09 Feb Blood Brothers celebrates Lunar New Year with a list of their favorite Shaw Brothers titles
For Lunar New Year, we wanted to do another Shaw Brothers-focused article like the one we did last year and the biggest request was a sort of definitive “best Shaw Brothers films” list. While doing a top twenty list about the iconic Hong Kong company seemed obvious, if not necessary, I didn’t want to just throw down a list of my personal favorites. So in a moment of inspiration, we decided to pool our knowledge of the Shaw Brothers catalog with those super fans around us and other dedicated writers to create a Kung Fu Komittee. Members of this select group all submitted their own personal top ten lists for films from the studio and then the list was weighted (their top pick received ten points, their second pick received nine points, their third pick received eight points, and so on), and then the results tallied to present a Blood Brothers’ Brethren Top 20 Shaw Brothers films list!
*Reviews for specific films will be linked to the titles by clicking on the REVIEW next to them. For more information about the Kung Fu Komittee, see below the list.*
- The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (REVIEW)
When it comes to starting off this list, you couldn’t ask for a better way than the combination of director/choreographer Liu Chia-liang and his iconic star Gordon Liu. The duo will be seen a few times on this list and The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a great place to kick it off. While the film suffered a massive blow to its production when Alexander Fu Sheng tragically died during filming, The 8 Diagram is salvaged by an almost relentless energy that oozes out from every scene and is carried not only Gordon Liu, but by a robust secondary cast. The finale is a doozy and one that remains instantly ingrained in the minds of fans for its shocking amount of tooth removal moments.
- Five Element Ninjas – Written by Will Kouf (REVIEW)
Chang Cheh definitely made a lot of movies that are technically better than Five Element Ninjas, but in terms of sheer entertainment value it’s easily one of his best. From the fantastical wuxia touches to the plentiful fights and the ultra-bloody violence, Five Element Ninjas delivers the goods. Well, that’s what we think about it nowadays. It was the most successful of Chang Cheh’s four 1982 films, but to put that into perspective it only made about 1/16th of what the biggest film of the year, Aces Go Places, took in. By that time Hong Kong audiences had moved away from the studio-bound heroic bloodshed of Chang Cheh, but through the unstoppable resilience of the ninja the film has persevered in the hearts of genre fans worldwide to become a true cult classic.
- Delightful Forest (REVIEW)
There are a lot of films that are based on epic Chinese novels and while Delightful Forest is simply one chapter of one of the most adapted stories, it’s also one of the best. Ti Lung plays a man renowned for his skills (and one that killed a tiger which has since become legend) and while imprisoned he’s recruited to go reclaim a little merchant ‘town’ known as Delightful Forest. The storytelling here is key to its success, but really the combination of Ti Lung and director Chang Cheh make this film brutally effective in its action and characterization. You’re unlikely to see a blood soaked finale as intense as this one in most kung fu films and it’s enough to land it on our list.
- Golden Swallow (REVIEW)
After the success of Come Drink with Me, the Shaw Brothers didn’t take long to capitalize on the presence of its lead heroine Cheng Pei-pei’s Golden Swallow with a film where she…sort of…plays the lead again. However, the love triangle at the core of the film and the badassness of Jimmy Wang Yu make this film a must see for martial arts fans. Not to mention it also features one of the most heartbreaking and awesome duels in its finale that resonates long after the film has ended.
- Invincible Shaolin – Written by Justyn Hughes (REVIEW)
What do you get when The Venoms and Chang Cheh collaborate? Short answer – a classic. For me, Invincible Shaolin is the best Venom Mob movie of the lot. Superb fight scenes, great weaponry, and fantastic training sequences make Invincible Shaolin a true classic. Johnny Wang once again is excellent as the villain of the movie. So if you want great kung fu, comedy and epic training scenes, this movie is for you.
- The New One-Armed Swordsman (REVIEW)
While not a direct sequel to the first two One-Armed Swordsman films featuring Jimmy Wang Yu, the third/first spin-off The New One-Armed Swordsman is just as good (and according to some of the committee that voted on these films, better) as previous entries. David Chiang stars as an arrogant swordsman, who loses a bet and thus, his arm, before learning humility and then having to redeem himself with an epic showdown with the evil kung fu leader who took his arm. Like the previous films, The New One-Armed Swordsman features a lot of awesome sequences and even more heart to its story of redemption. Not to mention, it has one of the most surprisingly brutal deaths I’ve ever seen in a kung fu film.
- Death Duel (REVIEW)
Wuxia, in all of its glory, went through a transition where it went from being simple tales of swordsmen and their achievements and went further into the realm of the fantastical. This transition is notable in Death Duel, which makes perfect use of the odd blend of serious story telling, fantastical elements, a bit of hand to hand combat. The film is hinged on a stellar performance from Derek Yee and as a kicker for fans, director Chu Yuan throws in some fun cameos of other iconic heroes from his wuxia films. As a side note, this film is being remade currently with Derek Yee in the director’s seat. So look for that film to hit this year or next.
- The Boxer from Shantung – Written by Josh Parmer
Young, dumb, and full of blood… lots of blood, The Boxer from Shantung has and always will be one of my absolute favorite Shaw Brothers flicks. Chen Kuan-tai also got to dip his toes in dramatic acting here, and went on to establish himself quite nicely as an actor, alongside being an on-screen fighter. This movie also features the always fun, and badass David Chiang, as the bad boy in a gang who drags Chen’s character into the underworld with him. I believe that is what makes The Boxer from Shantung stick out to me, that being of course, its darker edge. Chen drinks, smokes, sleeps with courtesans and beats a lot of people down without a single regret. Not to say he is an evil character, but he’s not the completely moral all good-doer that we see in so many Shaw films. His character has a lot of anti-hero qualities about him, and I find that all the more engaging. The finale, is a complete blood fest, and also quite believable in how it’s sold. Sure, the blood is crazy neon red as it always is in those style films, but you feel like you are right there, and it puts you on the edge of your seat in the way a lot of other Shaw films haven’t. Also, Chen fights a Russian. No-brainer as to why it’s a masterpiece.
- Challenge of the Masters – Written by Will Kouf
A great martial arts film will often feature a training sequence, and the one in Challenge of the Masters is one of the absolute best there ever was. It’s fitting then that its first-time star, Gordon Liu (playing beloved folk hero Wong Fei-hung), would go on to become one of the most well-known and loved stars in the genre. Liu’s trainer is none other than Chen Kuan-tai, symbolically passing on the Shaw torch after making his own starring debut just four years earlier in The Boxer from Shantung. Their relationship is the highlight of the film, and within it we see one of the purest examples of director/choreographer Liu Chia-liang’s dedication to bringing both the physical and the philosophical aspects of real kung fu to the screen. Challenge of the Masters is one of the greatest films in the Shaw Brothers library, from one of the most important and influential directors in martial arts film history.
- Heroes of the East (REVIEW)
As a film hinged on a romantic plot, Heroes of the East is rarely as good as it thinks it is, however, it makes up for its faults in onscreen chemistry by having so many unique fight sequences that story becomes completely and utterly irrelevant. There are so many unique fights, even in the very saturated world of martial arts movies, that this film immediately sticks with fans and newbies alike as it plays out. Gordon Liu, who you will see repeatedly on this list, handles the lead role with charismatic ease (and hair) and it makes this film a massive piece of cinema entertainment.
- Mad Monkey Kung Fu (REVIEW)
As a director, Liu Chia-liang wasn’t nearly as prolific as some of his counterparts in quantity, but he sure makes up for it in quality. Mad Monkey Kung Fu, while showcasing all of his talents as a director, choreographer, and actor, is really a special film in how it expresses the passing on of talents from teacher to student in the martial world. Not to mention, the monkey style kung fu on display here is jaw dropping at times and the finale is worth the price of purchase alone.
- Crippled Avengers (REVIEW)
As the years rolled on, Shaw Brothers studios seemed intent on aggressively grabbing onto gimmicks to sell their films and Crippled Avengers (also known as The Return of the Five Deadly Venoms in some places – despite not having any relation to that film outside of cast) might be one of the more successful of those. A handful of young men are crippled by a vicious villain and his own crippled son and to take down the big bad they turn to a kung fu master to turn their disabilities into kung fu strengths. It’s definitely gimmick riddled, but the outrageous choreography, heartfelt performances, and non-stop action make Crippled Avengers a must see.
- The Master – Written by Justyn Hughes (REVIEW)
A blend of top notch fight choreography and comedy, The Master places amongst some of the best Shaw Brothers movies made. Yuen Tak showcases his excellent acrobatic ability as he faces a group of bad guys wanting to kill all in their own way. Also The Master has one of the very best opening sequences I have seen. Also stars Johnny Wang and Chen Kuan-tai.
- King Boxer
While King Boxer might be credited with kick starting the entire ‘kung fu craze’ in the United States during the 1970s, the film itself is a testament to how strong execution can make formulaic plotting feel reinvigorated and effective. While it’s not nearly as gimmicky as many of the other Shaw Brothers movies on this list, it’s still just as powerful and enjoyable. Outside of the shrill musical cue that partners with the glowing red hands of our lead Lo Lieh and his intense stare, this film is played out to be a gritty and realistic film that matched the standards and tone for a lot of Golden Harvest films – including the iconic works of Bruce Lee. As a film itself, King Boxer deserves to be on this list for its influential style and tone – even if the rest is executed at the highest degree.
- The Duel
Marketed as a sort of ultimate battle between two of Shaw Brothers most iconic stars Ti Lung and David Chiang, this Chang Cheh directed film is actually much more than the titular gimmick. Of course, it helps that both of these actors play ridiculously awesome badasses (Ti Lung even sporting a massive butterfly tattoo on his chest that he displays every chance he gets), but really the story of betrayal, loyalties, and gang warfare seems inspired by the yakuza films popular in Japan more than your normal Shaw Brothers film. The results? Landing at #6 on our list of the greatest Shaw Brothers films.
- Come Drink with Me (REVIEW)
We’ve already seen Chang Pei-pei’s character Golden Swallow once on this list, so it’s only right to see the film that ignited her career (and the career of director King Hu), Come Drink with Me. While this film probably owes a bit of its style to the samurai flicks that were popular in Japan prior to its release, there is a blend of King Hu’s distinctive epic narrative storytelling and the Shaw Brother tone and style that makes this film instantly distinctive. It’s got phenomenal characters, a complex story, and the visuals are as epic as the story it tells and it’s one of the most unique films that the Shaw Brothers ever released. It’s no wonder it hits in on our top five.
- The Avenging Eagle (REVIEW)
The powerful combination of actors Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng, and the villainous Ku Feng proved to be an unstoppable force of entertainment when it comes to The Avenging Eagle, but it’s the story that kicks this kung fu classic into the #4 position. It’s got revenge, a clan of assassins, and a slew of charming chemistry between our two heroes as they seek out to take down the very memorable Ku Feng with his golden eagle claw weapons. While director Sun Chung didn’t go on to do a ton of films for the Shaw Brothers, all of them are memorable fan favorites and this one tops them all.
- The Five Deadly Venoms (REVIEW)
While initially a mediocre box office return when it was first released, The Five Deadly Venoms earned its stripes by garnering a cult audience over time and launching the careers of six action stars for the Shaw Brothers – dubbed the Venom Mob by fans. The film itself is a bit cheesy and it’s often criticized by fans for lacking extensive action set pieces, but that didn’t stop it from earning the #3 spot on this list as one of the most loved Shaw Brothers films. It’s just a tribute to its unique blend of mystery, kung fu, and charm that gets it there.
- One-Armed Swordsman (REVIEW)
Jimmy Wang Yu and his iconic Fang Gang come in at #2 on the list in the original One-Armed Swordsman. The film is heartbreaking, visually stunning, and – while rather gimmicky – a blast to watch with plenty of action. The film spawned one direct sequel, one official spin off starring David Chiang, and a slew of outside spin offs including one where Jimmy Wang Yu and David Chiang team up. This character became so iconic that Jimmy Wang Yu reprised the role in another country’s hit franchise when he went to Japan to face off against the blind swordsman Zatoichi. It’s no wonder the one-armed franchise proved so fruitful when the original is a loved masterpiece.
- The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (REVIEW)
In what may be the least shocking revelation of all time, this film ended up in the top spot. It’s not surprising though considering how ridiculously well rounded the film is with its thoughtful story, diverse training sequences, and entertaining action. The combination of Gordon Liu and director Liu Chia-liang proved to be very fruitful (as you can see just on this list) and this film even launched two sequels, although neither of those matched the sheer awesomeness of this one. As a side note, this film not only garnered the top spot, but it handedly owned it piling up almost double the points that even the #2 spot accumulated. So not only did it receive top honors, it did it with relative ease.
And there you have it, the Top 20 Shaw Brothers films as voted on by the Kung Fu Komittee! As promised, here’s the list of everyone chosen for the Kung Fu Komittee. If they are a writer for another site, the site is linked after their name. Go and support your fellow kung fu fanatics. Don’t forget to also check out all of the Shaw Brothers films available from Celestial Pictures digitally on iTunes, Google Play, Hulu, Amazon, and other awesome streaming places!
From Blood Brothers
Eric Reifschneider (Blood Brothers Film Reviews)
Josh Parmer (Blood Brothers Film Reviews)
Will Kouf (Silver Emulsion Reviews)
Justyn Hughes (Asian Movie Pulse)
David Vo (Martial Arts Action Cinema)
David Chiang (So Reel Flix)
Gary Williams (Film Fan Dojo)
And of course, myself, Matt Reifschneider.
Written By Matt Reifschneider