Monday, June 4, 2018

Five Shaw Brothers Films (for People That Typically Don't Watch Kung Fu Movies)

Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber.
Last year, Amazon Prime added a number of high-quality prints of Shaw Brothers films to its catalog. If you're unfamiliar with the Shaw Brothers Studio (and subscribe to Amazon Prime), this is a great opportunity to sample some of their best movies.

Founded in 1925 (under a different name), the studio grew into the world's largest privately-owned film production company by the 1960s. During that decade, Sir Run Run Shaw popularized action films featuring swordplay and martial arts. Action pictures like Come Drink With Me and The One-Armed Swordsman shattered box office records in Asia.

In the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers took advantage of the international interest in martial arts and produced many of their best known classics. Every fan has his or her favorites, but I tried to pick five that might appeal to film fans not familiar with the genre. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Heroes of the East, in particular, are less bloody than the other films on this list. All of these films feature impressive athletic feats and fights choreographed with balletic precision.

1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin - Martial arts superstar Gordon Liu plays a student who joins rebel forces to fight against the tyranny of the Manchus in 17th century China. When his family and friends are killed, he escapes and finds his way to a Shaolin temple. His hope is that he can train with the Shaolin monks—who are renowned for their martial arts skills—and teach their techniques to his fellow rebels and defeat the Manchus. This classic is famous for its spellbinding training sequences, but its theme of perseverance and dedication resonates strongly, too.

Liu again, this time fighting with knives.
2. Heroes of the East - The arranged marriage of a Chinese businessman's son and a Japanese friend's daughter turns out much better than anyone could have hoped. Indeed, the couple's happiness is marred only by the wife's insistence that her Japanese martials arts are superior to her husband's Chinese boxing. The couple try to find common ground, but she eventually returns to Japan. To get her back, the husband (Gordon Liu again) ends up challenging seven Japanese masters, each highly skilled in a particular style of fighting. Clever and funny, Heroes of the East also features some of the best fights you'll ever see in a movie--plus no one dies!

Jimmy Wang Yu in a snowy scene.
3. The One-Armed Swordsman - An aging teacher plans to turn over his school of sword fighting to his best pupil, Fang Kang (Jimmy Wang Yu). Kang doesn't know that and plans to leave the school because he doesn't fit in with his fellow students. The teacher's impetuous daughter challenges Kang on the night of his departure. When he refuses to fight her with a sword...she chops his right arm off! Miraculously, a young woman finds his bloody body and nurses him to health. Meanwhile, the teacher's villainous old adversary plans to kill everyone in the school. Stylish and graphically violent, The One-Armed Swordsman is an engrossing tale of transformation and determination.

4. Master of the Flying Guillotine - An old evil kung fu master--armed with the title weapon--seeks revenge in a town hosting a martial arts tournament. One of the funkiest and most popular films to emerge from the kung fu craze of the 1970s, Master of the Flying Guillotine has become a cult classic championed by filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. Part of its popularity can be attributed to the tournament scenes featuring participants from different countries and with different fighting styles. Plus, we get Jimmy Wang Yu again...this time as a one-armed boxer!

5. The Avenging Eagle - An outlaw, being pursued by his former gang, encounters a mysterious stranger in the desert. As the two men travel together and fend off periodic gang attacks, their pasts--and their unique connection--are revealed through flashbacks. The best scenes in this intriguing action yarn show how a Fagin-like father figure manipulates his loyal followers, transforming them from innocent children into young men that have become ruthless criminals.
Two is better than one when our heroes confront the villain!

Other popular Shaw Brothers films include:  Clan of the White Lotus, Crippled Avengers, The One-Armed Boxer, Golden Swallow, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, and Five Deadly Venoms.


  1. The history of the Shaw Brothers Studio sounds like it might be a fascinating one. As for the martial arts movies, they're not my thing, but I'm looking forward to this series very much.

  2. I was fascinated by the training sequences of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”. I wondered sometimes if the student protagonist was going to make it through some levels. It brought a very different perspective to Kung Fu cinema.

    1. Those were amazing scenes, Toto. It's truly a fascinating film.