The Weekly Top Five: Shaw Brothers films | Bleader

The Weekly Top Five: Shaw Brothers films

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Derek Yee in Death Duel
  • Derek Yee in Death Duel
As part of its fall programming, University of Chicago's Doc Films presents a series of notable Hong Kong action films, the bulk of which hail from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio, once the foremost and largest movie production company in Hong Kong and one of the most prolific studios in world cinema history. This has awarded myself and my colleague Ben Sachs the opportunity to review some of our favorite titles screening as part of what Doc calls the "Drunken Masters" series, including The One-Armed Swordsman and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.

I figured this would be the perfect opportunity to share my favorite Shaw Brothers, so here's my top five.

5. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin [aka Shaolin Master Killer] (Lau Kar-Leung, 1978) Focusing on the arduous training routine of its main character (Gordon Liu, in a career-defining role), this film provided the blueprint for the aptly labeled "training film," in which the extended, sometimes grueling process of becoming a kung fu master is depicted in meticulous detail. But the film isn't a purely formal exercise—its narrative foothold lies in the communal nature of martial arts, a consistent theme in Lau's films.

4. The New One-Armed Swordsman [aka, Triple Irons] (Chang Cheh, 1971) Although many prefer the original One-Armed Swordsman, this updated version of that classic wuxia seems to me a purer expression of Chang's style. There's a key narrative difference between the films that supports this: in the original, the hero is betrayed by his friends, who cut off his arm; in this version, the hero willingly severs his own arm after losing a fight. Chang, like many kung fu directors, had a thing for physically maligned fighters, but here, his views on masculinity, honor, and the tradition of kung fu are amplified to the nth degree, making for a deliriously explicit but exhilarating experience. It also has the added benefit of Lau Kar-Leung as its stunt choreographer.

3. Death Duel (Yuen Chor, 1977) Hitting his stride in the latter half of the 1970s with films like Sentimental Swordsman, Magic Blade, and Clans of Intrigue, Yuen established himself as much of a talent as the likes of Chang and Lau. Death Duel follows a reserved, moody protagonist (Derek Yee, in his debut role) who doesn't necessarily embody the heroism typically seen in the genre: Yuen deliberately kept his main characters enigmatic and shrouded in intrigue, often letting the audience provide their own interpretations as to his backstory and motives.

2. Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966) Although King's career with Shaw Brothers was decidedly brief—his measured process as a filmmaker directly opposed the ethos of Shaw Brothers production chief Run Run Shaw, who insisted his employees produce films at a pace that would make Poverty Row blush—he left an indelible mark on Hong Kong action cinema with this classic wuxia. An entire genre is indebted to King and this film.

1. Five Venoms [aka, the Five Deadly Venoms] (Chang Cheh, 1978) The virtual antithesis of King and Come Drink With Me, this oddball cult classic finds Chang collaborating with six Taiwanese stuntmen to present six different fighting styles all named and modeled after various poisonous animals. Chang's fly-by-night direction is in rare form, but the film's true value lies in the varied nature of the stunt choreography. Each scene represents a new approach.

Honorable mentions: Chang Cheh's filmography, as vast as it is, is filled with knockouts, including Vengeance, Five Element Ninja's, Deadly Duo, and Golden Swallow; Lau Kar-Leung's Dity Ho and Legendary Weapons of China are both masterpieces in their own right; and if you're looking for something completely out of the realm of kung fu, Taylor Wong's Behind the Yellow Line is a highly entertaining romantic comedy staring Maggie Cheung.

Drew Hunt writes film-related top five lists every Sunday.

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