As part of my lengthy on-going Shaw Brothers series, I will be posting “Best of” lists that allow casual viewers to cut through the chatter and just get to the awesome. I have finally completed the first wave of films (forty-three of them, to be exact), so I present you with the first ever Silver Emulsion list! This one better hold you guys because the next list will be for 1970-1971 (which is 37 films), so it’s going to be about a year or so before I get there. Until then, you’re on your own for Shaw Brothers lists.
I quickly trimmed the list to twenty-one films and then slowly whittled that down, emerging with ten films that are sure to excite fans of early wuxia and martial arts films alike. I’ve also included links to Amazon and Netflix for easy access by those intrigued enough to check some of these out. Most of them are actually readily available in the US.
Here we go!
#10 Come Drink With Me (1966)
Directed by King Hu
Reviewed January 13, 2011
Come Drink With Me is one of the most notable films on the list and one of the first martial arts films in existence. As such, it is groundbreaking and very important, but somewhat distant from what we would think of as a martial arts film today. It gave the world Cheng Pei Pei, the first swordswoman superstar, who would go on to star in loads of films in the 60s and a few in the early 70s before getting married and leaving cinema behind. She then notably returned to the screen in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Being the first martial arts blockbuster (and only the studio’s sixth color film to incorporate martial arts), Come Drink With Me has an interesting feel that seems to marry Japanese samurai films with Chinese martial arts, resulting in a film truly unique and well worth your time. It might be one of the most well-known films on the list, but it’s only coming in at the number ten spot for me. Come Drink With Me is available for purchase via Amazon and rental via Netflix.
#9 The Bells of Death (1968)
Directed by Griffin Yueh Feng
Reviewed December 19, 2011
Coming into this series, I knew that I would enjoy the Chang Cheh films, and I eagerly awaited what Ho Meng-Hua would deliver, but I also secretly hoped to discover a new director that was a bit under the radar and deserving of my time. Enter Griffin Yueh Feng, a director with three films in this period and a confident visual style. The Bells of Death is the best of the three, and the most well-known. Chang Cheh looked up to Griffin Yueh Feng, mentioning in his memoir that he credits Yueh Feng for raising the standards of the Chinese film industry, and it’s obvious why here. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chang Cheh learned a lot of his visual style from him, as Yueh Feng’s films contained the Shaw Brothers iconic look long before it was their signature. The Bells of Death is available for purchase via Amazon and rental via Netflix.
#8 The Golden Sword (1969)
Directed by Lo Wei
Reviewed June 15, 2012
Lo Wei is another standout director from this series. He’d achieve true success later when he launched the career of Bruce Lee with The Big Boss, and later still when he directed Jackie Chan in many of his first major roles. At Shaw Studios he mostly worked with Cheng Pei Pei churning out lots of fun wuxia epics that were unlike anything other directors were releasing. As such, his films are somewhat hit or miss, but I can’t imagine any martial arts fans not enjoying the pure, simple joy of The Golden Sword. A film filled with fun fights, interesting settings, and Sammo Hung co-directing the action, it’s definitely one of the best martial arts films of the era. The Golden Sword is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it.
#7 The Sword of Swords (1968)
Directed by Cheng Kang
Reviewed January 6, 2012
One of the many Shaw Brothers films about a legendary unbeatable sword, The Sword of Swords is one of the best and earliest examples of great one-on-one fights. Tang Chia and Lau Kar-Leung provided brilliant choreography that made me forget I was watching a 1968 film, and coupled with exciting, energetic direction from Cheng Kang, I was in wuxia heaven. Tien Feng plays a ruthless villain that absolutely steals the show from Jimmy Wang Yu, and while the melodrama is quite thick, the fights are more than enough to make up for that small shortcoming. As I said in my full review, this was the first film in the series where the fights actively reminded me of later Shaw Brothers efforts, and for that it’s absolutely worth watching. The Sword of Swords is available for purchase via Amazon.
#6 The Assassin (1967)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed August 12, 2011
The first of many Chang Cheh films on the list, The Assassin gets a place not for its stunning fights, but for its incredible writing. I can’t discredit the sheer awesome contained during the film’s lengthy action finale, but The Assassin‘s script is really the film’s strong point. Creating characters worth caring about, and placing them in situations worth worrying over, The Assassin is one of the top martial arts scripts of the 1960s. Chang Cheh builds dramatic tension incredibly well throughout the film and then releases it in the best way possible, by having Jimmy Wang Yu don a stark white robe and battle his way through hundreds of men. It’s a bloody good time, but one that does require some patience as it’s more of a drama than a straight action picture. The Assassin is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it.
#5 The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed July 27, 2011
Easily the most famous and influential film on this list, Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman revolutionized the martial arts genre and become its first giant hit. This movie was in a class far above its contemporaries and showed the world just how awesome a martial arts film could be. That being said, as the first badass on the block it does come off as a little dated compared to some of the later films on this list, but don’t let that stop you from watching it. It remains an entertaining, well-written and exciting film forty-five years after its release. The One-Armed Swordsman is available for purchase via Amazon and rental via Netflix.
#4 Have Sword, Will Travel (1969)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed June 29, 2012
To me, Have Sword, Will Travel is just as big of a revelation as The One-Armed Swordsman was to the martial arts film genre. It was the first martial arts film to feature Ti Lung and David Chiang together, and it is the film that kicked off the second wave of the genre. Chang Cheh’s previous go-to star had been Jimmy Wang Yu, but after starring in Chang’s Return of the One-Armed Swordsman, Wang set his sights on his début as a writer/director (and his last film for the Shaw Brothers) 1970′s The Chinese Boxer, which is widely regarded as the first martial arts film to focus on kung fu and unarmed combat. I don’t know who left who, but Wang Yu’s absence meant that Chang Cheh needed a new leading man, but instead he went with two! They both shine bright here and the violence is grand, pronounced and in glorious slow-motion. Have Sword, Will Travel is available for purchase via Amazon by itself, or in a four-film boxset with Vengeance Is a Golden Blade, The Water Margin & The Wandering Swordsman. It is also available for rental via Netflix.
#3 Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed February 24, 2012
Depending on your tastes you might think the original One-Armed Swordsman is a better movie than this, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you. But for me, the reckless, amazing fun contained in Return of the One-Armed Swordsman is more than enough to make it a much more exciting and pleasing martial arts film. I’m not saying this is more influential, just that it’s a hell of a lot more fun. Fans of the original’s reserved tone will be disappointed as Return of the One-Armed Swordsman goes directly for the throat of every action lover in the audience. Filled with crazy weapons and a sea of white-clad heroes dying valiantly, this is exactly what the kung fu lovin’ doctor ordered. Return of the One-Armed Swordsman is available for purchase via Amazon.
#2 Killers Five (1969)
Directed by Cheng Kang
Reviewed February 10, 2012
Killers Five blew me away. In my review I called it “debatably the best martial arts/action film to be produced by the Shaw Brothers up to this point,” and I stand by that statement. Killers Five is pure gold and simply must be watched by martial arts and wuxia aficionados. The assembled team of Tang Ching, Li Ching, Ku Feng, Cheng Miu, and Wang Kuang-Yu are absolutely fantastic and make Killers Five the film that it is. But let’s not forget director Cheng Kang, who delivers a master class in martial arts filmmaking here. He was never a prolific director, but his level of quality was always so high that I can easily forgive him that. This one is an outstanding triumph and should be hunted down post-haste. Killers Five is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, which can be purchased via Amazon if you have the correct hardware to play it.
#1 The Invincible Fist (1969)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed March 30, 2012
And finally we come to the big daddy, Chang Cheh’s The Invincible Fist! For those that have kept up with my Shaw Brothers reviews, this will come as no surprise as I believe I’ve mentioned it in almost every review since I saw it. It is an amazing piece of work by all involved parties, with Lo Lieh standing tall as the lead character and Li Ching and David Chiang turning in fantastic supporting performances. But what’s most amazing about The Invincible Fist is its writing. Ni Kuang, scribe of an amazing amount of kick-ass martial arts films and arguably as important to the genre as Chang Cheh, delivers a script that is packed with incredible action and intense, wonderful drama. The film walks the line beautifully between the unrestricted violence of Chang’s Return of the One-Armed Swordsman and the more reserved drama of The Assassin. The Invincible Fist is the best of both worlds and by far my favorite film of the 1960s from the Shaw Brothers. Unfortunately, The Invincible Fist is only available on an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD, AND it is not currently available from Amazon, but if you check that link from time to time it might come up for sale. But for now, get hunting!
So there you have it, the first Silver Emulsion list! It was quite fun to make, and much more work than I expected it to be. I debated adding some Honorable Mentions, but I decided against it as I felt it would detract from the overall strength of the list format. What’s the point of saying Top 10 if you’re gonna list fourteen movies? If there’s a demand, though, I’ll post the Honorable Mentions in the comments.
See you in about a year or so when I complete Phase 2 and can bring you the next list: 1970-1971!