Where to begin with the Shaw Brothers

As a colossal box set arrives on Blu-ray, we fight our way through the vast back catalogue of Hong Kong’s legendary action producers, the Shaw Brothers.

Shaolin Temple (1976)

Why this might not seem so easy

For two decades, from the early 1960s, more than a thousand films bore the Shaw Brothers name. There were four of them, born in China at the dawn of the 20th century – entrepreneurs whose business history is as fascinating as it is expansive. 

The Shaw Organisation began with the purchase of theatres in the early 1920s in a bid to whet the creative appetites of the eldest sibling, Runje. By 1924, they’d moved into moviemaking, releasing a feature a month under the Unique Film Productions banner, including China’s first ever talking picture, Spring on Stage. But it wasn’t to last. Political disruption incited a move to Singapore, where younger brothers Runme and Run Run began touring films in makeshift tents for Chinese expats, while hoovering up real estate that would soon form the bedrock of a distribution empire.

King Boxer (1972)

Cut to 1957 and the Shaws had an armada of cinemas but no product to screen. The answer, according to Run Run, was the creation of Movietown in Hong Kong. When it opened in 1961, it was the biggest privately owned studio in the world. It’s here that the Shaw Brothers business model was born: churning out vast quantities of films in a manner inspired by Henry Ford’s production line. 

These were crowd-pleasers in the house style, carefully crafted by studio technicians, and made by directors and stars under studio contract in the manner of the Hollywood system. And just like Hollywood, where some filmmakers would remain anonymous, others were able to imprint their own authorial stamp within the strictures of the house production model.

From melodrama to horror, romance to comedy, Shaw Brothers would turn their hand to anything in a bid to dominate the south-east Asian marketplace. But there’s one genre that, while barely making up a third of their peak output, exploded on to the international stage in the 1970s: the martial arts film.

The best place to start – Dirty Ho

For a long time, in the UK at least, finding anything beyond the most famous Shaw Brothers titles wasn’t easy. When films did turn up, it meant running a gauntlet of poor dubs, incorrect aspect ratios and dubious transfers. But in recent years, boutique Blu-ray labels have taken on the task of bringing the vast Shaw Brothers library owned by Celestial Pictures into the UK marketplace. The label 88 Films has led the charge with some 28 features to date, while Arrow Video have just joined the party with the release of their magnificent box set, Shawscope Volume One (a second set is due in 2022). With more than 40 Shaw Brothers titles available in stunning editions from those two distributors alone, there’s no reason to weather dodgy scans if you’re looking for a good place to start.

Dirty Ho (1979)

So let’s kick off with a stone cold classic from the Arrow set. Lau Kar-leung was one of the great Shaw Bros innovators, directing 14 features for the studio in a 50-year career as a performer and choreographer on almost 200 films. Not just a tremendous screen fighter, Lau was a supreme craftsman. He’d begun his career working as a fight director for the likes of Chang Cheh, a background that would inform his peerless talents as a filmmaker in his own right. The way Lau uses movement to inform character is like little else in the kung fu canon, integrating comedy into his fight scenes long before Jackie Chan found his niche. 

Given we’re still waiting for a UK Blu-ray of his most celebrated masterpiece, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), his 1979 classic Dirty Ho offers a breathtaking introduction to both the studio’s house style and a filmmaker whose gift for the rhythms and complexities of action staging would prove groundbreaking.

What to watch next

Two other features from Lau Kar-leung chart his journey as a filmmaker. His 1975 directorial debut, The Spiritual Boxer, is a reflexive comedy about performance – and perhaps metaphorically about making kung fu movies – in which the protagonist believes himself to be possessed by the spirits of great fighters. Hold it up against his 1984 classic The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter and you’ll see how far Lau travelled in less than a decade. The latter is an elegiac work of spiritual exhaustion that finds only emptiness and futility in the Shaw Brothers tradition of vengeance. If The Spiritual Boxer is Lau’s impersonal equivalent of a western programmer, then The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is his The Searchers (1956).

The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)

One of the studio’s most prolific directors, Chang Cheh is the Shaw Bros filmmaker best-served on UK Blu-ray. From wuxia to kung fu, Chang’s influence would be far-reaching. With the majority of his 90-odd films made for Run Run Shaw, Chang was a studio soldier who could turn his hand to anything. He made a star of Jimmy Wang Yu – who would go on to become a Shaw director in his own right, starting with The Chinese Boxer (1970) – with the seminal wuxia classic The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), before doing the same for the studio’s iconic duo of David Chiang and Ti Lung. With his rip-roaring tales of vengeance, and keen eye for booby traps and imaginative weaponry, Chang Cheh effectively set the parameters of the house style. Want to see him at his best? Meet the Venom Mob in The Five Venoms (1978) and Crippled Avengers (1978), or head for the all-star pinnacle of his Shaolin cycle, Shaolin Temple (1976).

The Five Venoms (1978)

Not every great filmmaker got along with the Shaw Brothers system. Wuxia maestro King Hu signed on for his revolutionary Come Drink with Me (1966) before decamping to Taiwan and vowing never to work for the studio again, while Run Run Shaw swiftly sued him for breach of contract.

Want something a little different? Try Kuei Chih-Hung’s kung-fu-meets-police-procedural mash-up Killer Constable (1980), one of the most beautiful and brutal joints in the Shaw canon. Kung fu not your thing? Try one of the eight features by Ho Meng-Hua that 88 Films have put out. Ho was a jack of all trades as comfortable with horror as wuxia: his two Black Magic films (1975-76) and The Oily Maniac (1976) are a blast, while The Flying Guillotine (1975) is a model of invention. For something truly category-defying, head to his wondrous King Kong (1933) knock-off The Mighty Peking Man (1977).

Where not to start

While not exactly representative of what the Shaw Brothers are best known for, these two still come with resounding recommendations once you’ve sampled some of the martial arts greats. Superhero fans should run for Hua Shan’s Infra-Man (1975), a gloriously spandex-clad tokusatsu (SFX film). Forget the dour self-seriousness of whatever Marvel and DC are doing these days, and rejoice in the supreme goofiness of this colourful bootleg of Japan’s Ultraman and Kamen Rider.

Special effects are taken to grisly heights in Yang Chuan’s Seeding of a Ghost (1983). When a taxi driver asks a wizard to put a curse on the gang who raped and killed his wife, all hell breaks lose, culminating in a blood-soaked extravaganza of practical effects that give John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) a run for its money.

Shawscope Volume One is available on Arrow Blu-ray and on Arrow Player now. Individual titles in the Shaw Brothers Collection are available from 88 Films.

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