In terms of what makes Shaw Bros special, the production values are generally higher than in other martial arts films of the 70s. By the 80s these films, with their reliance on the same sets and locations they've been using for almost 20 years, start to look more dated––especially compared to the Jackie Chan/Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark films of the 80s. Shaw in general produced a pretty high-quality martial arts film for their time, and that generally meant a decent level of script sophistication, colorful production design, and a pretty high level of actors and stunt performers. They never had a martial arts performer on the level of Bruce Lee, or a fight performer on the level of Jackie Chan, but they had fantastic choreographers––principally Lau Kar Leung and Tang Chia––who made many of their fight scenes play as dynamically as the singing/dancing musicals of the 50s, like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. There is a theatricality to many of these movies, that is undercut or modulated in key ways by distinctive, individual directors. In this set the prime example will be Chang Cheh, who brings his own set of themes and aesthetics to the films (I often prefer Sun Chung's approach, but Chang has great movies to his name, especially early on, and provides what becomes the general template for how the films are made). The films are often compared to the English Hammer films, whose take on horror offered a similar level of consistent quality and vivid theatricality, but Shaws reaches greater heights, to my mind, because some of the films and filmmakers aspire to more sophisticated themes, which transcend genre more effectively than anything produced by Hammer. In this set, that innovation is embodied in the films directed by Lau Kar Leung.
Thematically and stylistically, the films in this set are a pretty broad mix. King Boxer is unlike all the others. Based on a Japanese manga, it is a somewhat dull martial arts movie until the midpoint, when the more cartoonish characters from the manga start appearing. By the end the action is very exaggerated, lurid, and striking. Mighty Peking Man is essentially a King Kong movie starring Evelyn Craft as a lady Tarzan and Danny Lee as Sir Handsome. I remember it being more fast-paced and fun than I expected it to be.
Boxer from Shantung, Five Shaolin Masters, Shaolin Temple, Chinatown Kid, The Five Venoms and Crippled Avengers are all Chang Cheh movies. They exemplify most of Chang Cheh's particular traits as a director. He likes visceral violence and gore. He likes male characters bonding (the homosocial relationships in John Woo movies come directly from Chang Cheh's films, on which Woo was sometimes an assistant). In terms of handling drama, when the men aren't staring each other down with looks of pent-up desire, Chang's films play more slowly. He films splashy action, but he's not a martial artist himself and he has not much appreciation for the individual characteristics of the choreography. He is interested in history and literature, and so the subjects of these films are sometimes interesting. Though honestly, none of these are the Chang Cheh films I find most striking (Vengeance, Four Riders, The Angry Guest, Legend of the Fox, Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, Shaolin Rescuers, The Daredevils, House of Traps...even The Anonymous Heroes), but these are all pretty fun films, and none too taxing on one's intellect. Boxer from Shantung is probably the most interesting story of the group, about a poor boy who grows up to dominate his town with his fierceness––this was later adapted into the Cory Yuen movie, Hero, with Takeshi Kaneshiro and Yuen Biao. In the Venoms films (The Five Venoms, Crippled Avengers, and, to a certain degree, Chinatown Kid and Shaolin Temple), the acrobatic prowess of the venoms performers are kind of mesmerizing to watch, as is Chang Cheh's fetishizing of the spectacle.
The best in the box, to my mind, are the Lau Kar-Leung films, which include Challenge of the Masters, Executioners from Shaolin, Heroes of the East, and Dirty Ho. As a director, Lau Kar Leung is kind of late in the cycle of Shaw Bros (and closes it out with Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter). He was a choreographer––particularly for Chang Cheh––and his filming of action goes beyond what the other Shaw directors did before him. His camera moves gracefully to delineate the focus of particular choreography. He gives visual weight to important movements through framing (something Chang Cheh often ignores). But more than that, the films are creative from a narrative and thematic point of view, adapting the kung fu idiom to story forms more varied than his predecessors. And as a director, he is more expressive and in control of his themes than most of his Shaw predecessors.
The standouts that exemplify that in this set are Dirty Ho and Heroes of the East. Dirty Ho is somewhat an adaptation of The Prince and the Pauper, featuring a cultured prince in disguise running into a wiseacre ruffian who he opts to civilize (the "Dirty Ho" of the title). The prince's uncle has sent assassins to do him in, and the martial arts scenes of the film evolve out of the prince evaluating art and the like (the merchants he deals with turn out to be assassins). These scenes are clever and amusing, with the prince trying to hide from Dirty Ho the fact that the merchants are trying to kill him. Heroes of the East has Gordon Liu as the kung-fu-crazy son of a merchant, who gets married to the daughter of his father's Japanese business partner. He's reluctant at first, but the daughter turns out to be just as crazy about karate as Gordon is about kung fu. At first a source of excitement for both of them, their mania for combat and comparison leads to strife in the bedroom, because the couple can't agree on whose martial arts customs are superior. After a particularly vitriolic fight, Gordon sends his wife packing. She returns to her brother in Tokyo, who is a ninja, and who is convinced by what his sister says that Gordon has challenged the worth of all Japanese martial arts. He recruits a band of different Japanese martial artists to go with him to Hong Kong to challenge Gordon to a series of duels. The lead challenger is played by Japanese star Yasuaki Kurata, who joined the film at the expense of a more lucrative movie deal, because he felt the subject matter––and the theme that Japanese and Chinese relations needed to improve with greater dialogue––was important to him.
Challenge of the Masters is one of two Wong Fei Hung films Lau Kar Leung directed (Martial Club is the second). It depicts a young Wong Fei Hung, desperate to compete in a lion dance. The problem is that his father refuses to let him learn kung fu (prerequisite for the competition). The film is one of the best delineations of one of Lau Kar Leung's enduring subjects––that of the lone, youthful enthusiast, pitted against the structures of tradition/family/society. It's Lau Kar Leung's assumption that youthful vigor must win out, regardless of its degree of tempering. That is explored more thoroughly in movies like Mad Monkey Kung Fu, Disciples of the 36th Chamber, and Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, but Challenge of the Masters gives us a Wong Fei Hung who first rails and rebels against his father's edict, and then manages to reason with his father. With the help of an eccentric martial artist uncle, he is able to study and excel at kung fu. This is contrasted with the journey of an outlaw martial artist, played by the director, who uses an underhanded kicking method (he has a brass toeclip with sharpened edges) to defeat opponents. While Wong grows morally through the study of kung fu, the outlaw becomes increasingly hounded and pursued, and is forced to abandon what moral nature he has left. This eventually leads to an exciting lion dance and then to a wonderful showdown in which Wong has to subdue the rogue kung fu master fugitive while still exercising compassion for his opponent's humanity. That need to recognize one another's humanity is a shared trait of the Lau Kar-Leung films. It's a feature entirely absent from the movies of his former boss, Chang Cheh (who is interested in history, patriotism, homoerotic bonds, and brutality, but not in any shared humanity between people––this is especially evident whenever he features a Japanese character in any of his films), and Challenge of the Masters is one of the films where that theme of Lau's is best exemplified. It illuminates how much that theme is present in all the Lau Kar Leung movies. It's why the striking brutality at the end of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is so clearly a cry of pain from the filmmaker, rather than an exultation of valorous slaughter. A similar scene in a Chang Cheh film might be gloatingly cruel. But because we know Lau to be a director much more interesting in human compassion, the cruelty at the end of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter seems so strained, so much a product of despair and anger (possibly because of the senseless death of it's co-star, Alexander Fu Sheng, during the production).
Executioners of Shaolin is Lau's film that deals most directly, I think, with the burning of the Shaolin Temple. This legend serves as the basis for the Chang Cheh movies The Shaolin Temple and Five Shaolin Masters, also in this set (and also Heroes Two and a host of others Chang Cheh movies), and it was allegedly suggested to Chang by Lau as the subject for a film. Five Shaolin Masters chronicles the spreading of martial arts through China by the five Shaolin masters who allegedly escaped the burning of the temple. It is a hypnotically repetitive and dull film to my eyes. Lau's Executioners of Shaolin has much more story and more interesting themes, following the Shaolin masters who escape the temple through decades of their lives as fugitives. Chen Kuan Tai plays the lead, as a Shaolin master determined to gain vengeance specifically on the white eyebrow priest, a traitor who participates in the murder of his fellow martial artists. Over the decades Chen challenges the priest to single combat again and again, always barely escaping with his life. His wife, a southerner, offers to teach Chen her Southern martial arts forms, so that he can combine them and defeat the priest, but Chen refuses, believing he must defeat the priest with his own techniques. Eventually Chen has a son, who is I think the first in this line of youthful imp characters Lau so loves to use in his movies. The son is demented and screeching (my one practical problem with watching these characters), but he eventually learns both his father's kung fu and his mother's styles as well, and ultimately he succeeds in this generational quest for vengeance because of his synthesis of styles and his own radical personality disorder. In most of the Lau Kar Leung films, the themes are rich and this one, of children succeeding their parents, of achieving victory through a mix of impudence and combined knowledge, is pretty absorbing stuff. Executioners is less amusing than Heroes of the East or Dirty Ho––its' more apocalyptic take on the destruction of the Shaolin Temple (Chang Cheh usually treats the burning of the temple like a sort of a western "Indian Raid" sequence and a call to valor) is pretty strikingly bleak and violent––speaking to Lau's later Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter and its alarming brutality. But it's the rare kung fu film that reaches for subject matter into the close quarters and the sometimes awkward bonds of family, and acknowledges it as a source of pain as well as validation. It may be hard to see the Lau Kar Leung movies as profound right off the bat––but in comparison against other kung fu movies it becomes very clear how much Lau is concerned with particular subject matter, precisely articulated and given Lau's unusual, personal perspective. His views on the nature of family are so much less tidy and Confucian than most Chinese filmmakers. His view of the study of martial arts as enlightening and ennobling is always tempered by his certainty that someone's innate personality is not transformed by greater knowledge or more honed temperament. If you don't like the standard 70s kung fu film, Lau is the filmmaker that really transcends that milieu, with films that have unique things to say, and style and aesthetics beyond what the other kung fu filmmakers were doing at the time.
A word or a few here also on The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This is a movie that is, to my mind, not properly appreciated as maybe the greatest movie in film history to chronicle an education as its subject. I put it that way because other films about education by and large focus on the idea of an emotional connection between a teacher and a student forging the necessary bond for education. As if the process of learning was something the student did simply by concentrating hard, alone with their books, and what that took was only proper motivation from a concerned and emotionally available/connected teacher ("You're the man now, dawg!"). Any film from Dead Poet's Society to Stand and Deliver to Dangerous Minds offers this approach to some degree, and most of these films forgo the process of education itself as something tedious, which happens off-camera.
Challenge of the Masters also offers that teacher-student emotional bond, but the bond between Wong and his uncle in that film is presented more as proof that Wong is finding his way to a philosophy of compassion through his study of kung fu––he learns to see his uncle as a human, capable of being hurt, which in turn leaves him reticent to fight him full-on. French films about education sometimes offer a "student in the real world" component that adheres somewhat to the Piaget theory of education––so that we see the student trying to put their education into practice in the real world, going through fits of progression and regression that map somewhat to the learning process Piaget describes. But none of these movies diagram the totality of an education in the way 36th Chamber does.
The film is about a young revolutionary, indoctrinated, ironically, by his academic classroom instructor. This results in the massacre of his teacher, friends & family, and to his retreat to the protection of the Shaolin Temple. He has trouble being accepted there, because his soul burns bright with the fires of revolution still. He wants to learn martial arts like the monks in the temple, because he wants revenge on the Yuan dynasty for the murder of his family, and he still burns for the goal of freedom which he's absorbed––and which he seems to have doubled-down on since his expulsion from society. Eventually he is able to humble himself to the degree the monks demand, and he begins a codified training system, where he struggles with each chamber, and eventually develops the necessary internal resources to surmount the challenge each chamber presents. This is rote instruction, by and large, which San Ta, the student, digests in spite of his frequent resistance. At this point, the challenge in his education is to repeat and regurgitate his lessons, remembering and reiterating until he understands their purpose. Then he goes through a phase where he learns specific forms, challenging him to apply his teaching in more open-ended tests, which require analysis (sparring, etc.). But when he has mastered the chambers, more is demanded of him. He must defeat one of the masters to prove his own ability. What we get in that next sequence is the next level of learning, where San Ta must put the principles he's mastered into practice against a foe with a larger realm of knowledge and experience. Here he needs to be able to evaluate, and ultimately to create in order to achieve mastery. San Ta fights the master monk 3 times. The first time he's defeated soundly using a weapon he is comfortable with from his training, and the next time he tries a weapon catered to respond to his opponent's particular attacks. He loses again, and in despair, he arrive at an innovation––a new weapon, which he develops himself, and whose attacking style he innovates. We're witnessing a higher-level of academic knowledge than is generally demonstrated in most "education" movies here; San Ta is using "synthesis," putting his knowledge of various forms of martial arts together with unrelated experiences (his walk in the forest which leads to the development of the 3-sectioned staff) to work in the service of problem-solving innovation. He is ultimately made a master, and is sent out to apply his skills in the real world, whereupon we see practical applications of many of the specific things he had to learn during his training.
But the film goes a good bit farther than that, thematically, because when San Ta develops his 36th chamber, he reveals to us that his heart has not really changed since his days of youthful revolution. In spite of the tempering of manner and presentation which his education has provided, his revolutionary mindset remains intact, and in the last part of the film we learn he plans to revolutionize the Shaolin Temple and his society at once. His 36th chamber becomes the lever of his revolution, the device by which he can foment uprising against the Yuan dynasty. This is the essential moment that defines the themes present more or less in nearly all Lau Kar Leung's films going forward. He is obsessed with this idea of a youthful, revolutionary upstart, taken into the establishment and educated (in martial arts, of course). And though that student always learns to master the system, the point for Lau is that the student never loses their upstart fervor, their need to revolutionize. This theme of the stubborn, resistant spirit is in nearly all of Lau Kar Leung's movies, from My Young Auntie to Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter, to Mad Monkey Kung Fu––this idea that though education can hone a person, it never alters their underlying character. The diagram of the process of education that 36th Chamber offers maps closely to what we know of how education actually works upon students, but Lau's perception that the student retains their innate character in spite of education is a pretty unique and interesting observation, well-rendered in film after film. I think people tend to dismiss 36th Chamber as being merely representative of the kung fu genre; but the movie transcends the genre in a lot of directions most kung fu films never aspire to pursue. It's to my mind a really unique movie about a subject many filmmakers have intended to capture and few have succeeded so well in illustrating.