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May 30 - June 7

Shaw Scope: A History of the Shaw Bros. Studio

The most famous of the classically organized motion picture production companies in Hong Kong, the Shaw Bros. Studio exerted an indelible influence on the film industry there and on filmmakers around the world. From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, the Shaw Brothers successfully exploited the strength of the streamlined studio production model, and the studio held its own well into the 1980s, in spite of increasingly fierce competition. Crucial to its success was the studio’s string of classic martial arts films, which boasts an impressive array of stars—Di Long, David Jiang, Gordon Liu—and served as vehicles for such master filmmakers as Zhang Che, Chu Yuan and Lau Kar-leung.  At the same time Shaw Bros. produced a rich array of genres beyond their popular martial arts pictures, successfully producing accomplished melodramas, musicals, supernatural thrillers, epic costume dramas and filmed opera.

Besides the three martial arts giants listed above, the Shaws also hired famed filmmakers like the immortal King Hu (championed in Cahiers du Cinéma by Olivier Assayas) and Li Hanxiang, the Hong Kong counterpart of Vincente Minnelli or Luchino Visconti for his genius with mise en scène. With their eye always on the important international market, Shaw Bros. made a point of hiring directors from neighboring East Asian countries, such as Japan’s Umetsugu Inoue and South Korea's Chung Chang-wha.

The Shaw Bros. Studio’s films were seen worldwide, and became a significant part of global popular cinema, like the Hollywood classics or the “Bollywood” masala film. As such, they have been an important inspiration for contemporary filmmaking, from Wong Kar-wai to American big-budget studio action movies. Beyond that, these films (particularly the martial arts titles) are supremely beautiful examples of cinema as a medium of bodies in motion, transferring an almost kinetic charge to the audience in the theater.

This program is presented with support from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO), New York. Selected program notes adapted from the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Special thanks to Kelly So, Ada Chong, HKETO; Cheng-Sim Lim, UCLA Film & Television Archive. All films and images © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Limited. All rights reserved.


Friday May 30 at 7pm

The Five Venoms (Wu Du)

Directed by Zhang Che.
With Jiang Sheng, Sun Jian
Hong Kong 1978, 35mm, color, 97 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

Long a favorite of martial arts movie fans, The Five Venoms was the defining late-career, all-male ensemble film for famed director Zhang Che. The dying master of the Venoms House tasks his one remaining disciple to bring to justice the young man's five
predecessors, now dispersed and fallen into ignominious criminality. The elder Venoms quintet, however, possesses formidable skills, each in a distinctive fighting style: scorpion, snake, centipede, gecko and toad. The youngest Venom locates them in a small town, and in this nexus of gold loot, shady cops and corrupt judges, a suspenseful mystery plot unfolds, punctuated by some of the most lucidly articulated and imaginative fight sequences of the martial arts cinema. Uncharacteristically for Zhang’s films, male bonding here is rent asunder by greed and betrayal among men.

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Friday May 30 at 9pm

King Boxer (Tianxia Diyi Quan)

Directed by Chung Chang-wha.
With Luo Lie, Wang Ping, Wang Jinfeng
Hong Kong 1972, 35mm, color, 97 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

Korean director Chung Chang-wha was among the foreign talent hired by studio mogul Run Run Shaw in the late ’60s to help meet Asian audiences' growing taste for tough action films. King Boxer’s gritty revenge tale met that challenge and more; it became the first kung fu film to be a hit in the West and paved the way for the Bruce Lee phenomenon to come. Actor Luo Lie brings characteristic intensity to his role as an “Iron Fist” adept whose fingers are viciously shattered by a rival gang. (The film was released internationally under the title Five Fingers of Death). In paradigmatic fashion, he then trains his way back to peak form and wreaks vengeance on his adversaries. Joining ferocious hand-to-hand combat with a nationalistic subtext (as did the contemporaneous Bruce Lee films), King Boxer unabashedly ascribes villainy (and inferior fighting methods) to the Japanese.

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Saturday May 31 at 7pm

The Love Eterne (Liang Shanbo yü Zhu Yingtai)

Directed by Li Hanxiang.
With Betty Loh Ti, Ivy Ling Bo
Hong Kong 1963, 35mm, color, 122 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

This huangmei (“yellow plum,” a northern Chinese style) opera of a classic Chinese folk tale recounts the forbidden fourth-century love affair between poor male student Liang Shanbo (Ling) and the heiress Zhu Yingtai (Loh). Discontented with her proscribed maidenly life, Yingtai dons male attire to study at the academy, to her father's dismay. When she falls in love with the dashing Shanbo, the stage is set for tragedy. In keeping with the gender-bending tradition in Chinese opera, The Love Eterne features two actresses—in fact, two of the most popular female stars of the time—as the doomed lovers. The result was a smashing success, now seen as the pinnacle of the huangmei opera on film. A prized director for the studio, Li Hanxiang takes full advantage of the Shaw Brothers’ technical resources, shooting on huge sets and using lighting and atmospheric effects to create an otherworldly air that can pivot from the ethereal to the foreboding.

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Saturday May 31 at 9:30pm

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Ai Nu)

Directed by Chu Yuan.
With Lily He Lili, Yue Hua, Bei Di
Hong Kong 1972, 35mm, color, 90 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

Chu Yuan’s masterpiece reimagines the martial arts school as a
brothel, transposing the martial arts master to the brothel's madam and the martial arts disciple to a prostitute who must be forcibly trained in the art of servicing men sexually. The film displays the remarkable gender subversion and perversion often found in the martial arts genre and in Shaw Bros. films alike: the madam is a lesbian who abducts virgins to work in her brothel, and she both exploits and is genuinely in love with her protégée, who is faking subservience while secretly seeking bloody revenge against all who have wronged her. The ambience is baroque atmospherics spiced with a whiff of terror. The frame is that of a murder mystery, with the requisite police investigation. The slain and dismembered are almost all men. “Perversity” meets swordplay, and the result is “pulp poetry.” (Tony Rayns)

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Sunday June 1 at 3pm

The 14 Amazons (Shisi Nü Yinghao)

Directed by Cheng Gang and Tung Shao-yung.
With Lily Ho, Lisa Lu
Hong Kong 1972, 35mm, 123 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

The 14 Amazons tells the story of the legendary Yang family of
soldiers, who policed the border with Mongolia during the Mongol incursions into China in the 13th century.  When the women of the Yang family ride out to engage the Mongols in revenge for the slaying of the family patriarch, the result is plenty of bloodshed. This screening features a new print from Celestial Pictures, also shown at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Following the revivals of interest in King Hu, Zhang Che and Chu Yuan, Cheng Gang is the next Shaw Bros. director ripe for re-discovery. His skillful filmmaking keeps The 14 Amazons bristling with swashbuckling energy.

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Sunday June 1 at 7pm

The Boxer from Shantung (Ma Yongzhen)

Directed by Zhang Che and Bao Xueli.
With Chen Guantai, Jing Li, David Jiang
Hong Kong 1972, 35mm, color, 126 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

This brutal fight film adapts the proverbial rise-and-fall gangster formula to the mean streets of 1930s Shanghai. Chen Guantai plays a poor hick from Shandong (“Shantung” according to the old Wade-Giles romanization) whose fearsome boxing ability allows him to muscle his way to the top of the Shanghai underworld. Bursting with typically Zhangian bloodshed and distinguished by Chen’s authentic kung fu technique (the film proved to be the star's breakout vehicle), Boxer also features Shaw luminaries David Jiang as a charismatic gangland don and Jing Li as a principled songstress. Among its highlights that have inspired a host of imitators: an iconic match between Chen and a Russian wrestler, and ruthless hatchet-wielding thugs, most recently revived as the “axe gang” in Stephen Chow's comic tribute to the martial arts cinema, Kung Fu Hustle.

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Sunday June 1 at 9:30pm

The Enchanting Shadow (Qiannü Youhun)

Directed by Li Hanxiang.
With Betty Le Di, Chao Lei
Hong Kong 1960, video, color, 90 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

This classic ghost story begins with a tired traveler, unable to find lodging for the night, who enters an abandoned temple despite the warnings of the local folk. At first, all he finds is a gruff swordsman and a beautiful young woman, but the otherworldly atmosphere remains unsettling all the same. Things turn darker once our traveler meets the young woman’s grandmother… The same story later formed the basis of 1987’s A Chinese Ghost Story, with (of course) much more advanced special effects. However, Li Hanxiang’s mastery of mood and mise en scène is here deployed to maximum effect.

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Friday June 6 at 7pm

The New One-Armed Swordsman (Xin Dubi Daowang)

Directed by Zhang Che.
With David Jiang, Di Long
Hong Kong 1971, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

Zhang Che revisits the premise of his epochal One-Armed Swordsman (1967) but with a gruesome difference. David Jiang portrays an arrogant warrior humbled by a nefarious opponent and forced to hack off his own arm. Years of waiting tables fortify his single-handed dexterity, but what finally launches him back on the path of bloody retribution is the untimely death of his comrade, played by Di Long. The actors were Zhang's preferred pairing of heroes in his ’70s films, and like other of the director's films about male bonding, The New One-Armed Swordsman is charged through with latent homoeroticism. Fuelled by the estimable action choreography of longtime collaborators Tong Kai and Lau Kar-leung, the film builds to an astonishing finale traversing the entire span of a bridge, and then some.

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Friday June 6 at 9pm

Come Drink with Me (Da Zui Xia)

Directed by King Hu.
With Zheng Peipei, Yue Hua, Chen Honglie
Hong Kong 1966, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

A young magistrate escorting prisoners is kidnapped by Jade-Faced
Tiger (Chen), whose gang of unsavory thugs is holed up in a temple, under the protection of a mysterious abbot. A handsome warrior, Golden Swallow (Zheng), effortlessly wards off an attack by the gangsters at a country inn, after which a drunken beggar (Hua) stumbles into the scene, asking for a drink. Thus the stage is set for a typically dazzling and elegant film by master director King Hu in which nothing is what it seems. For starters, Golden Swallow is the governor's daughter, on a mission to rescue her kidnapped brother. She is played by Zheng Peipei, one of the most distinguished martial arts actresses of her time. Critic Stephen Teo has convincingly argued that Come Drink with Me is a pivotal transitional film from the fantasy-driven martial arts films common in the 1960s towards the more realistic, harder-edged films to come.

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Saturday June 7 at 7pm

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shaolin Sanshiliu Fang)

Directed by Lau Kar-leung.
With Lau Kar-fai, Luo Lie
Hong Kong 1978, 35mm, color, 118 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

A bald and tautly muscled Lau Kar-fai (Gordon Liu Jiahui) headlines this exhilarating rendition of the legendary dissemination of the Shaolin martial arts. Lau plays a real-life figure long-since transmuted into myth, a Chinese commoner on the run from Manchu oppressors (including a glowering Luo Lie) who seeks refuge at the Shaolin Temple. The film is an absorbing account of his initiation into the vaunted Shaolin style, known for its emphasis on the external and the physical. But as depicted here the training process is very much an inner voyage of discovery; the novice must work his way through a series of torturous “chambers” before becoming the newly minted monk, San De.

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Saturday June 7 at 9:15pm

Hong Kong Nocturne (Xiangjiang Huayue Ye)

Directed by Umetsugu Inoue.
With Lily Ho, Zheng Peipei, Chin Ping
Hong Kong 1967, video, color, 128 min.
Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles

Although huangmei opera films like The Love Eterne helped put Shaw Bros.on the map, the studio also produced musicals of a more modern, and Western, kind. Hong Kong Nocturne is a prime example. This tale of three sisters—each associated with a different primary color—looks like a pop updating of the MGM musicals of the famed Freed Unit, but the film itself is shot through not just with music but also with melodrama, and even melancholy. As the sisters perform with their father, an aging stage magician, they gradually become aware that it is their talent, not their father’s, that keeps the act afloat. The three strike out on their own only to learn (shades of Valley of the Dolls) that show business is not always as glamorous as it seems. The film’s director came from a prolific career in Japan.

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