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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Year of the (Shaw) Bros.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Whether you consider martial arts films to be actual art or simply delicious popcorn fare for a Saturday afternoon (editor Brandon Duhamel and I wax nostalgic for the days when Channel 5 out of New York used to serve ‘em up every weekend), these old-school action flicks sold plenty of tickets in their day and continue to cultivate a new audience in the home theater. Revered within the genre are the works of the wildly prolific Shaw Brothers production company of Hong Kong, led by siblings Runje, Runme, Runde and the youngest and most well-known, Run Run Shaw, later knighted for his philanthropy and later still a producer on Blade Runner. Known for telling compelling stories featuring some of the most in-demand stars (Chen Kaun Tai, Cheng Pei-Pei, Sammo Hung, Ti Lung) with lavish sets and costumes and beautiful cinematography, the studio would ultimately amass a library estimated to hold some 1,000 titles.

Shout! Studios has gone spelunking and come up with dozens of Shaw Brothers Classics, releasing a total of four so-titled boxed sets between June and December of 2023. Volume 1 contains eleven films released from 1967-1969, a fascinating look at the genre when it was still largely an Eastern thing and hadn’t gained the wider popularity that the singular Bruce Lee would usher in. Volume 2’s dozen spans 1970 and 1974: Keep in mind that Warner (those other bros) dropped Enter the Dragon in 1973, changing the game forever. Volume 3 brings another eleven covering 1976 to 1979, possibly the golden age of martial arts on film, while the twelve in Volume 4 take us from 1980 to 1984. All from Vols. 1-3 and many from Vol. 4 are new to North American Blu-ray.

The sheer quantity of this bounty makes it ripe for binging, providing a fascinating overview of venerable Asian action amid a changing world. Some of the stories can be quite dark, the body counts high, although certain themes seem constant, like the loathsome baddies inspiring bigger-than-life heroes to be their best selves in defense of justice. The names can grow a little confusing, not gonna lie, and not only because I watched so many in short order. Marvel fans, take note: I spotted two titles with the word “Avengers” plus “Man of Iron” and even “Lady of Steel,” which seems a match made in Tiān. And golly, did the Shaw Bros. like their “Swords”! Here’s the full list:

Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. One:

  • The Assassin
  • The Thundering Sword
  • The Golden Swallow
  • The Jade Raksha
  • The Bells of Death
  • The Sword of Swords
  • Killer Dart
  • The Invincible Fist
  • Dragon Swamp
  • The Flying Dagger
  • The Golden Sword

Vol. Two:

  • Lady of Steel
  • Brothers Five
  • The Crimson Charm
  • The Shadow Whip
  • The Delightful Forest
  • The Devil’s Mirror
  • Man of Iron
  • The Water Margin
  • The Bride from Hell
  • Heroes Two
  • The Flying Guillotine
  • The Dragon Missile

Vol. Three:

  • Killer Clans
  • The Shaolin Avengers
  • The Web of Death
  • The Vengeful Beauty
  • Death Duel
  • Life Gamble
  • Soul of the Sword
  • The Deadly Breaking Sword
  • Clan of the White Lotus
  • Shaolin Abbott
  • Shaolin Rescuers

Vol. Four:

  • The Rebel Intruders
  • Two Champions of Shaolin
  • Legend of the Fox
  • Black Lizard
  • House of Traps
  • Masked Avengers
  • The Sword Stained with Royal Blood
  • Five Element Ninjas
  • Shaolin Prince
  • Shaolin Intruders
  • Holy Flame of the Martial World
  • Opium and the Kung-Fu Master
  • Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 1
  • Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 2
  • Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 3
  • Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 4

I dove right in with Vol. 1’s The Assassin and was pleased with the colors and overall image quality. We should temper our expectations somewhat as none of these are slick, big-budget affairs, yet the depth of field and distinctive characteristics of the anamorphic lenses used are evident. The basic video specs for all titles are listed in the packaging as 1080p/2.35:1 and the decision to put one movie per disc assures a solid bitrate that tends to stay in the low 30-40 Mbps range. Detail varies quite a bit, not only disc to disc but within a single movie, with locations/exteriors looking significantly more natural.

Dual-mono DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is the standard across the entire 46 movies, defaulting to Mandarin but an English dub is available for most of them. The choice is ours but I found that the dub imparts a cheesy (more mild cheddar than ripe gorgonzola) drive-in/grindhouse vibe. Newly if not perfectly translated subtitles appear by default as well. The audio does the job without any razzle-dazzle, aided by the two-channel distribution.

The Flying Guillotine in Vol. 2 is a gruesome fun and quite pleasant to look at with its red and blue costumes and green foliage. The pinkish hue of the blood comes off as pretty fake in most Shaw Brothers productions, but is that part of the charm of these dated potboilers? The ridiculous–and ridiculously cool–weapon of the title, meanwhile, would surely slay with a bit of modern phasing between the speakers, but oh well. By the time I reached Vol. 3 and The Deadly Breaking Sword, the quite noticeable video smoothing convinced me that noise reduction has been applied to this collection as part of its preparation for primetime, in some cases more aggressively than others. We can assume that various imperfections are inherent to the original elements or born of decades of less than ideal storage and it’s easy to take for granted the stability of the image here, the absence of scratches and minimal instances of dirt. When we arrive at some of the later films like Vol. 4’s Holy Flame of the Martial World or Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, they can actually be rather pleasing to the eye at times, I feel like the designers are having more fun with the color, particularly for Holy Flame, which is a very weird movie.

Shout! has spared no expense with the bonus content, delivering a new expert audio commentary for almost every movie in this set, and in some cases there’s actually two such tracks for several of the films. There’s also a long list of interviews with some of the original talent from the era plus insights from academics/historians and others scattered across the discs, most brand-new and some quite substantial and certainly worth exploring. All titles appear to include either a vintage or modern trailer, or both. Among the more unusual tidbits are a couple of German trailers and a single extended scene. The menus are uniform with each volume, differentiated by the movie-specific music that plays over the options. I must take a moment to call out the gorgeous box artwork created for these sets, in addition to the reversible cover inserts which bear the original movie poster art.

Serving up not merely quantity across these massive sets but respectable quality with HD presentations, high-res audio and extremely generous supplements, the four volumes of Shaw Brothers Classics are a welcome celebration of the legendary studio and an epic introduction for the uninitiated.

Shaw Brothers Classics Vol. 1-4 are available for purchase now.

Shaw Brothers Classics Vol 1 through 4 at Amazon

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