang Cheh) brings a contemporary storyline to a Shaw Brothers production. Tan Tung (Alexander Sheng Fu) gets sent to San Francisco to avoid the gangs back in Hong Kong. But the kid has to deal with gangs in the land of Rice-A-Roni. The kid eventually joins one gang during a turf war only to understand how nasty things are inside the underworld empire. Can he put an end to it all or at least escape? The film uses a lot of location shots from San Francisco although it appears a majority of the film was shot on the backlot of Movietown in Hong Kong. There’s a 90-minute shorter version, but it cuts out a lot of fighting.

The Five Venoms (1978 – 102 minutes – Directed by Chang Cheh) is about a man who trained five men in secret without each other knowing to form his Venom clan. He believes that some of the Venoms are using their kung fu skills for evil purposes. He sends a sixth student out to find the good ones and defeat the bad ones. This one plays with great vibes since during the training scenes, the Venoms are wearing masks and using the moves of unusual creatures including a salamander. : essays

Crippled Avengers (1978 – 106 minutes – directed by Chang Cheh) was sold as a sequel to Five Venoms but is a different film with a similar cast. A gang attacks the family of Du Tiando by cutting off their limbs. Du gives his son iron legs and arms and trains him to get revenge on the gang. While this would seem enough of a film, turns out Du’s revenge goes towards anyone that rubs him wrong. He has a group of men disabled as punishment. These newly disabled men group together, train and attempt revenge on Du and his family. There’s a lot of nasty torture bits along with the fighting. When the film was released in America, the distributor called it Mortal Combat.

Heroes of the East (1978 – 105 minutes – Directed by Lau Kar-Leung) is a film about how things can go extremely wrong at the start of a marriage. Ho Tao (Gordon Liu) finds himself in an arranged marriage to Yumiko Koda (Yuka Mizuno). She’s from Japan and doesn’t dig his Chinese martial arts skills. She thinks Japanese fighting is the best. The two can’t give ground and she takes off for home. Tao does love her, so he sends her an offer to fight to greatest fighter in Japan. Her father decides to send a team of fighters to China to snuff out his soon-to-be-ex-son-in-law. Tao has to learn new techniques with each Japanese opponent. It’s a romantic comedy with chops.

Dirty Ho (1979 – 103 minutes – Directed Lau Kar-Leung) has Gordon Liu as the 11th Prince of Manchuria, Wang Tsun Hsin. He’s tracking down the thief Ho Jen (Yue Wong). Wang tries to be stealthy about his investigation and in fact grows attached to Ho. He allows the unwitting thief to be his bodyguard. This comes in handy since he has relatives that want to leapfrog him for the next royal title. But can he really count on Ho to protect him? The film was renamed Dirty Avenger for American theater goers that would have looked at the marquee and debated if Dirty Ho was a Hong Kong film or an adult feature. Dirty Ho has the right balances of action and comedy to wrap up this Shaw Brothers spectacular.

Shawscope Volume One is a boxset that will keep you busy for quite some time. You’ll probably want to chop a few things around the house after the third film. Before you start wondering where other titles are, Arrow Video has already announced they’ll be coming out with Shawscope Volume Two in 2022. There’s another dozen classics from Hong Kong waiting for you in the new year. When will it come out? Probably by the time you finish watching all dozen films here.

Video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. You’ll get to see all the glory of Shawscope on the screen. Most of the films are brand new transfers so they bring out the details of action heavy performances. The audio is DTS-HD MA mono in both Mandarin Chinese and English dubs. A few of the films also have DTS-HD MA mono Cantonese tracks. The movies are subtitled in English.

King Boxer

Commentary by David Desser

Tony Rayns on King Boxer (42:56) has the critic discuss how King Boxer helped launch the kung fu genre to theaters across America, Europe and beyond.

Interview with Chung Chang-wha (39:54) that deals with his time directing the film. He goes deep into his early years as a director.

Interview with Wang Ping (25:51) goes into how she started at 19 years-old with Shaw Brothers with a four-year contract. She was making nine movies a year for them.

Interview with Cho Young-jung (33:24) deals with their book Chung Chang-wha: Man of Action. The interview took place at the Pusan International Film Festival. I wonder if they took the train?

Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu (49:36) is the first episode of a three-part documentary made in 2003 about Shaw Brothers. The interview subjects include Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, Sammo Hung and Gordon Liu. Part of the episode deals with how Hollywood was influenced by the Shaw Brothers including using their stars, directors and fight coordinators.

US Opening Credits (1:26) is when it was called 5 Fingers of Death.

Trailer Gallery includes trailers from Hong Kong (3:51 & 3:24), Germany (3:20 & 3:47), the US movie trailer (2:57), TV commercial (0:28) and the radio spot (0:55). There’s also the digital re-issue trailer (1:06).

Image Gallery has over 50 color press photos, b&w press pics, posters, newspaper clippings, lobby cards, VHS box and the DVD sleeve. The movie played with Super Fly in London.

The Boxer From Shantung

Interview with Chen Kuan-tai (22:43) has him talk about how there weren’t so many activities for kids his age in Hong Kong besides learning martial arts.

Interview with David Chiang (31:49) deals with how he came from a family of film stars. He got his start at four-years-old. He took a break during his awkward teen years, and returned to the biz as a stuntman around his high school years. He decided to get into acting.

Interview with John Woo (8:02) as he remembers his time as an assistant director to Chang Cheh. He talks about the loyalty that was part of the story in these movies.

Double Masters with Ku Feng and Chen Kuan-tai (13:46) has the stars of The Boxer from Shantung reunite at Shaw Brothers event. They talk about what they taught each other in marital arts.

Alternate Opening Credits includes Partial Original Hong Kong Credits (2:24) and Alternate English Credits (2:19). When they were restoring the film, the original negative for the opening was damaged so they recreated it.

Trailer Gallery has Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:36), German Theatrical Trailer (2:06), US TV Spot (0:52) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:13).

Image Gallery has over 30 color promo photos, lobby cards, posters, VHS sleeve and DVD artwork.

Mighty Peking Man

Commentary by Travis Crawford

Interview with Keizo Murase (19:23) has him talking about making the ape monster suit for Might Peking Man. He got his start at Toho making the suits for Godzilla and his pals. He ended up bringing more Toho vets to Hong Kong to make the movie.

Interview with Ho Meng-hua (24:04) has him talk about how he came from commercials so he made movies that the marketplace desired.

Interview with Ku Feng (7:18) has him describe director Ho Meng-hua as a “perfect gentleman.” He talks about how older directors were nicer.

Behind The Scenes Super 8 Footage (28:30) gives us a look around Hong Kong and the Shaw Brothers Studio. Do wish there was a narrator. The footage belongs to Keizo Murase.

Unrestored Version (90:21) is the standard definition version that’s also 2.35:1 anamorphic.

Alternate US Credits includes Goliathon Theatrical Opening (1:`18) and the TV Credits (1:11).

Trailer Gallery includes Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:23), German Theatrical Trailer (2:26), Dutch Theatrical Trailer (2:51), US Theatrical (1:59), US TV Spot (0:35), US Re-release Trailer (2:27) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:07). They teased us with the promise of “the white goddess.”

Image Gallery around 90 color promo photos, lobby cards, video covers, press kit, posters and pre-production concept drawings. You even get Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder release VHS box.

Five Shaolin Masters

Tony Rayns on Chang Cheh (36:46) gives a biography of the producer/director whose work mattered so much to Shaw Brothers. At his peak in the ’70s, Chang Cheh had his name as director on five or more films every year. This was part of working at Shaw Brothers where you could grab casts and crew so easily.

Interview with Kong Do (22:55) is also the actor known as Chiang Tao. He talks about coming to Hong Kong in 1972. He talks about how Chang Cheh worked as a producer and director. Cheh seems to let his assistants handle quite a bit of the shooting.

Elegant Trails includes two pieces on Ti Lung (9:30) and David Chiang (8:04). Ti shows off his use of the giant metal bracelets. Chaing talks about how they didn’t believe in pads when you landed during a stunt. Ouch.

US Opening Credits (10:23) is long since they took their time to give credit to the Five masters.

Trailer Gallery has the US Theatrical Trailer (2:23), German Theatrical Trailer (2:42) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:10). In the US it was called 5 Masters of Death. That would be a cool basketball team name.

Image Gallery has over 60 color promo photos, a booklet, lobby cards, press photos, poster and DVD sleeve.

Shaolin Temple

Standard Definition Version (121:57) is letterboxed so it’s not a pan and scan. There are alternate moments in this low rez version. It is two minutes longer than the HiDef version.

Alternate Opening Credits includes Hong Kong Theatrical Credits (2:12), US credits (1:39) for the “Death Chamber” release and alternate English Title Sequence (0:43).

Trailer Gallery includes Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:54), German Theatrical Trailer (2:40) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:00). The trailers show off the mad skills that can be learned at the Shaolin Temple.

Image Gallery is over 25 color promo photos, posters, lobby cards, VHS sleeve and DVD cover. In the US, the film was released as Death Chamber.

Challenge of the Masters

Tony Rayns on Lau Kar-leung (28:36) goes into the background of the martial arts expert. Tony points out that television didn’t start broadcasting in Hong Kong until the ’60s. There was a big need for serialized television in the colony. The theaters were air conditioned which made people really eager to get out of their houses.

Interview with Gordon Liu (20:24) was shot in 2002. He reveals his style of Kung Fu. He talks about his work with Lau Kar-leung and how that led him into the movie industry. He talks about the effect of Bruce Lee’s death had on Kung Fu movies.

Textless Opening Credits (3:12) lets you see the stars do their move.

Trailer Gallery includes four Hong Kong Theatrical Trailers (4:07, 1:19, 2:06 & 4:07) and the Digital Reissue Trailer (1:04). They push that this is about a firecracker competition.

Image Gallery with 28 color press photos, lobby cards, newspaper ad, VHS box and DVD sleeve.

Executioners From Shaolin

Interview with Chen Kuan-tai (17:30) has the star of the film and actor Vicent Sze talking in 2007. They talk about his time at Shaw Brothers.

Alternate English Credits (2:59) will let you see how the film started in theaters in America.

Trailer Gallery includes the Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:55), US Trailer 1 (1:07), US Trailer 2 (1:05) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:08). We’re promised crotch kicks. The film was called The Executioner of Death in the US.

Image Gallery has 21 color production photos, lobby cards, posters, newspaper ads, VHS cover and the DVD sleeve.

Chinatown Kid

Commentary by Terrence J. Brady

Interview with Susan Shaw (23:43) has her recount the only time she worked with Chang Cheh. Turns out she mostly worked with the assistant director. She has only praise for Fu Sheng as a person.

Elegant Trails: Fu Sheng (7:21) is a brief biography on the young star who died in a car wreck too early. There’s clips of the TV show he had with his wife. His widow brings Coke and noodles to his grave.

Trailer Gallery includes the Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:27), US Theatrical Trailer (2:04), US TV Spot (0:32), German Theatrical Trailer (2:36), UK VHS Promo (2:37) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:12). We’re warned that Chinatown can erupt.

Image Gallery contains 60 color promo photos, lobby cards, posters, newspaper ads, the VHS box. There’s a double feature of Chinatown Kid and Master Killer at the Double Drive-In in Chicago.

The Five Venoms

Commentary by Simon Abrams

Interview with Lo Meng (19:12) who stars in both The Five Venoms and Crippled Avengers. This was recorded in 2003. He starts out by pointing out the influence Bruce Lee had over his early career and how he had to find his own way and not impersonate the master. He got his start in the accounting office for Chang Cheh’s film company before getting into acting. He was discovered while practicing Kung Fu during a break at the office.

Chang Cheh: The Master (17:32) is about the director. John Woo praises the man along with other famous Asian directors. His first serious hit was One-Armed Swordsman. There’s quite a few of his films in this collection. He co-directed The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires for Hammer.

Trailer Gallery included Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (3:34), US Theatrical Trailer (2:00), US TV Spot (0:34) and Digital Re-issue Trailer (1:14). They want you to pick your poison.

Image Gallery has 25 color production photos, a lobby card, posters, two newspaper ads and the DVD sleeve.

Crippled Avengers

Trailer Gallery has the Hong Kong Trailer (3:42) and the Digital Reissue Trailer (1:10). Teases the audience with “the Duels of the Handicap.”

Image Gallery has 25 color promo photos, lobby cards and posters. The title in the US was originally Mortal Combat. That sounds familiar.

Heroes of the East

Commentary by Jonathan Clements

Tony Rayns on Heroes of the East and Dirty Ho (30:20) has the writer give the background on the two movies. He goes deep into the career of Gordon Lui. There is discussion of the anti-Japanese sentiments in Hong Kong films. He shows off a promo booklet when Shaw Brothers called it Shaolin Challenges Ninja. But the movie doesn’t have Gordon fighting Shaolin style. They also wanted to see it as Drunk Shaolin. He gives us an understanding of the martial arts choreography in Dirty Ho.

Interview with Yasuaki Kurata (25:24) was recorded back in 2003. Kurata talks about showing up at Shaw Brothers without knowing a word of Chinese. All the stars wanting to see what this Japanese actor was all about. He also talks about signing a contract that was movie to movie instead of the multi-year deal that Shaw Brothers usual had the actors sign.

Alternate Opening Credits (2:29) is for Shaolin Versus Ninja. The credits look like they were taken from a VHS tape release.

Trailer Gallery includes Hong Theatrical Trailer (4:16), US TV Spot (1:09), US VHS Promo (O:36) and Digital Reissue Trailer (1:18). Sets up Japanese ninjas versus Chinese martial artists.

Image Gallery has 35 color production stills, lobby cards, posters, VHS box and DVD sleeve.

Dirty Ho

Alternate Opening Credits are for Dirty Ho (3:21) and when it was renamed Dirty Avengers (3:08).

Trailer Gallery has the Hong Kong Theatrical Trailer (4:04) and the Digital Reissue Trailer (1:11). The focus is on Gordon Liu’s moves.

Image Gallery has 37 color productions photos, black and white press photos, lobby cards, posters, VHS sleeve and DVD sleeve. “You haven’t lived until you’ve fought – Dirty Ho …and then you’re dead” was the slogan.

Two Compact Discs with music from Shaolin Temple, Might Peking Man, Chinatown Kid, The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers and Dirty Ho. You’ll finally have the perfect workout music when you start breaking boards with your fists of steel.

Arrow Video presents Shawscope Volume One. Starring Gordon Lui, David Chiang, Lung Ti, Alexander Sheng Fu, Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Lieh Lo, Ping Wang. Boxset Contents: 12 films on 8 Blu-ray discs. Rated: Unrated. Release Date: December 28, 2021.

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