Still from the movie Challenge of the Masters showing a bunch of martial arts fighters with bo staffs.

Good Kung Fu Part Two: Shawscope Volume One from Arrow Video

  • Howdy, pilgrim

    Ultraviolet Grasslands

  • As I mentioned in the first part of my coverage of the Shawscope boxed set from Arrow Video, prior to sitting down with it, I had only seen one movie from the set (Five Deadly Venoms). But I had heard of several others, including the only non-kung fu movie in the pack, The Mighty Peking Man, which should probably have been my favorite because it’s basically a knock-off of the 1976 version of King Kong, but, well…

    “Sure, why don’t we all go to hell together?” – The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

    Supposedly, back in 1999 when Quentin Tarantino was re-releasing The Mighty Peking Man as part of his Rolling Thunder imprint, he argued that it wasn’t some campy, guilty pleasure but rather a legitimately great movie. That… might be a stretch. But there are certainly some things to like in this ridiculous picture, which Roger Ebert called his “favorite Hong Kong monster film” and awarded three stars for “general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius.”

    While many reviewers who write about Mighty Peking Man spill a lot of ink about Swiss actress Evelyn Kraft in her skimpy jungle girl bikini – and she’s certainly nice to look at – the real highlight of this goofy film is the miniature work done by Toho’s own Sadamasa Arikawa, whose credits include the original Godzilla and plenty of others.

    In spite of that, however, Mighty Peking Man – like the ’76 King Kong it’s aping (pun intended), if we’re honest – was just not my brand of poison, and might be the only legitimate dud in this entire bunch.

    “More forgiveness, less aggression.” – Challenge of the Masters (1976)

    Kung fu movies – like any other subgenre, really – are not necessarily ideal for binging as they tend to blur together when you watch too many in rapid succession. As such, any set like this one is bound to have winners and losers that are determined as much by timing and by the very specific predilections of each audience member as they are by any quality of the film itself.

    Despite its iconic title sequence, Challenge of the Masters initially seems like it’s going to be one of those fairly forgettable installments, in spite of a number of interesting things going on in the story that probably aren’t apparent to anyone who doesn’t know kung fu movies or Chinese history (myself included). What looks, on the surface, like a fairly rote tale of rival schools and a headstrong young student who learns humility (and kung fu) through training montages, is actually an unusual origin story for real-life folk hero Wong Fei-hung, here played by a young Gordon Liu.

    For those who (like myself) don’t know much about Wong Fei-hung, you don’t really need to in order to enjoy the picture, but it’s worth looking up when you’re done. The massive book that accompanies this box set also points out that Wong Fei-hung was played by the same actor (Kwan Tak-hing) in at least 77 films between 1949 and 1981, making it the most times one actor has played the same character in movie history.

    The book also points to Challenge of the Masters as a major stepping stone in the filmography of director Lau Kar-leung (also known as Liu Chia-liang) on the way to his “milestone” film, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I sadly haven’t seen and which is not included in this boxed set. IMDb lists 26 directing credits for Lau Kar-leung, of which this was the second. Three more are included in this set, among them the next film in the rotation, Executioners from Shaolin.

    In the write-up for Challenge of the Masters, Simon Abrams notes that the film sees Lau “doubling down on his mission as a filmmaker: to promote the ‘moral discipline’ at the heart of martial arts.” And if anything sets this flick apart from the rest in this package, it might be that.

    “There are things in this world that you must do, even if you know they’re life-threatening.” – Executioners from Shaolin (1977)

    There’s a lot going on in Lau Kar-leung’s immediate follow-up to Challenge of the Masters. Not only is it yet another movie that takes place after the burning of the Shaolin temple, it also introduces (and kills off) a nonetheless recurring character who would eventually make his way to western fame as played by Gordon Liu in Kill Bill.

    Pai Mei (also known as Bai Mei) is a white-haired (and white eyebrowed) kung fu master played, in this film, by Lo Lieh whose super power is that he can, among other things, apparently retract his genitals into his body. (Some places online just refer to him as a eunuch, but that doesn’t explain the, like, vacuum suction power.) Yeah, that’s weird, but it’s also only one of the weird things this movie is doing with gender stuff.

    As the Rejected Princesses blog says, “Watching Executioners from Shaolin is like witnessing cinema from an alternate dimension. One where humanity never had a binary gender division, or at least overcame it sometime in the 1970s.” That’s… probably a pretty strong statement, but it is fascinating to see how differently Executioners handles gender, especially when compared to the other, largely male-dominated flicks in this set.

    In the liner notes for UCLA’s traveling show “Heroic Grace: The Chinese Martial Arts Film,” UCLA’s Cheng-Sim Lim said that she had included Executioners from Shaolin (and even used it to lead off the series) for its “playfully recasting martial arts in terms of sexuality.” While a part of that is in the form of Lily Li as Fang Young-chun, the wife and equal of the film’s male protagonist, it really comes down to their offspring, the young Wending, played by Wong Yue.

    Wending dresses in drag and practices a mixture of “masculine” Tiger Style kung fu and his mother’s feminine-coded Crane Style – and it is only through the unification of these two styles that he is able to overcome his nemesis, the “White Browed Hermit” Pai Mei. “Nobody can tell if you’re a boy or a girl,” the other kids tease him when he’s small, but ultimately, this proves to be his great strength.

    While the movie may be far from progressive, by current standards, it’s a fascinating oddity for 1977 and features some of the director’s best action sequences, including a number of fascinatingly-choreographed fights. Pai Mei’s style is sufficiently unusual – even without his odd crotch-based powers – that the fights between him and the eponymous executioners are never short of enthralling.

    Yeah, yeah, that was only three movies, I know, but I had a lot to say about two of them. In my next (and last) installment, we’ll finish out the rest of the Shawscope Volume One set with some films that, frankly, just keep getting odder, in many ways…