Shaw 'Nuff, Ya Dig?
Fans of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon must be forgiven for thinking it a highly original piece of filmmaking. Until recently, after all, Come Drink With Me (1966)--the Shaw Brothers' exemplary chopsocky romp, of which Lee's film is largely an arty remake--has been unavailable for comparison. Now that the Shaw Brothers catalog is finally finding its way onto home video--and being featured in "The Art of Martial Chivalry," an eight-film retrospective mounted by Asian Media Access for its latest Chinese Film Showcase--we may more clearly recognize the enervated state of Asian action cinema. That's not to diminish the swooning visual lyricism of Crouching Tiger, but merely to suggest that it takes audacity of a different order to show, as does Come Drink With Me, a man fighting off his enemies with the bloodied stump of a human hand.
For films that haven't enjoyed wide circulation in decades, the Shaw Brothers' extravagant kung fu bloodlettings have never really gone out of favor among connoisseurs of camp. The Wu-Tang's RZA makes a habit of sampling their awful dialogue, for instance, and the Keanu Reeves character in the Matrix films, as glazed and pacific as a Taoist novitiate lo-jacking enlightenment, is just a sleek millennial update of the typical Shaw Brothers monk-hero. In his long-awaited chopsocky tribute Kill Bill, consummate film nerd Quentin Tarantino reportedly even saw fit to include a cameo by Liu Chia-Liang, the director who pioneered the Shaw Brothers' style of whirling-dervish fight choreography.
Still, as a purveyor of pulp fiction, Tarantino has nothing on Sir Run Run Shaw, the legendary Hong Kong tycoon who oversaw Shaw Brothers during its golden age. The scion of a Shanghai textile fortune, Shaw organized his empire along much the same lines as pre-deregulation Hollywood: Contracted actors were paid a pittance; pictures were strictly formulaic; and Shaw controlled a line of cinemas across Asia. At the height of its industry, Shaw Brothers churned out light comedies, musicals, costume dramas, and soft-core porn at a rate that would have exhausted even an indefatigable mogul like Harry Cohn. Foremost among genres, however, was the wuxia (warrior) film, which filled the same niche for Shaw Brothers as did the Western for Hollywood: fast, cheap, virtually fail-safe fare that was also, however wishfully, connected to the audience's sense of its own cultural legacy.
Take, for instance, 1967's One-Armed Swordsman, the first big success of Shaw Brothers auteur Chang Cheh, and the debut of martial-arts star Wang Yu. (It screens at Metro State University in St. Paul on Saturday at 7:00 p.m., and at the Riverview Theater on Friday, April 25 at midnight.) Chang's film, like the majority of wuxia pictures, turns on a question of honor: After Wang's fencing student has his arm lopped off by a jealous classmate (much to his chagrin), he must relearn to fight in order to protect his teacher from a rival kung fu school.
As with the majority of wuxia pictures, that plot exists merely to provide the thinnest of connective tissue for a series of action set pieces, each of which is choreographed with the clarity of a ballet pas de deux. The film's budget is quite obviously negligible: The sets look as though they would collapse in a stiff breeze. But Chang, who studied both Kurosawa and Peckinpah, proves a masterful director of staged slaughter, navigating his camera above, around, and through the tumult of clanking swords and battering limbs. It's no great surprise to learn that John Woo learned filmmaking at Chang's knee. Indeed, Woo's later Hong Kong films show a deep Shaw Brothers imprint--both in their striking facility for coherent action, and in their fondness for shallow macho posturing.
Shaw Brothers stars like Wang were as much athletes as actors--many originally trained as acrobats with the Peking Opera--and their films consequently treat physical training in painful detail, literally and figuratively. The bulk of the 1977 classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Metro State, Saturday at 3:00 p.m.), for example, is taken up by a neophyte monk's initiation into the martial arts. While the film is uninterested in the finer points of Buddhist philosophy--or, rather, is interested in them only insofar as they might be applied to the task of killing one's enemies--it does treat the monk's physical transformation in spiritual terms: When his training is completed, he emerges as a muscled Nietzschean superman, able to take on armies with his bare fists.
There is nary a whiff of moral seriousness in 36th Chamber, however, and that may be why it has aged so well as camp. Indeed, even in a rather more ambitious Shaw Brothers effort such as Come Drink With Me (Riverview Theater, Friday at midnight, and Metro State, Sunday at 5:00 p.m.), the carnage is comic, a mere excuse to showcase its stars' athletic prowess. Which in turn may suggest the problem with so much contemporary action cinema: Why isn't anyone having this kind of fun anymore?
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