1976 and 1977 were wonderful years for the Shaw Brothers studio, filled with an abundance of great films that made narrowing this list to 10 a challenging proposition. Wuxias, largely following the patterns set by the films of King Hu and Chang Cheh, had fallen out of favor by the early ’70s, but Chor Yuen’s 1976 film Killer Clans — and the many that followed it — injected new life and new ideas into a faded genre. Chor’s unique re-focusing of the genre towards literary adaptations and tales showcasing mental fortitude over purely physical abilities made him a driving force in the industry, and the next monumental figure in the history of the wuxia genre. Meanwhile, Lau Kar-Leung released his next two films during these years, pushing the realistic kung fu seen in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle films to new heights. During this period, Chang Cheh was also forced to reckon with the fact that he was no longer the driving force of Hong Kong action filmmaking, as his time in Taiwan came to a close.
These years also saw the rise of other Hong Kong cinema luminaries outside of the Shaw system. Sammo Hung’s first directorial effort, The Iron-Fisted Monk, was a huge hit, Richard Ng became a star with both the #1 & #2 film of 1977 (John Woo’s The Pilferer’s Progress & Karl Maka’s Winner Takes All!), and the Hui Brothers continued their blockbuster dominance with 1976’s The Private Eyes. Jackie Chan was also on the verge of superstardom with the looming release of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow a few months into 1978, but during 1976–1977 he was still making a string of films for Lo Wei. Other non-Shaw fan favorites released during these years include: The 18 Bronzemen, One-Armed Boxer Vs The Flying Guillotine (Master of the Flying Guillotine), The Secret Rivals, The Hot, the Cool and the Vicious, The Invincible Armour, Snuff-Bottle Connection, Broken Oath, and many, many more. With this introduction, I hope to paint a brief picture of these years in Hong Kong cinema, both to refresh memories or to spur new fans to dive deeper. 🙂
As usual, I’ve included links to iTunes/Amazon/DDDHouse for easy access if you’re looking to get the films. The availability is current as of the posting of this list. eBay is always a good option, as well, if my links don’t turn up any results. 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 in the Shaw Brothers Chronological review series. You can find 1976 here and 1977 here.
OK, OK, let’s get to the list!
#10 Judgement of an Assassin (1977)
Directed by Sun Chung
Reviewed August 10, 2018
Judgement of an Assassin was Sun Chung’s first wuxia since 1972’s The Devil’s Mirror, a film I absolutely adore. Sun’s return exists in a middle ground between the brooding darkness of Chor Yuen and the comic book sensibilities of Chang Cheh’s The Brave Archer, delivering fun and exciting choreography in a wonderful package. It feels like an underseen film, and that should definitely not be the case. With its near-perfect combo of entertaining action and a beautifully structured story, this is a movie that all Shaw Brothers fans should see.
Judgement of an Assassin is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD or VCD. Check Amazon or eBay, and keep your fingers crossed that Celestial may release the film digitally sometime in the future.
#9 The Shaolin Avengers (1976)
Directed by Chang Cheh (with Wu Ma)
Reviewed December 8, 2017
The Shaolin Avengers is top-notch Shaolin Cycle; a fantastic movie that cohesively combines the stories of Fang Shih-Yu and Hu Huei-Chien into one thrilling, entertaining package. Its greatness lies in its structure; the film opens with its finale, fading in and out into flashbacks that show how our heroes and villains all came to this particular battle. The structure removes a lot of the tension inherent in a traditional revenge story, but this is the point. Instead, I pondered the nature of life, how small moments remind you of people or places, and how important preparation is to success. The Shaolin Avengers is a film of pure entertainment that builds up more of the Shaolin mythology of the earlier films, or in other words, it’s every thing I could want out of a Shaolin Cycle film.
On disc, The Shaolin Avengers is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD or VCD. Check Amazon or eBay. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#8 Challenge of the Masters (1976)
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Reviewed November 17, 2017
Challenge of the Masters was one of the few Shaw Brothers movies I saw when I first got into Hong Kong film during the ’90s, and it remains one of my favorites. The mix of philosophy, dope choreography and a cast stacked with tons of favorites make it an absolute must see for any martial arts film fan. Lau Kar-Leung’s directorial debut, The Spiritual Boxer, introduced us to his basic approach to filmmaking and the martial arts, but Challenge of the Masters is the first real representation of the style and philosophy that underpins the majority of his work (and the martial arts themselves).
On disc, Challenge of the Masters is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD or VCD. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#7 The Sentimental Swordsman (1977)
Directed by Chor Yuen
Reviewed August 31, 2018
To craft one film of lasting appeal in a single year is a commendable feat, but Chor Yuen made five in 1977, which is truly incredible. The Sentimental Swordsman is the first Chor Yuen to make the list, but it won’t be the last! 😀 The Sentimental Swordsman is a great film that stands out among the vast ocean of wonderful Chor Yuen wuxias with its exceptional story and heartfelt emotions. The action is more straight-ahead than his usual style, as well, further endearing the film to me. It immediately became one of my favorite Chor Yuen films upon seeing it. If you enjoy wuxia, this is a no-brainer; y’gotta see it!
On disc, The Sentimental Swordsman is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD or VCD. Check Amazon or eBay. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#6 Clans of Intrigue (1977)
Directed by Chor Yuen
Reviewed May 18, 2018
Clans of Intrigue was Chor Yuen’s first film of 1977, and it continued his excellent exploration of the martial world. It’s a stunning film that delivers thrilling action alongside a wonderfully twisting mystery, imbued with a martial energy that hints at the raw power and skill held by the players. When there isn’t action on-screen, this tension brews just under the surface; when it breaks free, even in the briefest exchanges, choreographers Huang Pei-Chih and Tang Chia deliver electric results. Highly recommended to fans of wuxia and mystery, and honestly this would probably be a great movie to introduce your non-wuxia friends to the genre.
On disc, Clans of Intrigue is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD or VCD. Check Amazon (DVD / VCD) or eBay, and keep your fingers crossed that Celestial may release the film digitally sometime in the future.
#5 Executioners from Shaolin (1977)
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
Reviewed March 23, 2018
Shaolin Temple marked the end of Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Cycle, but just a few months later Lau Kar-Leung released his first Shaolin film: Executioners from Shaolin. Lau is fundamentally a different style of director than Chang, so instead of simple revenge, Executioners from Shaolin also tackles the evolution of Hung Gar and the importance of its lineage. The film delivers the goods on comedic, dramatic and action fronts, with a career-defining performance from Lo Lieh as Pai Mei, and Chen Kuan-Tai & Lily Li have rarely been better. Truly a must-see film for all martial arts film fans.
On disc, Executioners from Shaolin is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD or VCD. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#4 Boxer Rebellion (1976)
Directed by Chang Cheh
Reviewed August 25, 2017
From the sprawling scale to Chang’s refined and nuanced storytelling, Boxer Rebellion is one of Chang Cheh’s finest achievements. It’s definitely not as fun or entertaining as a lot of his movies, but that’s not the point here. Boxer Rebellion delivers a compelling look back at the uprising of the boxers, a movement during the waning years of the Qing dynasty where hundreds of thousands of nationalistic Chinese citizens wished to expel foreigners and end their influence on the country. Chi Kuan-Chun and Fu Sheng give top-shelf performances as our leads, and the production itself — the highest budgeted Hong Kong film at the time — is on another level compared to its contemporaries. For anyone interested in world cinema, Chang Cheh, or Chinese history, Boxer Rebellion is a riveting, one-of-a-kind movie from the Shaw studio.
#3 The Battle Wizard (1977)
Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li
Reviewed August 24, 2018
Some titles evoke worlds of wonder, others are dull and inspire confusion, but The Battle Wizard brings about very specific expectations of a magically adept sorcerer casting furious spells. Much to my delight, that is pretty much exactly what the film delivers (within the context of how magic is portrayed in the wuxia genre). Wuxia comes in varying degrees of fantasy, and The Battle Wizard is full-on, balls-to-the-walls fantasy. If that’s your thing, you will be hard-pressed to find a better example from this particular era. Chor Yuen’s The Web of Death comes to mind as a similarly well-realized vision of wuxia fantasy, but The Battle Wizard is much more wild and over the top. For me, this is a recipe for my new favorite wuxia, but your particular tastes and tolerance for late ’70s Hong Kong FX will dictate whether the film hits for you in the same way.
On disc, The Battle Wizard is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK VCD or DVD (still available at DDDHouse). Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#2 The Magic Blade (1976)
Directed by Chor Yuen
Reviewed December 29, 2017
My initial, less-than-impressed reaction to The Magic Blade almost single-handedly planted the seed that grew into my chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers martial arts catalog. To arrive back around to this film, seven years later, and regard it as a masterpiece of wuxia filmmaking is a testament to the power that context can have over one’s impression of an older film. Chor Yuen’s revamp of the wuxia genre brought a new tone and focus, and with The Magic Blade he also delivered an absolutely breathtaking action film filled with some of the most memorable characters of all time. I defy anyone to watch this movie and forget Devil Grandma! The Magic Blade is a stunning piece of wuxia cinema that every fan should watch once (or twice 🙂 ) in their lives.
On disc, The Magic Blade is available on US DVD from Amazon, and an out-of-print Region 3 HK DVD or VCD. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
#1 Pursuit of Vengeance (1977)
Directed by Chor Yuen
Reviewed September 21, 2018
I expected to enjoy Pursuit of Vengeance — a sequel to The Magic Blade — but the film far surpassed every expectation I had. Pursuit of Vengeance is the closest I’ve seen Chor Yuen come to making a wuxia romp. The pace is relentless and the fun literally never stops until the final freeze frame, but it is the film’s inclusion of comedy that separates it from the pack of Chor Yuen favorites. The martial world is just as dangerous as it ever was, filled with assassins around every corner, but now it’s as funny and charming as it is tense. To boil it down: it’s basically my perfect ’70s wuxia, exhibiting all the qualities I love about the genre (except for wild, FX-driven thrills, but this film doesn’t need them). If you consider yourself a fan of Shaw Brothers films, wuxia, Ti Lung, Lau Wing, Lo Lieh, or all the above and then some, then you simply must see Pursuit of Vengeance. I think it plays better after seeing The Magic Blade and The Sentimental Swordsman, but it can also stand on its own just fine.
On disc, Pursuit of Vengeance is currently only available on an out-of-print Region 3 DVD or VCD. Check Amazon or eBay. Digitally it is available for rental/purchase at iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other top digital platforms.
So, Shaw Brothers fans, what are your favorites from 1976–1977?
Pick up to 10 favorites in the poll below to show me just how wrong I am!
Or sound off in the comments below that, which are always open and accepting your thoughts!