One of the biggest movie blind spots that I've had is kung-fu movies. This is a little odd because I actually grew up watching a lot of wuxia with my Chinese parents and grandparents. Of course, I rarely knew the names of the movies or TV shows, or could identify any of the actors or directors associated with them. By the time I was an adult and keeping track of such things, most of the old kung-fu movies were fuzzy memories.
Once Jackie Chan became popular in the late 1990s, I did go back and track down the original "Drunken Master" and "Police Story" that made him famous. It took a little work to find them in the original Chinese. I also watched a few of the most famous Bruce Lee movies. However, one particular studio kept coming up in discussions of kung-fu movies that I wasn't familiar with at all: the Shaw Brothers Studio. This was the biggest and most well known of the Hong Kong movie studios, founded and run by the four Shaw brothers starting in the 1920s. It operated for sixty years, produced thousands of films, and usually gets the credit for popularizing the kung-fu genre. Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and other big name fans always namecheck them when talking about their favorite martial arts films.
So, since I was looking for more 70s movies to watch, I decided to take the plunge. Over the weekend I watched "Five Deadly Venoms," "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin," aka "Master Killer," and "The Master of the Flying Guillotine," aka "One Armed Boxer 2." They were high on many lists of the most popular kung fu films, and all had generated sequels (or at least had subsequent films marketed as their sequels). I managed to find subtitled versions of all three, though it turns out I didn't need to. Unlike most of the Hong Kong action films I'd seen, these were all in Mandarin instead of Cantonese, so I could follow the dialogue. I hadn't seen any of them before. These films were all much older than anything I ever remember watching with my parents in the '80s.
It's not hard to see why they were so popular. The films have simple, formulaic stories, but strong production values, and are tremendous fun to watch. Though there are moments of humor, they aren't schlocky or campy in the least. Instead, they are very earnest adventure films with strong heroes and occasionally some interesting historical or political business going on in the background. All the films I watched were from the period where kung-fu films were at their most popular and Hong Kong was going through an economic boom. The Shaw Brothers studio saw fierce competition from other studios like Golden Harvest, the home of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan's films. So it's no wonder that the filmmaking looks so polished and the actions scenes are executed with so much apparent craft and skill.
So how were the movies? Of the three, I found "Five Deadly Venoms" the weakest, since it has to juggle multiple characters with animal-themed schtick, hidden identities, and the POV shifts among several of the characters. However, it has the most elaborate production design and eye-catching costuming. "The Master of the Flying Guillotine" is a stronger affair, pitting an admirable hero, the One-Armed Boxer, against the fascinating Master of the Flying Guillotine. Most of the film is taken up by a lengthy tournament-style martial arts competition. That means there's plenty of action, as multiple martial artists get to demonstrate different fighting styles, weapons, and tactics, the best of which is, of course, the flying guillotine of the title.
My favorite, however, is "The 36th Chamber of the Shaolin," starring Quentin Tarantino favorite Gordon Liu. It tells the most complete and classical kind of wuxia narrative, where a promising young man suffers a terrible injustice, and has to go through many trials to turn himself into a great martial artist and win the day. It also delves heavily into the mystical side of kung-fu, as our hero's training comes from the Shaolin Temple and its monks. Liu is great, the training sequences are inventive, and the writing is actually pretty sharp. It's the best version of the kind of wuxia story that I've seen many, many times before, and it brought back a lot of good memories.
What's really fascinating is how you can see the influence these films had on Western culture and other martial arts films over the years - the character types, the mysticism, and the particular style and rhythm of the action. I have to wonder what the modern action film would look like without them. Anyway, I still have a couple of other Shaw Brothers titles I need to track down before I'm done, and the '70s deep dive will continue.