Shawscope: Volume Two
Magnificent Ruffians | Ten Tigers of Kwangtung
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 5 in Arrow’s latest box set Shawscope Volume Two presents two of Chang Cheh's last films featuring the troupe known as the Venom Mob, 1979’s Magnificent Ruffians and 1980’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung. Both films feature 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes and are presented in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1.
Despite it sounding as though these two films aren’t particularly popular with fans (this is at least what I gleaned from the supplements around the films) Arrow and L’Immagine Ritrovata still found it to be a worthwhile venture to create new 2K restorations for both films, each one sourced mostly from the 35mm original camera negative. Not surprising by this point but both presentations look unbelievably good, only hampered (yet again) by “issues” baked into the source. A lot of it really comes down to the original photography where a few scenes may have been filmed slightly out-of-focus or where distortion is visible on the edges of the screen due to the anamorphic lens. Magnificent Ruffians also appears to have made use of later generation prints for a few shots, including the opening credits, and these portions deliver a significantly dupier look compared to the rest of the film, flattening out blacks and range in the colours. But outside of that Arrow has cleaned up just about all damage, marks and scratches never being a concern. The image is also stable for both films, no jumping or pulsing noticeable.
The digital presentations are also both very clean, rendering the grain gorgeously and delivering sharp details where the source allows. As with the films on the previous disc this ends up being a small issue because certain details end up being exposed that probably wouldn’t have been in theatrical prints, like the rough edges of make-up and wigs (you can see where the prosthetics are glued down on occasion) or the imperfections of the set (the “sky” yet again looks like hastily applied drywall painted blue with white streaks for clouds). Yet it’s still incredible to see these films in such a crisp and sharp manner as most presentations in the past were blurry and dirty.
Colours look great, with wonderful bursts of red, blue and green, and whites look strong, just leaning a little warm. Black levels are also rich and bold and the range within the shadows is yet again surprisingly wide. How the smoke blends in a number of interior sequences, especially Kwangtung, looks slick with the gradients blending without issue. In both cases the presentations deliver wonderful photographic qualities.
Both films feature English and Mandarin soundtracks while Ten Tigers of Kwangtung also offers a Cantonese soundtrack. They are all presented in DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono.
Quality wise they all sound decent enough. Other than some reverb in the music (which can sound a bit worse in the English tracks) there’s nothing that stands out as overly problematic. The English soundtracks for both films have (unsurprisingly) more of a canned sound to them and the voices can be a little flat. I found the other soundtracks a bit better, though all of them have clearly been dubbed over. Dynamic range is also never all that wide. All said they’re about what I would have expected.
Supplements are again spread across the menus for both films. Magnificent Ruffians doesn’t feature its own unique “big” supplement and instead shares a feature with Tigers: Rivers and Lakes, a 22-minute video essay by Jonathan Clements, the title being the literal English translation of the word “jinaghu,” which, as I understood it, refers to the setting of wuxia stories. That term is covered in the essay which generally aims to look at how Chinese history and mythology are represented through various media and film productions, the focus being on Shaw in the latter case. He covers the common historical elements represented in a number of the films (including how the Manchus are usually the antagonists), all of which are usually drawn more from folktales rather than actual historical documents. He also briefly gets into Wong Fei-hung (who is a common factor across a lot of films) and how Shaw productions would blend various timelines. There's even a small section that looks at how these Shaw productions changed (especially ones around Shaolin Temple) once they were able to film in the actual locations in Mainland China. A common element found throughout the features across the sets (so far) is the addition of historical context when going over plot elements but getting a feature that explores how Hong Kong’s and China's histories are represented through films and folklore proved especially helpful.
On top of the same listing for Rivers and Lakes, Ten Tigers of Kwangtung then includes a 21-minute interview with actor Chin Siu-ho, who of course talks about his early career and first joining Shaw before discussing his work through the years. He also touches on the work of Chang Cheh and Sammo Hung, attributing his success to Cheh. We also get a textless title sequence, which is literally just that: the opening title sequence without the text.
Brandon Bentley has also recorded a new audio commentary for the film. I recall listening to a track Bentley did for The Big Boss (I believe he recorded it for Shout! but I listened to it on the Criterion set) and I recall finding it fine enough if a bit fan-boyish. This one can have a few moments that lean that way yet I ended up finding this one far more insightful, informative and enjoyable on the whole. Although I don’t recall him ever coming out and saying it directly I did gather Tigers isn’t a film Bentley lists very high in Shaw’s (or even Cheh’s) output with there being several times where he calls out issues around the story, character interactions and scenes he finds silly. Still, he comes to its defense, addressing production issues that arose and led to changes that couldn’t be controlled, Bentley even theorizing how the film would have played out if things had gone more smoothly. He does talk about the “Venom Mob” before talking more extensively about the individual cast members, but it’s thankfully not simply him reciting filmographies from IMDB and he talks about their careers rather extensively before and after this film. He also throws in a lot of trivia (the Wu-Tang Clan’s name was more than likely inspired by a move in this film) and general information about Shaw Bros. during this period. One subject he brings up that I wish he did expand more on was Celestial’s mid-2000’s restorations of the films and getting into the problems around them (way too digital-looking), but it really only comes up as an aside near the end. In all I ended up liking this one. It’s well researched and jammed with stuff, to the point I really had trouble keeping up while taking notes.
Both films then include galleries featuring production photos, posters, lobby cards, DVD art (some of the material coming from Germany) along with a trailer gallery. Both galleries feature Hong Kong trailers, though the picture footage for Magnificent Ruffians is missing. Instead, Arrow has sourced an audio cassette recording of the trailer (taken in the theater) and then mixed in footage from the German trailer (also included) where the footage matches. Where there is no footage a “Missing Video” message is displayed over black. Tigers features two Hong Kong trailers, one in Mandarin and one in Cantonese (they both appear to be cut the same but Arrow has taken them from different sources), a US TV spot and then Celestial’s digital trailer advertising the then-new digital restoration.
I was a little disappointed Ruffians doesn’t receive anything truly unique but I was more than happy with the other material, the video essay and Bentley’s commentary being nice additions to the set.
Despite the two films on this disc not being as highly regarded as some of Cheh’s other “Venom” films Arrow has seen fit to give each one a sharp new restoration.