21 Jun From Wuxia to Bashers, Epics to Gimmicks: Top 15 Chang Cheh Films
By Matt L. Reifschneider of Blood Brother Film Reviews
Every year, I attempt to craft a new list dedicated to my Shaw Brothers addiction, and every year I seem to give myself an aneurysm trying to whittle down the massive Shaw Brothers catalog into a theme and then into a list. This year in particular, I have attempted to do the impossible: make a top ten list for one of my favorites directors of all time, Chang Cheh.
As you can tell, since I made a top 15 list, I have already failed.
Chang Cheh’s legendary status within the realms of cinema cannot be understated. Not only was he a prolific director for the Shaw Brothers studio, he had a style and evolving method that continually pushed him to make art out of entertainment that resonates into all realms of the medium. Even within the genre of martial arts, Chang Cheh was able to continually change up his focus and style, ranging from early wuxia to his later gimmick-fueled Venom Mob entries. This diversity makes his filmography unique and versatile. Chang Cheh’s legacy only continues to live on in directors and artists inspired by his abilities.
I would be lying if I said I’ve seen all of his films. Quite frankly, there’s a lot of them and a large portion are not easily available for someone like myself. I’ve seen dozens at this point, and I felt it necessary this year to try and make a list of my favorites. Originally, this article and list would be a simple top ten, but in trying to do so I felt I was still shaving off too many films that meant something to me in some way. Soon it became a top 15 and I am still not at all pleased with some of the films that ended up not making the cut. However, I do not necessarily want to bombard the readers with too many entries.
As with all of my writing, I simply intend to inspire discussion on the topic. By no means is this list meant to be a be all, end all. These entries are picked through my own personal lens and I sincerely hope that no one agrees with me on every film in every spot. Chang Cheh’s filmography is too robust to expect that. So please, share this with your friends and promote his work, inspire discussion, and spread the Shaw Brothers love.
So without further ado, here are my top 15 Chang Cheh directed Shaw Brothers films!
The Deadly Duo is a film that had to incubate with me over a bit of time. Initially, it’s sporadic narrative and reliance on its two leading stars, Ti Lung and David Chiang, made it hard for me to accept it on a more critical level. Yet, with repeated watches, I’ve learned to simply enjoy what The Deadly Duo has to offer in terms of its story and its execution. The gimmicks, emotion, and message are all on point with this film, mostly through great smaller moments, and it is one that – even with my qualms in its execution – remains on my viewing queue.
This is one that will certainly have fans in a bit of an uproar on its placing. Five Element Ninjas has a very intense and very dedicated fanbase that adore this film. Sure, the film does end up making my top 15 list, but its placement lower on the list will be somewhat controversial. For me, the film lacks a certain cohesion that other films on the list use more successfully. With that being said, Five Element Ninjas features one of Lo Meng’s best performances, and the sheer amount of ridiculously entertaining fight sequences and gimmicky villains are hard to resist. On the entertainment scale, it scores very highly, and that finale, as our heroes must fight through the titular villains, is about as gloriously fun as it gets with the Shaw Brothers.
The Invincible Fist is a film I more recently discovered thanks to it getting a digital release on Amazon Prime and, boy, am I happy that I found it. Lo Lieh struts his stuff in this strangely dark and gritty wuxia and the film resists to follow a defined formula by throwing in an effective emotional and resonating romantic subplot in the second half to balance out the darker elements and more intense cat-and-mouse elements of the first half. The use of the setting, weather, and somewhat unlikable anti-hero paint a layered story that definitely holds its own. It was even strong enough to inspire a remake for the Shaw Brothers studio with Killer Constable down the road.
Early Chang Cheh films are very much grounded in classic wuxia style and elements, none more so than his epic character-driven film, The Assassin. Starring a young and very talented Jimmy Wang Yu in the title role, this film sticks to its epic storytelling guns as it follows our hero through years of training and the life he builds around his quest for vengeance. Between the emotional shades that this slices though, particularly the romantic subplot that really lays a great foundation for his character, and the epic wuxia style sword work, The Assassin is lowkey one of Chang Cheh’s biggest surprises as a film. With its dramatic heft and limited use of gimmicks, it’s not for everyone, but for me, it’s one of my favorites.
When 88 Films announced that Masked Avengers would be one of their first Blu Ray releases for their 88 Asia line, there was much rejoicing from me. Even with mixed reactions from kung fu fans, I love Masked Avengers. Within the Venom Mob era of Chang Cheh films, this one marks a film that takes the gimmicks and gives them a darker edge, as well as using the Mob members in some intriguing ways. For those looking for a more traditional Venom Mob movie, you’re going to get it with its brilliant finale and the high flying, rapid-fire choreography with enigmatic characters to spare. Masked Avengers is an underrated film in his filmography, for sure.
This is another pick that may raise a few eyebrows in its placement, particularly when it’s a film that I don’t hear nearly enough about from the various people in the Shaw Brothers fandom. The combination of directing by Chang Cheh, fight choreography by Liu Chia-Liang, and the spectacular cast on hand, Five Shaolin Masters is the perfect blend of awesomeness. It can be a bit formulaic at times, but the execution is so much fun and emotionally effective that the formula goes by the wayside for the sheer entertainment of the film.
The Delightful Forest is one of those Shaw Brothers films that takes a little bit of time to get going with its narrative. In the opening of the film, it throws its audience into the middle of a story and seems pretty formulaic, relying heavily on the gimmick of having its star, Ti Lung, handcuffed and fighting to help keep the audience hooked into its mystery. As the story unravels, however, it only picks up and pushes its characters and situation into increasingly intense territory. By the time it ends, it’s reached a fantastical breaking point. The journey of this film’s narrative alone is what kicks it onto this list.
A fan favorite from Chang Cheh, Crippled Avengers is the kind of film that’s made to entertain first and foremost – and quite frankly forgets to add much of a plot outside of the basic threading. Still, the substantial charms of the Venom Mob as both heroes and villains, the spectacularly gymnastic choreography, and the sheer charm that emanates from the film more than makes up for its foundational flaws. In terms of pure entertainment, Crippled Avengers is a film blistering from beginning to end that rides on the power of its cast, and while Chang Cheh certainly helps them channel their energies, this film is the Venom Mob unleashed to do what they do best with little in the way of deviations from their strengths.
The other day, I had a co-worker ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up. I answered that I want to be the drunken, wandering “lawman” that Phillip Kwok portrays in The Kid with the Golden Arm. While that’s not necessarily a true answer and I didn’t say that out loud, I certainly thought it and chuckled to myself for a few minutes. His character in this film is just the tip of an iceberg of instantly memorable, fun, and outlandish characters that litter the landscape of this film. Heroes, villains, traps, and some of the strangest plot twists you will ever see all make up why The Kid with the Golden Arm is one of my favorite Chang Cheh’s films. It’s not a film that will emotionally linger after the finale fades to black, but like the previously mentioned entry, it’s the charm and entertainment that make this one a film that I watch consistently.
It’s not very often that a sequel makes a list like this, let alone the third entry and one that exists as a spin-off of sorts, but that’s where The New One-Armed Swordsman sits. Replacing Jimmy Wang Yu with the charismatic depth of David Chiang as his own character is a brilliant move and allows the film to retain many of the same emotional and dramatic beats while throwing its own plot devices and characters into the mix. It truly takes the heart and elements of the franchise and gives fans an entirely new story that’s impressive as hell. Not to mention, it features one of those classic Chang Cheh shocking deaths that seemingly comes out of nowhere to whollup its audience.
This list will continually feature a ton of films with iconic actors like Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, or The Venom Mob, but when a film is built on the clash of two of the Shaw Brothers biggest box office draws at the time – Ti Lung and David Chiang – the film better be great. Fortunately, The Duel is just that. It’s fantastic. For a film built around what would seem to be one moment, The Duel is a pretty layered experience. The narrative has sweeping themes, the characters are robust and layered, and the build to the finale is as dynamic as one would hope by twisting various plots together into an explosive ending. Side note: if there was ever one film that made me want to get a butterfly chest tattoo, it would be this one.
By the time I reached this film in the list, I realized just how few Chen Kuan Tai’s films made this list despite how many of them I truly do enjoy. All is okay with the world though, knowing that The Boxer from Shantung would make the top five entries. The reason that it makes the top five? Like a few other films in the upper echelons of this list, The Boxer from Shantung is a classic kung fu film that runs on an impressive amount of emotionally charged character building. Using its gang violence and underworld power dynamics to build the world around our hero, it’s an effective roller coaster to see how the story unfolds and the brutality of the final action set piece – which seemingly and torturously lasts forever – and only solidifies this film as one of Chang Cheh’s best and one of the best in the Shaw Brothers catalog.
One of the perfect double features is watching the previous entry with this one, the dark and simplistic Vengeance! Both films feature layered characters, reacting to the corruption of power in the urban areas that they navigate, but where the last one delves into more complex character interactions and narrative choices, this one grinds out a very simple movie. Just look at the title. One word, a common one with emotional and violent assumptions attached to it that’s punctuated with the intensity of an exclamation point. The film is carried through its stripped-down concept by a surprisingly uncharming role for David Chiang that drips nuance and a shockingly artistic turn in visuals and narrative by Chang Cheh only cements this one in the top three of this list.
What else can be said about this film that already hasn’t been said before? Even on this site? The One-Armed Swordsman is wuxia extraordinaire. Chang Cheh was already solidifying himself as one of the cornerstones of the Shaw Brothers studio by the time The One-Armed Swordsman hit theaters and its unrivaled success on the silver screen took the director (and almost every other person involved with this film) to that next level. The film itself is iconic, from its performances to the gimmicks, and whether or not you believe it should come out as his second-best film, it’s hard to deny that this isn’t one of the director’s best – and most famous – films of his career.
Despite the fact that The Five Venoms, or The Five Deadly Venoms, is a rather well-regarded piece of Shaw Brothers cinema, choosing it for this position in the list is certainly going to come with its fair share of detractors. Still, for this writer, The Five Venoms is not only a significant film in my growth into the genre, but it’s a film that has an almost perfect balance between all of the elements that made Chang Cheh such a phenomenal director. In fact, the title of this article is a comment that manifested as a way for me to describe this film. It’s a film with serious themes, tongue in cheek gimmicks, emotionally powered fight sequences, and a narrative that blends a lot of styles. It’s a hodgepodge of style and choice, mixed to a potent effect and powered by spot-on performances. It may not be everyone’s favorite, but when boiled down I could not do anything but place it as the #1 film on this list.
Now that the list is complete, we’d love to hear from you! What films did I miss? What order would you put your favorite Chang Cheh films in? If anything, just take a few minutes to appreciate the glorious cinema that he brought us today and share it with your friends. And always remember, that if you kickstart a Shaw Brothers film and his name pops up, you’re in for a treat.