Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

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Cold Bishop
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Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#1 Post by Cold Bishop » Sun Aug 04, 2013 8:44 am

Table of Contents (in progress...)

Vol I: The Wuxia Pian (1971-1974): Introduction / Selected Films / Further Suggestions

On the Kung Fu Film (Brief Notes on Genre): Intro / Definition / Sidebars / Bashers / Shapes / Comedies / New School

Vol II: Shaw Kung Fu: coming soon

Vol III: The Wuxia Pian (1975-1979): coming soon

Vol IV: Shaw Crime: coming soon

Vol V: Shawsploitation... and Beyond: coming soon

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So to get this ball rolling... this overview is meant to be in conjunction with the 1970s project. As it has quickly ballooned past what I thought it'd be, I've decided to make it its own thread. I'll roll it out gradually in seven parts, this "introduction" being the first. Before I continue, some notes:

1) Other than this introductory essay and a later one, these pieces will follow a similar pattern. They'll each be focused on a specific genre. They'll begin with a brief essay outlining their development at Shaw during the decade. They'll be headed by two or three Essential Films, painfully pared down from the grand list of potential films. Then a handful of Distinguished Reccomendations, capsule reviews of films that particularly strike my fancy. Then a section called For Further Investigation, where I try to broadly outline the remaining films of said genre. If you're not interested in the outline of genre or studio history, feel free to skip to the capsule review and pick out the recommended films.

2) I've tried to make these write-ups and capsule reviews SPOILER-FREE. As the genre project taught me, in depth analysis doesn't lead to new viewers. This project is for the layperson, a primer for those who don't know anything about the genre. References to events and scenes remain, I hope, suitably vague so as not to ruin anything. So, please, read away with any conscience... and if something seems spoiler-worthy, it's probably not, or it won't hurt your enjoyment.

3) If you want to discuss genre or studio history, please discuss it here. If, however, a particular film strikes your fancy, and you feel it's worth it, try to post it in the 1970s thread. Preferably, there'll be a lot of back and forth going on between these two places.

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Another Shaw Production: A Biased and Reductive Overview of a Major Hong Kong Studio During the Seventies.

“Another Shaw Production”. It emblazoned the end-title cards of the 800-plus films that emerged from the studio, the seal impression of an empire that briefly ruled the screens of Southeast Asia. Perhaps it’s redundant: one was never mistaken when watching a Shaw Brothers production. For in a Shaw Brothers production, you find the uncanny and uneasy mix of adventurous modernity and bullheaded traditionalism: of startling new techniques and strategies which lifted the action film to unprecedented heights, and of an unwavering commitment to old-fashioned studio-magic, imitative of the great Hollywood studios which were already splintering when the studio began its ascension. This is as apparent from the opening of a Shaw Brothers film as its ending: the distinctive drum-roll and triumphant fanfare, the assuring promise of Shawscope, the studio emblem unapologetically swiped from the brothers Warner. For perhaps the great appeal of Shaw Brothers Studio is that it was the last of the old-school studios, with its contract stars, favored genres and in-house-style, its massive Movietown complex ceaselessly in production. It’s an emblem they wore proudly as the studio slowly dominated all competition… and which they refused to rub or scratch off, even as their output seemed more and more archaic with the surrounding world.

But, before their fall, the studio spent two decades rebuilding Hong Kong cinema from the ground up, a legacy which is still felt. Above all else, Shaw recreated Hong Kong cinema as an industry of action-packed, populist entertainments, made with a craft and ingenuity that has become increasingly rare in the Western equivalents they once openly imitated. David Bordwell (in his similarly-titled, well-recommended essay) goes as far as to say they created an aesthetic of film to rival “Soviet Montage, German Expressionism, and other stylistic schools.” Reliant on “constructive editing” and “segment shooting”, it’s an aesthetic of constant movement that would soon bleed to all facets of production, constituting the verve and energy which is still the signature of modern Hong Kong cinema. While Hong Kong may have been late in introducing widescreen and color, Shaw compensated by enacting an across-the-board adoption of Anamorphic Widescreen and Eastmancolor as early as 1962. With their usually ornate costuming and large lavish sets, nearly always brightly and evenly lit by studio technicians, the Shaw studio-look emerges. It is a cinema of vivid colors in wide panoramas, the palette taking on a second-hand velvet texture imitative of old Hollywood Technicolor, unrelenting right up into the 1980s, long after film technology had changed to favor photogenic-realism. This is never more vivid than in the globs of tomato-red blood that was increasingly streaked across the screen, as if it was the actual sacrificial lifeblood needed for Movietown to sustain itself, and whose glow envelops the studio’s excesses in a warm unreality.

For Shaw’s greatest success and its greatest folly was that it thrived on this unreality. A Chinese friend, once in a conversation of Chinese cuisine, made the declaration that if one seeks quality and authenticity, one shouldn’t travel to Shanghai nor Hong Kong nor Taipei. Rather, one should pilgrimage to Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, or to Singapore. For in these cities, created by the progeny of expatriates, cut off from their native culture, fidelity bears a special privilege. Whether this theory holds any truth I’ve never had the pleasure to investigate… but the basis of the theory is reflected in Shaw Brothers aim, to cater not to a specific Cantonese or Nationalist niche, but to make films for the Chinese diaspora at large. How appropriate, then, that Shaw’s pre-HK headquarters should have been in Singapore, its earliest successes in Malaysia. Their output, then, is not based in contemporary stories or socio-political realities of the ever-fractured Chinese world. Instead, Shaw Brothers based their tales in Chinese history, in a collective and romanticized Chinese past that could be shared by someone in Singapore or Thailand alike. There are exceptions – such as their attempts to woo the Nationalist Taiwanese market – but in general, Shaw films were only intermittently set after WWII, and statements on class and politics, if visible at all, are always carefully buried within the construct of genre cinema. They found the perfect vehicle, then, in the mythical world of Wuxia, which in one form or another dominates all the studio output. Yet, it was this decision which would prove their undoing: it was an expatriate’s fantasy of “authenticity”, and it could only sustain the studio so long. As the pendulum swung back to a focus on social reality and local identity, Shaw seemed to unable to escape the ancient dream-China of its own making. Ultimately, Shaw Brothers were the witnesses, harbinger and, ultimately, victims of the unlikely Hong Kong success story, the way this inconsequential colonial-port, buffeted by politics beyond its controls, was transformed overnight into one of the world’s great metropolises.

It is funny that now, thirty years later, the situation is now backwards, that Shaw is long gone, but now Hong Kong film stands the risk of being sacrificed at the altar of a potentially unified China. Perhaps this is why I suffer from this sudden fixation to catalog the films of Hong Kong’s Golden Age, to relive some sort-of second childhood by revisiting these films which once meant so much to me, bottled lightning which may never come again. Hong Kong may still persist as an “autonomous zone”, but it often looks as if the film industry hasn’t been extended the same privilege. The decision, at the start of the millennium, to count Mainland co-productions within the quota of “local” films has had the insidious effect of corroding the Hong Kong film industry, absorbing it as a satellite of Mainland productions. A recent decision, to lift quota bans on Hong Kong films in certain parts of Cantonese-speaking South China, is a positive development, but it still raises the question on how much of a distinct identity can Hong Kong films maintain if it’s transformed simply into a “dialect cinema”. It’s a complete reversal of what happened a half-century ago. Then, the ban on Cantonese film and closing of the Mainland gutted local productions in the colony and left a void for “high-quality” Chinese films. For better or worse, it was Shaw Brother’s express purpose to fill this void. Perhaps, then, the studios ultimate closure, less than three decades ago, was unavoidable, its success inevitably fleeting. Remember, kiddies, it’s a changing world, and things don’t last forever.

A Brief Synopsis of the Studio’s Rise and Fall:
The 1970s should have been Shaw’s decade. It was an ascension decades in the making, since the brothers Shaw created their first production company, Tianyi Films, in 1925. Like China itself, the company was scattered to the wind by the various troubles of the mid-century, troubles complicated when the Mainland essentially closed itself off to outside film studios in the 50s, and very soon, closed itself off period (come the Cultural Revolution, they essentially stop making narrative films). The fundamental problem arises for any aspiring film studio: how do you carve out a Chinese audience when you can’t access China? Run Run Shaw finds himself at an opportune moment, the backbone of the family business at this point being a series of theater chains throughout the “nanyang”: the various Southeast Asian countries with large Chinese populations (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.). There, in the midst of the golden age of Malay cinema, he also runs the successful Malay Film Productions; but the bubble on that industry is set to pop, and the potential money to be made filling their theaters with Chinese films is far too enticing. So, he buys a large tract of land in Hong Kong’s Clearwater Bay, christening it Movietown. As the story goes, the land was close enough to the Mainland, and its owners paranoid enough of a potential invasion, that Run Run buys it for a steal. There, he takes over his brothers’ fledgling Shaw and Sons Studio, consolidating it along the lines of the studio system, vertical integration, and sets out to make high-quality, color, Mandarin-language films for an audience scattered across the Chinese Diaspora.

This immediately puts them at odds with many Hong Kong studios, still trying to make localized films for the relatively limited Cantonese audience, like the social-realist Union Film Enterprises or its urban-and-urbane successor Kong Ngee. As a studio striving to be apolitical-to-the-point of conservatism, it was also at odds with leftist studios, like their Mandarin-rivals Great Wall/Feng Huang. But their true arch-nemesis at the end of the 1950s is Cathay/MP&GI. They were Shaw’s rival theater chain in the “nanyang”, their rivals in the Malaysian film industry, and they got a three-year head-start on Shaw in establishing a Hong Kong presence. What’s more, Cathay had great P.R.; they were the sophisticated, stylish and youthful film company, whereas Shaw was seen as stodgy and traditional. But Shaw used that image to their advantage, tapping into “stodgy and traditional” Taiwan, which was then opening up after a period of military isolation. Cathay may have made the hipper, contemporary films, but Shaw’s Huangmei Operas allowed them to open up this lucrative and conservative new front of the Mandarin-language market. When Cathay’s millionaire mastermind, Loke Wan Tho, unexpectedly died in a plane crash in 1964, taking several executives with him, Shaw had Cathay on the ropes. The next year, they made the studio-wide decision to begin making action-orientated wuxias, christening the start of the “wuxia century”. It was an unprecedented move for a Mandarin studio, and it was practically a knock out. For the next five years, they watched as Cathay’s relevance slowly slipped away; by 1973, the studio would shutter. Their other Mandarin-rivals, Great Wall and Feng Huang? Their politics ostracized them from the reactionary Taiwan, which gossiped that they were secretly funded by the PRC, and the Mainland had enough problems of their own to sustain them. Even the Cantonese studios suffered from the growing popularity of the “new wuxias” and then the sudden emergence of Hong Kong television. This decline was so steep that during the three years between 1971 and 1973, only two films were made in Cantonese.

Mandarin-language cinema was at a high, and Shaw was making up to half of Hong Kong’s output. By 1970, they had conquered all their rivals in the small island colony. The character and direction of Chinese cinema were practically being dictated on their terms. But when fate closes one door, it opens two others… and it was usually Shaw themselves who inadvertently turned the knob. Ultimately, the studio was the unforeseen victims of its own success. Their authorial control, both of the box office and their own studio, bred discontent. At the start of the decade, two of their producers left the studio, disenchanted with its creatively-stifling and penny-pinching ways, to create Golden Harvest, a studio built along the United Artists model, eschewing centralized productions for contracts with independent producers. As Shaw had beaten every rival into an “independent”, they had no trouble finding collaborators. If Shaw opened up the Taiwanese market, they also woke the island up to its potential. Soon, Taiwanese studios had no trouble luring away talent, and the late 60s and early 70s were marked by constant defections, none more embarrassing than the loss of their then-biggest star, Jimmy Wang Yu, right at the beginning of the decade, contracts-be-damned. As Taiwan enacted quotas and tax policies to protect their industry, it was the indie-studios that proved more flexible in collaborating with the country. Shaw’s response was to essentially make a studio-within-the-studio, beginning their Chang’s Film Co. experiment, where Chang Cheh was sent to the island to produce a series of lavish epics meant to catapult the studio to new heights, as well as extricate some much coveted funds. These epics, however, proved unsustainable, barely breaking-even or losing money, and the studio closed the company in 1976. It was a damaging blow to Shaw’s reputation and their coffers, and it pretty much ended Chang’s status as the most prestigious director at the studio.

If Shaw were innovators, they had a major problem in following up their innovations. If they made many films that set the standard for the Kung-Fu craze of the 70s, they always reverted back to the increasingly outdated wuxia pians, leaving the further innovations to Golden Harvest and unaffiliated rivals. Things got so out-of-touch that, by decades end, the prestigious studio was openly imitating the low-budget, fly-by-night indie-productions that were littering theaters. Remember how they beat back Cantonese language film to oblivion? That one lone Cantonese made in 1973? It was a Shaw Production. House of 72 Tenants unexpectedly became one of the biggest Hong Kong films ever, making twice as much as Enter the Dragon, and bringing back Cantonese cinema from the dead. Despite this, Shaw decided not to follow up on the Cantonese market, outside of a few token films. But it was this market that revolutionized the Hong Kong industry in the following decade, spelling doom for Shaw. And lord knows they had chances! During the middle of the decade, they made several successful crime films, set in contemporary Hong Kong and acknowledging the social conditions there. The Hong Kong Crime Film, of course, would soon overtake the martial-arts film in popularity and be one of two genres (alongside Cantonese Comedy) responsible for the transformation of Hong Kong back to a localized industry. But, except for a few too-little, too-late entries in the early eighties, Shaw never placed enough emphasis on this new and adventurous genre. Oh, and Cantonese Comedy: Shaw briefly had the TV comedian Michael Hui under contract. The three films he made at the studio were wildly successful, but Shaw a) refused to give Hui any creative input, although his wildly popular show proved he was no slouch, b) kept him away from the Cantonese language so crucial to his shtick and his primary audience, c) chose not to cast him with his brothers and comedy partners, despite having one of them under contract. After three films, he bounced to Golden Harvest, becoming the most beloved Hong Kong star this side of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The Hui Brothers’ comedies were so successful that many people credit them with keeping the industry afloat during its transition away from the diasporic legacy built by Shaw. And that’s without touching the fact that Bruce Lee, on arriving in Hong Kong, approached Shaw Brothers before any other studio, only to be given an offer he considered beneath his talents. By the end of the decade, Shaw fell to second place in box-office receipts, behind Golden Harvest. At some point in 1982, they were also surpassed by Cinema City, the young upstart emblematic of the Hong Kong New Wave. By 1985, they essentially ceased production, and two years later, officially called it quits, divesting their attention to their more lucrative TV and theater chain businesses.

The Guide to the Guide:
Ultimately, were not here to dissect where Shaw went wrong, but to look at what the studio made right. In short, making some of the most entertaining and plain bad-ass genre films in a decade that, elsewhere, mostly settled for moody realism, art-house detachment or schlocky prurience. My goal is to essentially divide the studios output by genre, outlining the general flow and characteristics of each movement. Then, I’ll attempt to spotlight some of the essential films of each category, as well as some worthy follow-ups for the more adventurous viewer. To accomplish this, I have broken down Shaw’s output this decade to five (or six) main umbrellas.

The first is the wuxia pian, the studio’s signature and most enduring genre. To put things into perspective, I’ve broken this genre in half: Wuxia Pian (1970-1974) will highlight the films from the first half of the decade, largely holdovers of the “New Wuxia” aesthetic of the late 60s. Buffeted by changing audience tastes and new freedoms in screen material, this period finds an uneasy mixing of the old and new, the romantic and the provocative, and it should be no surprise that the genre reaches a decline mid-decade. The genre slowly regains its footing during the second half of the decade. Wuxia Pian (1975-1979) is largely categorized by the emergence and popularity of the “Swordplay & Intrigue” film: wuxias which were distinguished by mystery-plotting, baroque and macabre atmospherics/stylization, and bizarre and lurid thematic elements which emphasize the genre’s pulp-roots as much as it’s more classical-literary precedents.

The third category is the much more famous Kung-Fu Film, which starts literally at the beginning of the decade. Shaw’s relationship to the genre is complicated: one moment their its chief innovators. The next, they’re openly imitating their rivals. It is however the genre that brought them international attention, and a genre much of their legacy in the West is built on. To better define this oft-ridiculed genre, I have accompanied this section with a more general study of the genre – On the Kung-Fu Film – which I hope will bring some clarity to defining its particular elements.

From here, things get trickier and more muddled. For the sake of time and thoroughness, the next two sections may have to wait until after the ‘70s project. But as they stand, I’ll focus on the Shaw Crime Film, an ultimately minor genre that nonetheless would prove to have large ramifications for Hong Kong’s film future. Its focus on modern settings and brief glimpses of social realism would briefly open up the studio to the Hong Kong world they’d been largely ignoring. Lastly, I’ll attempt to sum up and briefly outline the sundry of other genre under the last section, Shawsploitation… and Beyond! From sizzling sex comedies to raucous horror films, patriotic WWII actioners to lavish tales of historic court intrigue, Shaw always kept their hands in various genres beyond their famed martial-arts films.

The Shaw Brothers’ “Auteurs”
But before we proceed, let me put my Andrew Sarris hat on, and distinguish the directors I consider to be the most interesting and significant auteurs at the studio this decade. I have pinpointed 13 “auteurs” during this period, as well as a few directors worth further consideration or mention. Discussion of individual films will wait until the later guides, but be rest assured you’ll see these names again, multiple times even. Nonetheless, as I’m trying to par my recommendations down to the barest of essentials, this may prove fruitful for further investigations.

Up front, the three most popular and crucial directors are also those most responsible for the direction of martial-arts cinema. This is what I call the “Master Class” of Shaw auteurs: CHANG CHEH, LAU KAR-LEUNG and CHOR YUEN. Chang Cheh (I refuse to call him Zhang Che) starts the decade off as the studio’s “wonder boy”, his violent, macho yanggang-style films setting the stage for the kung-fu boom. Making 54 films this decade, he practically is a studio onto himself, transitioning from early gangster films to mid-period epics, and closing the decade out with a deluge of kung-fu cheapies. His ethos of “heroic bloodshed” and “blood brothers”, his mixing of extreme violence and macho melodrama, his bloody tales of male camaraderie and struggles for justice… all these essentially set the tone for the martial-arts film made in his wake. Lau Kar-Leung (or Liu Chia-Liang) spends the first half of the decade as the uncredited backbone of Shaw’s entire martial-art output. With partner Tong Gai, these guys choreograph and help develop countless films, including much of Chang’s above. When he transition to directing, he brings a special emphasis to authentic kung-fu. His films are either comedies celebrating the ethos of marital-arts, or brooding dramas about those very same ethos being despoiled by revenge and violence. He doesn’t make as many films as his peers, but every one of them is considered a classic. Chor Yuen (or Chu Yuan), however, focuses entirely on the wuxia pian. Making his name as a Cantonese filmmaker before coming to Shaw, he makes several films in various genres (many of them quite good), before becoming the proponent of the aforementioned “Swordplay & Intrigue” film, making 15 entries into the sub-genre before the decade was up. A highly stylized and baroque filmmaker, his films would pretty much define the wuxia pian during Shaw’s final years.

Shaw Brothers didn’t just automatically clean house at the start of the decade. Other than Chang, this is what could be called the “Old Guard” class: CHENG KANG, HO MENG-HUA and LI HAN-HSIANG, who all deserve mention for their longevity and adaptability at the studio. Cheng Kang (or Ching Gong) was a former screenwriter who was well known as being a hot-tempered perfectionist on set. Despite his often troubled production methods, Run Run Shaw soon promotes him to the upper echelon of A-list directors. He perhaps has the mistake of making his name at the studio just as the “New Wuxia” bubble starts to burst, but before it goes, he makes several big-budget epics which are among the best the studio ever made. Afterwards, he transitions into one of the studio’s more interesting Exploitation directors. A similar fate awaits Ho Meng-Hua, who starts the decade at a stride, with several of the last great female-centric wuxias. As fortunes change, he turns into one of the studio’s most variable directors, something like their Swiss-army knife, working in horror, crime, fantasy and exploitation capacities. Li Han-Hsiang is an even more interesting case: the most prestigious director at the studio during their Huangmei Opera phase, he was their most famous defector during the mid-‘60s (outside of maybe King Hu). He returns at the start of the seventies, and is immediately assigned to Shaw’s various sex-comedies. As opposed to slumming, Li takes to the genre with gusto, making several of the most successful and beloved films of the period. Despite the sordid material, he always maintains his lavish attention to detail and elegant directorial style. His brand of historical erotica proves successful enough that he is soon able to make several straightforward historical dramas, which he continues even after leaving the studio. Although lacking the durability of the three above, GRIFFIN YUEH FENG is worth distinction as a consistently strong director. Another of the studio's top directors in the '60s, with a propensity for both the huangmei opera and yenyi melodrama form, he made his mark in the wuxia pian with the seminal Bells of Death (1968). Outside of a few late melodramas, he works exclusively in this register, defined by a grim outlook, shocking violence and tight, muscular direction. He leaves the studio sometime around 1974.

While the above directors carry plenty of weight, Shaw proves more troubling in bringing and developing new directorial talent. Many of their most promising directors simply come and go after a film or two. Many contract players never rise above the level of competent journeymen. During the first half of the decade, of the many “New Directors”, I’d identify three as worth special emphasis: CHANG TSENG-CHAI, CHENG CHANG-HO and PAO HSUEH-LI. Chang Tseng-Chai was one of Shaw’s great hopes, and in the end, perhaps a great disappointment. His From the Highway (1970), for rival studio Cathay, was one the defining successes of the era, leading him to being offered a contract at Shaw. It makes him one of those rare things at the studio: a young director provided with unprecedented freedom and massive resources. None of his films end up becoming the commercial or critical hit Shaw was hoping for, but he makes several ambitious, genre-bending features during his brief tenure. Even briefer is Cheng Chang-Ho’s stay, which only lasts about three years. An established Korean filmmaker (real name: Jeng Cheong-Woh) he quickly makes a name for himself with his quirky, stylish, fast-paced wuxia pians. Despite the massive success of his seminal King Boxer and the entreaties of Run Run Shaw himself, he chooses to leave the studio in ’72, making several indies before returning to South Korea. Formerly the top cinematographer at the studio, Pao Hsueh-Li transitions to director mostly as partner with Chang Cheh, especially throughout his ambitious cycle of epics. Nonetheless, he also makes 8 solo outings before splitting with the studio. Perhaps more of a consummate professional than personal auteur, his career behind the camera leads to generally handsome productions, with a chameleon-like ability to adapt to a variety of genres.

The last category of auteurs is what I call the “Maverick Directors” of Shaw Brothers: SUN CHUNG, KUEI CHIH-HUNG and HUA SHAN. With the three “Old Guard” directors above, they were the backbone of Shaw’s Exploitation unit. All three proved their mettle enough that, by the turn of the decade, they were awarded with more prestigious projects. Sun Chung could have perhaps been a great director of wuxia, but he has the misfortune of arriving just as the genre’s first wave is winding down. As a result he’s assigned to the studio’s sex films. Slowly, they start getting more action packed, with a noted influence from both American action films and Japanese Pinky Violence. With his reputation established, he’s assigned to several exceptional wuxias, as the genre makes it return. Dark, violent and brooding, they kickstart what I like to call the cruel wuxia-pian sub-genre of the early Eighties. Kuei Chih-Hung starts, with all things, romantic comedies. But with the help of Chang Cheh, he helps initiate the Shaw Brothers Crime wave. From then on, he makes some of the wildest and most provocative Exploitation films at the studio, films with a grim energy that truly feel as if they're on the edge of running out of control. His two masterpieces don’t come until the next decade, but he’s one director whose films truly feel subversive for their boldness alone. The least of the three, at least as this decade is concerned, is Hua Shan. Another former cinematographer, his tastes run increasingly towards the grotesque and bizarre. During the decade, he mostly distinguishes himself with several entries into the burgeoning Triad genre characterized by a certain brutal grit. However, he truly hits his stride going into the Eighties, where he directs several outrageous fantastique-laden wuxias. It's worth noting that these latter two don't work exclusively for Shaw: both Kuei and Hua also put in work for several indie studios. While these films look much more conventional at a glance, they may prove fruitful for future investigations.

Worth further investigation: T.F. MOU (or MOU TOU-FIEN), the enfant terrible behind the later Men Behind the Sun. Making his name with a few successful Taiwanese shorts, he’s another director instantly given an unprecedented freedom. Here, however, the studio immediately balks: they find his films too dark, too political, too controversial. Two of his films are chopped down from feature-length into anthology shorts; another is given a minor release and then falls to obscurity. We’ll wait until the ‘80s for his vision to make it to the screen somewhere approaching undiluted, but from what I see and read, he’s one of the most forward-thinking and iconoclastic directors at the studio. Begrudging mention: LU KEI, aka. Shaw’s other erotic director. His films, however, are the opposite of Li’s historical comedies; they’re contemporary, crass, broad, vulgar, and stereotypical, with often questionable sexual politics. They’re also often listed among the worst films the studio ever put out. But, with titles like The Mini-Skirt Gang and Starlets for Sale, they may prove irresistible to some. Just know what you’re getting into. There’s also JOHN LAW MA, a director who never works exclusively for Shaw, constantly jumping between them and the Indie studios. For much of his stay, he’s put in charge of several of their most successful attempts at the Cantonese Comedy, including the long running Crazy Bumpkins series. More importantly, he becomes Shaw’s go-to guy when it comes time to imitate the Indie-style kung-fu comedy. He makes three films back-to-back in 1979 which are amongst Shaw’s most successful attempts at the genre.

Now on to the actual guide… before I continue, I should further emphasize what is mentioned above. Biased and Reductive. While I like to think I know what the hell I’m talking about, the truth is I’ll probably push my knowledge or put my foot in my mouth several times. Considering the litany of long-propagated misinformation connected to the genre until recently (*cough*ricmeyers*cough*), it’s inevitable some will infiltrate the below accounts. If you notice something wrong, or outright disagree with my assessments, then by all means, say something. This isn’t the great comprehensive account of Shaw Brothers. This is just some fan mostly stabbing in the dark. I just hope that some people will find something of interest here, and maybe discover a few new great films.

Next up: Wuxia Pian (1970-1974)
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Tue Nov 05, 2013 4:37 am, edited 4 times in total.

Orlac
Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 4:29 am

Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#2 Post by Orlac » Thu Aug 08, 2013 5:49 pm

Fantastic stuff!

I feel that Shaws let their studio system stifle them by the mid-70s. Although cruder, the Taiwanese indies often feel fresher.

masterofoneinchpunch
Joined: Thu Dec 18, 2008 7:24 pm

Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#3 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Fri Aug 09, 2013 6:35 pm

Great read. I am looking forward to your future posts. Other than the Bordwell link what sources did you use?

I prefer both Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers of the 1970s over the Taiwanese market that I have seen (there is definitely some I love involving Wang Yu), but I don't know which I prefer of GH and SB. Now the 80s would be an easy decision.

A couple of notes/comments:

I think it is important to note that Shaw Brothers did do a decent amount of Cantonese films from 1955 to 1963 (with 14 as a yearly high matching their Mandarin output in 1960; actually more than Cathay did during that same time period). Law Kar has an excellent chapter on this in the book China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema on the reasons for this and the decline.

"Loke Wan Tho, unexpectedly died in a plane crash in 1964, taking several executives with him, Shaw had Cathay on the ropes. The next year, they made the studio-wide decision to begin making action-orientated wuxias, christening the start of the “wuxia century”."
Technically that would happen in 1966 with Come Drink with Me (Pei Pei says that shooting took about 50 to 60 days) and Chang Cheh's Magnificent Trio. Now Tiger Boy came out earlier that year, but I do not know when filming on it started, nor has anyone seen this in years :). Now if only this could be a found film. A question I have is what was the impetus for creating Tiger Boy?

"they watched as Cathay’s relevance slowly slipped away; by 1973, the studio would shutter."
This was in 1970 which then Golden Harvest would buy the studio though you did note later "By 1970, they had conquered ...".

[on Lau Kar-leung]"He doesn’t make as many films as his peers, but every one of them is considered a classic."
I love his work, but even die-hard fans would not go that far because of Shaolin Mantis (1978) and Challenge of the Masters (1976) and that is not even including one of his worst co-directed efforts in Breakout from Oppression (1978).

"Chor Yuen (or Chu Yuan), however, focuses entirely on the wuxia pian."
Even in the 1970s for the Shaw Brothers he did films outside of this genre in comedy (Hong Kong 73 (1974), martial art crime (The Lizard (1972)) and crime (The Big Holdup (1975)).

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Cold Bishop
Joined: Tue May 30, 2006 9:45 pm
Location: Portland, OR

Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#4 Post by Cold Bishop » Sat Aug 10, 2013 3:22 am

masterofoneinchpunch wrote:Great read. I am looking forward to your future posts. Other than the Bordwell link what sources did you use?
I've read lots of stuff over the years, including large chunks of the book you mentioned below. I really wasn't expecting this to turn into a monograph, which why I, regrettably, didn't take down sources or footnotes. A bibliography is something I might consider doing somewhere down the line, as there's lots of stuff out there (The HK Film Archives have put out several great books, including a study of Shaw, as well as Chang Cheh's memoirs and Chor Yuen's oral history).
I prefer both Golden Harvest and Shaw Brothers of the 1970s over the Taiwanese market that I have seen (there is definitely some I love involving Wang Yu), but I don't know which I prefer of GH and SB. Now the 80s would be an easy decision.
I actually, against common consensus, like a lot of what Shaw was doing in the early 80s. Lot of the stuff were films "out of time", but until the last two or so years, they put out several amazing films. The entire "cruel wuxia-pian" wave is something I really hope to revisit once the 80s project comes around.
I think it is important to note that Shaw Brothers did do a decent amount of Cantonese films from 1955 to 1963 (with 14 as a yearly high matching their Mandarin output in 1960; actually more than Cathay did during that same time period). Law Kar has an excellent chapter on this in the book China Forever: The Shaw Brothers and Diasporic Cinema on the reasons for this and the decline.
If I recall, nearly all of them were star-vehicles for a particular child star (can't recall her name at the moment). They were also much cheaper and formulaic than even their most routine Mandarin films.

Of course, I really wish I could mount a similar study of their '60s films, but a lot of that stuff is still impossible to see.
Technically that would happen in 1966 with Come Drink with Me (Pei Pei says that shooting took about 50 to 60 days) and Chang Cheh's Magnificent Trio. Now Tiger Boy came out earlier that year, but I do not know when filming on it started, nor has anyone seen this in years :). Now if only this could be a found film. A question I have is what was the impetus for creating Tiger Boy?
They actually announced the beginning of the "Colour Wuxia Century" in an Oct 1965 issue of Southern Screen. The "new wuxia" wave is generally credited beginning with Hsu Tseng-Hung's Temple of the Red Lotus in 1965, a film which still bears many "Operatic" influences but is nonetheless an action film. There are actually a few arguable entries prior to that (according to the 1981 HKIFF's "A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film"), but that's the point where Shaw makes a concentrated effort at the genre.

I've heard mixed stories about Tiger Boy, but it seems that Chang Cheh (then a screenwriter) tried convincing the studio to make wuxias quite early in the decade. Supposedly, the film was a very low-budgeted test-run, and one that gave them cold feet, shelving the film until the genre started taking off elsewhere. Some people claim he made it prior to Hsu Tseng-Hung's film, although it was released long after, making it arguably the first "new wuxia".

Accounts of the film right up until around the late '70s seem to refer to it as sloppy and mostly minor. Considering the rather middling value of the two films Chang made following it, I largely suspect the film's "reputation" is likely greater than the film itself.
This was in 1970 which then Golden Harvest would buy the studio though you did note later "By 1970, they had conquered ...".
Cathay continued to release films right until 1972. Now that I look into it, the "1973" comes as the year they divested all their interests in Singapore and Malaysia.
I love his work, but even die-hard fans would not go that far because of Shaolin Mantis (1978) and Challenge of the Masters (1976) and that is not even including one of his worst co-directed efforts in Breakout from Oppression (1978).
I don't consider Breakout... to be a proper LKL film (it's certainly not a Shaw film), as I really get the sense he was just helping out (There are probably plenty of Chang Cheh films more deserving of being called "A Lau Kar-Leung Film"). In fact, considering the film was most certainly a shelved, if not abandoned, picture, likely made around 1973, I wouldn't be surprised if this film was wholly Yang Fan's directorial work, but with the Liu Brothers "promoted" from choreographers to co-directors to cash in on their newfound success in the late '70s.

I think those other two titles are both significant: Challenge of the Masters crystallized the "sifu-student" coupling that would be absolutely crucial to the genre during the rest of its life, and it's probably responsible for inspiring all the "new" approaches to Huang Fei-Hung (instead of simple aping of the Kwan Tak-Hing films). As for Shaolin Mantis: LKL's central theme may very well be the family, and this film is his most unusually pessimistic examination of it (its almost the flip-side to Heroes of the East). It's also interesting for the way it turns the "Han vs. Manchu" theme on its ear by having a Qing agent as an (ambigious) hero.
Even in the 1970s for the Shaw Brothers he did films outside of this genre in comedy (Hong Kong 73 (1974), martial art crime (The Lizard (1972)) and crime (The Big Holdup (1975)).
Making his name as a Cantonese filmmaker before coming to Shaw, he makes several films in various genres (many of them quite good), before becoming the proponent of the aforementioned “Swordplay & Intrigue” film...

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#5 Post by YnEoS » Sat Aug 10, 2013 12:32 pm

Really great write up Cold Bishop, can't wait to read your other entries.
Cold Bishop wrote:
I love his work, but even die-hard fans would not go that far because of Shaolin Mantis (1978) and Challenge of the Masters (1976) and that is not even including one of his worst co-directed efforts in Breakout from Oppression (1978).
I don't consider Breakout... to be a proper LKL film (it's certainly not a Shaw film), as I really get the sense he was just helping out (There are probably plenty of Chang Cheh films more deserving of being called "A Lau Kar-Leung Film"). In fact, considering the film was most certainly a shelved, if not abandoned, picture, likely made around 1973, I wouldn't be surprised if this film was wholly Yang Fan's directorial work, but with the Liu Brothers "promoted" from choreographers to co-directors to cash in on their newfound success in the late '70s.
I'm actually a little fond of Breakout from Oppression, and don't think it's quite as bad as some people make it out to be. I'm no expert of early/mid 70s kung fu, but it seems like it has some interesting fight choreography going for it that hints at the shapes styles that would be better developed by Lau Kar Leung and others later in the decade. I've had it filed away in my head as more of an interesting pre-cursor to Lau Kar Leung's later brilliance, rather than a failure to be swept under the rug.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#6 Post by Orlac » Sat Aug 10, 2013 9:54 pm

Shaolin Mantis is quite an effective drama.

I found Challenge of the Masters but a lot of that is due to my major gripe with Shaw films: the really boring Chinese dubbing they did. Saps all the drama out of some of the movies.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#7 Post by masterofoneinchpunch » Mon Aug 12, 2013 2:25 pm

Cold Bishop wrote:...If I recall, nearly all of them were star-vehicles for a particular child star (can't recall her name at the moment). They were also much cheaper and formulaic than even their most routine Mandarin films.
...
Patricia Lam Fong was in 29 films out of the 57 or so Cantonese films made. She was 17-18 when she premiered (though was hired when she was 16.) Average budget of those features were 150,000 HK dollars according to Weng Ling-wen (same book mentioned above quoting from Cantonese Cinema Restrospective (1950-1959) (1978)).

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#8 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:18 pm

Another Shaw Production, Vol. I: The Wuxia Pian (1970-1974)

A brief primer on the “wuxia” genre
What is “wuxia pian”? In rough terms, it can be translated as “martial-chivalry film”, an outgrowth of the literary wuxia genre, although “wuxia” is one of those terms for which no credible English counterpart exists. It concerns itself chiefly with xia, the chivalrous swordsmen and swordswoman who roam the genre like knights-errant. They not only possess an acute mastery of various martial-art forms (“wu”), they are also governed by a strong code of honor and righteousness which inevitably beckon them into the conflicts that constitute wuxia narratives. The genre exists in what is referred to as the jianghu, a somewhat disputed term among scholars (what follow is a rather simplified and inclusive definition). The jianghu, or the land of “rivers and lakes”, is the mythic and ethereal China that constitutes the genre’s landscape. Here, historical fact freely mixes with fiction and fantasy, great feats of strength and magic are possible, and the specter of injustice and political chaos invariably calls for the intervention of the xia. Furthermore, the jianghu is dominated by bodies with their own set of laws, their own code of ethics, their own social structures. As such, some narrow the definition of jianghu so as to only include these inner, or hidden, strata of society governed by these systems, chief of which are the wulin (“world of martial-artists”) and lulin (“world of bandits”). As such, the jianghu can be called an alternate reality, parallel, even contained within historical China, but ultimately separate. It’s a genre with deep waters – some contest its beginnings to before the Qin (ca. 221 BCE) – although it’s proper flowering as a genre came during the Qing (ca. 1644 CE) and endures to this day (The three giants of modern wuxia literature: Gu Long, Jin Yong, Liang Yusheng).

Before wuxia came to the cinema, it came to the Peking Opera, where its fantasy and martial-arts became fodder for the dance, acrobatics and pageantry of the Opera stage (martial-arts training would become mandatory for Opera students). The earliest entries in wuxia pian largely borrowed from this representation, as well as the special effects of the “trick film”. This lead to a flourishing of Shanghai wuxia during the 20s, but which came to an end due to government censorship. The exodus of filmmakers into Hong Kong to continue the genre can rightly be called the beginning of that industry. While it had to contest with the more realistic and locally-flavored Huang Fei-Hong films, the fantastic and operatic Cantonese wuxia flourished after the war, reaching its peak at the end of the Fifties. Soon, the bigger and ever-growing Mandarin studios took note. This came to a head with Shaw Brother’s “new wuxia” initiative, where nearly every studio resource was soon redirected towards the genre. Melding the basic properties of the Cantonese wuxia with the lavishness and respectability of the studio-style (developed during their Huangmei Opera cycle) and the “realism” of foreign (namely Japanese and Hollywood) action films (of which Shaw distributed many), it recreated and popularized the genre as never before. King Hu’s brand of non-theatrical, wholly-cinematic “operatic grace” and Chang Cheh’s macho and violent “yanggang” style (“staunch masculinity”) were ultimately the two pillars on which the “New Wuxia” was built as it entered the Seventies.

A century in five years…
When Shaw announced the beginning of their action initiative, they declared it the beginning of the “Wuxia Century”. While this was said with the typical bluster of Chinese advertisement, for a brief moment, such grand declarations could almost appear accurate. Shaw Brothers’ New Wuxia not only reinvigorated the studio, it brought it to an unprecedented dominance of the South Asian film market. Cathay, its one time fierce rival, had long ceased being any source of major competition. The other left-leaning, mainland-connected Mandarin studios were in massive decline in face of the Cultural Revolution. The Cantonese studios, from which Shaw inherited the genre, were completely unable to compete with the vastly superior budgets of Shaw. Shaw’s entry into the Cantonese television market, TVB, would briefly obliterate the industry entirely. Taiwan’s growing sophistication and independence may have given Shaw pause, but they had bigger targets: to be the first Hong Kong studio to break the Western, and especially American, film markets, something they would accomplish within a few years of the decade. In short, from the vantage point of 1969, Shaw was the only body in the Chinese-speaking world that could rightly call itself a major studio.

But here’s the rub about the HK film industry, something I’ve noticed throughout my study of the industry: it operates by what I like to call the “Five Year Rule”. In short, any genre only has about a five-year shelf life in that rapidly evolving (and quickly saturated) industry. Without any massive internal evolution, any genre, in roughly five-year’s time, will find itself usurped by another new flavor. Shaw already rehearsed this with their Huangmei Opera cycle: in five years, it went from the genre that built the studio, to falling into a slump that necessitated a wholesale “replacement” by the wuxia. The New Wuxia began in 1965; by 1970, its five years was up. While Shaw’s monopoly helped prolong the genre further than it may have otherwise, it couldn’t stop the emergence of an usurper. Like clockwork, within two months of the new decade, that usurper emerged. In February 1970, Cathay received one of their final blockbusters with the release of Chang Tseng-Chai’s From the Highway. Updating the wuxia to the early 20th century and the mountainous Chinese north, its most important innovation was the inclusion of hand-to-hand combat. Written off as a Cantonese niche (epitomized by the Huang Fei-Hong series), From the Highway rode that niche to one of the most successful martial-arts film up to that date. Shaw wasn’t completely caught unaware – both Vengeance! and The Chinese Boxer were out within months – but the next three years would be followed by a series of films which would cement the Kung-Fu Film as the new genre du jour. Many of these would come from outside Shaw. Shaw’s hegemony ultimately created a vacuum, one that was filled when several producers defected to start Golden Harvest. Eschewing “vertical integration” for a United Artists-like contracting with independent companies, Golden Harvest would have quickly folded if not for the emergence of the kung-fu film. Their relationship with Bruce Lee was the force that cemented kung-fu’s ascendancy to the HK box-office, and forever ended Shaw’s control of the industry. Shaw may be closely aligned with kung-fu cinema in the public consciousness, but Golden Harvest is truly the studio that kung-fu built.

To properly assess the effect of the kung-fu genre on the HK film industry… and its deterrent effect on the wuxia pian… it may help to look at the hard numbers. Below is a chart detailing the output in the martial-arts genre between Shaw Brothers and its chief rival of the period (who begin releasing films in 1971). It’s not a perfect contrast – Golden Harvest never matched the sheer volume of films produced by Shaw – but it provides a snapshot of changing audience tastes and with it, Shaw’s lessening monopoly on the industry:
Image

Despite the massive success of From the Highway, Shaw doesn’t really change their game plan at the start of the decade, producing only three kung-fu films during 1970 (I’ll generously include the “hybrid-wuxia” Brothers Five under both classifications). Although both Vengeance! and The Chinese Boxer are commercial and critical successes, Shaw doesn’t change it’s approach to kung-fu during 1971. Rather, the year proves to be the high-point for the wuxia genre, making up well over half of the studio output. Golden Harvest, in their first year of releases, follows Shaw’s lead, leaning heavily on the wuxia genre. Their successes prove middling to disappointing, undoubtedly contributing to the reduced production slate in ’72. Rather, it is their two kung-fu films that prove most successful: The One-Armed Boxer, Jimmy Wang Yu’s mash-up of his two iconic roles at his former studio, and more significantly, the game-changing success of the Bruce Lee starring The Big Boss. Not only does Golden Harvest rush out its follow-up, Fist of Fury, within five months, they essentially flip the ratio the next year, favoring kung-fu over wuxia. The shockwaves of this success undoubtedly contribute to Shaw’s uptick in kung-fu production in ’72: there are many anecdotes of rushed productions schedules during this period, and many of these films are undoubtedly imitative of the Bruce Lee films (and to a smaller degree, the Wang Yu). I’d wager that only 3, maybe 4, of those year’s kung-fu films have any consequent influence on the genre, the rest being rather throwaway, even mercenary in their attempt to cash in on the genre’s new success. By 1973, Golden Harvest is near exclusively a kung-fu studio: even two of their wuxias are of the “hybrid” variety (Jimmy Wang Yu’s Beach of the War Gods and King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan). By 1974, they abandon the wuxia pian altogether, the gap in the production slate being used for the beginnings of the Cantonese Comedy, another genre that would change the Hong Kong film industry.

Due to the successes of the indie studios, waning audience interest, and the international crossover appeal of kung-fu, Shaw also sharply decreases wuxia production over the next few years. Interestingly enough, kung-fu production never reaches the sheer volume of its predecessor. Rather Shaw used this period to experiment in a variety of genres. Undoubtedly, the studios various war, crime and exploitation films often blur the boundary with the kung-fu genre, but nonetheless, there’s something here to suggest that the studio always remained ill at ease with the genre, even as its box-office beckoned. It really wouldn’t be until the initiation of the “Shaolin Cycle” in 1974 – began appropriately as the first wave of “basher” kung-fu films, epitomized by the indies, waned - that Shaw would take the reins of the genre (briefly), merging its characteristics with the respectable historicity of the studio-style. As for the wuxia, it would reach its nadir in ’75 and ’76, with only four entries a piece. Yet, among this dry-spell, the massive success of Ho Meng-Hua’s The Flying Guillotine and Chor Yuen’s Killer Clans would soon revive the genre to the studio’s favor. But that’s a story for a different time…

Defining the early ‘70s style
Of course, all this makes it sound like doom and gloom, a genre at a dead-end, stuck in a creative stasis. That’s simply not true. If anything, I’m surprised to find the early ‘70s a near embarrassment of riches in regards to the genre. What it lacks in prestige and notoriety, the early ‘70s Shaw wuxia has the sheer power of numbers on its side. Eclipsed by the rise of kung-fu, many of the most obscure titles are amongst the hidden gems of the studio’s output. While Shaw had a problem of securing and developing new directorial talent in this transitional period, they certainly provided many opportunities, and many of the directors who quickly pass through the studio’s doors provide tantalizing glimpses of what could’ve been. For example, cult directors Huang Feng and Joseph Kuo, both famed for such “indies” as Hapkido and The 18 Bronzemen, are both briefly contracted at the studio. While the films are footnotes for both parties, the possibility in them cultivating their talent at the studio in some alternate-seventies is worth speculation for fans of the genre. Other briefly-employed, obscure directors provide several of the strongest films of the period, as you’ll see below. And it’s wrong to say the genre was just treading water. The innovations may not be as sharp as audiences had hoped (such as in the later Chor Yuen-Gu Long films), but they are there, if subtle: the refinement of the studio style, an increasing investigation of the genre’s ethos.

To properly assess the way the early ‘70s wuxia differentiates itself from, as opposed to extending, the New Wuxia of the late ‘60s, it may help to identify a few outside influences that impress themselves greatly on the genre.

A) Financial success – The New Wuxia was tremendously successful for the studio. This period finds Shaw flexing their new box-office muscle. Obviously, this leads to the sheer increase in production in the genre, for better (variety) or worse (saturation). There are also subtler signs of Shaw’s augmented allocation of resources to the genre, including increasingly polished productions, and new sets to accompany the endless repeated old ones from the previous era. In fact, no doubt influenced by the success of the Taiwanese Dragon Gate Inn, this period sees a sharp increase in exterior settings and location shooting, often in Taiwan or the New Territories. This is also the period when Shaw initiates their “Cast of Thousand” epics: mammoth-sized productions, usually headed by Cheng Kang or Chang Cheh, which stretch the studio’s resources. This experiment comes crashing down around ’76, as Shaw realizes that bigger budgets don’t necessarily mean bigger profits. Nonetheless, if the late ’60s was when wuxia pian began producing million-dollar successes, this is the period where the studio provides million-dollar budgets.

B) Rise of Kung-FuKung-fu doesn’t simply push the wuxia out of the box office; it also impresses itself on the genre in several ways. Obviously, the clearest expression is the variation of film that can be called “hybrid-wuxia”: wuxia pian including hand-to-hand combat or other acute influences of the kung-fu genre. Such an approach isn’t entirely unprecedented: much of the groundwork for the kung-fu film was laid by Chang Cheh’s “yanggang” style, an ethos which is only further emphasized during this era (no less by Chang’s own endless deluge of films). No doubt Shaw was also impressed by the massive failure of King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971), which helped close the door on a more operatic and sophisticated alternative to the “yanggang” school. As such, this period finds wuxia getting tougher, more secular, more violent, more masculine. One side-effect is that this period is marked by a steep decline in hero-swordswomen, once central to the genre. The retirement of Cheng Pei-Pei and Chin Ping at the start of the decade marks something of an end to an era. Actresses like Li Ching, Ivy Ling Po, Lily Ho and Shih Szu briefly fill their void, but as their status are increasingly marginalized, most starlets are soon faced with the pressure of following the studio into the Sexploitation genre. With that said, if the trends of the era slowly ran women out of the genre, it had the adverse effect of giving a sense of purpose to some of the films that retained them. I don’t think it’s any mistake that the three “essential” films below are not only female-centric, but have pretty strong things to say about women and their place in the traditional jianghu of the genre.

Likewise, many of the key directors during the New Wuxia period (Hsu Tseng-Hung, Lo Wei, Griffin Yueh Feng, Pan Lei) leave at the end of their contracts, many going to Taiwan, which remains favorable to the genre.

C) Relaxed Censorship – While I’ve never seen a written account on how it came to be, this entire period sees the restrictions of censorship increasingly loosened in the Hong Kong industry, with something like full frontal nudity even becoming commonplace (take that, Japan!). No longer competing with Cathay, Shaw seemingly gives up all pretenses of being a conservative studio. Sex and violence become the order of the day, with interesting results in the alien terrain of wuxia. Extreme violence was already introduced by the New Wuxia and this period finds it pushed into even crueler and more over-the-top territory. It helps inform much of the downbeat tone that underpins many films of this period. More interesting is the use of sex: xia is traditionally sexless or ascetic… as such, sexuality, unusual for the genre, is often contributed to villains. Take Yen Chun’s The Iron Buddha (1970), a formulaic revenge tale with a sordid, novel twist: the villain isn’t simply a master swordsman, but a serial rapist, giving the film a rather grim sense of urgency. Femme fatales and adulterous women take a stronger place in the genre during this era. Take Sun Chung’s The Devil’s Mirror (1972): the “witch” antagonist constantly uses sex as a tool to gain control of the martial-world. In fact, the film is interesting in other ways: its fantastic plot would have been turned into a Saturday-matinee style adventure film just a few years earlier. But by ’72, the magic and fantasy elements are overloaded with jarring levels of sex and violence, attaining a level of macabre and lurid “pulp” that points towards the genre’s future in the ‘70s. If, as the numbers show, the decline in wuxia didn’t lead to an over-saturation of kung-fu films at the studio, it's worth noting that one genre that helped fill Shaw’s slate during that period was the Sex Film, which peaked mid-decade. As such, the wuxia missed the height of this genre’s excesses. However, a rare and superlative example of the two opposed genres meeting heads-on comes in Chor Yuen’s genre-bending Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, which we’ll return to.

There was a common criticism to the wuxia pian of the 1990s: the genre featured plenty of wu (“martial-arts”), but little xia (“chivalry”). A similar dilemma outlines the problems faced by wuxia during this period. Whether following the macho and secular influence of the kung-fu film, or attempting to introduce sex and evermore violence, it becomes increasingly a genre divided, increasingly at odds with its own chivalric tradition. It would take the second half of the decade for Shaw to figure out how to coherently meld the romantic ethos of the genre with a thoroughly modern sensibility (the “Romantic Swordsman” films of Chor Yuen) or, embracing the contradiction, begin casting a deliberately suspicious eye at that very ethos (the “cruel wuxia-pian” wave, initiated by Sun Chung). Yet, it is this very confusion, backed by the immense output at the start of the decade, which makes this one of the most varied periods of martial-arts cinema. Here, the unabashedly fantastic rubs shoulder with the savagely material. Martial-heroes of inflexible nobility share the marquee with bladesmen wearied by the violent obligations of the sword. Even women warriors use the genre as their last stronghold, fighting against a rising tide of macho kung-fu and objectifying sex films. It may lack the high-profile “masterpieces” of the two surrounding eras, but the deep cuts are well worth the digging.

Now on to the films…

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Cold Bishop
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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#9 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:24 pm

Another Shaw Production, Vol. I: The Wuxia Pian (1970-1974)... The Films

Essential Viewing:

The Twelve Gold Medallions (Cheng Kang, 1970)
The titular medallions are actually imperial decrees, issued by the Prime Minister in his nefarious plot to undermine the war against the Tartars and consolidate power. Yueh Hua is the patriot, one of many, who vows to intercept every medallion and kill all messengers. This is complicated when his former sifu and prospective father-in law (Ching Miao) volunteers to ensure their passage. 12GM almost acts as a compendium of Kang’s smaller-scale films prior: The Magnificent Swordsman’s co-opting of Spaghetti and Chambara aesthetics; The Sword of Swords’ sense of doom-laden cruelty; Killers Five’s pure adventure-film spectacle… all while anticipating the more lavish scope of his following epic, The 14 Amazons. The result is a true wuxia pian, which doesn’t hide from the genre’s sense of magic and chivalry, but which features a surprising fatalistic underbelly, one which anticipates the genre’s direction in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. The film’s most striking moments come when Kang punctuates the epic grandeur with moments of ground-level subjectivity: one character is roped by passing horseman, and the films adopts a P.O.V. shot as they’re dragged across the landscape. Another character is tossed around-and-around by would-be rapists, and the camera spins dizzyingly. Two swordsmen stalk each other in a darkened teahouse, and the film drowns us in the same blackness as the characters. This all comes to a head in the film’s bravura final fight, which like all the film, is choreographed by swordplay specialist Hsu Erh-Niu and a young Sammo Hung. Filmed up-close in canted low-angles, with hand-cameras and varying film speeds, the images come so fast and furious, like the clashing of blades, that the film stock itself seems to be smearing (the sort of effect Wong Kar-Wai would purposely evoke in Ashes of Time). Even the soundtrack, eschewing typical rousing music, concerns itself only with the violent clanging of steel and the increasing grunt and cries of the participants, which pile up at times until they have the density of musique concrète. It’s swordplay performed with a shocking sense of reckless abandonment, a sequence that goes as far as to anticipate the stylistic immediacy of the Hong Kong New and Second Wave.

Usually when a student goes against his teacher, it’s an act of treachery. Here the student is the protagonist. It’s a peculiar innovation, made more peculiar when this symbolic rejection of the father transforms itself into a literal one, with Chin Ping (in her last role) torn between father, fiancé and country. The tug-of-war between the various obligations of Confucian society has long been a source of Chinese drama. Here, it’s pursued with an unusual sense of violence and despair. As the threat of familicide finally becomes manifest, 12GM emerges as a rare thing at Shaw: a takedown of monstrous patriarchy. If the film asserts Yueh Hua as the hero, the film emerges, of all things, as being a film about fathers and daughters. There’s no question that the film could have redirected its focus more strongly in this regard: just one or two more scenes detailing the relationship between Chin Ping and Ching Miao would have put the film over the top. But as the film reaches its gutsy (and undoubtedly divisive) ending, there’s no question it’s interrogating the long Confucian tradition of filial piety and blind devotion, as this impulse, inherent in many Shaw films, starts to blur the line between self-sacrificing and self-destructive. This is ultimately the film’s inherent limit: as its closing shot attests, one battle alone doesn’t win a war, and Twelve Gold Medallions casts only one blow against the “law of the father” that ruled the roost at Shaw. But it’s a harsh blow, one that had me picking my jaw off the floor as the credits rolled. An honest-to-goodness masterpiece, wuxia or otherwise, from a director who, at his best, was perhaps the finest at the studio.

Lady with a Sword (Kao Pao Shu, 1971)
When her sister is raped and murdered, the daughter of a noble family (Lily Ho) swears revenge. Accompanied by her orphaned nephew, the sole witness, they set out to track the killers… but they’re perhaps closer than they wish to know. Here we have a true rarity: a 70s martial-arts film headed by a female director! Kao Pao-Shu was one of Shaw’s biggest character actresses throughout the Sixties, but at the end of the decade she made the curious move to behind the scenes. After years paying her dues as a dubber and assistant director, she finally worked her way to the director’s chair for this, her debut. She certainly exhibits a distinctive style, which helps overcome the limitations of being a pretty down-the-line Shaw production in terms of importance. Undercranking, usually a cheap effect to overcome limited choreography, is adopted to such a degree it becomes an aesthetic. Gratuitous zooms abound, but, as opposed to avoiding editing, they’re integrated into the montage rhythms of the film, even the psychology of the characters. Throughout, she uses the motif of cross-cutting between separate fights: matching-cuts abound, and there’s even a careful and ambitious crane shot where she tracks between two separate fights on two sides of a dividing wall. More importantly, a feminine sensibility is apparent throughout, although if you’re expecting a softer wuxia, you have another thing coming, as the brutal opening (involving an assault on a woman and child) makes clear.

Having a female protagonist alone doesn’t account for this sensibility, common truck in the genre even into the yanggang era. What is distinct is the way that Kao takes those stereotypically feminine traits used to marginalize women into supporting roles – their romantic sentimentality, their protective maternal instincts, their self-sacrificing spirit towards loved ones – and imbues them into her swordswomen in ways that make them more daring, more deadly, and more complex. It’s this and a multifaceted approach to conflict, over a simply dichotomy of good and evil, that truly distinguishes the film, which is also rare for having women as both chief protagonist and antagonist: Lam Jing, who usually played sweet-but-suffering mothers, brings a Lady Macbeth intensity to her determined matriarch. This film, unassuming at first, ultimately reveals itself as a study of familial bonds, and the way their preservation can drive people to both good and ill. What starts off a simple revenge film transforms into one of the most ambitious and morally complex films I’ve seen yet from the studio, an unassuming b-production that unfolds into a tragedy of genuinely Shakespearean proportions. Imagine a female-driven wuxia The Man from Laramie, and you’re getting close to the ballpark. At the center is the unfulfilled promise of marriage: a ritual that could have brought two families together instead becomes the catalyst that tears them apart. And the tragedy cuts across generations unsparingly, from the elderly to the young. Like many of Shaw’s most interesting “young” directors, Kao Pao Shu didn’t stick around. This was her only film at the studio, although she’d continue to make 10 more films in the Indies. If this near-masterpiece is any indication, they let a very good thing go.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972)
Kidnapped, raped and sold into prostitution, the vengeful beauty Ai Nu (Lily Ho) catches the eye of the brothel’s dangerous madam Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti), setting into motion one of Shaw’s greatest revenge films. A controversial hit in its day, Chor Yuen’s mix of wuxia actioner and erotic thriller still resonates, even long after its taboo subject have lost their shock (Sex slavery! Sadomasochism! Lesbianism!). Chor’s film doesn’t entirely transcend the exploitative – it’s still a “rape-revenge” film, with the predetermined story structure that it entails – but he mitigates and subverts this sordid tale with high artistry, a tasteful and restrained touch, and some forward-thinking (if mixed) approaches to its subject matter. It could properly be called “proto-feminist”… not in that it’s a feminist film before its time, but in that it contains the elements for a feminist critique, without ordering them into a coherent whole. The opening third will lose many, outlining Ai Nu’s rape and indoctrination into the hellish brothel life, with certain grotesque scenes that can rub some the wrong way. But it also draws a sharp contrast to the rest of Shaw’s genre output. The brothel often pops up in wuxia as a place of color and good humor; Chor presents it unequivocally as a center of degradation and horror. What Chor Yuen has created is a wuxia without the chivalry of the jianghu… how does one believe in chivalry when brothels are allowed to operate in plain sight? When traditional xia elements emerge, they’re tinged with failure: Wan Chung-Shan’s boy savior quickly falls in a hail of swords; Yueh Hua’s constable-protagonist is ineffectual to the point of uselessness; Tung Lin’s brothel enforcer is a former xia who gave up the martial-world to unrequitedly pine after a lesbian. Even worse are the brothel’s patrons, social elites who indulge their predatory tastes with impunity. Its relationship to lesbianism is also interesting, oscillating between moments of objectification and empowerment. Yes, there are tinges of both the “self-loathing dyke” and “man-hating psycho” in these characterizations… but the film’s bleak view of masculinity as repulsive or feeble, coupled with Chor’s delicate and tender touch, makes it look undeniably attractive, the only logical resort for a self-empowered woman.

But the sexual politics only tell half the story, for the film is also a prime showcase for perhaps Shaw’s supreme stylist. Chor Yuen’s mastery of mise-en-scene is on full display. He shoots scenes in sweeping takes at wide angles, capturing all the multiple planes of the sets, often shooting through screens and curtains for a “voyeuristic” effect. His vivid, pastel sense of color and set design is wholly on display here: a whole essay could be written about the color-coding in the film, especially as regards Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti’s costuming as they continually evolve in their transformation/symbiosis. There’s also his ineffable control of tone. Coming from the “cosmopolitan” Cantonese industry, Chor brought an important noirish sensibility to his early Shaw films. This is not just obvious in his patented atmosphere of supreme mystery and intrigue, but also in a sense of somber pensiveness and haunted longing that crowd into the corners and crevices of his films. The first half of the film is staged as a flashback: during the opening credits, Ai Nu catches her own reflection and sorrowfully contemplates her irretraceable path towards violence. If its lesbianism seems tame to today’s eyes, the films still retains a palpable and perverse sense of l’amour fou, that mad eroticism pursued unto madness, violence, even death, as Ai Nu’s victims draw to her like moths to a flame. With its exquisite cruelty, it’s wuxia by the way of Sternberg and Browning (Tony Rayns once called it “a perfect Z-movie Scarlet Empress”). The film’s most shocking image comes early: after whipping Ai Nu for insubordination, Lady Chun, in a sudden sexual fury, pounces on her and licks the blood from her wounds. This comes full circle in the film’s awesome finale, when the two women simultaneously consummate their passion and settle their vendetta in one final orgy of violence, a wuxia showdown with enough amputations and spraying-arteries to anticipate Dario Argento’s Tenebre. For all its kitsch allure and sordid excess, this may prove the film’s most enduring element: the bewitching, commanding presences of Lily Ho and Betty Pei Ti. For 86 minutes we watch as these two veritable viragos, as both lovers and adversaries, circle each other in an erotic dance of death.


Distinguished Recommendations:

Brothers Five (Lo Wei, 1970) Another strong piece of evidence that, maybe, once upon a time, Lo Wei was actually a talented entertainer instead of an unscrupulous hack. The story revolves around five brothers who were orphaned and separated at birth after a bloody clan feud over the Flying Dragon Villa. Although raised in the dark about their past, each of them, through fate and design, have ended up nursing a personal grudge against the Flying Dragon clan. As they gradually discover their estranged kinship, they unite to avenge their family honor and regain their rightful land. The all-star cast – Chin Han, Chang I, Kao Yuan, Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh – is practically a who’s-who of male action stars at this time (Jimmy Wang-Yu being the most conspicuous absence, and the “Iron Triangle” still largely unproven). Of course, it is Cheng Pei-Pei who gets top-billing, and while she’s essentially a supporting role, one of the most refreshing aspects of Lo’s filmography is that he never stopped touting women as movie bad-asses, even as the trend was moving towards marginalizing film actresses. Her ultimate standing in the narrative is shaky, but she’s always treated as an equal, if not superior, to the other male fighters. Yet, for all it owes to the tried-and-true style of the “new wuxias” of the late 60s, I’m surprised at how forward thinking the film is in the face of a rapidly evolving industry. Almost instantly, you see that the typical swordplay action is already being mixed with hand-to-hand kung-fu! Released only a month after the seminal From the Highway, it, like Vengeance!, shows that the move towards hand-to-hand choreography was not unprecedented but inevitable, the Mandarin studios unable to ignore the Cantonese culture they were working from.

Lo’s films favor long-takes and wide-shots during the action, not being afraid to place the combat within a widescreen tableau. This “theatrical” shooting method, based more out of artless pragmatism than deliberate stylization, ultimately plays into the film’s favor: such a method requires stronger choreography, and here he’s helped strongly by a young Sammo Hung, during his brief tenure at Shaw. The results are some of the most carefully delineated and spatially comprehensible fight scenes in the pre-Shapes era. Speaking of which, much of the narrative seems to be a dry-run for later “Shapes” kung-fu films: its Kurosawa-esque narrative of strangers, each with a unique trait or style, banding together against a common evil, would be a regular motif in later films, as are clan rivalries and blood feuds. Not to mention that their success ultimately requires them mastering a specific style/move. Granted, Wei and company don’t seem too interested in authentic kung-fu – there are trampolines and wires a-plenty – but it’s interesting to find this type even before the “Basher Film” laid the groundwork. Granted, the film isn’t particularly deep: The Flying Dragon clan is evil, the brothers are righteous, and their triumph is so inevitable that their meeting seems predestined. But that’s the appeal: while Lo takes in the influence of more ambitious or brooding directors, like King Hu or Chang Cheh, his films ultimately play up the wuxia’s relationship to old-school, matinee-style swashbucklers. It’s an entertainment-first ethos, and while that makes for an action-heavy film, it also makes for an undoubtedly fun one.

Valley of the Fangs (Cheng Chang-Ho, 1970) Hoping to secure his influence on the child-emperor, a prime minister has the child’s highly-respected tutor imprisoned and marked for execution. His family, chased by the Imperial Guards, attempt to rescue him with the Iron Shield – a “get out of jail free” card bestowed by the previous emperor. Valley of the Fangs is one of Shaw’s most transparent attempts to mimic the landmark Dragon Gate Inn. As there, you have a Ming Dynasty atmosphere of political chaos. You have villains which are essentially “CIA/Secret Service” on a black-ops mission. You have a group of strangers banding together to escort a politically-endangered family. If the film never feels like a blatant imitation, it’s thanks to Korean expat Cheng Chang-Ho’s deft touch. He eschews turning the film into a Hu-esque (Huvian?) “inn film”, instead opting for a much more rollicking road movie. This inevitably calls to mind another source of influence – Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress – but Cheng is working on a much more reserved palette than either director. The “Cheng touch” is hard to pin down. His films are direct and unostentatious, but to a conspicuous degree. They’re light and brisk, but in a manner more charming than shallow, with fast-clipped editing and economical pacing. I tend to call his films “mini-epics”: they take the material that could make a huge Shaw production, and crams them into films with the proportions of b-level programmers. In my estimate this is the best… although at nearly 90 minutes, and with at least one huge outdoor set, this “mini-epic” almost qualifies as an “A-film” by Cheng’s standard.

Take the fight scenes, choreographed by Lau Kar-Wing, his first solo work for the studio: the fights feature some of the fastest-paced swordfights I’ve seen at the studio. Undoubtedly Cheng must have been under-cranking the camera… but he modulates the film speed precisely enough that it is (save for one or two blink-and-miss moments) seamless. His constantly moving narrative also leads to each fight taking place in its own unique space, culminating in a Sanjuro-esque duel, which Cheng plops into a cemetery-like field. A real one, too; in general, Cheng knew how to integrate real exteriors with studio sets, and how to get the most out of limited location shooting. If the film’s brisk, persistent pace gives the film an airy feel, it never lapses into the frivolous. Cheng’s strength is that his breezy approach is matched by sincerity towards the genre, the jianghu and its concept of moral obligations, of spiritual redemption through heroic deeds. A scene where the wife and daughter fall into the hands of unscrupulous bandits turned slave-laborers is one of the most surprising in the film: a premise that at first seems downright “rapey” soon becomes a contest of ethics. Once again, Lo Lieh proves a formidable stone-faced asset; for someone who eventually found fame playing outrageous villains, he had a gift for projecting unspoken nobility in otherwise blank characters. His protagonist has no back-story, no real development, no explicit motivation… yet we buy that his inherent sense of chivalry and justice is what drives him. Both the seasoned veteran and the uninitiated, I imagine, could easily watch this film and not see anything special… take a second look. Cheng’s generous talent – his constant inventiveness in staging, framing and editing – was matched only by his modesty in not calling attention to such flourishes. He may have never followed his future successes to the A-list, as he so easily could have, but this film leaves no doubt that Cheng was one of the most overqualified b-directors at Shaw.

The New One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1971) Another decade, another “maim-and-kill” epic from the genre’s master. In this not-quite-remake, David Chiang stars as an arrogant young master of the twin swords (oh, irony!) who's manipulated into a bout with a fraudulently-chivalrous elder (Ku Feng). Defeated and crippled, he withdraws from the martial-world… until years later, when a new young upstart (Ti Lung) comes a-knocking. While Chang Cheh was one of masters of the wuxia during the late ‘60s, the ‘70s saw him turn his attention increasingly to other genres (chief of which being the kung-fu film). NOAS was obviously made as a big middle-finger to the defecting Jimmy Wang Yu, as well as a prime chance to showcase the starpower of David Chiang and Ti Lung, the hypotenuse of Chang’s “Iron Triangle”. The philosophy: out with the old, in with the new… and it permeates the film in more ways than just its production history. If you’re looking for an extension to the original One-Armed Swordsman, you’re likely to be disappointed, as this is a completely different beast. The questions of pacifism that made the original so dramatically compelling are mostly gone; by this point, Chang Cheh had mostly embraced his love of macho ultra-violence. Equally, the original’s focus on overcoming physical adversity is also crucially missing: David Chiang’s character, even after being wounded, is just naturally damn good, and his seclusion seems more to do with wounded pride than any physical or philosophical quandary. Likewise, the stylistic daring of his ‘60s wuxia is largely side-stepped for a much more plain and utile shooting style. The muscular, curt aesthetic that made films like The Invincible Fist and Have Sword, Will Travel so compelling is replaced by a plethora of zooms that push the film awfully close to kitsch at times. So with these obvious deficiencies, what makes this a recommendation? Frankly, Chang Cheh rarely allowed his personal obsessions to rise to the surface the way they do here.

Two of Chang’s pet “subtexts” are brought and center here, and they’re the source of the film’s power. Firstly, in a filmography open to queer interpretation, this may be the most flagrantly homoerotic. It’s not even subtext here: I don’t think you can read Ti Lung’s martial-hero as anything but gay, nor his sudden interest in David Chiang as anything short of romantic. As they solidify their friendship, Chang peppers their interaction with constant admiring glances and awkward eye-locking. Li Ching is here as the hetero-female conduit, but even she at one point jokes about how she feels like a third wheel in their relationship. Before the narrative takes a darker turn, Ti and Chiang are already making plans to run away together. Of course it's not to be, and the film takes an appropriately bloody turn. This leads to the second of the films non-subtexts: generational unrest, which is simmering under the surface of many of Chang’s films, but is here brought to a boil. The film posits the youthful zeal of Chiang and Ti against the repressive brutality of bearded Ku Feng. It is only near the end that the true dimensions of Ku’s plan become clear: to destroy and drive out every young swordsman before their skill can exceed his. This comes to a head in one of the film’s final bloody showpieces, taking place amongst a gathering of martial-heroes. Here, the true extent of Ku’s plan becomes clear: Ku has become so successful in his maiming-mission that only Ti Lung remains, the last able-bodied youth in a sea of bearded, aged xia. As Ku’s age seemingly grants him eminence, and Ti Lung’s youth brands him as haughty and reckless, clear lines are drawn, and these heroes-among-heroes stand back as a literal crucifixion plays out. In wuxia, the wuilin is suppose to be the paragon of justice, but here, it is presented as fundamentally corrupted and decayed, an institution of old men that chews up and spits out its young. The only recourse is to fight your way in by force, or barring that, raze it from the ground up. This isn’t generational unrest, but generational warfare, evocative for a Hong Kong still recovering from the late ‘60s riots. This leads to the film’s blood-soaked finale, another of Chang’s patented “one-against-many” fight scenes. It’s a little anticlimactic, I admit: just as Ti Lung was the clearly better actor and performer, so does his big set-piece outshine the film’s actual climax. Nonetheless, The New One-Armed Swordsman is a crucial film in Chang’s development, moving away from the solitary angry young men of his ‘60s output, and introducing his overriding ethos of “heroic bloodshed”, where male camaraderie stands as the highest virtue in a world gone mad, a virtue worth dying for (preferably in the most violent way possible). As such, that makes NOAS an important development in martial-arts cinema as a whole.

The Black Enforcer (Ho Meng-Hua, 1972) The titular character is police constable Gong Tian-Long (Tang Ching) escorting a group of prisoners accused of a violent robbery. Although one captive is his sworn martial-arts brother Guan Yun-Fei (Tien Feng), Gong’s sense of justice is unwavering. However, they soon escape, murdering his family and leaving him to take the blame. After 15 years in prison, he’s out looking for revenge, not knowing his rival has put his violent life behind him. First thing’s first: The Black Enforcer is an absolute obscurity. It has no real reputation, cult or otherwise, and at present, it’s only available in the elusive ZiiEagle box (or bootlegs derived from therein). It was also something of a troubled production, beginning lensing in 1969 in South Korea. It finally came out over two years later, with several cast members replaced (one character is seemingly played by two different actors), and its initial wintry setting mostly abandoned. With all that said, I have to say that is a damn good film, quite possibly the finest I’ve seen from Ho Meng-Hua. I’ve always thought of Ho as Shaw’s William Wyler: his tasteful control of mise-en-scene suggests an artist, but he shaped himself to the films assigned to him, not the other way around. As someone who arrived at the studio during the heyday of operas and melodramas, I’ve always sensed he was increasingly disinterested with the rise of martial-arts cinema, while more than competent enough to work in the genre. The Black Enforcer, however, is distinguished by an aesthetic flair and emotional resonance not usually found in his wuxia pians. This is a thoughtful wuxia, where action often takes a backseat to drama and character. Its Count of Monte Cristo plot bears a resemblance to many a revenge film, but its poignancy regarding the “legacy” of vengeance is unusually evocative for the studio. Ho’s mise-en-scene comes to play in the film’s central setting of a modest farm. Barren, windswept, the background always seemingly rolling downhill, it seems to summarize the diminished remains of both Gong and Guan’s lives after the intervening 15 years.

Tien Feng’s villain is a good example of the film’s thoughtful touch. His character may be truly terrible, but he’s not the cackling villain of most Shaw films. Forced to give up his criminal life by fate and not volition, he plays his character as reformed but unrepentant, resigned to the evil lurking inside him, acutely aware that the consequences of his past may always rear its head, but determined to outsmart it when the time comes. Tang Ching is also great, a man of justice who simply can’t extinguish the hate gnawing away at him. But the real coup is the film’s decision to put Guan’s family in between the two, a group of people who are determined to protect their patriarch, but who are nonetheless fundamentally decent. In a reversal of Vengeance Is a Golden Blade’s ode to fatherhood, this is a group of people who would be better off severing ties with their parentage, but who can no more do that than Gong can give up his quest for revenge. The interactions between the group give the film a moral center lacking from many Shaw actioners. Also distinguished is Ho’s visual sense, which instead of just making the film look pretty is applied with a real sense of purpose. The film’s opening 30 minutes is a masterwork of visual storytelling, as Ho economically charts the intervening 15 years of the story and the way the characters’ adapt, mentally and physically, to their compromised circumstances. The action is handed out judiciously, but when it comes, it’s unusually clear and precise for a director who I often feel relies too much on “glimpses” and other genre trickery. The final showdown is particularly great, with a strong use of both stillness and silence, as opposed to the usual wuxia free-for-all. Ho Meng-Hua’s usual handsome, imaginative use of the frame is on full display here, but it’s the unusual toughness and poignancy which distinguishes this as something more personal than his other studio assignments. A wuxia with something meatier to chew on than the usual swordplay and bloodshed.

The Imperial Swordsman (Lin Fu-Ti, 1972) When his plot to lead the Mongols in a coup against the Emperor is uncovered, official Fu Bing-Zhong (Twelve Gold Medallions’ Ching Miao) is summoned to the capital. With plans to flee to a loyal bandit stronghold, four imperial swordsmen – two female (Shu Pei-Pei and Yu Hui), two male (Lee Wan-Chung and Liu Wai) – are sent to intercept and arrest him. However, en route, the official contracts the unknowing, but skilled vagabond swordsman (Chuan Yuan, in a rare starring role) to escort him. Let’s just get one thing out of the way: this movie is absolutely awesome! It doesn’t rank in list of Shaw classics… there’s nary any discussion of it as an “underrated” film either. However, it is a great example of the way Shaw’s massive output makes it so easy for fans to completely miss the boat on a deserving title. Although it begins as a pure piece of wuxia hokum, needlessly complicated by dubious motives and seemingly shifting allegiances, Imperial Swordsman develops into one of Shaw’s finest adventure films. Even at the outset, the film distinguishes itself through its visual sense: this has to be one of the most stylish films of its era. Furthermore, it doesn’t follow the trend of King Hu or Chang Cheh, towards a greater sense of naturalism, epitomized by the use of location shooting and handheld cameras. Rather, Lin’s visuals are gleefully, unapologetically baroque and artificial, with atmospherics bordering on the ghostly and romantic. The “even lighting” of the usual studio style is discarded for a much more expressive, contrast-heavy palette. The full dimension of the widescreen frame is always in use, and there are many passages where Lin seems to be editing in-camera (such as when Chuan disposes of a room full of bandits in a barrage of close-ups of blades reflecting light). And Lin integrates the Shaw sets with beautiful and impressive miniature landscapes, dominated by cavernous mountains, purples skies and rolling mist. It’s the very sort of thing Chor Yuen would make his career with.

In fact, much like Sun Chung’s similarly impressive The Devil’s Mirror (1972), this film is practically a dry run for the late ‘70s “Swordplay & Intrigue” cycle. This culminates in the film’s awesome second half, where the final confederacy of heroes unite to infiltrate the bandit stronghold. In true “Swordplay & Intrigue” fashion, the setting is a masterfully realized “fortress”, a labyrinthine castle loaded with dungeons, trap doors and hidden passages, and which descend, ring-like, towards the main villain’s lair (I often wondered what influence the cycle may have had on the development of platform video games). This entire section is an absolute knockout. Here, an imaginative sense of pulp, coupled with the film’s dynamic visual style, rubs shoulder with an unusual sense of mortality. One brief moment, among many, stands out: as the heroes slash their way through minions, they come unto the fortress barracks, where dozens of underlings lie asleep. As Yu Hui’s swordswoman sees this, a look of guilt and remorse runs across her face: she realizes they have to kill each and every defenseless sleeping man. It’s this contrast between the outlandish and the serious which would prove fundamental to the “Swordplay & Intrigue” film, especially as it evolved in to the cruel wuxia wave at the turn of the decade. What’s maybe most impressive is that, with 6 protagonists established at this point (the title proves misleading), Lin fully makes use of his cast, dividing each up into their own separate “conflict”; yet each piece maintaining an equal dramatic weight as he cuts back and forth between them. I don’t know what Shaw’s prospects for this film were: the mostly b-rank cast makes one suspect it was low on the totem pole, even if its production values seem unusually high. Lin Fu-Ti was another director who was seemingly “just passing through”: this is his only film at the studio, and the rest of his output seems to consist of obscure Taiwanese films. Yet, Lin turns in a gorgeous, thrilling and inventive mini-epic here. The Imperial Swordsman is top-shelf, blood-soaked, candy-colored wuxia pulp, hinting at the later pleasures of such classics as Killer Clans and Avenging Eagle. Audiences, it seems, just weren’t ready yet.

The Black Tavern (Teddy Yip, 1972) A disheveled beggar-monk walks around a teahouse singing for alms, to a largely disinterested if not hostile audience. Suddenly, in his nonsense lyrics, a passage emerges with the seeming ring of coded-truth: an account of a corrupt official, heading south, with a wagon full of ill-gotten treasure. Soon, the entire room – seemingly populated entirely by different factions of bandits and killers – are on the hunt. Saying anything more would give away much of the fun of this film… but suffice to say, the action soon crystallizes around the titular tavern, where an ever-shifting group awaits to intercept the official. If this premise has the ring of King Hu, and his patented brand of Inn, or “Kezhan”, Film, you’re not wrong: the film even recycles the iconic tavern from Come Drink with Me’s signature scene. In this sub-genre, the Inn becomes a microcosm for the greater “Jianghu” world of wuxia, an enclosed space where groups of good and bad xia can square off in battles of not just martial-prowess, but wit and cunning, bouts governed by their conflicting codes of ethics and behavior. But if Hu was pushing his film into greater areas of philosophical and political significance, Teddy Yip settles for milking the premise for all its sheer entertainment value. And it is entertaining: Black Tavern is one of the most quirky and offbeat wuxia pians of the era. For much of its running time, the film distinguishes itself by its apparent lack of “good guys”: seemingly everyone who makes their way to the inn is out for purely personal gain (although all is not what it seems). The result is a constantly-shifting cycle of uneasy alliances and “best-laid plans”.

The people inside the tavern, and their schemes, are suddenly challenged by a new set of guests. Therein follows a battle of wits, then a battle of brawn. Some die, some unite, others come to a standstill, but a new status quo is established… until the next guests arrive. The plot is brimming with trickery, intrigue and, ultimately, a “long-con” which rewards those who know the genre (without spoiling anything: it helps if you’ve seen some of the basic classics). Not mere mimicry, Yip’s “chamber” approach surprisingly anticipates the increasingly claustrophobic direction of King Hu’s next two films (The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones). The cast, lead by Shih Szu and Tung Li, is excellent down the line, with even minor characters having a distinct personality. But this is practically Ku Feng’s film, playing a variation of a character type he’s played literally hundreds of times, but rarely with this much gusto and menacing glee. In fact, I don’t think it's any accident that, a year later, the studio would give him one of his rare chances as a leading man, and as Wong Fei-Hung no less: this is the sort of performance that should rightly bump a character actor up to above the marquee. Of course, this is without getting into just how strange and off-kilter many of the elements of this film are. For example, Dean Shek’s beggar spends much of the much the film singing musical numbers, a late invocation of wuxia’s operatic tradition which had mostly been buried at the time. Also strange are the film’s many uses of horror-film iconography. There’s not just the film’s startlingly gruesome violence (did you know you could decapitate someone with a whip?), but also intimations of cannibalism and Taoist hopping-vampires. No one is going to confuse this for King Hu’s perfectionism and elegance. Hell, it doesn’t even have the poignancy and depth of many films on this shortlist. But Black Tavern is some of the most thrilling and charming (and yes, grisly) fun you’ll have in Shawscope. Chalk Teddy Yip up as another director who slipped through the studio’s fingers, making only two films at the studio.


Regrettable Omissions:

Redbeard (Cheng Tseng-Chai, 1971) Cheng Tseng-Chai’s trailblazing wuxia pian From the Highway (1970) was a sensation in its day, largely credited with introducing hand-to-hand fighting into the Mandarin film industry, giving birth to the kung-fu film. As a result, he was immediately offered a lucrative contract from Shaw. This was the result of that prestigious deal, a huge wuxia epic that was highly budgeted and heavily promoted, but ultimately underperformed. As a result, it has mostly fallen into obscurity (although there are some traces of a nth-generation bootleg floating around). If From the Highway was famed for starting the kung-fu boom, this film seems to pick up on that film’s other, less-discussed innovations. For starter, it relocates the wuxia into the mountainous, snowy north of China, shot mostly, it seems, on location (not in China, of course, but probably Taiwan or Korea). Furthermore, Cheng’s most intriguing innovation seems to be updating the wuxia into the warlord-torn 20th century; the poster even features the film’s two heroes brandishing rifles, certainly uncommon for the genre. Considering the resources put into the film, and the ambitious approach Cheng brought to his later films at the studio, Redbeard’s unavailability constitutes a pretty conspicuous blank-spot in Shaw’s early ‘70s output. As not even Celestial opted to pick up the film, one can only speculate as to its merits.
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Sun Dec 28, 2014 9:18 am, edited 7 times in total.

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Cold Bishop
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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#10 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu Oct 03, 2013 1:25 pm

Another Shaw Production, Vol. I: The Wuxia Pian (1970-1974)... More Films

For Further Investigation

For the sake of brevity and variety there’s absolutely no way I could write up every film I liked. As such, there are more than a few conspicuous absences in the above list. Chief of them: The 14 Amazons (1972), generally considered Cheng Kang’s other masterpiece. It essentially concerns the oft-filmed folk tale of the Yang family, a long line of generals who fought and died for the country across generations. When the last adult male heir dies, the devastated Yang women swear revenge, leading an army against the forces of Western Hsia. A huge critical and commercial success in its day, it may be Shaw’s most successful attempt at a “Cast of Thousand” epic. Despite its seemingly outré premise, the film turns into a rather typical study of patriotism, bravery and self-sacrifice for the country. It may lack the grim and subversive power of its predecessor, but it’s still a mostly impressive feat, and a great last hurrah for the increasingly marginalized swordswomen of Shaw.

Another standout, mentioned more than a few times already, is Sun Chung’s The Devil’s Mirror (1972). The titular object is a weapon so powerful that is was broken in two, deposited in the safety of the two most respected martial-arts clans. Enter the evil Jiuxuan Witch and her army of martial-slaves, determined to gain the weapon and martial-arts supremacy. What follows is a convoluted plot brimming with deception, large dollops of sex and violence, and much macabre and fantastic imagery. It’s essentially a dry run for the “Swordplay & Intrigue” cycle of the latter ’70s, even if it lacks the depth of those Chor Yuen and Sun Chung classics. It’s still an absolute blast, pulp entertainment for adults. Perhaps the biggest mark against the film is the fact it peaks early: the raid on the Phoenix Tower has to be one of the most breathtaking set pieces I’ve seen from a Shaw Bros. film, moving at a break-neck pace and with some of the most seamless wirework this side of the ‘90s. It would be five years before Sun got another crack at the genre, but he returned with a vengeance (as we’ll later see).

Lastly, there is Chor Yuen’s other wuxia of the period, the hard-boiled Duel for Gold (1971). I mentioned Chor brought a noir atmosphere to his films, and this is ground zero, a veritable wuxia-noir. The film starts at the ending, a crime scene covered in corpses and gold, and then works backwards from there in true noir style. The plot could have come from a Richard Fleischer and Phil Karlson b-movie: a group of criminals plan to knock over a treasury bureau, but then get too greedy for their own good. The result is one of the most pitch-black films I’ve seen from the studio up to this date, a story where avarice reigns, goodness is non-existent, and it only pays to look out for yourself. The cynicism can undoubtedly be one-note, but Chor Yuen’s stylistic direction keeps the film afloat. Already, with his first film at the studio, Chor proves himself overqualified for the studio assignments being thrown his way. From the dreamy-but-gruesome opening credits to the bitterly ironic final image, it announced the arrival of one of the studio’s true greats.

Having directed 12 entries in the genre within this five-year span – only a fraction of 32 credited films – Chang Cheh certainly deserves plenty of consideration. With that said, I do feel that he already said most of we could in the genre with his late ‘60s cycle. By the mid-‘70s, Chang pretty much abandons the genre, only returning to it sparingly. In this period, his wuxia pians are mostly part of his larger “Heroic Bloodshed” cycle, tales of male brotherhood forged in blood. With his preferred pairing of David Chiang and Ti Lung, and later the kung-fu trained Chen Kuan-Tai, this ethos prove a common denominator in a filmography that spans ancient literary adaptions and modern crime films. Of his wuxia pian, you could divide them between the “epics” and the much more smaller-scalled films. Of these “Cast of Thousand” films, the obvious elephant in the room is The Blood Brothers (1973). In a filmography short on consensus masterpieces, this is one film that has a standing among certain critics as Chang’s best film. It’s not hard to see why: it’s kind of a martial-arts film for people who don’t usually like the genre. It looks like a wuxia, has fights like a kung-fu film, but it's essentially a historical-drama, revolving around the controversial Qing general Ma Xinyi. Nonetheless, it falls into the problem common to many historical films, reducing its subject down to a love triangle. Frankly, I find too much of this narrative to be predictable and on-the-nose, which why I don’t rank it as highly as others. Nonetheless, it's nice to see a film where Chang truly gives a damn about his material, even when the material itself is shaky. The film ultimately plays like a nightmare version of your typical “Heroic Bloodshed” film: instead of its preservation, this film is all about the disintegration of the blood brotherhood. It could be easy to call the film misogynistic, but I find Ching Li’s character to be one of the most complex in Chang’s filmography. It is this rare focus on a multifaceted female character, as well as its grim atmosphere and tasteful direction, that makes this a pretty good Chang Cheh film. I just don’t believe it’s a great one.

I’m less generous with The Heroic Ones (1970), which is usually remembered as an important film (it was the first Chang released by Celestial). Despite some entertaining moments, I feel it's an overstuffed dud, although its Peplum-like atmosphere is unusual for the genre, if wholly appropriate. If we’re talking wuxia pian, then we have to consider his trilogy of films based off the Chinese classic novel Outlaws of the Marsh: The Water Margin (1972) and All Men are Brothers (1972, released 1975) are both companion pieces, concerning men-on-a-mission plots to infiltrate military strongholds. The second is even modeled on The Guns of Navarone. The former alternates between a prison-break and caper film, the latter is mostly non-stop fight scenes, so they compliment each other well. Nonetheless, despite their bloated surfaces, they’re mostly minor trifles, only coming alive in fits and starts. Slightly better is their “prequel”, the Ti Lung-starring The Delightful Forest (1972), a smaller-scale film with heavy Spaghetti Western overtones. It’s minor stuff, but Ti Lung’s charisma and a ridiculously violent ending make it worth a look. It also, despite its wuxia source material, qualifies as Chang’s first pre-Republican kung-fu film, which of course would be the backbone of his filmography starting in 1974. However, more modest films, like the action-heavy The Deadly Duo (1971) or the historical-drama The Iron Bodyguard (1973) are much more attuned to my taste (there’s also The Wandering Swordsman (1970) and King Eagle (1971), which are fun, but feel like holdovers from the ‘60s). Two films I haven’t seen are the epic swashbuckler The Pirate (1973) and the campy fantasy film Na Cha the Great (1974). Both films look colorful, but they’re regarded pretty low by fans of the director.

Although I stumped for The Black Enforcer, it is actually The Lady Hermit (1971) which has traditionally towered over the rest of Ho Meng-Hua’s filmography. Back in the day, you could even see it mentioned alongside King Hu’s films as the epitome of wuxia filmmaking. As you may guess by its relegation to this section, I don’t agree. Nonetheless, the film has much going for it, including being perhaps the finest showcase for the great Cheng Pei-Pei. In fact, originally meant to be her final film, it is this knowledge which gives the film an impressive elegiac tone. With the presence of a young and adorable Shih Szu, the whole film has a passing of the torch quality, one great swordwoman handing the reins to a new generation. With its handsome production values and allegorical overtones, it plays something like a wuxia Shane. The English title draws a connection to a classic wuxia novel, but the literal Chinese title compares Cheng to “Zhong Kui”, a Chinese demon tasked with vanquishing other demons. This essentially describes Cheng’s swordswoman: tasked with defeating evil in the world, but doomed never to partake in the society she saves. Much like Shane, it's probably overrated… but also like Shane, it’s good enough you can understand why that’s the case. As for the rest: Lady of Steel (1970) is a passable stab at tried-and-true formula, enlivened by Ho’s handsome mise-en-scene and Cheng Pei-Pei’s lively presences as a master of disguise. The Long Chase (1971) is a superior cat-and-mouse game, with Lo Lieh, under the penalty of death, tracking down bandit Yueh Hua. Ambush (1973) is an uncharacteristically lean thriller, enlivened by bizarre touches of nudity, violence and even horror iconography that points towards the burgeoning exploitation genre.

Although his best days may have arguably been over, Griffin Yueh Feng remains a strong presence at the studio. His violent and dread-laden Bells of Death (1968) pretty much set the standard for Shaw revenge films, but he thereafter took a step back from such brazen originality. Instead, he spends his tenure this decade applying his muscular direction and grim flourishes to much more routine and traditional genre narratives. This results in undoubtedly lesser films than his '60s heyday, but they still standout among the fray. This lapse in ambition is obvious from A Taste of Cold Steel (1970) which has both feet planted in one of the most standard wuxia subjects, the hunt for an all-powerful sword. Non-stop action, exaggerated characters, and a rather lightweight plot is emboldened by blasts of brutal violence and inventive, tight direction (check out the opening fight: all hand-held immediacy and bizarre angles). This continues in the action-packed Village of Tigers (1974), with its convoluted tale of clan warfare. More ambitious, but less successful, is The Young Avenger (1972), a revenge film which slowly turns into a Kurosawa-esque siege film. Competently made, but it seems to be missing a second act, and Yueh’s grim atmosphere only slips into the film in the last few minutes. The Golden Knight (1970) has some interesting gender-bending and some worthwhile macabre moments, but is mostly for completists.

Another ‘60s director wrapping up his career was Hsu Tseng-Hung. Highly respected by Chinese critics but mostly unknown and unloved in the West, he’s an interesting case for further study. Shaw’s first top wuxia director, before King Hu and Chang Cheh stole his thunder, he’s responsible for many of the studio’s first entries in the genre. His old-fashioned and theatrical style certainly hurts his reputation in the West, and by the Seventies his career at the studio was clearly winding down. Nonetheless, his The Secret of the Dirk (1970) may be a perfect entry point for a Western viewer, being the most satisfying “action film” of his I’ve seen. Swordsman at Large (1971) is also an entertaining feature, and marks what I believe is the first Gu Long adaptation at the studio, but certainly not the last. Hsu’s old-fashioned touch doesn’t quite give the story the baroque charge of Chor Yuen’s later adaptations, but its Taiwanese productions value raises it well above the average.

Korean filmmaker Cheng Chang-Ho time at the studio was brief, but he made the most of it, cranking out one top-notch film after another. As I mentioned, his signature is the “mini-epic”, quirky and skillfully-made wuxia b-productions which are nonetheless distinguished by how much action and story Cheng can pack into their brief running-times, as well as his constant attention to finding unusual approaches to lensing and editing action. The results are charming and fun, but unassuming enough that many people can find them undistinguished on first glance. Cheng’s own personal favorite of his HK films was The Swift Knight (1971), which is a great film, but ultimately too much of a carbon copy of the superior Valley of the Fangs (meaning it’s a copy of Dragon Gate Inn). Still, with a running time just barely over an hour, it’s a much clearer example of how much entertainment Cheng can cram into his films. Heads for Sale (1970) doesn’t quite deliver on the grisly approach promised by its title, but it contains Chang’s signature charm, as well as a rare action turn by Lisa Chiao Chiao, usually a love interest. Six Assassins (1971) is actually a remake of Eiihi Kudo’s Eleven Samurai... but it jettisons the original’s grim, guerilla style for a rather colorful approach filled with court intrigue and plenty of fantastic (i.e. of the fantasy variety) swordplay. You’re not going to find the depth or stylistic daring of the original, but Cheng’s decision to not even attempt replicating it is likely a wise one: he knows what he excels at, and that’s thrill-rides.

Pao Hsueh-Li’s main claim to fame during this period is as a co-director on many of Chang Cheh’s big epics. In fact, some people have made the case for the aforementioned The Delightful Forest and The Iron Bodyguard being mostly his work. But his verifiable solo outings are interesting in their own right, with Pao’s career as one of the studio’s top cinematographer usually lending a rather handsome visual approach to his films. Oath of Death (1971) is an early stab at the Ma Xinyi story, famously remade just two years later by Chang Cheh as the previously-covered The Blood Brothers. As such, Pao’s film plays like the exact opposite of Chang’s unusually classy and thoughtful approach: this is an action-packed studio-bound wuxia, bolstered by some rather unusual levels of extreme violence. If you can ignore the long shadow cast over it by the Chang Cheh film, it may very well be a minor classic in its own right. Much more colorful is the gloriously titled Finger of Doom (1972), which finds Pao throwing wuxia, mystery and horror all in a blender. Not quite the proto-“Swordplay and Intrigue” film it could have been, its classic horror-atmosphere is unusual even by later standards. It essentially revolves around a clan of powerful but benevolent martial-arts vampires. When one member goes rogue and attempts to dominate the martial-world, her sister (Ivy Ling Po) is sent after her. While the story cries out for a more idiosyncratic stylist (Sun Chung covered similar ground in The Devil’s Mirror), there’s enough bizarre touches here to hide that it’s essentially a pretty normal wuxia narrative at heart.

A few other stray recommendations: the aforementioned Yen Chun’s The Iron Buddha (1970), whose standard plot is livened by a rather grim, unnerving tone, indicative of what I call the “cold wave” of the late ‘60s and early ’70s wuxia pian. Huang Feng’s lone Shaw entry, The Crimson Charm (1971), a rousing tale of clan blood-feuds, featuring what may very well be Ivy Ling Po’s great wuxia showcase as a one-armed swordswoman. Cheng Kang’s third wuxia of the era, Pursuit (1972), which is a stray entry into Chang Cheh’s Outlaws of the Marsh cycle. Like The Delightful Forest, it’s a “prequel”, detailing Yueh Hua’s indoctrination into the bandit life. It’s typically well-made, another unrelentingly bleak film in the mode of The Sword of Swords. But it can’t help but feel like a tossed-off “b-side” for Cheng after two grueling super-productions. Shen Chieng is a director I really need to explore more, but I was impressed enough by his Heroes of Sung (1973). The whole thing’s pretty convoluted and fairly routine, but it’s handsomely made and provides a prime showcase for the adorable Shih Szu to kick ass, which distinguishes it enough for me. There’s also the rare portmanteau wuxia Trilogy of Swordsmanship (1972), with entries each by Griffin Yueh Feng, Cheng Kang and Chang Cheh. The last segment “White Water Strand” is usually the only one given attention, and it’s a pretty primo slice of Chang Cheh’s “heroic bloodshed” aesthetic, but the whole thing is an interesting a curio for those who know their Shaw directors.

Next up: we expand our scope beyond ‘70s Shaw and try to tackle a whole genre… On the Kung-Fu Film
Last edited by Cold Bishop on Thu Oct 03, 2013 9:17 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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jindianajonz
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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#11 Post by jindianajonz » Thu Oct 03, 2013 2:03 pm

Fantastic stuff, thanks Cold Bishop!

One question: Shaw was producing Mandarin films, while Golden Harvest was producing Cantonese, right? How did this affect their competition with eachother?

EDIT: Oh man, I tried posting this after reading your first post, and now see two more have arrived while I was reading. Guess I know how I'll be spending my afternoon!

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#12 Post by Cold Bishop » Thu Oct 03, 2013 2:11 pm

Golden Harvest, like nearly all studios who wanted to stay in business, made Mandarin films, but they helped spearhead the shift back in the latter '70s (Starting with the Cantonese Comedy genre). They certainly reaped its benefits, unlike Shaw, which lost the market because of it. Which is funny, since it was Shaw's House of 72 Tenants which revived the then completely cinematically dead dialect.

Also, availability: As far as I can tell, Intimate Confessions is the only film on the actual list to have a R1 DVD. The rest are Celestial only, except for Black Enforcer which is bootleg or second-hand ZiiEagle. I'm unaware, however, if there are any French or German releases, which can often be better visually, but usually lack subtitles.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#13 Post by YnEoS » Thu Oct 03, 2013 4:08 pm

Great and informative post as always. I'm not terribly familiar with Shaw Brothers early 70s output outside of the really big titles, so hopefully I'll have more to add to the discussion once I've watched your recommendations here. But I'll briefly respond to a few of points you've made.
Cold Bishop wrote: Of course, all this makes it sound like doom and gloom, a genre at a dead-end, stuck in a creative stasis. That’s simply not true. If anything, I’m surprised to find the early ‘70s a near embarrassment of riches in regards to the genre. What it lacks in prestige and notoriety, the early ‘70s Shaw wuxia has the sheer power of numbers on its side. Eclipsed by the rise of kung-fu, many of the most obscure titles are amongst the hidden gems of the studio’s output.
This has become one of my favorite things about the HK film industry, because there seems to be such a dearth of talent in the HK film industry and often times the people who are just character actors, stuntmen, assistant directors, or fight choreographers in the more well known films, do just as well if not better when they get a chance to star or direct in the B pictures of the genre. And the more lesser known films you watch the more faces you start recognizing in the background lending their small contributions.
Cold Bishop wrote: C) Relaxed Censorship – While I’ve never seen a written account on how it came to be, this entire period sees the restrictions of censorship increasingly loosened in the Hong Kong industry, with something like full frontal nudity even becoming commonplace (take that, Japan!).
Its been years since I've read it, and my copy is currently in storage so I can't check right now. But I recall that Peter Tombs' book Mondo Macabro : Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World discusses the relaxing of censorship in Hong Kong films. Though I can't remember what it was, or how in how much depth it was discussed.
Cold Bishop wrote:Almost instantly, you see that the typical swordplay action is already being mixed with hand-to-hand kung-fu! Released only a month after the seminal From the Highway, it, like Vengeance!, shows that the move towards hand-to-hand choreography was not unprecedented but inevitable,
It might have been much more of a blurred transition than a sharp switch. Most of Joseph Kuo's wuxia from this period are hybrid kung fu films with at least 1 hand to hand combat scene, going back at least as early as his first million dollar success, King of Kings, made in 1969. The film contains a really astonishing scene of an unarmed combatant taking on several swordsman at once, disarming and disabling them completely with his hands. Though I haven't seen From the Highway yet to compare the two.

I've frequently found then whenever a HK film is the "first" to do something, it often is just combining elements that have been slowly surfacing in previous films, but never utilized quite so skillfully until the point. It reminds me of how one of the frequent contributor's to a lot of Kung Fu message boards, falkor, was on this quest to find the absolute first examples of shapes choreography in a color kung fu film. He had to specify color, because the B&W Wong Fei Hung films had examples of animal "shapes" choreography in them over a decade earlier, and the trend had just disappeared until the mid 70s.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#14 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Oct 04, 2013 1:19 am

I have to agree... I think I mention it more during the coming Kung-Fu essay, but the fallacy in the West that Hong Kong filmmaking begins with the big Mandarin studios is deeply flawed and leaves a lot of material unexcavated, so to speak. Especially the Huang Fei-Hong series. For example, I've heard people endlessly parrot that drunken boxing wasn't a real discipline until the Jackie Chan films, but lo and behold, there's an old Huang Fei-Hong where he uses it to defeat an enemy.

I haven't seen any of Jospeh Kuo's wuxias, but that's interesting to know. I honestly was not expecting Brothers Five to have such a pronounced kung-fu element, and I'm shocked to have never seen it mention in studies of the genre, although it's right there at the start of the decade. Yeah, it's not 100% hand-to-hand, but neither is From the Highway or Vengeance!.

I'm really not great at identifying "Shapes" outside of the obvious moments when someone strikes a pose. I do feel safe in calling Heroes Two, with its infamous prologue, as the proper beginning of the sub-genre, although there are certainly earlier precedents.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#15 Post by whaleallright » Fri Oct 04, 2013 4:22 pm

This is all quite wonderful. Thank you.

It's interesting that you see Chang Cheh's aggressive use of the zoom to be a sign of "kitsch." To me, the Hong Kong martial arts cinema of the 1970s and 1980s has within it some of the most creative and effective uses of the zoom. Chang's zooms--and they became the model, I think, for all of HK action cinema for a time-- are like punctuation marks, to facial reactions but above all to physical feats/blows. The zooms emphasize the staccato rhythm of fight scenes. They are typically tightly choreographed with the action and an important part of the films' expressive economy. You see much more lax and hackneyed uses of the zoom in American and European cinema (especially the latter) in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Nearly all the directors you mention use the zoom a lot, and well. Chor Yuen uses them in a fashion very different from Chang; his snap zooms, once you get used to them, begin to seem very much like a stylistic correlative to the films' decadent, strident emotions. And Lau Kar-leung uses zooms marvelously to accentuate his films' pictorial qualities (you can see this at work in the amazing first few minutes of Legendary Weapons of China).

I guess it's hard for me to imagine HK action cinema without zooms.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#16 Post by YnEoS » Fri Oct 04, 2013 6:09 pm

Cold Bishop wrote: I'm really not great at identifying "Shapes" outside of the obvious moments when someone strikes a pose. I do feel safe in calling Heroes Two, with its infamous prologue, as the proper beginning of the sub-genre, although there are certainly earlier precedents.
Yeah, I think it gets really muddy particularly in these early pictures. I think shapes makes more sense as a broad trend towards more elaborate, but less realistic fight scenes, with emphasis on different fighting styles, and elaborate features like "hand chasing" instead of more direct simple combat. The attempts to find the "earliest" shapes seemed little more than just identifying if any performers trained in certain animal styles might pull out a move here or there in a film where the choreographer clearly didn't intend to emphasize them. And the focus on animal styles seemed to be a measure just to exclude more simple fighting forms like Karate, Hap Ki Do, or even Bruce Lee's own Jeet Kune Do. But since many late 70s shapes films don't necessarily focus on just animal styles its a pretty arbitrary criteria to hold up to just the early films. I think the clear shift throughout Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung's shaolin cycle to focusing on showing off fighting forms through more elaborate choreography, indicates the shift in mentality that occurred much better than any performer pulling out a few ambiguous animal techniques in a quickly choreographed fight scene in '73.


Another thing I meant to mention earlier but forgot...
Cold Bishop wrote:Brothers Five (Lo Wei, 1970) Another strong piece of evidence that, maybe, once upon a time, Lo Wei was actually a talented entertainer instead of an unscrupulous hack.
I'm starting to think more and more that Lo Wei can at times be quite a skillful director despite some terrible films and a less than ideal collaboration with Bruce Lee. I think Shaolin Wooden Men is a really top notch Kung Fu film despite being a pre-comedy Jackie Chan movie.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#17 Post by Cold Bishop » Sat Oct 05, 2013 2:17 am

jonah.77 wrote:I guess it's hard for me to imagine HK action cinema without zooms.
There are good zooms and there are bad zooms... And I'll go even further and say there are good Chang Cheh zooms and bad Chang Cheh zooms. I just find New One-Armed Swordsman to be more laxly directed than many of the films around it, and the "zooms" were only one part of that. The blaring horn-driven theme that gets repeated over and over is another problem. The corny feats of strength are another. Nonetheless, I think the film comes ahead for the reasons I mentioned

The Blood Brothers is as zoom-heavy as any film in his career, and I think it's actually well-directed. And its precisely because, as you mentioned, its part of the rhythm of the fight scenes. I just have problems with the screenplay, which is more hackneyed than Chang Cheh seems to think it is.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#18 Post by Cold Bishop » Sun Oct 06, 2013 10:04 pm

Cold Bishop wrote:Also, availability: As far as I can tell, Intimate Confessions is the only film on the actual list to have a R1 DVD. The rest are Celestial only, except for Black Enforcer which is bootleg or second-hand ZiiEagle. I'm unaware, however, if there are any French or German releases, which can often be better visually, but usually lack subtitles.
I take that back... Brothers Five is not only available through Sword Masters, it's even on Blu-ray.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#19 Post by swo17 » Mon Oct 07, 2013 12:29 am

The New One-Armed Swordsman apparently also got a Blu-ray release earlier this year.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#20 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Oct 07, 2013 12:58 am

In Region 1? I can't find a trace of it.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#21 Post by swo17 » Mon Oct 07, 2013 1:18 am


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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#22 Post by Cold Bishop » Mon Oct 07, 2013 1:28 am

Ah, that's right... Hong Kong Blu's work over here. I always forget that.

Speaking of which, at this price, this may very well be the version of Twelve Gold Medallions to get, as it purportedly has English subs and a progressive transfer. No idea what shipping is like from Amazon.de, however.

Lady with a Sword appears to be completely out-of-print, so that may appease your bootlegger conscience, if it comes to that.
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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#23 Post by knives » Mon Oct 07, 2013 1:29 am

Bad, but not .fr bad.

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#24 Post by Orlac » Thu Oct 10, 2013 9:05 pm

There does seem to have been a bit of a censorship crackdown in late '72, with obvious cuts to One Armed Boxer and the general release of The Big Boss for bloodletting...but there were also all those sex films. I wonder whether the kung fu was cut to get shown to family audiences?

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Re: Shaw Brothers & the 1970s

#25 Post by Cold Bishop » Fri Oct 11, 2013 7:00 am

Perhaps that's true: also in 1972, there was a great brouhaha over Chang Cheh's All Men are Brothers, which would only eventually be released in 1975. I know the version released by Celestial and Sword Masters is actually derived from a German extended version (which is still not the original version).

That leads to another dilemma, which may skew one's consideration of the period: many versions of these films that come down to us are not necessarily what was seen by Hong Kong audiences. Multiple versions abounded for different markets, and the "uncut" version of a particular film remains as tantalizing for bootleg collectors of rare kung fu films as it does for Horror aficionados.

For example, the bloodiest scenes in Chang Cheh's swordplay films often appeased censors by switching to black-and-white (cleverly appropriated by Tarantino when Kill Bill was threathened with an NC-17). Of course, recent remasters have restored them to full color. It works the other way too: Chinatown Kid was notoriously released on DVD in a radically different and tamer edit from the International version (which might explain the contrasting opinions towards the film in the West and East).

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