To fans of martial arts cinema, a drumroll followed by a fanfare of trumpets is synonymous with a certain stamp of quality action filmmaking. With their iconic branding and cutthroat business practices, Shaw Brothers Studios become pioneers of Hong Kong cinema from the late 60s to the early 80s. Their penchant for high octane melodrama, lush set design, and (sometimes) copious amounts of graphic violence set a new template for what action films could be, inspiring everyone from Quentin Tarantino to RZA.
However, with their massive library of hundreds of movies over several decades, it can be overwhelming to find a place to start. To help on this journey, here’s an eclectic slice of their output to get you on your way:
Come Drink With Me (1966)
Dir: King Hu
Hu’s staging of elaborate set pieces, such as sprawling inns and temples, displays his knack for getting the most out of his locations. Whereas many Shaw Bros films are known for their uses of sets, Hu makes us believe that we’re in another world entirely, a world of fantasy and endless possibilities.
The Duel (1971)
Dir: Chang Cheh
Dirty Ho (1979)
Dir: Lau Kar Leung
In that sense, Keung was more akin to Hu than Chang, though embellishing many of Hu’s more dramatic tendencies with healthy helpings of comedy. Leung’s many collaborations with Gordon Liu (aka Pai Mei from Kill Bill) established the duo as one of the studio’s top talents. Gordon Liu’s expressiveness makes him perfect for the pratfalls and slapstick that punctuate Keung’s stories.
The Oily Maniac (1976)
Dir: Ho Meng-Hua
As ludicrous as the set-up sounds, there is something to be said with how the film plays on these powers, frequently setting up situations in which the hero has to dive headfirst into oil barrels in order to activate his powers. Once the monster is on screen, all hell breaks loose and you get really see what a classic Western monster movie can look like when filtered through a distinctly Eastern lens. Like most films of its ilk, things can never end well for anyone involved by the climax, but it’s a damn fun ride along the way.
The Lady is the Boss (1983)
Dir: Lau Kar Leung
The narrative pits Leung’s (who stars in the film) old school kung fu teacher against Kara Hui’s fresh from America…kung fu valley girl. It’s a battle of generations as the two argue over how to run the martial arts school with the students caught in the middle. It almost feels at times like Keung is reflecting on his own position within cinema, as an aging member of an old guard and how these “young kids” will respect what he and his contemporaries brought onto the scene. If you ever wanted to see BMX kung fu or old kung fu masters dance to disco, this one well worth checking out.