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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The Battle Wizard (1977)

The Battle Wizard [天龍八部] (1977)

Starring Danny Lee, Tanny Tien Ni, Lin Chen-Chi, Shut Chung-Tin, Chiang Tao, Keung Hon, Wai Wang, Si Wai, San Shu-Wa, Gam Lau, Teresa Ha Ping, Leung Seung-Wan, Norman Chu Siu-Keung, Yeung Chak-Lam, Ko Hung, Hung Ling-Ling, Hao Li-Jen

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Excited because that title is fantastic.

On the general scale:

On the B-movie scale:


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.

The Battle Wizard is based on the Jin Yong novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (天龍八部), originally serialized from 1963–1966. Both works share the same Chinese title, which has apparently given translators a rough time over the years, with one alternate translation reading Eight Books of the Heavenly Dragon. No matter what you call it, The Battle Wizard runs a very slim 73 minutes, so it may come as a surprise that the novel is actually Jin Yong’s second longest work, only just shy of the character count of The Deer and the Cauldron. This is somewhat misleading, though, as Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is broken into three separate, but interwoven stories, and The Battle Wizard is only attempting to adapt the first of these. Also, like previous Jin Yong adaptations, The Battle Wizard feels closer to a comic book than to traditional wuxias or Chor Yuen’s Gu Long films.

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The Naval Commandos (1977)

The Naval Commandos [海軍突擊隊] (1977)

Starring Lau Wing, Chi Kuan-Chun, David Chiang, Alexander Fu Sheng, Shih Szu, Ti Lung, Bruce Tong Yim-Chaan, Chiang Sheng, Phillip Kwok Chun-Fung, Lu Feng, An Ping, Woo Kei, Shan Mao, Lee Sau-Kei, Chu Jing, Kwok San-Hing, Lam Fai-Wong, David Tang Wei

Directed by Chang Cheh (with Pao Hsueh-Li, Wu Ma, and Liu Wei-Bin)

Expectations: Pretty high.


The Naval Commandos was one of the last movies Chang Cheh made in Taiwan before returning to the Shaw studio in Hong Kong. It was produced in cooperation with Taiwan’s Central Film Company, and like 7-Man Army, the Taiwanese military assisted with the filming by providing vehicles and other tools of war to make the film realistic. This is evident throughout the film, but it is the most prominent during the film’s introduction and frame story. It depicts a training exercise simulating the many pieces involved in a successful beachfront invasion (similar to the D-Day invasion shown in Saving Private Ryan or The Big Red One). It works beautifully to set the stage for the wartime action drama to follow, as well as serving as a large-scale display of power for the Taiwanese military.

This introduction is great, and it perfectly frames the film, but the film’s primary story is far more interesting. Many years prior during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when the Chinese Navy was less advanced, the Japanese cruiser Izumo (referenced as Izuma in the subtitles) was docked in Japanese-controlled Shanghai in preparation for further attack on China. The Chinese Navy had nothing that could stand up to the Izumo in direct battle, so it is decided that a small group of men aboard a torpedo boat will try to perform a sneak attack disguised as a fishing boat. Getting there is not so easy, though, as there is a huge field of mines to be crossed and Japanese patrols to elude. It is a valiant plan in theory, but unfortunately it is derailed before it even has a chance of success. The men arrive in Shanghai, undeterred and focused on finding a new method of sinking the Izumo.

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Deadly Angels (1977)

Deadly Angels [俏探女嬌娃] (1977)
AKA Bod Squad, Women Detectives

Starring Lau Wing, Nancy Yen Nan-See, Siu Yam-Yam, Evelyn Kraft, Dana, James Nam Gung-Fan, Kim Jeong-Nan, Shut Chung-Tin, Si Wai, Cheng Miu, Lee Hoi-Sang, Chin Chun, Gam Biu, Fung Hak-On, Chan Shen, Wu Ma

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but part of that is the print quality.


In 1980s Hong Kong cinema, the “Girls with Guns” sub-genre of action was very popular. I’ve seen Deadly Angels referred to as the progenitor of the genre, and perhaps that was the case, but there were definitely similar films made prior to this (1974’s Virgins of the Seven Seas is the one that immediately comes to mind). The film’s success is also up for debate, as the Movieworld box office site lists it as the top Hong Kong film of the year, while the HK Urban Council’s 1984 book A Study of Hong Kong Cinema in the Seventies (1970-1979) doesn’t show it at all in their Top 10 Box Office listing. I have previously found slight discrepancies with Movieworld’s site, and the film’s seven-day run would correspond more accurately with a less successful film, so I’m leaning heavily towards the HK Urban Council. Whether it was successful or not, Deadly Angels has fallen into obscurity and is only available in low-quality VHS prints. I’m sure the film would play better in its original language, remastered and in its intended ratio, but the film was a co-production with the South Korean company Woosung Productions, and if I’m not mistaken Celestial hasn’t remastered any of Shaw’s major co-productions (due to licensing issues, I’m guessing).

Deadly Angels opens with a woman walking into a darkened room. A man asks, “Did you bring the stuff from Hong Kong?” She answers to the affirmative, the man walks out of the shadows and violently rips off her bra. Small packets containing diamonds are ripped out of the bra’s lining, and before the woman can leave the room, a throwing knife plunges into her neck. To combat such a violent and ruthless criminal organization, the police must come up with something special. The gang only uses showgirls to smuggle their stolen diamonds out of the country, so the team must be composed of beautiful women. Good thing the Hong Kong police has Evelyn Kraft on its force, as she has assembled a “special action squad” of three foxy females ready to take on organized crime. I didn’t catch their character names, but they are played by Nancy Yen Nan-See, Siu Yam-Yam, and Dana. Each one carries a unique weapon in addition to their firearm and martial arts expertise: a small spiked ball on a long chain, a mini-crossbow, and a slingshot disguised as a hair tie (with explosive-shot earrings)! All this adds up to a James Bond meets Charlie’s Angels meets the Shaw studio sort of thing, and it’s pretty darn entertaining at its heights.

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Heroes of the Underground (1976)

Heroes of the Underground [丁一山] (1976)

Starring Ling Yun, Ching Li, Meng Yuen-Man, Cheng Kang-Yeh, Wai Wang, Kong Yeung, Liu Wai, Tin Ching, Yeung Chak-Lam, Yeung Chi-Hing, James Ma Chim-Si, Shum Lo

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Low, but hopeful.


I knew going into Heroes of the Underground that it wasn’t a martial arts movie, but it was still quite a disappointment. I often schedule contextually interesting movies into my chronological series and I penciled this one in based on a couple of factors. For one, it was written by the same team responsible for Come Drink With Me: King Hu and Ting Shan-Hsi (presumably from the late ’60s when they worked at Shaw together). Secondly, I’ve previously reviewed every Pao Hsueh-Li film up to this point in his career, so I might as well hit this one in order while I can. Thirdly, there were a lot of movies released in 1975 that were finished earlier and held back from release, so when I learned Heroes of the Underground was completed in 1973, I thought it might be worth watching along with the others. And finally, it just looked fun; Ching Li on the poster with a machine gun was quite persuasive! Unfortunately, on every one of those points the film is a disappointment.

Heroes of the Underground tells a story of rebellion during the Second Sino-Japanese War when Japan occupied China and oppressed the people. It is a time regularly depicted on film, from dramas to classic kung fu films to modern films like Ip Man. The film’s Chinese title is merely the main character’s name, though, Ding Yi-Shan, and usually this is an indication that the movie is centered around a renowned hero from history or folk legends. I couldn’t find anything that indicated the character was drawn from fact, but I did find a 1943 Lao She novel, Cremation, which shares a few character names, a setting, and a general plotline of resistance to the Japanese occupation.

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The Taxi Driver (1975)

The Taxi Driver [的士大佬] (1975)

Starring David Chiang, Wong Chung, Lin Chen-Chi, Shut Chung-Tin, Yeung Chak-Lam, Wu Chi-Chin, Terry Lau Wai-Yue, Tung Lam, Shum Lo, Wong Ching-Ho, Lai Man, Helen Ko, Dana, Lee Pang-Fei

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.


Pao Hsueh-Li was a protege of Chang Cheh, but his films often just feel like lesser versions of something Chang Cheh would’ve made. The Taxi Driver is different. It’s the first of Pao’s films to really get under my skin, and it gives me hope that his films going forward might carry a similar style and artistic slant. The film’s focus on then-modern social problems does make it feel somewhat related to Chang’s delinquent youth pictures, but since the characters in The Taxi Driver are adults it’s more evolved. It’s actually a lot closer in tone to Kuei Chih-Hung’s The Tea House and Big Brother Cheng, and it also includes a few dangerous real-life stunts, heralding the coming waves of Hong Kong stars that would define themselves with their insane stunts.

The Taxi Driver is Chen Guang (David Chiang), a good man working hard to stay afloat in modern Hong Kong. He rents a room in a house owned by an older woman, and he’s saving up to marry Heung Lai Ching (Lin Chen-Chi). His job dictates that he’s out a lot of the time, though, ferrying various types of people in all manner of situations around the town. The film does a great job of setting up the struggle of the taxi driver’s job, illustrating how the driving is the easy part and that it’s more about dealing with the odd personalities in need of a ride.

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The Imposter (1975)

The Imposter [七面人] (1975)

Starring David Chiang, Chen Kuan-Tai, Wong Chung, Danny Lee, Chen Ping, Shut Chung-Tin, Tung Lam, Wu Ma, Ku Feng, Tin Ching

Directed by Pao Hsueh-Li

Expectations: Moderate.


The Imposter is a movie that’s fairly hard to classify. It definitely has enough action to qualify as a martial arts film, but it feels more like a movie that has martial arts instead of a true martial arts film. If that makes any sense. Anyway, the star of the film is David Chiang and his many disguises, so if you’re not into David Chiang, you could skip this one and not miss too much. But for those still on-board, the cast is stacked with top-shelf Shaw talent and David Chiang fans should enjoy the ample opportunities he is given to jump in and out of characters throughout the movie.

Tseng Yung (Danny Lee) has been wrongly imprisoned by the police chief Captain Lo Gin Yin (Chen Kuan-Tai). Tseng’s brother, Tseng Kan (Wong Chung), bribes a guard to let him talk with Yung, who tells Kan to find an illusive man named Ge Liang (David Chiang), as he is the only one capable of proving his innocence and saving his life. In basic terms, this is the whole movie in a nutshell, since finding Ge Liang is a prolonged multi-step process, and then proving Tseng Yung’s innocence is similarly complex. The one constant is David Chiang and his ever-changing disguises, influencing the other characters to do whatever he needs them to. Ge Liang is not just a master of disguise, he is a master manipulator as well.

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