For those of you new to Kung Fu & Wuxia films, a little history. The Shaw Brothers Studio was set up very similar to the Hollywood studio system in that hundreds of actors were signed to exclusive contracts, and a group of directors were instrumental in leading some of its most renowned films.
The studio’s well known directors include King Hu, Lau Kar-leung, and Chang Cheh. King Hu was an early director who is best remembered for his film, Come Drink with Me, a martial arts film featuring a capable female protagonist and revolved around romance in the martial arts world. Chang Cheh, who was more fond of romance in the martial arts world, would go on to be Shaw Studio’s best-known director, with such films as Five Deadly Venoms, The Brave Archer, One-Armed Swordsman, and other classics of Wuxia and Wushu film. Equally as famous was fight-choreographer-turned-director Lau Kar-leung, who would produce such highly regarded kung fu films as The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.
The Shaw Brothers Studio operated from 1925 to 2011. Over the years the film company produced around 1,000 films, some becoming the most popular and significant Chinese-language films of the period. It also popularized the kung fu genre of films. Celestial Pictures acquired rights to the Shaw Studio’s legacy and has made an effort to restore picture and sound quality for hundreds of these films.
I discovered many of these films when I was in university and frequented Cinemateque Ontario (previously housed at the AGO). Having grown up watching other martial arts films with my grandfather – mainly those of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Jet Li – discovering this part of the Shaw Brothers Studio catalogue was such a treat. Aside the artistry in the action choreography, the stories were something new to me. To this day, these are films that I highly recommend to anyone who claims themselves to be an action film fan.
This brings me to MUBI, the global streaming service, film distributor, and production company. Their curating team has chosen a 14-film collection from Celestial Pictures’ Shaw Brothers library – Shaw Brothers: Wuxia Warriors and Kung Fu Masters. This deep-dive retrospective captures the spirit of the trailblazing film studio – which shook up the Hong Kong film industry and became a powerhouse in Asian cinema.
As the force behind many of the defining classics of Kung fu and Wuxia that exploded onto the international stage in the 1970s, the Shaw Brothers have influenced hip-hop and mainstream cinema with many renowned filmmakers and artists who have taken inspiration from their style of filmmaking, including Ang Lee, Quentin Tarantino and the Wu Tang Clan. Here I must mention, Wu Tan Clan founding member Rza, whose film The Man with the Iron Fists is an homage to the genre and a must-see.
The Shaw Brothers gave us an unrivalled cinematic universe filled with high energy and poetic storytelling. Renowned for their elaborate sets, intricate costumes, and breathtaking choreography, their films set new standards for the cinematic experience. Both profound and entertaining, they captured the essence of martial arts philosophy and the grandeur of Chinese legends, bringing traditional Chinese war myths to global audiences.
The Shaw Brothers: Wuxia Warriors and Kung Fu Masters collection is currently available to stream on MUBI.
Sources: MUBI & Wikipedia
Images courtesy of MUBI