Top 10 1976–1977 Shaw Brothers Martial Arts Films

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.

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Pursuit of Vengeance (1977)

Pursuit of Vengeance [明月刀雪夜殲仇] (1977)
AKA Moonlight Blade: Vengeance on a Snowy Night (literal translation of Chinese title)

Starring Ti Lung, Lau Wing, Lo Lieh, Paul Chang Chung, Derek Yee, Shih Szu, Wai Wang, Ku Kuan-Chung, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chen Ping, Lam Fai-Wong, Fan Mei-Sheng, Wa Lun, Chan Shen, Ngaai Fei, Yue Wing, Liu Wai, Stephan Yip Tin-Hang, Keung Hon, Wong Ching-Ho, Shum Lo, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Jamie Luk Kim-Ming, Mama Hung

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: High. Can Chor Yuen go five for five in 1977?


I expected to enjoy Pursuit of Vengeance, but the film surprised me and outdid every expectation I had for it. In researching the previous Chor Yuen films based on Gu Long’s Little Li Flying Dagger series (The Sentimental Swordsman & The Magic Blade), I read a basic plot synopsis of the novel that Pursuit of Vengeance is based on, Bordertown Prodigal (邊城浪子, Biancheng Langzi). It mentioned that the main characters, Ye Kai (Lau Wing) and Fu Hong-Xue (Ti Lung), both had love interests, and that the events of the book are what leads Fu to becoming the disillusioned, hard-boiled swordsman we see in The Magic Blade. So naturally I expected some sort of typical romantic storyline within the dangerous Chor Yuen martial world. The film is far removed from this, though, with nary a single love interest to be found. The film definitely does not need them, but because I was expecting it to figure in somewhere along the line, I spent the film looking for the seeds of this non-existent sub-plot and wound up admiring how cleverly plotted and perfectly paced the film is without it.

Like any good wuxia, Pursuit of Vengeance is full of twists that shouldn’t be revealed in wholesale by the likes of me. The Wan Ma clan is inviting swordsmen to their school, and they refuse to take no for an answer. When Fu Hong-Xue says he will not visit, the emissary for the clan says that he will remain there in the road, waiting for Fu’s acceptance, as long as it takes. Of course, this can’t be an innocent gesture, and Fu is too savvy to agree. Ye Kai is also invited, as are others, and it becomes clear that a specific group of people are being pulled together by the Wan Ma clan. What is their purpose? Who is in pursuit of vengeance? You’ll have to watch the movie! It’s too good for me to delve any deeper into the story, suffice it to say that many things are not what they seem and it will take our heroes’ every wit and sense to survive.

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The Sentimental Swordsman (1977)

The Sentimental Swordsman [多情劍客無情劍] (1977)
AKA Sword of Emotion

Starring Ti Lung, Ching Li, Derek Yee, Yueh Hua, Candice Yu On-On, Fan Mei-Sheng, Ku Feng, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ngaai Fei, Yuen Wah, Ku Wen-Chung, Cheng Miu, Yeung Chi-Hing, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Wang Sha, Shum Lo, Lee Sau-Kei, Fung Hak-On, Alan Chui Chung-San, Chiang Nan

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Been looking forward to this one for a while.


Partway through The Sentimental Swordsman, I thought about how it was Chor Yuen’s fourth film of 1977 (of five total). To craft one film of lasting appeal in a single year is a commendable feat, but to make at least four of them is truly incredible. I’ve written similar things about the high standards and prolific genius of Chang Cheh, but not until encountering this period of Chor Yuen’s output has any director come close to replicating Chang’s feat. The Sentimental Swordsman isn’t my favorite of Chor’s 1977 films — that honor still rests with Clans of Intrigue — but I do feel it’s the most well-crafted of the group, with Jade Tiger a close runner-up. They’re all made with a similarly high level of quality, though, allowing fans to endlessly debate which wuxia should be crowned leader of the Chor Yuen martial world.

The film opens with our hero, Li Xunhuan (Ti Lung), traveling by horseback across the snow-covered landscape, accompanied by his trusty servant Chuan Jia (Fan Mei-Sheng). They have lived peacefully outside the martial world for the past 10 years, but are returning upon hearing the Plum Blossom Bandit is back to his old tricks. Things get interesting when Li meets Ah Fei (Derek Yee), a wandering swordsman, and the two strike up a fast friendship. While these new friends dine at an inn, the feared swordsman duo of Black Snake (Alan Chui Chung-San) and White Snake (Fung Hak-On) attempt to rob another set of diners: a security bureau entourage transporting the Gold Threaded Vest, an item promising immunity from the Plum Blossom Bandit’s deadly darts. Ah Fei thwarts them and takes the vest, sending the martial world into a frenzy to identify the Plum Blossom Bandit and recover the vest.

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Death Duel (1977)

Death Duel [三少爺的劍] (1977)

Starring Derek Yee, Ling Yun, Candice Yu On-On, Ku Feng, Ou-Yang Sha-Fei, Chen Ping, David Chiang, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ku Kuan-Chung, Ngaai Fei, Gam Lau, Fan Mei-Sheng, Teresa Ha Ping, Yeung Chi-Hing, Lam Fai-Wong, Liu Wai, Cheng Miu, Shum Lo, Yueh Hua, Ti Lung, Lo Lieh, Nancy Yen Nan-See, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Chan Shen, Yuen Wah

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: High. I like these Chor Yuen wuxias.


I’m not exactly sure what I expected going into Death Duel, but I felt off-kilter throughout most of the movie. I assumed it would be another in the lineup of great Chor Yuen adaptations from Gu Long novels, but I found it to be a somewhat poorly structured tale, and the character cameos from Chor’s previous films really threw me off. I’m not sure my experience is entirely the movie’s fault, though, as Death Duel is never boring or anything other than completely entertaining and fun; it all just felt sort of odd. I have a sneaking suspicion that like The Magic Blade, I’ll eventually re-watch the movie, love it, and wonder what I was thinking when I wrote this. In any case, Death Duel is both a great Chor Yuen film that delivers similar thrills to his previous mid-’70s wuxias, and a film in need of some focus.

Death Duel starts stunningly, though. Based on a relatively new story — serialized from June 1975 to March 1976, sharing the film’s Chinese title 三少爺的劍 (which translates to Sword of the Third Young Master) — the tale begins with Yen Shih-San (Ling Yun), as he arrives in a copse of trees at sunset. He’s called a meeting of elite swordsmen to test his martial skills, challenging the entire group at once and boasting that he will kill them all within 13 sword strikes. With this completed, only one man stands in Yen’s way to the top of the martial world: The 3rd Master, also known as the God of Swords. The 3rd Master is said to have an invincible sword technique, and Yen hopes to test his own invincible technique against it in a bid for the spot at the top of the ever-moving, tumultuous martial world. But when Yen tracks down the 3rd Master, he only finds his coffin. For all intents and purposes, Yen is now the greatest swordsman alive, but without challenging the reigning champion, what is this by-default glory worth?

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Jade Tiger (1977)

Jade Tiger [白玉老虎] (1977)

Starring Ti Lung, Yueh Hua, Ku Feng, Lily Li Li-Li, Fan Mei-Sheng, Lo Lieh, Derek Yee, Shih Szu, Chiang Nan, Hsiao Yao, Ng Hong-Sang, Shut Chung-Tin, Yeung Chi-Hing, Shum Lo, Ngaai Fei, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Johnny Wang Lung-Wei, Wang Hsieh, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Cheng Miu, Fanny Leung Maan-Yee

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Pretty high.


For Chor Yuen’s second film of 1977, he once again returned to the fertile literary work of Gu Long. The film adapts a standalone novel of the same Chinese title, 白玉老虎, often translated as The White Jade Tiger. Where this film differs is that Gu Long himself co-wrote the screenplay, and while he wrote nearly 30 movies in his career, this was his only direct collaboration with Chor Yuen. Jade Tiger was Chor’s favorite of his Gu Long adaptations, citing its focus on sacrifice and how it shapes the lead character, Zhao Wuji (Ti Lung), over the course of the film. Perhaps the clear, emotional resonance of the themes is a product of this collaboration; who better knows the ins and outs of a work than its author? Whatever the case may have been, Jade Tiger is a largely successful film that is sure to please fans of wuxia cinema.

It is Zhao Wuji’s wedding day, but instead of getting ready for the occasion, he’s on a rocky outcropping dueling Dugu Sheng (Norman Chu). Dugu offers to fight on another day so that Zhao won’t risk dying on his wedding day, but Zhao would rather die a bachelor and leave no troubled widow behind. Zhao also respects the rules of the martial world implicitly, so honoring the fight was never a choice, but it is these deeply held tenets that will ultimately challenge Zhao to the most difficult struggle of his life. The Tang clan has always been at odds with the Zhao’s, and when they do not receive an invitation to Wuji’s wedding, they don’t take it as a simple slight. This act of disrespect is a catalyst to the film’s tumultuous plot, bringing the long-simmering Zhao/Tang fued to its boiling point.

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Clans of Intrigue (1977)

Clans of Intrigue [楚留香] (1977)

Starring Ti Lung, Yueh Hua, Li Ching, Nora Miao, Betty Pei Ti, Ling Yun, Tin Ching, Nancy Yen Nan-See, Chan Sze-Kai, Lau Wai-Ling, Chong Lee, Ku Feng, Ku Wen-Chung, Cheng Miu, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Ku Kuan-Chung, Chan Shen, Teresa Ha Ping, Yeung Chi-Hing

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Super high.


Clans of Intrigue was Chor Yuen’s first of five films released in 1977, and if it is anything to go by, I am in for some real treats. While Clans of Intrigue isn’t the greatest action film, it’s one of the most engrossing and well-plotted wuxias I’ve seen. It’s as much of a mystery film as it is a wuxia, and as a fan of both genres this was a dream come true. I’ve always heard that Chor Yuen was an influential director in the wuxia genre, but after seeing this run of Killer Clans, The Magic Blade, The Web of Death and Clans of Intrigue, I have a newfound appreciation for him. Within these four films he laid the basic groundwork for the wuxias of the ’80s, redefining the genre beyond the precedent set earlier by King Hu and Chang Cheh. Chor Yuen is the link between the two eras, and his work is nothing short of brilliant.

Clans of Intrigue begins with a string of three mysterious murders. Someone clad in red and wearing a mask assassinates the masters of three martial arts clans by using the ultra-poison Magic Water. Meanwhile, the Thief Master Chu Liu Hsiang (Ti Lung) is hosting a meeting aboard his boat. Nan Gong Lin (Tin Ching), the head of Beggar’s Gang, and the Ingenious Monk Wu Hua (Yueh Hua) are his guests, but mid-way through their meal, another arrives. Kung Nan Yen (Nora Miao) from Palace Magic Water has come to arrest Chu for stealing the Magic Water and killing the masters. She reasons that he must be the one that did it, because only the Thief Master could have gotten inside the palace and taken the Magic Water back out with him. He assures her that he is innocent, and she gives him one month to find out who really did it, otherwise they will kill him. And just like that, the game is afoot!

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The Web of Death (1976)

The Web of Death [五毒天羅] (1976)

Starring Yueh Hua, Lo Lieh, Ching Li, Wang Hsieh, Angela Yu Chien, Wong Chung, Lily Li Li-Li, Cheng Miu, Ku Feng, Kong Yeung, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Chan Shen, Chan Mei-Hua

Directed by Chor Yuen

Expectations: Excited to see another Chor Yuen movie.


Chor Yuen re-defined the wuxia film genre with Killer Clans and The Magic Blade, but The Web of Death is more of a step in a different direction. Elements introduced in the previous films (like the focus on survival and the true danger of the martial world) are still present and relevant in The Web of Death, but they are no longer the primary focus. In The Web of Death, Chor Yuen goes full-on fantasy, delivering a tale of magical powers and deadly clan rivalries that could only come out of ’70s Hong Kong. If the previous films were about avoiding subtle tricks like a poisoned drink, The Web of Death is about more overt threats such as a trapdoor that opens into an acid bath. This move towards fantasy is significant, though, as Shaw’s prior wuxia films always contained elements of fantasy but were never all-out extravaganzas. In this way, The Web of Death is like a bridge between the early days of trap-laden, studio-bound wuxias and the fantasy heights the genre attained in the ’80s and ’90s. As a huge fan of those later offerings, I can’t help but love The Web of Death just a little bit more for pushing the genre in that direction.

The Five Venoms Clan is in possession of the most fearsome weapon in the martial world: the Five Venoms Spider. It may look like nothing more than a smoking lantern adorned with a red spider handle on its top, but it’s actually a cage for the fearsome spider within. This spider is capable of incredible things, including deadly lasers and a poisonous mist. Nothing is known that can defeat the power of the spider, or even defend against it. If your opponent wields the spider it’s basically time to say your goodbyes, if you only had the time. The spider is so deadly that even the Five Venom Clan itself is scared of it. They lock it away in an unknown location, and there it stays until a few members of the clan want to take control of the martial world at an upcoming tournament with it. The mere idea that the spider may re-emerge in the martial world sends shock waves through the clans. Fei Ying Xiang (Yueh Hua) of Wudang — or Wu-Tang if you’d prefer — and his brother Fei Ying-Jie (Wong Chung) are dispatched by their master to learn of the spider’s whereabouts and stop its use. The brothers split up to search separately, and the twisting, dense adventure begins.

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