Shawscope: Volume Two
Five Superfighters | Mad Monkey Kung Fu
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,
Disc 3 in Arrow’s second Shawscope set presents the interesting pairing of Lau Kar-leung’s Mad Monkey Kung Fu and Lo Mar’s Five Superfighters. The two films share the same dual-layer disc and are each presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Their respective 1080p/24hz high-definition presentations are both sourced from new 2K restorations performed by Arrow Films and L’Immagine Ritrovata. The notes state the restorations come from scans of the 35mm original negatives.
Both films come out looking solid with Mad Monkey maybe having a slight edge over Superfighters. Each title has received an incredibly thorough restoration that has removed just about all signs of dirt and damage. Both films also come out looking relatively stable, though Mad Monkey does feature some mild pulsing or flickering in a few places along with some fading on the edges of the frame. Colours aren’t especially bold for either film but both reds and blues come out looking rich with a couple of red and orange laced (artificial) sunset scenes in each film looking sharp. Colours are balanced nicely as well, leaning warm but not excessively so whites still look white. Black levels come out looking deep and inky and range can be surprisingly wide leading to superb looking shadows.
The encodes both look great and they each deliver a wonderful film texture, the heavier grain resolving beautifully. This of course leads to higher levels of detail, to the point where you can make out individual hairs (even the netting that wraps the actors’ wigs), but then this can still depend on the quality of the original photography. If Mad Monkey beats out Superfighters in one area it’s that the former film does come out looking sharper and crisper on average with a lot of the fight scene found in the latter just looking a little softer and blurrier, almost certainly something inherent to the original photography. Distortion caused by the camera lens likely doesn’t help matters either.
Aside from the ultimately minor issues present between both presentations they still come out looking rather incredible. They’re clean and sharp for the most part, and the digital presentations themselves are just about flawless.
Note: Arrow is releasing Shawscope Volume Two in both region A and B markets and the discs are encoded for both. Due to animal cruelty present in Mad Monkey Kung Fu the version of the film that plays back depends on the region setting of your player. For region B players an altered version of the film will play that removes about 10-to-15 seconds of footage featuring animal abuse. Region A players will playback the complete version of the film. This is accomplished through seamless branching.
Both films come with three monaural options, all presented in DTS-HD MA: Cantonese, Mandarin and English, with the Cantonese tracks being the default options. The dialogue spoken in the three tracks for Five Superfighters can sound a little canned to varying degrees, the English maybe being the worst sounding one. They’ve been cleaned up nicely and there doesn’t appear to be any severe problems.
The Cantonese track for Mad Monkey Kung Fu comes out sounding the strongest between both films, delivering better-than-expected fidelity and range in both dialogue and effects (though the sound effects still have that expected artificial sound). The Mandarin track also sounds fine though static can get a bit heavier I thought. The English one is solid, too, but distortion can be a little more noticeable.
Arrow spreads supplements across the two films from the main menu.
Mad Monkey Kung Fu starts things off with a brand-new audio commentary featuring critics/scholars Frank Djeng and Michael Worth, the two nothing this is their first commentary together for an Arrow release. Djeng’s commentaries (of the ones I’ve listened to) are usually very fun and energetic, packed with all sorts of information, though I sometimes find myself getting lost when he veers onto other topics almost out of nowhere. That still happens on occasion here, but I think having a partner helps keeps things focused as the two talk about the film mostly in terms of how it better represents director Lau Kar-leung’s career and how this and some of his other films led to the more comedic kung fu films that would come out, particularly Jackie Chan's. They also extensively cover Lau’s background and family (his father’s relation to Wong Fei-hung coming up, which may explain why the Wong theme appears during a training sequence in the film), contextualize a few things that may end up lost on Western audiences and also talk about some of the martial arts moves that come up in the film. On this latter point, Worth admits as a kid he went to see the film in theaters and took Super 8 camera with him so he could film the fight sequences and study them later. He apparently still has that footage to this day (Djeng mentions he was not allowed to see Shaw films as a kid and was even unsuccessful when he tried to sneak into a screening of Crippled Avengers). Dead space pops up around one sequence featuring animal abuse (more than likely so the track could be appropriately edited around the different version depending on whether the disc is viewed in region A or B) but it's otherwise packed with information and quite a bit of fun.
Tony Rayns then pops up to go over the story’s roots in relation to couple of Chinese traditions before talking about specific plot points and sequences in the film. Rayns also shares some quick details about writer Ni Kuang and actor Lo Lieh, and even provides some historical context on top of what Djeng and Worth covered in their track. It’s a quick but informative interview. Arrow also includes a 40-minute interview with Monkey himself, actor Hsiao Hou, recorded in 2004. Like other archival interviews found throughout the set the actor talks about how he came to start his career at Shaw and recalls a few of his standout roles (he also brings up Disciples of the 36th Chamber and My Young Auntie) and doing action choreography. Interestingly, he points out if an actor/performer was trained in a particular style of kung fu they were more than likely to be picked up by the studio. I'm assuming Shaw felt it just translated to film better than other styles.
Arrow then includes a new 32-minute featurette (that can be found under the supplement menus for both films) entitled Shaw in the USA, featuring Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali explaining how Shaw’s films were distributed in the U.S. market. It’s an incredibly well researched piece explaining how the films finally made their way into a bigger U.S. market after many failed attempts that ultimately only hit very small markets (like Hawaii). Much to Run Run Shaw’s chagrin (I’m sure) it was the future martial arts star they turned away, Bruce Lee, who opened the market up. The success of Enter the Dragon pushed Warner Bros. into looking for more martial arts films with the studio eventually picking up Shaw’s King Boxer and a few other films. Smaller distributors also jumped in on the action and picked up whatever Shaw films they could, leading to many forms of distribution for the films that also saw alternate cuts, soundtracks, and more. Ultimately this success would backfire when the studio would start to finance bigger international co-productions that would fail spectacularly, with the success of Golden Harvest further putting pressure on them. Hendrix and Poggiali even get into home video distribution and bootlegs, another area that could have only hurt Shaw further. This proves to be an endlessly fascinating subject, and this may be one of my favourite newly produced pieces so far across the two sets.
Both films then each offer off up image galleries featuring photos, lobby cards, programs, news ads, video covers and more for their repsective films, alongside trailer galleries. Both come with Hong Kong trailers while Mad Monkey Kung Fu also includes a US trailer (just a shorter version of the Hong Kong trailer in English) and a Celestial digital trailer advertising their then-new digital restorations. Five Superfighters also comes with a UK VHS promo from Warner Bros. advertising the release of three Shaw titles on the format: The Killer, Chinatown Kid and Five Superfighters.
Not a packed disc overall but I found the commentary and the featurette on Shaw’s U.S. distribution to be two solid standouts in the set.
Two great presentations and a couple of superbly done features make this one of the stand-out discs in the set.