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.
#8 The Fantastic Magic Baby (1975)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed May 5, 2017
Compared to the traditional Shaw films, The Fantastic Magic Baby is an oddity. It throws away most of what you know about movies, as it actively attempts to preserve the Chinese art of the Peking Opera. Shot entirely on sound stages, the film takes the precise stage movements of the opera and transports them into a cinematic world. The Peking Opera is traditionally performed without a lot of stage dressing or props, with the emphasis on the performers’ movements to convey place and much of the story. The Fantastic Magic Baby replicates this wonderfully, while also allowing the story to play out in the fantasy world of Journey to the West. The actors are primarily skilled Peking Opera performers, and their physical performances are outstanding at bringing the characters to life. It’s unlike any Shaw Brothers movie I’ve seen. Future Venom Phillip Kwok also debuts in a small role, with his starring debut arriving shortly thereafter in Marco Polo.
On disc, The Fantastic Magic Baby 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.
#7 The Savage Five (1974)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed July 1, 2016
I get the feeling that The Savage Five is viewed as a minor work in Chang Cheh’s filmography, but it’s easily good enough to stand beside his other triumphs of the era. I suppose when you crank out 12 movies in a two-year period, certain titles are bound to be pushed to the side. 🙂 The Savage Five is one of Chang Cheh’s best examples of the dramatic action film, pulling deep emotions from the audience with the film’s absolutely pitch-perfect marriage of image and music. The action isn’t too shabby either, and with the star-studded cast, this one’s a no-brainer. Against the Shaolin Cycle films, it is clearly inferior, but that doesn’t make The Savage Five any less of an outstanding piece of work.
On disc, The Savage Five is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD, which is unavailable everywhere I checked. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#6 Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed December 16, 2016
Speaking of the Shaolin Cycle, Five Shaolin Masters is the first of these films to hit the list. It’s not a film that tells an especially complex story — it’s literally not much more than “We have to beat these guys” — but in the hands of Chang Cheh this actually turns out to be one of the film’s major strengths. The streamlined plot allows us to focus on the training and the circumstances that the characters find themselves in. It is a story of survival for these five Shaolin masters, and it’s an absolute blast of kung fu fun.
On disc, Five Shaolin Masters is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD which is still available at DDDHouse and YesAsia. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#5 The Super Inframan (1975)
Directed by Hua Shan
Reviewed April 7, 2017
In terms of precise choreography and emotional arcs, The Super Inframan can’t compete with the other films on this list. But those are not the only meaningful components that make up an enjoyable film experience, and The Super Inframan absolutely delivers one of the most fun and entertaining experiences in the entire Shaw Brothers catalog. A variation on the Japanese tokusatsu genre, The Super Inframan was the first Hong Kong superhero film. It’s a crime against cinema that there was never a sequel to this film, but honestly, there’s so much packed into this one that it’s more than enough to satisfy again and again for years to come.
On disc, The Super Inframan is available on an out-of-print (and currently overpriced) US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD which is still available at Amazon and DDDHouse. There is also a HK Blu-ray releasing July 14th, available at DDDHouse or YesAsia, and it is highly probable that 88 Films in the UK might release a Region B Blu-ray as part of their excellent 88 Asia line. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#4 Disciples of Shaolin (1975)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed March 24, 2017
Like The Savage Five, Disciples of Shaolin is a wonderful example of Chang Cheh’s ability to pair deep, evocative character work with some of the best action of the era. In fact, Disciples of Shaolin may be his finest moment of this; I felt so strongly about the characters that I was nearly brought to tears with a single shot towards the end of the film. On the surface, the shot isn’t too notable, but with the entirety of the film’s build behind it, it is a shot of immense power. One of Chang Cheh’s most sophisticated works, Disciples of Shaolin is a film that only grows better with each successive viewing.
On disc, Disciples of Shaolin is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD which is still available at DDDHouse and YesAsia. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#3 Heroes Two (1974)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed June 24, 2016
Heroes Two is the first film of the Shaolin Cycle, and it is an absolute beast. It introduced so much that would become integral to the kung fu genre, and as such it is a perfect film to illustrate why I’m enjoying going through the Shaw catalog chronologically. Out of context, the film is great, but it seems like any number of similar movies. In context, though, it is exposed to be a true revelation to the genre. It is the first film to feature the animal hand forms commonly referred to as “shapes” by die-hard fans, and it’s the first film (as far as I know) to have its main characters fighting in front of a solid, colored backdrop during the opening credits. Perhaps most importantly, though, Heroes Two was the starring debut of one of the genre’s most charming and lasting stars: Alexander Fu Sheng. If you haven’t seen it, you really must. Make sure to watch the short film on the DVD that originally preceded the film in theaters, too: Three Styles of Hung School’s Kung Fu.
On disc, Heroes Two is available on US DVD or Blu-ray from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD which is still available at DDDHouse. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#2 All Men Are Brothers (1975)
Directed by Chang Cheh & Wu Ma
Reviewed March 10, 2017
I love The Water Margin, so it should come as no surprise that All Men Are Brothers is up this high on the list. All of the Shaw films based on the classic novel are very different films from one another, in terms of style and story, and All Men Are Brothers is almost entirely focused on delivering a rousing action adventure. It also adapts the end of the novel, so there’s a grand finality that is unique to this entry. Building wonderfully on the characters developed in the preceding three films, All Men Are Brothers is everything you could want out of a sequel to The Water Margin. It’s a gore-filled action extravaganza, and it instantly became one of my favorite Shaw films.
On disc, All Men Are Brothers is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD which is still available at DDDHouse and Amazon. It was also released on Blu-ray in the US, but it’s no longer available on Amazon so I would check eBay for it, because it looks awesome on Blu-ray! Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, and other top digital platforms. It was available on Amazon Prime but for some reason it’s not right now. Try that link in the future and it might work.
#1 Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed September 16, 2016
As soon as I finished Shaolin Martial Arts, I knew it was the movie to beat for the top spot of this list. Shaw Brothers released lots of great films during 1974–1975, but for me none of them equal the power and energy contained within Shaolin Martial Arts. Artistically, it is one of Chang Cheh’s most daring and unique films, eschewing a traditional narrative and character structure to emphasize the importance of the martial arts themselves surviving the strife of the times. With intense scenes of training, nothing but the best martial performances and choreography, and one of the greatest casts ever assembled, Shaolin Martial Arts has it all.
On disc, Shaolin Martial Arts is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD, which is unavailable everywhere I checked. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.