Friday, July 06, 2018

Wild Wild Wuxia: Amazon Prime Streams the Shaw Brothers

It's July --perfect time to cozy up in the AC with a seemingly limitless stream of cool Hong Kong fantasy cinema from the late 70s-early 80s streaming free on Amazon Prime. Encouraged by the popularity of Star Wars in the late 70s, Hong Kong cranked out their own sweeping fantasy adventures that connected the standard HK plot (callow student of martial arts learns superior skills and sets out on adventure) to wizards, princesses, monsters, myths, dangerous challenges, pursuits of ancient magical weapons and martial arts manuals. Even better than Star Wars in a lot of ways, these films featured women (rather than "a" woman) who were not just pretty objects or damsels needing rescuing but warrior women: seductress fox spirits, fairy changelings and snake girls, expert in the handling and throwing of deadly serpents, or spiders, and even clans of martial artist nuns called the Er Mei, often led by a deadly ruthless leader with a strict 'no men' policy. Suddenly chivalry at the expense of action is exposed as the lamest kind of misogyny.

from Bat Without Wings (Battle Wizard, top)
The films discussed here look ravishing on Prime, far better then they ever have even on past DVDs.  I chose five, based on factors like strong female characters and roots in Chinese mythology. Highlighted is the work of director Chu Yuan, whose stress on Jungian resonance (thanks to the popular novels of Gu Long) and Bava level atmospherics (like Black Sabbath spilled over onto a vast Chinatown train set) make him a cult secret the west needs to discover.

To my eyes, the gorgeous HD remastering of these vast indoor sets, with their careful color gel lighting, mist and cherry blossom loveliness, makes any quibbles with overly complex plotting and repetitive action seem inconsequential. Over at Golden Harvest and other outfits, by contrast, the reliance on outdoor photography gets old fast. They tend to look washed-out and drab, unless the colors are really vibrant, the landscape often looks sad and misshapen, but the Shaw Brothers leave the outside world behind, they make a universe inside their vast sound stages full of lush waterfalls, cliffs, fog, mist, cherry and plum blossoms, and ever-setting suns, cobwebs, secret passages that lead to huge gel-lit beautiful caves filled with glistening skulls, coffins and spiderwebs. The forests at night are dappled with cornflake snow amidst the cherry and plum blossoms. The effect is like an alternate reality dreamscape - a vast roofed ancient China-themed miniature golf course-style paradise. In other words, my kinda escape from summer heat. Maybe it's yours too? Blast the AC and move your chair so the vent is blowing right on your face, and burn a quick joss stick so celestial Buddha knows where to find you.

Special Note: People watching Prime through Sony Blu-ray players--at least the older models--won't be able to access closed captions on these for the English subtitles (they're in Cantonese); it's just a discordant note between Prime and Sony still unresolved. However, you should just invest in Apple TV or a stick or something, as it's worth the upgrade. I know I'm glad I did, especially since we moved to Crown Heights where the cable doesn't get El Rey - which is the great channel that used to show all these. A thousand curses on the inferior and out-of-touch Optimum! 

(1980) Dir. Chu Yuan
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A+

Even if they have no familiarity with the wuxia genre, fans of the colorful atmosphere-drenched 60s horror of Mario Bava should seek out Bat Without Wings, for the rich color-drenched atmosphere is very similar. The story however is totally, as they say, batshit. Within vast caverns of cobwebs lie (terrible) statues made by a crackpot mad artist--a former mad rapist-murderer--who's allegedly being held on a remote island full of elaborate traps after being apprehended or supposedly killed years ago by a barrage of martial arts masters in a wild, confusing prologue. If you don't mind occasionally losing the threads of the elaborate tapestry plot as it zips around from place to place, you can just soak up the atmosphere and bizarre horror touches like the ghost of one of the Bat's victims appearing at the gate of her homestead, all bathed in green and holding her severed head in one hand and a paper lantern in the other. Weirder still: the seemingly invulnerable Bat (Feng Ku) is made up like an Asian Gene Simmons. Storming in and out of ladies' chambers with the heavy lightness of a roadshow barnstorming evil villain come for his rent, this round little maniac is an unmitigated delight.  Mwahahah. He flies around slaughtering whole parties of trained security guards just because a girl in their party looks like another girl! Chen Shan is the leader of the easily slain Hell Gang. The inescapable Derek Yee is the master swordsman is employed to find out what the hell is going on -- is the Bat really dead or what? Not to spoil things, but there's a missing 'Bat' blade that can render its user ultra-powerful. Some want it found and destroyed, others have secret agendas for power. Mwah hahha!

 I kept trying to take some decent screenshots to show how gorgeous this all looks on the right size HD TV, but it doesn't translate as well to small screen snapshots - still you can get the idea.

 Special note for sensitive viewers: there's talk about the Bat being a serial rapist-murderer, but we never see him actually rape anyone. We do find his early victim sent home in parts, but the limbs look so fake you can all but see the mannequin joint lock holes. At the end there's a whole mess of Scooby Doo-style turns and tricks in a giant, beautifully-lit cavern, full of magic and the clanging of swords, all way cooler and more ridiculous than any dehumanizing sex abuse. In fact, in the right mood, in the right environment (like home in the AC during a sweltering heat wave) its sheer gonzo heaven, just don't worry if the plot gets away from you. In a Chu Yuan production you can always just trip out on the swirling mist and gorgeous landscapes, eerie caverns and ghostly green figures in the distance...

(1981) Dir. Chu Yuan
***/ Amazon Image - A+

Strange characters come and go in this oft confusing but beautifully-shot little mystery, topping each other's reveals with complex machinations so over-the-top the film becomes like every old dark house mystery from the 30s pureed together with Scooby Doo and Wilkie Collins frosting, all while still being packed with wuxia swordplay. Even if that sounds irritating, the green and red colors glow so valiantly that Bava fans should once again rejoice; as with Bat, director Chu Yuan keeps the atmosphere irresistible, with fog machines and colored gel lights filling each corner of the frame with delightfully spooky ambience as characters prowl abandoned houses and rainy verandas filled to the brim with period art direction. A mysterious man in a blazing, memorably intense red cloak and lizard skin face keeps carting a coffin around with a talking wooden effigy of swordsman Lung Fei's fiancee inside. Wait, didn't he just say goodbye to her in the previous scene? Lung investigates an abandoned house where the coffin maybe went; the indefatigable Derek Yee, as a detective swordsman swept up in an multigenerational mystery,  skulks and leaps through windows. Seems there is an ancient curse on the pond/river/lake thing in the back yard; a black lizard demon may have sired a son to a married woman, which led to the wife and son disappearing into the mist. A mysterious woman in white appears, utters dire pronouncements, disappears and then reappears once they come to pass. 

It may not make sense even after many viewings but who cares when, under director Chu Yuan's painterly direction, the fog swirls, the glowing greens bedazzle the eye, an electric lizard zips around, women become wooden statues (and vice versa) and people are buried alive inside their own wooden effigies? There are also enough secret panels, clever disguises, and byzantine inter-family paranoia to fill up a dozen old dark house movies. Just do like Kim Newman tells you in his Mark of the Vampire DVD commentary: soak in the ample atmosphere and savor the horror elements and don't let the Scooby Doo denouement sour it. This is a beautiful piece of deep colored Shaw Brothers Wuxia spookiness, glowing in perfect HD.

(1979) Dir. Chu Yuan 
***  / Amazon Image - A

A betrayed martial artist (Derek Yee) is about to kill himself for shame after blowing a Big Duel (his opponent's wife seduced him the night before and stole his manual) but instead falls in love with a green-lit fox spirit (in the Chu Yuan universe, the realms of the dead are always wearing white and bathed in a haunting green light) named Qing Qing (Lisa Wong). They marry and he goes to live with her in 'the spectral world.' The scenes set there are so gorgeous and ethereal that you'll want to cross the veil and rent a bungalow: it seems to be always night there, with a gentle breeze, and the ornate soundstage indoor/outdoor magic of it all is supremely seductive, with plenty of cherry blossoms and lantern lit night. Who would ever want to leave? Well, once he starts practicing with Qing Qing's magical scimitar, Ding Peng does wants to leave, at least to take his revenge. He convinces his now-wife to come with him and help arrange revenge on Ruo Song, posing as her own treacherous sister (?) and betraying Song with supernatural trickery that ensures an easy victory. But naturally old Ding isn't satisfied. He wants to keep going and be the best in the martial arts world, little knowing how much damage he's doing to his home life in the pursuit of wealth and fame and just how truly treacherous Ruo Song really is. Naturally it all ends in a big grievance-airing international duel and, hopefully, a happy ending

Love that setting sun spotlight
And though that's all kind of inevitable for a Shaw Brothers movie, once again it's the mist-enshrouded magical ancient landscapes, like gorgeous life-size dioramas stretching across apparently endless soundstages, that haunt the mind and make this so worth seeing on a big HD screen with deep blacks. On my 60" Sony Bravia they're impeccably haunting. Alas, it's also sad. Peng becomes a real dick to Qing Qing (he even remarries claiming he can't be with a fox forever), though you know it will end happily. Maybe. Alas, like all the Shaw Brothers films, the ending is--for my money--way too abrupt. Such is the way of the Tao. It's the journey... it's the journey... it's the journey... and the colors.

A girl and her snakes

(1977) Dir. Hsueh Li Pao
*** Amazon Image: A

Based on a fantasy novel by Jin Yong, this stars Dan Lee as a scholarly doofus who runs away from home to avoid learning kung fu. Alone, naive and even a trifle thick-headed (the way booksmart idiots often are), he meets a pretty young girl named Lin (Chen Che Lin) who uses snakes as weapons/couriers (she has dozens up her sleeves and whips them out with deadly accuracy). After some antagonistic bickering the pair join forces, but then promptly run afoul of 'the Poison Gang.' Volleys of poisonous vermin are thrown (she launches a venomous snake into the leader's belly button), and then--with Lin held hostage by the gang--our doofus scholar must find her ninja sister (Ni Tien) to rescue them and then --well-- he winds up gaining super powers through drinking the blood of a giant red snake while hiding out on one of those mysterious hidden cliffside oases hapless heroes often fall down into after tumbling off cliffs. Like so many of us bookworm introverts, our hero seems to be largely dependent on toxins for courage, but you got to respect a guy who--when a girl tells him to drink the blood of a giant red snake that's trying to constrict him to death in the middle of a pond-- promptly bites down on its neck like a vampire and starts lapping it up, no hesitation. Later, when Lin tells him to swallow a  poisonous toad-- whole!--he does! No questions asked! Dude, drinking snake blood is one thing, shooting a living toad down your throat like it it's a cold oyster? Think of how high that must get you!

 Other foes include a gorilla (a hilarious ape-costumed martial artist hiding in a pit), the titular battlesome wizard (friends of Lo Pan from Big Trouble in Little China will recognize he's got a lot of the same skills, including fire breathing), and a crazy rapist bald green fanged monster with a detachable claw arm who can outrun horses.

It's the journey...

(1982) Dir Taylor Wong
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

With a great 80s synth score and lots of animated fire and magic effects, this is a fine companion piece to THE BATTLE WIZARD. Like that film, our callow lead, Lung (Tung Shing Yee) starts out a churlish brat, and he also winds up on one of those little cliffside oases, this time after a shaggy dog-style friendly dragon rescues him from a plunge off the cliff. There he meets the Flaming Cloud Devil (Alex Man) who wants to teach him the unbeatable Buddha's Palm. Lung doesn't want to learn it, and it's precisely this reason Flaming Cloud Devil insists on teaching him. Ha! Here's a film that's clearly got some Star Wars influence to it, but Lucas would never have so many strong female characters, nor an evil henchmen kid with a huge acid pus-spraying facial tumor, or a dragon that never tries to be more realistic than a floppy life-size muppet, or a villain with a super extendable giant killer foot. You heard me! It's the Heavenly Foot of the 10,000 Swords Clan! (Shih Kien!) There are villains named Flying Bells (Chen Szu-chia), Flying Loops (Yum Yum Shaw), and the Thunderbolt Devil (as he uses sound waves). Now that he knows the Palm, and has partially restored Flaming Cloud Devil's sight (via a magic dragon egg), Lung must help his master bring the Foots, Loops and Bolts all down in a series of spectacular laser, sound wave, and spinning kick-filled brawls.

Special shout out to the great Lieh Lo as the mysterious, ever-clowning (but never obnoxious) martial artist, a friend of both Flaming Cloud Devil and the bitchy leader of the Er Mei school. He tends to arrive at just the right time (a little late), proclaiming "Bi Gu of East Island is here!" Like, now the party can start. Love guys like that, bro. As with so many of the best wuxias, there's scenes at an all-girl Er Mei school (where Lung finds a girl ally), but a standout is the sight of Heavenly Foot using his percussion set to drive his daughter crazy (turns out he controls her actions via a poisonous internal centipede). Just watching him in sped-up motion playing an array of cymbals and gongs with his foot and hands, dopey grin on his face, driving everyone insane, is a priceless privilege. He is so evil! Oh that crazy Foot! Flaming Cloud Devil ends up converting a few of the Er Mei's expelled girl students (they help Lung after he helps them steal a relic that can fix their abbot's acne). And eventually they all even patch up their differences without fighting - and have a big celebration - but no worries, there's still trouble a Foot! And a giant all-out battle that dwarfs all that came before. Hahaha!

(1983) Dir. Chin-Ku Lu
*** / Amazon Image - A-

American critics of HK fantasy films often note that they seem to be on fast forward. Here's exhibit A. Holy Flame zips along like it's running a well-practiced relay race, making us all wonder what kind of coffee they serve at the Shaw Studios. (My viewing strategy: just presume your first guess on what's going on is correct--it usually is). The flame of the title is a weird looking weapon with a gem in the center. Naturally the hero is a young orphan whose parents died protecting the secret of the flame's hiding place from a wittily-subtitled gang of greedy kung fu clan leaders. The secret is hidden somewhere in the mind or on the skin or something of the boy, who grows up guarded by a hilarious old master named the Phantom (Phillip Kwok!) whose unbeatable weapon is a devastating sound wave attack produced by 'ghost laughter.' The sight of him making weird gestures and rollicking around on his lotus position legs, roaring with delight, is right up there with Heavenly Foot's magic percussion attacks in Buddha's Palm as far edifying. One of the nicest of all kung fu teachers, nothing fazes or annoys the Phantom. He never has a single negative thing to say, and his good-natured laughter is infectious.

Best of all, one of the main villains is a white-haired woman -Tsing Yin (Leanne Lau), the master of the Er Mei school -- as seen in Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, Buddha's Palm, etc. --an all-woman kung fu school whose first rule is no congress with men. (Naturally that law gets broken constantly). One of the Er Mei students is helped out of a jam by our hero and soon it's clear she's being trained for a very special purpose. There's a similar student (Siu Chung Mok) with the other villain, golden-haired lion man Monster Yu (Jaso Pal Piao). The big climactic battle is full of dizzying spins, lasers (by then the young girl rescued from the Blood Sucking Clan has acquired a magic laser-shooting finger thanks to touching a magic snake bladder.) Whoa, I barely scratched the surface and my head is already spinning. Suffice it to say: there's nothing remotely like it in the US, except maybe the sorcerer duel in Corman's The Raven, but that was on slow motion by comparison.

The Shaw Brothers may not have been as ethical as some would like, but they've left us some beautiful, and truly weird things. And they're waiting for more of the Wicked West to discover them, via Prime on any platform but Sony Blu-ray players, baby. For you may need to access Prime's subtitle option, unless you know Cantonese. And seems like maybe you should.
See also on Prime:


  1. Thanks for the head's up on this, Erich. I had no idea and am excited to see some of these.

    1. The battle wizard is an amazing movie, you should truly watch it!


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