Originally this was just going to be a list of my favorite home video releases, but like a karate chop, we’re splitting the list in half because the last year has been a great time to be a fan of classic martial arts films. Why not have a Kung Fu Christmas, a Hapkido Hanukah or a Karate Kwanza? If you read These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America and Changed the World by Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali, you’re eager to get an eyeful of all the action. Luckily, we are in the middle of a return of the movies that made Black Belt Theater and Kung Fu Theater mandatory weekend TV viewing. But if you saw films from Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest on TV in the ’80s, you’ll remember they were butchered by pan and scan, the serious violence snipped and cartoon voice dubbing. Most of them had a picture quality of dubbed bootleg EP speed videotapes. Over the last year, we’ve been getting the good stuff at right aspect ratio and high resolution. You can choice the language. Shawscope is stretched perfectly across your HDTV screen. Bonus features allow us to understand so much more about the actors, action and history. If you go through this list, you’ll be ready to deck the halls with your roundhouse kicks.
Here’s a rundown of the titles we reviewed over the year (or about to review):
The Sonny Chiba Collection (Shout! Factory): Sonny Chiba (Kill Bill) is one of the greatest badass actors in cinematic history. He was as lethal with his hands and feet as he was a gun. He was the complete package on the silver screen. The martial arts cinematic explosion dominated movie screens in the mid-70s thanks in part to the sensation of Bruce Lee. Films from Hong Kong based studios Golden Harvest and the Shaw Brothers found an audience in the grindhouses, twin theaters and drive-ins across America. But what about Japanese movies? The island nation’s cinematic exports centered on giant mutant reptiles stomping Tokyo and the latest epic from Akira Kurasawa around this time. Japan made delivered a massive punch during the Kung Fu fighting era when The Street Fighter starring Sonny Chiba arrived in 1974. The movie was so intense that it received an X rating from the MPAA based off how Chibi was popping out eyeballs, ripping off private parts and crushing skulls. He brought an extreme violence to the screens. The film was followed by two sequels and a Sister Street Fighter series. Chiba was an international action superstar. The Sonny Chiba Collection contains 7 of his films including 4 action films that came out right before The Street Fighter and 3 Samurai films that shows his badass nature transcended time. The titles include Yakuza Wolf, Yakuza Wolf 2, The Bodyguard, Karate Killer, Shogun’s Shadow, Samurai Reincarnation & Swords of Vengeance. If you receive any gift cards, you might want to know that Shout! Factory is going to be releasing The Jackie Chan Collection Volume 1 in January.
One-Armed Boxer (Arrow Video) Jimmy Wang Yu takes on an army of men with one arm tied behind his back. Who else did that during these glory years of martial arts flicks? He’s so dynamic on the screen whether it be fighting with two or one arms, you can’t bet against his mad skills. He gets intense during the sequence where he toughens up his left hand with extreme measures that you will wince. There’s not too much character or story development on the screen. What would be the point since it would get in the way of the nearly non-stop action with 90 minutes of fighting and three minutes of dealing with a bloody arm stump. The introduction of the masters of various disciplines of martial arts sets up the future video games. They get a brief backstory of their specialty moves and then it’s straight to kicking butt. All that matters is whose fighting style will reign supreme. The big question is if Tien Lung really have a chance against such heavyweights after having to learn away to fight as only a left-hander? When Jimmy Wang Yu passed away recently (April 5, 2022), there were a lot of obituaries that pointed out how essential the actor was in the Hong Kong film industry. Jimmy Wang Yu was one of the first major stars when The Shaw Brothers got into producing Wuxia films in the mid-60s. He took on an army with his army tied behind his back in The One-Armed Swordsman. He teamed up with Cheng Pei-pei in Golden Swallow, the sequel to Come Drink With Me. He went bare fisted in the martial arts epic The Chinese Boxer (which he also wrote and directed). He was a major star for Shaw Brothers when he wanted more control over his career. He teamed up with producer Raymond Chow’s Golden Harvest Films to write, direct and star in a film that merged his two biggest roles. One Armed Boxer brought together the lethal punches of The Chinese Boxer with the single limb exploits of The One-Armed Swordsman.
The last year was the perfect time to become a fan of the Shaw Brothers. The legendary Hong Kong Studio found itself getting two retrospective boxsets and numerous single Blu-ray releases of their classic films.
Shawscope Volume One has 12 titles focused on their 1970s martial arts films. 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.
Shawscope Volume Two has 14 martial arts film made by the studio before they gave up on theatrical releases and went full time into television. This set has the legendary The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin with Gordon Liu, My Young Auntie and Jet Li’s Martial Shaolin. There’s also two CDs of soundtrack moments for when you’re ready to bust a board or two.
Come Drink With Me (Arrow Video) has so much packed into its 94-minute running time. Besides dazzling fight scenes, there’s a musical number led by Drunken Cat and a children’s band and choir. There’s something for everyone in the movie. Cheng Pei-pei pulls off the role of Golden Swallow as holds her own in the fights with the Tiger clan. The actress was a dancer and not a fighter. There’s a smoothness to her moves during the battles. You can easily believe her as a trained fighter who can take on whatever the Tiger Clan throws at her. She’s an action hero. She has a very worthy opponent in Jade Faced Tiger. The guy is already creepy with his white make up. His attitude towards her (even when he thinks she’s a man) makes their battle at the temple so satisfying to watch. Director King Hu made a masterpiece that remains enthralling after all these decades. A title such as Come Drink With Me wouldn’t sound like a movie that revolutionized martial arts and swordplay in Hong Kong cinema. If you’d see the title on a marquee, you’d probably think it was some sort of romance involving exotic beverages. While there is a touch of romance and drinks, the Shawscope wide screen is full of action presented in full color. Director King Hu gave film that pushed the boundaries of fight choreography and included a female character more than up for the battle. For many fans of Hong Kong cinema, Come Drink With Me‘s arrival in 1966 is when prime of Shaw Brothers began.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Arrow Video) is based off the true story of the Yangso family. The original script dealt with how General Yang and his seven sons met with the Liao army to battle on the Golden Beach. The Yangs seemed destined to an easy victory. Even the mother (Executioners From Shaolin‘s Lily Li) had gotten a fortune that of her seven sons going to battle, six would return home. The battle went bad when one Yangs’ partners has sold out to the Liao army. The fight between the Yang and the others is a visual wonder since they’re all battling with poles that can do various things including one that can wrap around body parts. The fortune proves true when the sixth Yang son (Alexander Fu Sheng) returns home alone. He has emotionally snapped from the defeat. The mother realizes it wasn’t about six sons, but just the sixth. Although it turns out the fifth son (Kill Bill’s Gordon Liu) has also escaped, but he is to shamed to return home. He wants to become a monk at a temple where they teach against violence. Originally the Sixth and Fifth Yang sons team up to defeat the Liao army. But the car crash put an end to that ending. Director Lau Kar-leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) spent time trying to figure out how to rework the film with the existing footage. He figured out a solution that was respectful to Fu Sheng. He didn’t go the Game of Death route with body doubles, wrapping up an actor in bandages or clips from previous films. Lau reworked the second half of the film so that the Fifth Yang child must team up with one of his sisters (My Young Auntie‘s Kara Hui) to take them out the invaders. The action ends in a memorable battle that features a lot of dental work destruction.
Chinese Boxer (88 Films) Lei Ming (One-Armed Swordsman‘s Jimmy Wang Yu) is the prize pupil of a Chinese Kung Fu school. A former student shows up to try to get a bit of revenge only to get beaten down. But this doesn’t cause him to give up his quest for revenge. He returns in the company of Japanese Karate experts who are ready to not merely shutdown the school, but take control of the town. The Japanese thugs arrive at the school and don’t merely beat student, they beat them into bloody messes. Lei Ming looks like he’s dead. In the pile of bodies, he barely clings to life. Somehow he survives, but he won’t go quietly into the night. He retreats to wilderness to teach himself “Iron Palm” and “Light Leaping.” It’s an intense practice routine that involves putting his hands into super-hot coals. While he’s rehabbing, the Japanese goons have turned the town into their casino. Although locals better not plan on walking out with any winnings in their pockets. When Lei Ming returns to town, he plans on being a one-man wrecking crew. But will his new techniques take out all the goons?
Disciples of Shao Lin (88 Films) Guan Feng-yi (The Chinatown Kid‘s Alexander Fu Sheng) arrives in town without a clue as to how to act. He’s a barefoot country boy who sticks out among the locals. He has to learn how to wear shoes. He ends up landing a gig at a textile factory with the help of Huang Han (Bloody Monkey Master‘s Kuan-Chun Chi). But the company leans that Guan is more effective to the company as security instead of stuck weaving on a loom. Turns out the fabric business is very competitive. A rival weaving factory wants to perform a truly hostile takeover. Guan seems unstoppable, but Huang gets the upper fist when they first mix it up during a morning demonstration. Things get nasty quick when the rival weaving company has their good squad jump the weavers that don’t want to move over. It’s a bone breaking battle. When the rivals try it to more of the employees, Guan shows up and cleans house. Guan wants Huang to help him fight back, but the weaver has dark past that he doesn’t want to revisit. Guan’s martial arts skills finds him moving up the corporate structure even if he doesn’t have the business acumen. Huang is not impressed at his buddy’s new position. How long can he stay on top when the rivals are plotting to do more than introduce a new fabric line?
Flag of Iron (88 Films) The film starts off like a conventional story of two rival marital arts schools mixing it up. The feud elevates until there’s a massive throw down. Except we get a serious change of direction that I won’t disclose in case you haven’t seen the film before. The action is hard is over the top with even a few surprises like the world’s most dangerous abacus. The ultimate weapon is the flags that can do more than scratch an eyeball. You might laugh at the idea of two people fighting with flags as if it was a marching band goes bad moment. When Lua and Cao let their freak flags fly and bust into each other, you’ll be wanting a bigger TV screen to take it all in. You get the cloth flapping and the poles clanging. Flag fighting ought to be bigger in marital arts cinema.
Legendary Weapons of China (88 Films) Alexander Fu Sheng (The Chinatown Kid) steals the middle of movie in two separate fights. The assassins think he might be Liu Gung when he puts on an amazing display of skills while fighting off hoodlums in the middle of the city. He even has his guts yanked out and keeps up the chops while pushing body parts back in his torso. Later Fu Sheng’s character gets possessed by Lei Ying and his to fight while being controlled by a voodoo doll. It’s physical performance that must be enjoyed. The film doesn’t hold back in the physicality of the fights. During an early scene, one of the assassins uses their spiritual powers to force two other fighters to rip out their eyeballs and yank off their junk. You’ll be shouting, “Ouch!” at those visuals. Director Lau Kar Leung goes full throttle on the screen. There’s plenty of great fight scenes in the film that ends with final reel where all 18 weapons come into play. Legendary Weapons of China ought to be the theme to a season of Forged in Fire. Doug Marcaida would declare that all these weapons will kill. The screen is filled with flashing fists and blades. By the end of the movie, you’ll wish you could drive down to the mall and complete the collection.
Shaolin Mantis (88 Films) is a fine mix of action, intrigue and romance. The relationship between David Chaing and Cecilia Wong keeps the film happening even when they aren’t exchanging blows. When the duo join forces in a fight, you feel a bond between them. She can hold her own in a battle which might mean she would be willing to bite off the head of a lover. Shaolin Mantis is a perfect date film for a couple the like martial arts action and insects. There are three things that need to be noted about the film. Gordon Liu (Kill Bill) has a rather small part. This movie was made right before Liu would become a major star with The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. The original Chinese poster makes it look like Gordon is a co-star. The sequence where David Chiang learns the Mantis style comes deep in the film. The training techniques are compelling as he mimics a praying mantis. By the time he’s mastered the moves, you’ll believe he can beat up a mob with Deadly Mantis blows. Even though the Mantis element is held back, the action is exciting throughout. The fight between Chiang and Liu is all out. The biggest thing to note is that there’s no Shaolin action in the film. There’s no visit or even talk about the Temple. So why is it in the title? This was during the time when Shaolin was the buzz word to sell a martial arts movie. A few years before this, a distributor would alter an actor’s name to be a variation of Bruce Lee. Oddly enough, in America the film would be put into theaters as Deadly Mantis which is more honest title.
Monkey Kung Fu (88 Films). Wei Chung (Snake Shadow Lama Fist‘s Siu-Tung Ching) has been sentenced to prison for killing a man. Even behind bars, he’s a bit cocky. He gets into a mess with an older inmate who fights him in the cell using monkey kung fu techniques. The old man takes a bit of kindness on his sparring partner. He gives Wei half of a medallion that should lead them to a treasure if they can locate the other half. The old man is executed, A new guy shows up in the cell. Wei gets along with Zhou (Snake in the Monkey’s Shadow‘s Chiu-Sing Hau). While they are out on a rock pile, Zhou and Wei overwhelm the guards and make a run for it. The duo promises to split up once they bust the chain that connects them, but they can’t avoid each other. They discover that owners of the other half of the medallion are looking for them. These shady characters don’t want to share the booty. Wei and Zhou are on the run from the law and the outlaws. The best part is they are running in the direction of the mysterious treasure.
Flying Guillotine Part II (88 Films) The most badass weapon in the history of humanity is the Flying Guillotine. Nothing comes close. Ninja throwing stars, flame throwers, num-chuks and cruise missiles can’t compete with the Flying Guillotine. What is it? It’s like a Frisbee on a chain that you fling at a person. It lands over their head; you yank the chain, and the interior blades sever their neck. The victim’s loose head is capture in a bag that you can yank back with the chain. It likes like a fatal Jiffy Pop except instead of expanding with popcorn, you get a bloody head. When I saw an ad in the newspaper for a Flying Guillotine movie, I wanted to know more. Now you can know it all with Flying Guillotine Part II. Now before you get too worried that you’ll be missing out having not seen the first Flying Guillotine movie, don’t worry. The sequel has nothing to do with the original outside of featuring the same weapon. The Shaw Brothers were wanting to crank out a full fledge sequel except the director refused. The original stars Chen Kuan Tai and Liu Wu Chi didn’t return. Feng Ku lost his head in the first film, he’s brought back and given the meaty role of the Emperor. In some markets the film was retitled Palace Carnage which makes sense since it is all about attempts by rebels to kill a cruel emperor and not a real sequel.
Martial Club (88 Films) The movie opens with director Lau Kar Leung explaining how things went down during a Lion Dance when two schools would meet on the street. The illustrative moment goes straight into the street where a martial club is performing using a “three-layer cake” of students holding up the lion above the rooftops. This is a scene you’ll want to experience with the speakers cranked with percussive band amping up the excitement. The plot centers around the rivalry between three Martial Clubs. The main one is attended by the Chinese hero Wong Fei Hung (Kill Bill‘s Gordon Liu). It is his dad’s school and he’s the prize pupil. A rival school is attended by Wong Chi-Ying (The Flying Guillotine‘s Ku Feng). When their Lion Dance fight goes out of control, the two are forced to reconcile. They quickly become friends as they try to prove who has the best martial arts skills. This turns into a disaster when they meet the wrong man on the road. The heads of their clubs are not impressed. Wong Fei Hung focuses on his training. Wong Chi-Ying uses his feats of strength to get free action at the local brothel. This goes bad when a Master Shan (Dirty Ho‘s Johnny Wang) shows up and takes out the cocky Wong Chi-Ying. Turns out there’s a third club that’s out to cause chaos in the town. Martial Club is full of action and light comic touches. The interplay between Gordon Liu and Ku Feng keeps things merry between broken bones. Once more Lau Kar Leung delivers on keeping the screen filled with flying kicks, fists and weaponry. Kara Hui (My Young Auntie) gets to swap chops with Gordon Liu. Lau Kar Leung is a Busby Berkeley of buttkicking on the screen.