Shawscope: Volume Two
Return to the 36th Chamber | Disciples of the 36th Chamber
Picking up where Volume One left off, this sophomore collection of Hong Kong cinema classics draws together many of the best films from the final years of the Shaw Brothers studio, proving that while the end was nigh, these merchants of martial arts mayhem weren’t going to go out without a fight! Armed with stunning special features and ravishing new restorations, this boxset is even bigger and bolder than the last one.
We begin with kung fu master Lau Kar-leung’s instant classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, in which his adoptive brother Gordon Liu achieved overnight stardom as the young man who unexpectedly finds spiritual enlightenment on the path to vengeance; Lau and Liu followed the original with two comically inventive sequels, Return to the 36th Chamber and Disciples of the 36th Chamber, both included here. Already established as a genius at blending dazzling action with physical comedy, Lau himself plays the lead role in the hilarious Mad Monkey Kung Fu, coupled here with Lo Mar’s underrated Five Superfighters. Next, we once again meet Chang Cheh’s basher boy band the Venom Mob in no less than four of their best-loved team-ups: Invincible Shaolin, The Kid with the Golden Arm, Magnificent Ruffians and culminating in the all-star Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, co-starring Ti Lung and Fu Sheng.
After Lau brings us perhaps his best high-kicking comedy with My Young Auntie, a playful star vehicle for his real-life muse Kara Hui, we see Shaw Brothers fully embracing Eighties excess in our strangest double feature yet: Wong Jing’s breathtakingly wild shoot-‘em-up Mercenaries from Hong Kong, and Kuei Chih-hung’s spectacularly unhinged black magic meltdown The Boxer’s Omen. Last but certainly not least, Lau Kar-leung directs the last major Shaw production, Martial Arts of Shaolin, filmed in mainland China with a hot new talent named Jet Li in the lead role; it is paired in this set with The Bare-Footed Kid,
The second dual-layer disc in Arrow’s latest Shawscope box set presents Lau Kar-leung’s two follow-ups (loose sequels) to his hit The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Return to the 36th Chamber and Disciples of the 36th Chamber. Both films are presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and have been given 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes.
Sadly, neither film has received a newer restoration and Arrow has had to source their respective presentations from high-definition restorations performed by Celestial Pictures in the mid-2000’s. These can be hit-or-miss though the good news here is that the one for Return doesn’t come out looking too bad. That said it does feature more of a digital look compared to the newer restorations found in this set and it also shows signs of filtering and noise reduction. Happily it’s not as excessive as I would have feared, grain still present to a degree and leading to a decent level of detail. There’s still a crispness to the image—limited a bit by issues inherent to the photography, like focus and distortion from the camera lens—and it holds up well enough through the film’s running time.
Source issues end up being a bit more obvious compared to the previous film in the set (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin), with some chemical stains and stippling effects popping up. It also looks like multiple sources were used as there are times where a scene will cut to a dupier looking shot with fading and/or pulsing popping in here and there. Otherwise, the restoration appears to have removed most of the bigger issues one may expect.
Colours can have an artificial and boosted look, almost to the point where reds bleed, but they still seem to suit the colourful nature of the film (with a plotline centering around a fabric dying facility). Blacks are also strong, but I found shadow range and depth to be not all that specal.
Disciples, interestingly enough, may improve in some areas over Return but it still comes out looking the weaker of the two. Although the noise reduction and filtering appear to have been used to a lesser extent the dated aspects of the older master don’t do the image any favours. I found the film’s grain, albeit more apparent, to look noisier and far more digital in comparison to Return, which didn’t look all that clean and natural to begin with. In this case it has a real blocky, digitized appearance and just gets worse when the grain gets heavier. The source materials also feature more notable damage and marks with black levels that come out looking incredibly weak. This last issue leads to murky nighttime sequences presenting little to no range in the shadows. Even compared to Return the image here looks incredibly flat.
As to the good aspects colours do look fine, though they still feature a boosted look similar to Return. The image may also come out looking a bit sharper, though it may only appear that way because artificial sharpening has almost certainly been applied. The image may look a bit crisper, but those finer details are barely present.
Ultimately a letdown since most of the films in this set have received newer restorations, with these two hampered by older restorations and masters.
Return to the 36th Chamber (1980): 7/10 Disciples of the 36th Chamber (1985): 6/10
Each film comes with Cantonese, Mandarin and English single-channel monaural soundtracks, all presented in DTS-HD MA. I found the English track for Disciples to be the roughest of the batch, coming out hollow with a bit of reverb but the other two tracks for the film and the options for Return were ultimately okay. They sound to have been filtered a little and come off pretty flat because of it but dialogue sounds clean and there is no heavy damage.
A few supplements get spread across the respective menus of the two films. The supplements start off with a 15-minute interview with Gordon Liu recorded in 2003, featuring the actor talking about both films. Although Return was directed by Lau (as was the third film) and features many of the same actors (including Liu himself) he insists the films shouldn’t be considered sequels since their tones lean more towards comedies. He also makes sure to stress the point he is playing a different character in the second film, though a character pretending to be the character he played in the first film (in his commentary for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin Travis Crawford mentions he feels it was a missed opportunity to not have Liu play two roles in Return). He then talks about some of his other work with Lau and mentions how he prefers to show off his acting skills over his martial arts. Since the interview does cover each film it has been made available under the supplement menu for both.
Under The Return to the 36th Chamber Arrow next includes the 58-minute 1980 French television documentary Citizen Shaw, where the filmmakers were granted an “all-access tour” of the studio. Though the program does do an okay job looking at the day-to-day of the studio, even getting interviews with cast and crew members, the program is ultimately about Run Run Shaw who does appear for an extensive interview here, the producer going over his background and his success, stating he can’t spend all the money he has and is unsure of how many Rolls Royces he has. It also looks at some of the inner workings of the studio, like its international distribution. I’m unsure how much of everything here is simply for show but it’s a rather fun and intriguing addition to the set.
Arrow then includes a 2003 Celestial featurette entitled A Hero on Scaffolding, running 14-minutes. It ends up not being at all what I had expected. What I expected was a general featurette about the film and what I got was a featurette that is more about the various types of scaffolding in Hong Kong, though intercut with details about how it’s used in the film and information around Shaolin martial arts techniques. To my surprise it ends up being rather interesting.
Both The Return to 36th Chamber and The Disciples of 36th Chamber then include alternate opening credits for the Hong Kong version of the film. These are basically the same as how the presentations on this disc open, but it appears Celestial redid them digitally for their restoration, so Arrow is presenting the unaltered credits. Return also includes the alternate English title sequence, which has been sourced from a video tape. Each film then includes their respective Hong Kong trailers and digital trailers (to advertise Celestial’s earlier restorations I believe) along with galleries featuring production photos, lobby cards, posters, and home video art. Disciples doesn’t offer any other exclusive features.
Though the two films don’t appear to be as highly regarded as the original film it’s still a little disappointing that new content wasn’t produced for them specificaly. At the very least the material proves entertaining.
Neither film receives the same love or attention granted to the original 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but the features are still enjoyable to go through.