For the Love of Shaw: Why Shaw Brothers movies are awesome
Shaw Brothers films are not exactly at the top of many film buffs’ watching list. For one, there has not been a traditional Shaw film, opening fanfare and all, in close to 30 years and a hefty portion of the public do not give catalogue films the time of day. Even for those who do, there is a vast selection of genres, directors, actors and studios that, often for good reason, will strike someone’s fancy more so than a 1960s, 70s or early 80s Shaw production.
It is widely known that said movies were produced at the speed of light, like cheap toys on a factory production line. Even so, their legacy lives on, with the bountiful number of martial arts films made and released in countries around the world, in addition to their critical role in making Kung Fu films popular in North America. For the decidedly smaller band of Shaw faithful who take pleasure in exploring the overwhelmingly large catalogue of pictures, the reasons for orbiting toward Shaw can be just as numerous and eclectic. The films did not always represent the apex of high cinematic art, but they still put a spell over those who get a thrill at vicariously living adventures in ancient China. What are the fantastic aspects to Shaw productions that strike a chord? This week, the column shall highlight some of the films’ legitimately and ironically great qualities.
Set design always plays a primordial role in transporting viewers to another time and place. The majority of Shaw pictures have their stories occur several centuries ago, during the eras of the many dynasties that ruled the land and fought tireless battles against usurpers to the throne. As is often the case with other Shaw ingredients, the sets in these films sometimes exemplified the best and worst in believability. Actual homes of noble or royal families are often given special attention to detail, the level of artistic and architectural expression communicating the upper-class qualities of these lavish locations. There is great variety in colours and overall decorum, obvious signs that filmmaking teams put significant heart and soul into making these sets as impressive as time and budget permitted.
When scenes take place just outside these domains, the quality of the design can become a bit dubious. If there is a garden characters walk through (there almost always is when it comes to the homes of the upper class), a lot of the flora looks terribly artificial. Understandably, crews lacked the time to grow a real garden, for they were constantly working on different films in rapid succession. This furious filmmaking speed was nothing like Peter Jackson and company planting trees and flowers in New Zealand a year before shooting scenes in the Shire. Even though the plants, bushes, and trees are often characterized with plasticity reeking of cheap production methods, lakes often have water as clean and clear as that of a swimming pool.
Underground layers, on the other hand, are often amazing, showcasing great booby traps, lighting, and occasionally awesome clan crests on walls. The more potentially artificial the location, the superior the end product, and vice versa.
The clothes make the man (and woman). Rarely is this more apparent than in Shaw Brothers movies. Noblemen, royalty, and high-ranking military officers are all awarded splendid wardrobes that unmistakably indicate their esteemed place in society. The colours some of these costumes sport are often bright and brilliant, as are the image designs on the fabrics when applicable. What is equally interesting is that the men, rather than the women, often wear more elaborately conceptualized dresses. The women do get to sport fanciful gowns, just not as often as the men, bucking expectations.
Regular soldiers, and armies at large, see their attires simplified but no less colourful. What these dresses sometimes lack in creative design, they make up for in colour palettes that make them easily identifiable. This group dresses in red, that one in yellow, Stormtroopers in white, and so on.
In some instances, heroic characters have the most distinctive costumes, especially the men. If the film has cast a leading actor who takes great care of his body, the filmmakers diligently ensure that audiences get to admire the fine physical specimen in question. Lo Meng, as the Toad in Five Deadly Venoms, basically spends the entirety of all his scenes bare-chested, showcased for all to see and envy. In fact, a lot of the male characters in that movie like to let the fresh air brush against their perfectly carved bodies.
The opposite is true of the heroines. Anyone who loves it when, in Western action movies, the heroines or villainesses dress up with the tightest outfits imaginable to show off every possible curve is bound to be disappointed with those worn for Shaw heroines. Their dresses are more akin to those of Jedi knights, what with their oversized, minimally designed robes.
Jedi master and padawan learner (The Lady Hermit)
Feats that Defy Physics, Biology, and the Odds
The great warriors who populate the Shaw universe are more than just well-trained servicemen and women or gifted vigilantes and thieves. Martial arts training can only get one so far when facing steep physical challenges. Some characters possess abilities that would make the X-Men blush with envy.
More often than not, these characters can perform the most remarkable flips and dives from vertiginous heights. David Chiang’s characters were often blessed with this sort of gift, the filmmakers using the tools of the editing room to sometimes make it seem as though he was flipping a billion times over before finally touching ground. Come to think of it, Chiang’s roles were almost always semi-comical for how he would outmaneuver and overpower opponents who were thrice his size. Chiang was no bodybuilder, nor did he produce the aura of someone to mess with, yet his scrawny arms always had enough muscular reserves and his legs enough dexterity to flip 300-pound Goliaths onto their backs.
I’m David Chiang. I got this. (The Heroic Ones)
Even when not performing flips in the air, heroic characters can leap into the air life a leaf blown in the wind to access great heights. The behind-the-scenes magic is the on-set wirework, although within the world of the films, it always looks as though the characters are levitating. It is just as easy for these individuals to hold their balance atop cliffs, poles (the number of times opponents have dueled while hopping from one insanely restrictive surface to another as though it were a game is astonishing) and the thinnest of branches. Why these branches never give under the weight of adult humans is a mystery, although one may venture to guess that it is just another one of their incredible secret powers.
Arguably the greatest of these supposed superpowers is the capacity to delay death. Think about it for a moment. If one’s chest is pierced with a sword, a series of arrows, an axe, or any other lethal weapon, one cannot have much longer to live, can they? Life seeps from their bodies faster than they have the time to cry for help. Not so in the Shaw universe. Nay, characters, especially the dastardly villains (although heroes demonstrate this ability as well), have a terrible knack to keep on walking, talking, running, jumping, and fighting despite losing significant amounts of blood from the gaping holes in their bodies, or their ruptured stomachs, backs, necks, and hearts. Just like when, in Western films, a shot villain is lying on the floor below the protagonists and makes one last lunge to overcome his or her foes, so too do the Shaw characters keep on coming at their opposites, regardless of how many swords have turned their bodies into slices of Swiss cheese.
He’s a girl!
This one is a bit trickier than most, because sometimes the issue stems from poor subtitling, but there is at least a handful of films in which a female character supposedly adorns men’s attire so convincingly that no one can tell that she is a woman…no one save everyone watching the movie. True enough, in such moments, the woman is wearing a healthy number of layers to conceal her feminine features, yet that does not explain why no one can discern her sex from looking at her face. This plays like the shamefully crass joke about all Asians looking exactly alike.
If these women did anything to their faces to look like men, there would exist a level of believability, but as it stands, this gambit is completely ludicrous and therefore hilarious.
Oh, my apologies. I thought you were a chick (Come Drink With Me)
There actually is a girl who can kick some ass
Several online film writers have in recent years justly published articles bemoaning the state of modern film, particularly in Western big budget ventures, which lacks any decisively compelling female leading characters. What audiences are left with are plenty of damsels in distress or women whose only raison d’être in the story is to serve the advancement of the male characters in any capacity.
The Shaw Brothers film catalogue is incredibly impressive insofar as its insistence on depicting strong willed, intelligent and martial arts suited leading female roles. Of course there are a bunch of movies in which the women are not given any sort of significant development, as such relegated to being onlookers while the men handle the manly business, but it genuinely is not difficult to find movies where it is the women who are whipping everything and everyone in sight, sometimes with their smarts, their wisdom, and oftentimes with out of this world kung fu and mystical prowess. Chang Pei Pei is one of the best known female leads, playing the hugely entertaining government agent Golden Swallow in Come Drink With Me and its sequel, Golden Swallow. She also has a memorable role in The Lady Hermit. Another amazing actress was Ivy Ling Po who often played not just martial arts masters, but ones gifted with insurmountable supernatural powers (Sword and the Flute, The Mighty One). For all the knocks action movies take for lacking in interesting women characters, Shaw Brothers were always up to the task.
Playing a familiar tune
Those with some knowledge of film scores can relate to this recurring incident. One watches a good Shaw film, completely enraptured in the awesomeness of the moment when, surprise, a familiar piece of music erupts in the soundtrack. Granted, plenty of movies employ songs to complement the mood, but in these cases, pieces of previously written and used orchestral music from other films and television shows are utilized. Legend has it that such borrowing was almost always done illegally, probably because no major North American studios were paying attention to what Shaw was up to back in the day. The lifting was quite shameless at times. Have Sword Will Travel features “Gypsy Camp’”from John Barry’s From Russia With Love score. In fact, plenty of movies utilized Barry’s music from the early Bond films.
Arguably the most famous incident is that of Five Fingers of Death’s main theme, also known as King Boxer. Right after the Shaw Brothers logo and fanfare, astute score lovers will recognize the musical theme to the TV show Ironside, a crime drama starring Raymond Burr as a paraplegic detective in a wheelchair. Every time the protagonist’s hands glow bright red through his Iron Fist power, that same piece blasts. Ironically enough, director Quentin Tarantino, a huge admirer of Shaw pictures and especially Five Fingers of Death, would do the same trick in Kill Bill Vol. 1 to heighten the tension whenever the Bride (Uma Thurman) appeared before her prey. Tarantino aped Five Fingers, which stole from Ironside. Makes perfect sense.
Quickly shooting in and out
This may be one of the best aspects to Shaw pictures. Unlike the vast majority of films that deem it necessary to use the first minutes to set up the story and the final few to resolve various plot threads, Shaw studios took the road less travelled by frequently starting their movies in the midst of a fight. Character names are spewed in hatred, as rivals defiantly predict each other’s inevitable death, therefore providing some information right off the bat, and off they go. True enough, these opening segments are typically followed by calmer scenes that do follow the more traditional route of character set-up and development before things get down and dirty, but the opening scene serves the purpose of revving up the excitement level in the audience, much like the pre-title sequences in James Bond movies.
Mirroring this technique at the start of the picture is how filmmakers choose to end their films. There is no orthodox resolution to story threads or character arcs. The final fights are what settle differences; the aftermath of the bloodshed is left up to the audience’s imagination. The last contest is often ongoing when there is barely a minute left. Someone dies, the victor looks over the cadaver and walks, rides. or runs off into the sunset or the hills, alone with companions. The only alteration is when the scene cuts to an undisclosed period of time later when, again, the hero walks, rides, or runs off alone or with companions. The first time a viewer witnesses such an abrupt ending, it may feel strange, its suddenness taking away from what could be a more recognizably impactful resolution. It is a bit like beer or coffee: weird at first but eventually grows into an acquired taste. This was yet another quality to Shaw films that Tarantino enjoyed greatly, as evidenced by the way he concludes Death Proof.
Villain defeated? Show’s over, folks!
What’s in a title? Part 1
This may be more for the really curious cats, but there are plenty of Shaw films for which the titles are mightily confusing, if only for the fact that they go by multiple names. The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms is also known as The Crippled Avengers, the latter title actually being a much more honest encapsulation of the movie’s team of heroes than the former. The only reason the first of the two titles was used was for marketability due to the participation of most of the actors from Five Deadly Venoms. That said, they play completely different characters in the next film, with no utterance whatsoever of the aforementioned Venoms. Depending on how the studio wanted to market its pictures in given regions around the world, the title would be altered to something with one assume was believed to have more ‘punch.’ Here are some other great examples, some of which are truly perplexing:
King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death
Golden Swallow aka The Girl with the Thunderbolt Kick (what?!)
The Heroic Ones aka Shaolin Masters
Shaolin Mantis aka Deadly Mantis
The Magnificent Swordsman aka The Vagabond Swordsman
Executioners from Shaolin aka Executioners of Death
Boxer from Shantung aka Killer from Shantung
What’s in a title? Part 2
Numbers. That is what is in a lot of titles. Shaw Brothers studios loved putting numerical twists to the titles of their films. It was a no holds barred proposition when it came to adding a number. For whatever reason, they had a particular fixation on the number five.
36th Chamber of Shaolin
5 Fingers of Death
The Twelve Gold Medallions
Five Deadly Venoms
Two Champions of Shaolin
The 14 Amazons
Five Elements Ninja
5 Shaolin Masters
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Lest any readers are left confused, this week’s column has certainly not exhausted all of the reasons why fans love Shaw Brothers movies. Sound effects, villain names, the gore, the way they handle sexual intercourse, there are plenty of topics one can write about regarding the special quality of these films. That said, there is no reasons why there would not be a followup article at some point in the future. Hopefully this one will help explain at least some of the reasons why Shaw Brothers films are simultaneously amazing for the right and wrong reasons. For those who are already intimately familiar with the studio’s vast catalogue, keep on promoting these great older pictures on your blogs, websites or podcasts. For those new to the genre and studio, get ready for some blood soaking good times.