Friday, August 11, 2023

From Shaw to Shining Shaw: The Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. 1 Boxset - Ranked List (Shout Factory)

Although I’ve spent a solid amount of my time as a writer digging into the massive Shaw Brothers martial arts catalog of films, the current onslaught of Blu-Ray releases from boutique labels like Arrow Video or 88 Films has seen a lot of renewed interest in the classic Hong Kong studio and their output. Yeah, that’s fuckin’ great cause it’s only one more reason for me to revisit them and write about some of the classics that far too many cinephiles overlook. 


Just recently, Shout Factory revealed their own box sets, bringing together large swaths of the filmography of the Shaw Brothers studio. After announcing a Brave Archer set that contains the original three Brave Archer films and the two unofficial sequels, they dropped this gorgeous set on fans. Titled The Shaw Brothers Classics, Vol. 1, this set brought together 11 classic wuxia flicks from the golden age of the studio and it’s one of the year's best releases. 


With a handful of films new to me and a ton of classics that were available previously (either in digital form or from previous DVD releases), here is my official ranking of each film included - with a few additional comments of why each film deserves to be seen. 


11. The Thundering Sword (1967) [dir. Hsu Tseng-Hung]


The Thundering Sword suffers mostly from just being very bland. Despite an intriguing romantic throughline for its lead characters, one of which is played by Cheng Pei Pei - an incredible actress that will be referenced quite a bit throughout this article, this film stumbles into mediocrity at most turns. Lo Lieh pops up early as a bright point to be sidelined for most of the film, and its plot gets widely convoluted by its third act despite its strong set of Shaw stars. For fans, it’s more of a curiosity than a gem from the earth. 


10. The Golden Sword (1969) [dir. Lo Wei]


You gotta love how many magic swords were the MacGuffin in these older Shaw Brothers wuxia films, huh? While the initial mystery of The Golden Sword creates an intriguing and propulsive question that lingers throughout most of the film, the muddled storytelling undercuts its intrigue as it plays out. There are moments in this film that stand out. The snowy set “courtship” sequence is delightfully charming and it’s hard to go too wrong with Cheng Pei Pei, but overall The Golden Sword feels a tad like a misfire considering the pieces of the whole. 


09. Golden Swallow (1968) [dir. Chang Cheh]


Yeah, I know. I know how many of you are yelling at me that Golden Swallow ranks so low on this list. To be fair, from this point on, this box set is a pretty impressive slew of wuxia classics. You’re welcome to read my full review of the film HERE if you would like, but what I want to say about this one is that the romantic triangle of Jimmy Wang Yu, Cheng Pei Pei, and Lo Lieh is dynamic enough to warrant any film. It’s the heart of this film, even if I desperately wanted it to be more about Pei Pei’s titular character. Plus, it features one of the coolest one-man sieges you’ll ever see on film. So yes, it’s on the list, but this is a stone-cold classic. 


08. The Flying Dagger (1969) [dir. Chang Cheh]


Lo Lieh, oh yeah, he’s in a lot of these films by the way, cause Lo Lieh fuckin’ rules, plays an anti-hero who loves to throw knives at people and throw out tough guy lines. If that’s reason enough, how about a strangely artistic opening sequence courtesy of iconic director Chang Cheh and there’s a great building duel to knife throwers that had me hooked throughout. It doesn’t quite land that third act in a way that effectively stays with its viewer (unlike another similar film that’s to come on this list) but this one is a fun gem for fans. 


07. Killer Darts (1968) [dir. Ho Meng-Hua]


It’s not flying daggers, but killer darts are an excellent enough idea as a title to get a solid bite from me. To my surprise, it was a solid little actioner that entertained me thoroughly. Does it feature a lot of sharp objects thrown into people’s heads? Yes, and that’s what I came for. What I stayed for were the fun characters, the charming interactions, and some stylistic direction from Ho Meng-Hua. Most fans tend to shit on this one for being a bit clunky, but I was charmed enough by it to be thoroughly and pleasantly surprised.


06. Dragon Swamp (1969) [dir. Lo Wei]


Dragon Swamp was a brand-new film to me, one that I had not seen before this release, and while it’s not the biggest surprise of the set, it’s a damn fine wuxia flick. Director Lo Wei might be most well-known for directing the first few Golden Harvest Bruce Lee flicks, but his work in the wuxia realm for Shaw Brothers is sorely underrated. While the scope and breadth of this one tends to be a little hard to swallow in trying to tie together all its plotting in the third act, but the journey there easily made the destination better. Cheng Pei Pei kills it once again in as two (!) characters, the fantasy elements are borderline surrealistic in their execution (those dragons, man), and the visual style encapsulates the fantastical elements well.  Dragon Swamp might be slightly dense to walk through, but it’s an experience worth it. 


05. The Jade Raksha (1968) [dir. Ho Meng-Hua]


While Dragon Swamp was certainly a huge win, The Jade Raksha stole my heart in this volume. As another first-time viewing, I had minimal expectations going in and it continually blew me away as it went. If anything, it takes the classic wuxia story and embeds so many instantly memorable moments. Cheng Pei Pei runs across the surface of a lake in the second act and then pole vaults with bamboo over a burning bridge in the final act. The villain has a secret torture chamber behind a sign that says "Always Be Kind." Ku Feng plays a blind man who has given up the blade in regret but still fights for his daughter immediately when she's accused of being an assassin. That’s all you really need to know about The Jade Raksha and it’s enough to catch this list in the top five.


04. The Assassin (1967) [dir. Chang Cheh]


At this point of the list, we are now into what I consider “pure classics” of the Shaw Brothers studio catalog. First up, we have Chang Cheh’s character-driven and heartbreaking The Assassin. Jimmy Wang Yu owns the film from moment one, and watching his character go through all the trials and tribulations to become the titular assassin is wuxia at some of its dramatic best. It’s a fantastic film through and through, and if you want to read more of my thoughts on it - check out my full article on the film over at the official Celestial Pictures website HERE


03. The Invincible Fist (1969) [dir. Chang Cheh]


Similar to The Flying Dagger, Lo Lieh once again comes into this film as a jaded anti-hero of sorts (he’s a cop this time with David Chiang as his partner) and they are on the hunt for some bandits. What sets this aside from others is that its cat-and-mouse propulsion makes for a film that starts off with the usual Shaw Brothers blueprint and continually gets more intense as it goes. A semi-romantic subplot featuring a young blind woman adds in a layering of heart (and impending doom with the wuxia formula) that layers the film nicely. Incredible performances, some fantastic use of setting (the reeds!), and a dynamic and charismatic lead performance from Lo Lieh make this one must-see. Check out my full article on the film HERE


02. The Sword of Swords (1968) [dir. Cheng Kang]


We’ve had a Golden one and a Thundering one, but nothing quite tops The Sword of Swords. This is low-key one of Shaw Brothers' finest wuxia, taking the screen presence and charm of a young Jimmy Wang Yu and continually adding dark layers of tragedy around him. With some intriguing spins of narrative, like handicapping our hero in the second half or using the titular MacGuffin Sword in exciting ways, The Sword of Swords is one that just keeps surprising with how well executed it is as it plays on its tropes. It’s guaranteed to leave you shocked at moments but entertained throughout. 

01. The Bells of Death (1968) [dir. Griffin Yueh Feng]


For Volume 1, I had to save the darkest for last. Although the occasionally annoying sound of bells is a stark reminder of approaching death by our hero in the film, The Bells of Death is not nearly as straightforward as it might seem - and it’s incredible direction, production, and use of spectacular lighting gimmicks make this film one of the more spectacular atmospheric and visual feasts of the set. It’s a classic revenge story told through the lens of wuxia and it features some of my favorite sword fights ever in the Shaw catalog, whether it's a candle-lit battle or a tense standoff in a bamboo forest. The Bells of Death is relentless and it’s brilliant for it. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider


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