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BACK TO THE CHAMBER
Shawscope Volume 1 Was A Masterpiece.
How Does The Sequel Fare?
BILL WOOD | DECEMBER 30, 2022
[NOTE: This is a review of Arrow Films' latest Shaw Brothers collection, Shawscope Volume 2. If you're looking for info on the first volume or simply Shaw Brothers and kung fu movie history in general, you can check out my review of Volume 1 here.]
The wait to dive into Arrow Films' Shawscope Volume 2 box set seemed particularly long and excruciating. Along with Criterion's excellent Showa-era Godzilla collection, Shawscope Volume 1 is my favorite Blu-ray collector's set of all-time. Not only did I pre-order Volume 2 months in advance, but I also promised the wife I'd keep it underneath the tree until Christmas Day. As a result, I ended up staring expectantly at a cardboard shipping carton for nearly a month before I was actually able to tear into it. At one point I may have even imagined the sound of impassioned punches and kicks emanating from this otherwise benign self-present.
So yeah, you might say I was a bit anxious for the 25th to arrive. And now that it's come and gone, it's time for another cinematic rendezvous with the mighty, mighty Shaws. Here are the featured movies in Shawscope Volume 2:
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Return to the 36th Chamber (1980)
Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985)
Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)
Five Superfighters (1978)
Invincible Shaolin (1978)
The Kid with the Golden Arm (1979)
Magnificent Ruffians (1979)
Ten Tigers from Kwangtung (1980)
My Young Auntie (1981)
Mercenaries from Hong Kong (1982)
The Boxer's Omen (1983)
Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986)
The Bare-Footed Kid (1993)
If you've been keeping track, you'll know that's 14 movies as compared to 12 in Volume 1. We're already off to a solid start! Volume 2 features the same exterior slipcase as Volume 1, only with an orange foil wrap instead of blue. The two box sets look really nice side-by-side, kudos to the design team for planning this out. Like the first edition, this newer collection is jam-packed with tons of awesome supplemental material, including a companion book full of movie stills, synopses and essays, essential video interviews with actors and film historians, even a couple of soundtrack CDs (which, thanks to this era of modern convenience, I can't play anywhere except my car stereo). I honestly never expected these films to receive such thorough treatment, all credit to Arrow Films for lovingly curating these films along with countless other cult classics.
The crown jewel of Shawscope Volume 2 has to be the all-new restoration of the Shaw Brothers classic, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This groundbreaking movie starring Gordon Liu is one of the very finest Shaw kung fu films, as well as a prime example of the "training" sub-genre, where the protagonist undergoes a series of difficult trials to emerge on the other side as a deadly and disciplined combatant. The two lesser-known Chamber sequels are also featured in Volume 2, but it's the original that steals the show, and it's really hard to imagine the film ever looking any better than this. Fans of the Venom Mob—the talented and charismatic cast of acrobatic actors featured in numerous Shaws epics, including Volume 1's Five Deadly Venoms and Crippled Avengers—will be thrilled to learn they are heavily featured in Shawscope Volume 2. And then there's Martial Arts of Shaolin, a latter-era Shaws flick featuring a then-unknown martial arts actor named Jet Li. In addition to traditional kung fu, there's comedy, action and horror included in the second volume, resulting in a more diverse array of films than its predecessor.
Instead of running down synopses for each film and reviewing the transfer quality (you can get that info anywhere!), I'd like to focus on what made these Shaw Brothers films so essential and why their impact extends far beyond the movie genre they are attached to. For example, one of the book essays and video interviews is provided by cult film and music historian Lovely Jon, who explains in detail how the sample-heavy, cut-and-paste sonic architecture of the '70s kung fu soundtrack directly influenced the booming reggae scene in Jamaica, and eventually the most essential form of music in modern times, hip-hop. It's a simple path to chart as reggae and rap artists have been consistently name-checking kung fu for half a century now, but never has the whole tale been laid out so plainly and effectively.
One recurrent thought when watching these movies is—apart from the fact that they are wildly entertaining—that in their time, they were an essential form of escapism for underprivileged youths across the globe. I constantly think back to the 1970s, what it must have been like sitting in a jam-packed, dilapidated film house in Kingston, or catching the subway train from Harlem to a sticky-seated theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan just to catch the latest Shaws flick. For hardcore devotees back then, kung fu movies weren't simply action-entertainment. Every new release was a new adventure into a totally foreign world where the downtrodden hero decided he (or she) wasn't going to take any more crap from their oppressors and started hitting back... and hitting hard. There's a reason these movies connected with young urban theatergoers, even though Hong Kong may as well have existed on another planet compared to the Bronx. I'm sure this empowering multicultural message was lost on this particular kid watching Black Belt Theater on my TV set in sunny California, but the films have left a long-lasting impression nonetheless.
[NOTE: One very worthwhile kung fu read is These Fists Break Bricks! by authors Chris Poggiali and Grady Hendrix. It's an oversized book with loads of original poster art as well as a history of the genre from its earliest origins, focusing mainly on its impact in the States. As a coffee table companion to the Shawscope collections and an exhaustive document of the kung fu genre in general, I cannot recommend this book enough.]
Getting back to Shawscope Volume 2's featured movies, I will say this; If you're in the mood for out-and-out bonkers, The Boxer's Omen is probably right up your alley. This obscure horror movie one-ups the kaiju-sized WTF-ness of Volume 1's The Mighty Peking Man with a psychedelic mix of kung fu, '80s action and The Evil Dead. Yes, you read that right. The entire film plays out like one big exploitative nightmare sequence drenched in blood, guts and black magic. It's entertaining to be sure, just make sure you haven't eaten before watching; the gross-out factor is high.
So is Shawscope Volume 2 worth a purchase for longtime Shaw fans? Yes, yes and yes. Does it work as a starting point for newcomers to the genre? It does, although those looking solely for kung fu action may want to start with Volume 1. But really, you can't go wrong with either. Or both. Although no official release announcement has been made, I'm overjoyed to learn that Arrow Films apparently has Volumes 3 and 4 in the works. It will be interesting to see which movies are featured as these first two volumes feature the majority of the Shaws' highest profile kung fu releases (in the U.S. anyway) and the company's history actually dates all the way back to the silent era with hundreds of films. Whatever those collections end up being, you can bet I'll have them preordered and under the Christmas tree. - BW