Top 10 1974–1975 Shaw Brothers Martial Arts Films

1974 and 1975 were great years for the Shaw Brothers studio. They partnered with international studios to co-produce films more than they ever had before, they finally released a lot of unfinished projects, and Chang Cheh went to Taiwan to form Chang’s Film Co. There Chang Cheh made some of his best work, most notably the genre-shaking Shaolin Cycle which ushered in a new era of kung fu film thanks to Lau Kar-Leung’s mission of bringing real martial arts to the silver screen.

Narrowing down any list is something of a challenge, but this one was a unique beast. All of my Shaw lists are fairly Chang Cheh heavy, and this list is no different. In fact, it sets a new precedent! I never intend for any one filmmaker to dominate a list like this, and I’d honestly be more happy with a wider cross-section of filmmakers. But if I’m going to be honest and make a list of my Top 10 films from 1974–1975, then it just has to be 70% Chang Cheh. I liked a lot of other movies from these years, but no one else making martial arts films at the Shaw studio was on par with Chang Cheh at this point in his career. I imagine Lau Kar-Leung and Chor Yuen will help diversify the next list, but only time will tell. If you’re interested in what’s below the cut and you don’t want to troll through my review archive, I have ranked lists on Letterboxd for every year I’ve finished already. You can find 1974 here and 1975 here.

As usual, I’ve included links to iTunes/Amazon/YesAsia/DDDHouse for easy access if you’re looking to get them. The availability is current as of the posting of this list. eBay is always a good option, as well, if the links I have here don’t turn up any results.

Also: I actually managed to get these two years of my Shaw series done on schedule, so hopefully I can keep the train rolling to deliver the next list (1976–1977) roughly one year from now!

OK, OK, let’s get to the list!


#10 The Spiritual Boxer (1975)
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Reviewed June 3, 2017

Besides the great Chang Cheh films, Chang’s tenure in Taiwan also inadvertently gave us the directorial career of Lau Kar-Leung. I’m sure it would’ve happened at some point regardless, but the films of the Shaolin Cycle gave Lau that extra push to fight Chang for his vision to come to the screen. The two legends had a falling out, so producer Mona Fong offered Lau Kar-Leung a job directing a film of his own back in Hong Kong. Lau jumped at the opportunity and The Spiritual Boxer, one of the first true kung fu comedies, was born. It’s definitely not as refined or iconic as his later work, but it’s a fantastic debut that really entertains. It also introduces us to a new star, Wong Yu, who carries the film with his comedic charm and exceptional physical performance.

On disc, The Spiritual Boxer is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD, which is still available from DDDHouse or 3rd Party sellers on Amazon. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.

#9 The Golden Lion (1975)
Directed by Ho Meng-Hua
Reviewed June 9, 2017

If you told me at the beginning of this chronological endeavor that I would one day look back with nostalgia on the early Shaw wuxias, I would have never believed you. As much as I love seeing the genre mature, I really came to love those early Shaw wuxias for their unique flavor. To my surprise, they had a few of them lying around unfinished from 1971, so whenever they popped up I welcomed them with open arms. I enjoyed them all, but The Golden Lion blew me away. I love the way it’s structured, with the main character slowly losing his strength over the course of the movie while the villains continually increase their pressure on apprehending him. The tension is thick and the action is powerful, and The Golden Lion is one of my favorite films from Ho Meng-Hua.

On disc, The Golden Lion is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD, which is hard to find, but it is available (and very overpriced) from 3rd Party sellers on Amazon. eBay is your best bet at this point, but also keep your fingers crossed while you pray to the Celestial gods who may, at some point in the future, release the film to digital platforms such as iTunes.

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The Spiritual Boxer (1975)

The Spiritual Boxer [神打] (1975)
AKA Naked Fists of Terror, Fists from the Spirit World

Starring Wong Yu, Lin Chen-Chi, Kong Yeung, Shut Chung-Tin, Fung Hak-On, Lee Hoi-Sang, Ng Hong-Sang, Ngaai Fei, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Chan Mei-Hua, Wong Ching-Ho, Keung Hon, Lee Sau-Kei, Shum Lo, Tin Ching, Chen Kuan-Tai, Ti Lung, Wilson Tong, Ho Kei-Cheong

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: High.


The Spiritual Boxer marks the directorial debut of one of the most influential figures in all of martial arts movie history: Lau Kar-Leung. Along with frequent partner Tang Chia, Lau began work at the Shaw studio choreographing Shaw’s first color martial arts film: Temple of the Red Lotus — a job they secured after pioneering Hong Kong’s first wirework in the Great Wall film The Jade Bow. Over the next 10 years, Lau’s collaborations with Chang Cheh resulted in a slew of iconic and lasting martial arts films that defined the genre. Lau’s goal throughout his film work was to bring more true-to-life representations of martial arts to the screen, and this ambition eventually led to Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle of films. These films represented the closest Lau had come to realizing his dreams, and his strong, definite ideas led to a falling out with Chang Cheh during the filming of Disciples of Shaolin (though I’ve also seen it cited as being during Marco Polo, which Lau is not credited on). Producer Mona Fong then invited Lau Kar-Leung to return from Chang’s Film Co. in Taiwan to direct a movie of his own at the Shaw Brothers Studio in Hong Kong. Obviously, he took the offer and The Spiritual Boxer was the result.

The film begins near the end of the Qing dynasty with an intro showcasing the history of the “spiritual boxer,” a martial artist who could become invincible to all weapons after being infused with spirits of legend. Chen Kuan-Tai and Ti Lung make wonderful cameos as the spiritual boxers showing off their skills to the Empress Dowager Cixi, but the film isn’t about them, or this time, or even a spiritual boxer of the same ilk; it’s actually about a young apprentice, Hsiao Chien (Wong Yu), who travels the land with Master Chi Keung (Kong Yeung) performing spiritual boxing rituals. What their audiences don’t know is that they are just performers trying to earn a living from the reputation of the spiritual boxers, and when this trickery doesn’t go as planned it leads to much of the film’s conflict & comedy.

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Top 10 1990s Jackie Chan Films

At the beginning of my ’80s Jackie list, I made a claim about how the ’80s were easily Jackie’s best decade. After watching all the ’90s stuff, though, I don’t know if I can definitively say that. Both decades offer phenomenal work from Jackie and his incredible stunt team, and each decade’s films are unique and engaging for different reasons. Where the ’80s saw Jackie defining his iconic style, the ’90s saw him take that style and push it forward in incredible ways. It’s a “Godfather or Godfather II” situation, for sure. But no matter which decade you prefer, we’re all winners because we get to watch them all!

But enough jibber jabber, here’s my top 10!


#10 Police Story 4: First Strike (1996)
Directed by Stanley Tong
Reviewed August 29, 2016

I’m pretty surprised to make this list with First Strike all the way down at the #10 spot. This was always a go-to favorite when I was a teenager, and the ladder fight is one of the most fun fight sequences in the history of film. The action is still as great as ever, but the rest of the movie is far from great. It all evens out to make for an entertaining movie, but as a complete package it just can’t stand up to the other films on this list. Hahahaha, that’s not exactly the kind of ringing endorsement I try to write for these lists, but that’s all you’re getting! But if you love Jackie and you haven’t seen it, don’t be dissuaded by my jaded paragraph!

#9 Mr. Nice Guy (1997)
Directed by Sammo Hung
Reviewed September 12, 2016

Re-watching Mr. Nice Guy was a highlight of writing the Jackie reviews. I hadn’t seen it since I was a teenager, and for whatever reason my only recollection of it was that I “didn’t really like it.” Watching it again reminded me of the absolutely incredible fight at the construction site, easily one of the most re-watched fights of my teens. How could I have forgotten this? The rest of the movie is thin on story, but it moves at a great pace and it’s full of spectacular action (plus a wonderful cameo from Sammo Hung). Definitely worth your time!
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Drunken Master II (1994)

drunkenmaster2_12Drunken Master II [醉拳II] (1994)
AKA The Legend of Drunken Master

Starring Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Ti Lung, Felix Wong Yat-Wah, Lau Kar-Leung, Cheung Chi-Gwong, Ken Lo, Ho Sung-Pak, Hon Yee-Sang, Hoh Wing-Fong, Andy Lau, Bill Tung, Chin Ka-Lok

Directed by Lau Kar-Leung

Expectations: C’mon, it’s Drunken Master 2! I know it’s awesome!

fourstar


I can confirm that love at first sight exists, because from the moment I first laid eyes on Drunken Master II, nearly 20 years ago, I was completely and utterly smitten. Time has changed many things in my life, but time has not diminished the power of Drunken Master II even a smidgen. It is every bit the amazing film it always was, and re-watching for the first time in many years brought back every enthusiastic feeling I ever had about the film. Heaven is indeed real, and it is watching Drunken Master II! Hyperbole aside, Drunken Master II is great and if you love martial arts films, I don’t think there’s any way for you not to love this one.

The film begins with Wong Kei-Ying (Ti Lung), his son Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) and their assistant Tso (Cheung Chi-Gwong) waiting to board a train home to Canton. Fei-Hung doesn’t think they should be forced to pay taxes on the ginseng root they are bringing back for a patient. Tso tells him that British consulate members don’t need to pay the duties, so when a group of them go past, Fei-Hung swaps the ginseng box with an identical box of theirs.

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The Twin Dragons (1992)

TwinDragons_1The Twin Dragons [雙龍會] (1992)
AKA Brother vs. Brother, Double Dragon, Duel of Dragons, When Dragons Collide, Dragon Duo, When Dragons Meet

Starring Jackie Chan, Maggie Cheung, Nina Li Chi, Teddy Robin Kwan, Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting, Wang Lung-Wei, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, David Chiang, Lau Kar-Leung, Wong Jing, Chor Yuen, Guy Lai Ying-Chau

Directed by Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam

Expectations: Moderate.

threehalfstar


I first saw The Twin Dragons as a teenager. It never really captured my attention; I think I only watched it once or twice. There were other, better Jackie films to watch over and over. Roughly 20 years later, I didn’t remember anything about it. I was able to experience the film with completely fresh eyes because of this, and I loved it. What really helped this time, too, is that now I have a more expansive knowledge of Hong Kong film, so I actually noticed that there were a TON of cameos from luminaries of the Hong Kong film industry. I’m sure I recognized Lau Kar-Leung back in the day, but now I noted the subtext of the scene in which his confident, classic style confronts the lunacy of Wong Jing. Recognizing these moments makes the film play much better and much funnier than I ever remember it being, to the point that the lack of action doesn’t even matter… especially when the film then caps itself off with such an incredible explosion of action!

Twin boys are born in a Hong Kong hospital to a Chinese couple visiting from the US. In a wonderful series of crazy Hong Kong action moments, a criminal takes one of the twins hostage and the infant finds its way into the hands of a childless, alcoholic woman who raises it as her own. Meanwhile, when the missing child was never found, the couple returned to New York and raised the other twin as an only child. The Hong Kong twin is named Die Hard (in my copy’s subtitles), and he a martial artist who works as a shady mechanic who likes to take his customers’ cars out to race with. The twin in New York, Ma Yau, is raised with a thorough education and becomes a world-class pianist and conductor. Ma Yau has recently arrived for a performance in Hong Kong, leading to mistaken identity hijinks and hilarity.

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Seven Swords (2005)

Seven Swords [七劍] (2005)

Starring Donnie Yen, Leon Lai, Charlie Yeung, Lu Yi, Lau Kar-Leung, Sun Hong-Lei, Kim Soo-Yeon, Michael Wong Man-Tak, Chi Kuan-Chun, Jason Pai Piao, Duncan Lai, Tai Li-Wu, Zhang Jing-Chu, Huang Peng, Ma Jing-Wu

Directed by Tsui Hark

Expectations: Moderate. It seems to have a lot going for it, but I don’t want to get too excited.


Back in my teenage years, Tsui Hark was one of the mystical, incredible directors that I loved. He was responsible for some of the best films Hong Kong had to offer, most notably the Once Upon a Time in China films and Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain (among many, many others). Like lots of the big Hong Kong directors though, he emigrated over to the US in the late 90s, hoping to find grand success on the larger American stage. Instead, he found heartache and disappointment with a pair of underperforming JCVD films, Double Team and Knock Off. To be fair, I’ve only seen half of Double Team and the first few minutes of Knock Off, something I plan to remedy at some point, but from these small bits one might guess he had lost his knack for filmmaking. Seven Swords is a few years later, but it proves why Hong Kong filmmakers should stay in Hong Kong (unless an American studio is willing to give them free rein, which is never going to happen).

On the surface, Seven Swords is yet another play on the Seven Samurai framework. A helpless village is being assaulted by bandits and they need the help of seven rogue swordsman and all that. Here it’s slightly tweaked where the Emperor has sent out an edict where all practitioners of martial arts are to be killed. General Fire-Wind and his brutal army are parading around the land, killing and beheading whoever fits the bill. They happen upon a remote village and quickly plan their assault. Two of the villagers, along with veteran martial arts choreographer and all-around Hong Kong legend Lau Kar-Leung, venture out to Mount Heaven in search of some help from the hermit swordsmen residing there. So yeah, the setup is very Seven Samurai, but the rest of the movie is anything but.

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Twelve Deadly Coins (1969)

Twelve Deadly Coins [十二金錢鏢] (1969)

Starring Ching Li, Lo Lieh, Tien Feng, Jeng Man-Jing, Fang Mian, Wu Ma, Lau Kar-Leung, Chiu Hung, Tang Chia, Lee Pang-Fei, Lee Ho, Lam Jing, Wong Ching Ho, Ho Ming-Chung

Directed by Hsu Cheng Hung

Expectations: Low, not a big fan of Hsu Cheng Hung.


This one goes out to all the melodrama fans in the audience. If you can dig it thick and extravagant, then Twelve Deadly Coins is gonna hit you right in the sweet spot. If on the other hand you favor a Chang Cheh style, balls-out action picture, then you’re going to be disappointed. It’s important to know this going in, and because of this, I was able to set myself up accordingly and have a good time with it despite my distinct preference for the action side of things.

Lo Lieh and Ho Ming-Chung play students of Tien Feng and his twelve deadly coin technique. Ho is too cocky for his own good when his master gives him the task to transport 20,000 taels of gold across country to pay the county for something I didn’t quite catch. Lo Lieh tries to help steer him in the right direction, fearing an ambush hiding around the next corner. Sure enough, as soon as they take the path Lo Lieh advises Ho not to, dudes in black burst out of the ground and assault the convoy. This leads them to immediately suspect Lo Lieh of being a traitor, and the real drama and intrigue begins.

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