Shawscope: Volume One
The Boxer from Shantung
After an undisputed reign at the peak of Hong Kong’s film industry in the 1960s, Shaw Brothers (the studio founded by real-life brothers Run Run and Runme Shaw) found their dominance challenged by up-and-coming rivals in the early 1970s. They swiftly responded by producing hundreds of the most iconic action films ever made, revolutionising the genre through the backbreaking work of top-shelf talent on both sides of the camera as well as unbeatable widescreen production value, much of it shot at ‘Movietown’, their huge, privately-owned studio on the outskirts of Hong Kong.
This inaugural collection by Arrow Video presents twelve jewels from the Shaw crown, all released within the 1970s, kicking off in 1972 with Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa’s King Boxer, the film that established kung fu cinema as an international box office powerhouse when it hit Stateside cinemas under the title Five Fingers of Death. From there we see Chang Cheh (arguably Shaw’s most prolific director) helm the blood-soaked brutality of The Boxer from Shantung and two self-produced films in his ‘Shaolin Cycle’ series, Five Shaolin Masters and its prequel Shaolin Temple, before taking a detour into Ho Meng Hua’s King Kong-inspired Mighty Peking Man, one of the most unmissably insane giant monster films ever made. Chang’s action choreographer Lau Kar-leung then becomes a director in his own right, propelling his adoptive brother Gordon Liu to stardom in Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin. Not to be outdone, Chang introduces some of Shaw’s most famous faces to the screen, including Alexander Fu Sheng fighting on the streets of San Francisco in Chinatown Kid and, of course, the mighty Venom Mob in <
The second dual-layer disc in Arrow’s new box set, Shawscope: Volume One, presents Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung, presented here with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. As with the previous film in the set, King Boxer, Boxer from Shantung’s presentation has been sourced from a new 2K restoration conducted by Arrow Films with L’Immagine Ritrovata, Hong Kong Film Archive, and Celestial Pictures. Outside of the opening credits (which had to be sourced from Celestial’s 2003 restoration due to deteriorated elements) the notes indicate the base scan for the restoration comes from the 35mm original camera negative.
Opening credits aside (the sequence having more of a digital look), The Boxer from Shantung offers another one of the set's stronger presentations. The base scan is solid, capturing film grain and all of the finer details that come with it, source issues aside, while Arrow’s encode delivers it all beautifully. The image retains a film-like look and I didn’t notice any artifacts ever popping up. The original photography can appears to be iffy in places, occasionally going a little out of focus here and there, but on the whole it's sharp.
Colours lean warm but are not overly yellow or green, whites still looking white and blues looking blue instead of cyan. Black levels are also rich but some darker scenes get a little heavy and limit shadow detail; that could be inherent to the original photography. The restoration efforts have done a miraculous job, cleaning things up to an impressive degree, only a few minor marks and slight scratches remaining.
Overall, it looks great. Despite a number of impressive recent restorations for Hong Kong films I sometimes still expect them to look less-than-stellar on home video, but Arrow has done an extraordinary job here, the film coming out looking fresh and new.
Arrow again include two soundtracks: English and Mandarin, both in lossless DTS-HD MA single-channel mono. I came into these films expecting extraordinarily flat, tinny audio but ended up not getting that at all. Sure, sound effects and dialogue can still sound a little flat, yet there is still some decent fidelity in there and the tracks are clean, free of distortion and noise. The Mandarin one may come off a hair sharper, but they both sound surprisingly good.
Though the supplements are not as strong as what King Boxer offered on its respective disc, Boxer from Shantungs gets a handful of notable archive interviews, all filmed by filmmaker Frédéric Ambroisine for previous DVD editions. There’s a couple of interviews featuring actor Chen Kuan-tai, the first recorded in 2007 with actor Vincent Tze and running 23-minutes, Chen covering his martial arts training and how he got into working in film, giving a generously thorough background. It’s not a bad interview, though Chen can be a little bit braggy in places. Not a big deal, but it probably led to me enjoying his pairing with Ku Feng a bit more, with the two talking about how they worked together and even helped each other improve on certain skills. Running 14-minutes (and filmed in 2007 as well), it's a fun little reunion between the two.
An interview from 2003 featuring actor David Chiang is next, and it may be one of the best archival interviews I’ve come across in the set (so far; I’m only six discs in as of this writing). Chiang talks about working with director Chang Cheh and how the filmmaker worked with actors, then touching on fight choreography and how Shaw contracts worked. But the most fascinating portion of the interview revolves around his work on the Shaw/Hammer co-production The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires. Here he shares how the styles of filmmaking differ between English and Hong Kong productions, going over how he had to adapt to that, and shares stories about working with Peter Cushing, who helped him work through his English dialogue, and he talks fondly of the actor. His contribution delves a bit more into some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of a Shaw production and the differences in style compared to Western films. The interview runs 32-minutes.
Filmmaker John Woo also receives a spot with an 8-minute interview, appearing to have been filmed off the cuff at some sort of convention. It’s not terribly in-depth but the filmmaker talks a little bit about his work as assistant director to Chang Cheh, admiring the use of slow-motion in his films, and talks a bit about who directed what in Boxer.
Arrow then throws in some additional credit sequences. The partial original Hong Kong credits are the credits that open the feature on this disc, though from the new scan of the negative. The overlays for the credits had deteriorated away so what you get here is basically the backdrop for the credits (coming from a better scan) missing most of the actual titles. There’s also a standard-definition presentation of English-language credits.
The disc then closes with a decent size gallery featuring production photos, lobby cards, posters and home video art, alongside a trailer gallery featuring the German and Hong Kong trailers, the U.S. TV spot, and a digital trailer for what I assume is a streaming version released by Celestial.
Sadly no academic material this time around but there’s still quite a bit to parse out from the archival material here.
Supplements aren’t as strong as what was found on the previous disc but are all still worth going through, while the presentation is one of the best-looking ones in the set so far.