I make no secret that Arrow Video is my favorite boutique home video label. The UK-based company has long straddled the line between the prestige appeal of Criterion and the world of underground cinema associated with the likes of Blue Underground and Severin. Releases like Dune, the Daimajin Trilogy, the Gamera Ultimate Collection and a host of Dario Argento titles come to mind when looking at the breadth of its catalogue. The aforementioned companies, along with the likes of Kino Lorber, 88 Films, Umbrella and others, have made this the most exciting time to be a film collector. Still, among them all, Arrow is the one whose releases fill me with the most excitement. The new Shawscope: Volume One Limited Edition is a testament to why the company’s physical releases are almost beyond compare.
Shaw Brothers Studio is a Hong Kong-based studio that found Western success in the 1970s with its martial arts films, which went on to inspire everything from rap music to Quentin Tarantino; in fact, a subtitle for part of this collection could be “Films Tarantino Directly Ripped Off for Kill Bill: Volume 1.”
As a studio, Shaw Brothers flowed with the tastes of the times. Before and during the 1970s martial arts craze, it produced fantasies, dramas and romances, and later moved into television. Arrow’s set is largely martial arts classics — many restored properly for the first time on home video — with a few notable exceptions.
The set contains 12 films:
- King Boxer (aka 5 Fingers of Death)
- The Boxer from Shantung
- Five Shaolin Masters
- Shaolin Temple
- The Mighty Peking Man
- Challenge of the Masters
- Executioners From Shaolin
- Chinatown Kid
- The Five Venoms
- Crippled Avengers
- Heroes of the East
- Dirty Ho
Each film is presented in 1080p, and seven of them (Boxer, Shantung, Challenge, Chinatown, Venoms, Crippled Avengers and Ho) feature new 2K restorations by Arrow. My original experience with several of these films was watching them on Amazon Prime Video, and I can attest that the new restorations look considerably better. In particular, Ho looks like an entirely new movie (and remains perhaps my favorite on the set).
As a studio, Shaw Brothers followed the Old Hollywood model of putting filmmakers on contracts and exercising those deals for multiple films. Legendary director Chang Cheh, for instance, directed half the films in this set (and over 100 others for the studio).
Several stars recur throughout these films, which gives a full watch-through a rewarding sense of recognition and totality. Actor Alexander Fu Sheng, for instance, stars in three (Chinatown, Five Shaolin Masters, Temple). Chen Kuan-tai, perhaps my favorite of Shaw’s staple performers, features in four (Shantung, Avengers, Challenge, Executioners).
Also represented here — through Executioners, Challenge, Heroes and Ho — is the partnership between director Lau Kar-leung and actor Gordon Liu. (Together, they also made The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, perhaps the most iconic Shaw martial arts film and a rumored part of Arrow’s next Shawscope set.)
It wouldn’t be Arrow if each disc wasn’t loaded with great extras, alternate cuts and educational commentary tracks. Given the voluminous content, I’ll dive deeper into the notable special features when I go into the films themselves.
Nobody does it better than Arrow with regard to these deluxe packages and this is no exception. When it comes to buying this type of release, whether you can (or want) to display it is a major concern. It’s rare for an expensive prestige release like this to fit into a row of standard Blu-rays. It’s designed for display so friends and guests can say, “Wow, that guy really loves Shaw Brothers films,” although in my case I don’t really have people over anymore, so I just look at it and think “Wow, I really loved those Shaw Brothers films.”
You’ll notice that height and width are actually just about equivalent to other standard deluxe editions, like the Deep Red Limited Edition shown below. If you, like me, use IKEA shelving (or any other 9″-deep shelves), the Shawscope Volume One set actually does come quite close to fitting among your other discs.
Of course, facing forward it’s twice as long as a regular DVD case, which does limit your options.
Still, it’s a nice size compared to the cereal box-sized Gamera Ultimate Collection set from 2020.
Of course, packaging is one thing. How valuable is the non-film content included? This set has a 60-page pamphlet-sized booklet containing information on each of the 12 films, a history of Shaw Brothers Studio and a considerable number of hints as to the contents of this year’s forthcoming Shawscope Volume Two. Sometimes, prestige Blu-ray release booklets feel redundant or like a pack-in without much in the way of added value, but this is the type of booklet worth setting on your desk and reading through alongside your viewing.
The discs themselves are housed in a gorgeous cardboard booklet filled with the original artwork commissioned for this release. My only complaint is that the discs themselves are housed in cardboard sleeves that, by way of function, are also pretty tight and make removing the discs a little bit like a game of Operation. Given the size of the set, though, it’s hard to see an alternate option, and I trust Arrow’s glue will hold up.
I don’t know that it is necessary for me to write reviews for all 12 films included in Shawscope Volume One. Instead, I have listed each disc here with its corresponding special features (listed as shown on Arrow’s website), along with some notes for the films I connected with the most.
Disc One: King Boxer aka Five Fingers of Death
- Brand new commentary by David Desser, co-editor of The Journal of Japanese and Korean Cinema and The Cinema of Hong Kong
- Newly filmed appreciation by film critic and historian Tony Rayns (42:56)
- Interview with director Chung Chang-wha, filmed in 2003 and 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine (39:54)
- Interview with star Wang Ping, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine (25:51)
- Interview with Korean cinema expert Cho Young-jung, author of Chung Chang-wha: Man of Action, filmed in 2005 by Frédéric Ambroisine (33:24)
- Cinema Hong Kong: Kung Fu, the first in a three-part documentary on Shaw Brothers’ place within the martial arts genre produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003, featuring interviews with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, Sammo Hung, Gordon Liu, Lau Kar-leung, Cheng Pei-pei, David Chiang and many others (49:36)
- Alternate opening credits from the American version titled Five Fingers of Death (1:26)
- Hong Kong, U.S. and German theatrical trailers, plus U.S. TV and radio spots
- Image gallery
One of the first things you might notice in King Boxer is that a siren noise blares when hero Chao Chih-Hao (Lo Lieh) is about to fight. Tarantino lifted that same noise for Kill Bill: Volume 1 as an ode to the 1972 film, which helped start the American kung fu craze when it debuted stateside as Five Fingers of Death. The story is one common to the genre: Chih-Hao trains under a wise master to overcome the villains while trying to win the heart of his love interest. There are a lot of impressive fights, colorful characters and a nice helping of gore. A late-game twist gives the film a worthy finale.
Disc Two: The Boxer from Shantung
- Interview with star Chen Kuan-tai, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine (22:43)
- Interview with assistant director John Woo, filmed in 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine (8:02)
- Interview with star David Chiang, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine (31:49)
- Conversation between stars Chen Kuan-tai and Ku Feng, filmed at a Shaw Brothers reunion in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine (13:46)
- Alternate opening credits (2:24 / 2:19)
- Hong Kong and German theatrical trailers, plus a U.S. TV spot
- Image gallery
Of the films included in this set that I hadn’t seen before reviewing, The Boxer of Shantung is my favorite. It may well be my favorite overall, too. Chen Kuan-tai stars as Ma Yongzhen, a poor laborer in Shanghai. His skill in martial arts is unparalleled, and a chance meeting with organized crime gives him a ladder to climb out of poverty. Ma never forgets his beginnings, though, and brings up his fellow laborers alongside him while trying to instill some level of morality and virtue in their fledgling protection racket. His tendency to beat the shit out of rivals comes at a cost, though, setting up an extraordinarily bloody showdown that might be one of the greatest finales put to film. More than just telling a fun story with cool fights and memorable characters, Shantung feels like it captures a time and place. Crime isn’t just an excuse to pit two characters against one another. This is a story about a man trying to find purchase in a system that has no use for anything but his fighting ability. Chen’s performance as Ma is stellar, a man who doesn’t want nothing from nobody for nothing, his indifference coming across less as selfishness and more as the mood of a man who has never been given much reason to care about anything around him. It’s a stellar, gorgeous spectacle.
Disc Three: Five Shaolin Masters / Shaolin Temple
- Newly filmed appreciation of Chang Cheh by film critic and historian Tony Rayns (36:46)
- Interview with star Kong Do, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine (22:55)
- Elegant Trails: David Chiang and Elegant Trails: Ti Lung, two featurettes on the actors produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003 (9:30 / 8:05)
- Alternate standard-definition version of Shaolin Temple
- Alternate opening credits from Five Masters of Death, the U.S. version of Five Shaolin Masters (10:23)
- Alternate opening credits sequences for Shaolin Temple
- U.S. and German trailers for Five Shaolin Masters
- Hong Kong and German trailers for Shaolin Temple
- Image galleries for both films
Disc Four: The Mighty Peking Man
- Brand new commentary by Travis Crawford
- Brand new interview with suit designer Keizo Murase, filmed in 2021 by Daisuke Sato and Yoshikazu Ishii (19:23)
- Interview with director Ho Meng-hua, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine (24:04)
- Interview with star Ku Feng, filmed in 2004 by Frédéric Ambroisine (7:18)
- Behind-the-scenes Super 8 footage from the archives of Keizo Murase (28:30)
- “Unrestored” standard-definition version (1:30:21)
- Alternate opening credits from Goliathon, the U.S. version of The Mighty Peking Man
- Hong Kong, U.S., German and Dutch theatrical trailers, plus U.S. TV spot (1:18 / 1:11)
- Image gallery
Although released as a cash-in ripoff of Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong remake, The Mighty Peking Man has so much more to offer than its Western cousin. It opens with the titular Mighty Peking Man destroying a miniature village designed by the team that later went on to make the Heisei Era Godzilla films and only gets wilder from there. Johnny Feng (Danny Lee) is brought along by a group of men to capture the monster in the Himalayas, where the group faces all sorts of exotic threats: tigers, leopards, angry elephants, quicksand. There’s an element of Indian-Orientalism at play here, but the presence of practical effects and real animals makes it much more a spectacle than another special-effects extravaganza. Oh, sure, the leopard that jungle woman Samantha (Evelyne Kraft) carries across her shoulders is probably drugged out of its gourd, but it’s pretty awesome all the same. Samantha, of course, is the human companion of the Mighty Peking Man, playing a more active role than Kong’s love interests but also suffering from the most frequent wardrobe malfunctions in cinema history. The booklet mentions that a lost European cut features nudity, but it’s difficult to see what more such a cut could contain. The Mighty Peking Man himself is a great example of poor suitmation, and the rear-projection effects seem laughable by today’s standards, but all of it works so well together. It’s an uproariously good time and one of the set’s best features. Notably, Arrow includes the HD scan as well as the unrestored cut, which looks terrible but serves as a wonderful artifact.
Disc Five: Challenge Of The Masters / Executioners From Shaolin
- Newly filmed appreciation of Lau Kar-leung by film critic and historian Tony Rayns (28:36)
- Interview with star Gordon Liu, filmed in 2002 by Frédéric Ambroisine (20:24)
- Interview with star Chen Kuan-tai, filmed in 2007 by Frédéric Ambroisine
- Textless opening credits for Challenge of the Masters (3:12)
- Alternate English credits for Executioners from Shaolin
- Hong Kong theatrical trailers for Challenge of the Masters
- Hong Kong and U.S. theatrical trailers for Executioners from Shaolin
- Image galleries for both films
Disc Six: Chinatown Kid (International and Alternate versions)
- Select scene video commentary by co-star Susan Shaw from 2021 (23:44)
- Elegant Trails: Fu Sheng, a featurette on the actor produced by Celestial Pictures in 2005 (7:21)
- Hong Kong, U.S. and German theatrical trailers, plus a U.S. TV spot
I tried to watch both cuts but found the restoration on the longer International cut to be subpar in comparison to the alternate cut, which is 20 minutes shorter. It is clearly cropped, although Arrow did its best; it’s not nearly as available as the alternate version. I do not feel I missed anything important in the shorter cut, which features some great fights by Alexander Fu Sheng and a great, if fairly standard, story about a poor man learning his moral compass in the grasp of criminal temptation. The on-location San Francisco footage, which is mostly Fu Sheng walking around, plays an immersive role despite contrasting with the stage-bound sets where the action takes place.
Disc Seven: The Five Venoms / Crippled Avengers
- Brand new commentary on The Five Venoms by critic Simon Abrams
- Interview with star Lo Meng, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine (19:12)
- Chang Cheh: The Master, a featurette about the director produced by Celestial Pictures in 2003 (17:33)
- Hong Kong and U.S. theatrical trailers for The Five Venoms
- Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Crippled Avengers
- Image galleries for both films
The Five Venoms and Crippled Avengers are two of the most notable films featuring members of the Venom Mob, made up of Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lo Mang and Wei Pai. These performers studied together and made careers in the martial arts genre. That’s an over-simplification, of course. The point is that these are two of the Shaw crown jewels. In The Five Venoms, they each play members of the Poison Clan, trained by a wise master to become experts in deadly animal-based fighting styles. The story is much more of a mystery film than it is an action-drama, as Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng) tries to figure out where the Venoms are hiding as the group simultaneously searches for a treasure. The film is full of double-crosses and fights, although the middle is a little slower than other films on the disc. Crippled Avengers is more fun, and the story is exactly how it sounds: Four men, each disabled in their own way, learn kung fu to fight a cruel village leader and his iron-armed son. The fights are creative and the film moves at a faster clip than The Five Venoms, with the added bonus of Chen Kuan-tai as the villain.
Disc Eight: Heroes of the East / Dirty Ho
- Brand new commentary on Heroes of the East by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts
- Newly filmed appreciation of both films by film critic and historian Tony Rayns (30:21)
- Interview with Heroes of the East star Yasuaki Kurata, filmed in 2003 by Frédéric Ambroisine (25:24)
- Alternate opening credits for Shaolin Challenges Ninja, the international version of Heroes of the East (2:29)
- Alternate English credits for Dirty Ho
- Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Heroes of the East, plus a U.S. TV spot
- Hong Kong theatrical trailer for Dirty Ho
Dirty Ho was the film that sold me on Shaw Brothers when I saw it years ago. It’s a perfect blend of martial arts mastery and physical comedy that still feels unmatched. Master Wang (Gordon Liu) is an unmatched expert in martial arts and the 11th Prince of Manchuria, beset by rival princes on all sides. He sets out in disguise to figure out which of his brothers is trying to assassinate him for the throne. While posing as a jewelry dealer, he runs into Dirty Ho (Wong Yue), a bumbling thief. Wang proceeds to use, and train, Ho as his bodyguard in ways that Ho doesn’t even realize. There are so many unforgettable bits of slapstick kung-fu here. My favorite is a wine tasting sequence where Wang defends himself from potential assassins without overtly performing kung fu. Before this set, it was difficult to find Dirty Ho on home video in the United States, and its most recent restorations paled in comparison to this release. Beyond learning more about the Shaw catalogue, it was the movie that excited me the most when Shawscope Volume 1 was announced and it exceeded my expectations.
2021 was a great year for deluxe DVD box sets, but in terms of build and value, Shawscope Volume 1 is the best of the bunch. The packaging is gorgeous, durable and easy to display. The films contained are some of Shaw’s best and represent an excellent variety of their output (although, notably, there is no horror film included). Their most recognizable performers are all represented. It speaks to Arrow’s eye for curation and the depth of the Shaw catalog that there remain a number of essential films for the next set, which is currently slated for Summer 2022.