In Love With… Shawscope Volume Two

Feature by   |  May 31, 2023

I should immediately point out that this glowing tribute to the ‘Shawscope’ volumes being released can be copied and pasted to apply to all. Currently, Volume One is the only other one available but, although I haven’t taken the plunge with that (yet), the presentation on these is superlative. There were not quite enough films on Volume One to prise one hundred pounds from me; I could feel my resolve weakening when I thought about a Blu-Ray of ‘Dirty Ho’ and ‘Five Venoms’, but remained resolute. Volume Two, however, is a different matter…

Times are tough all over the world, so spending the best part of a hundred quid on this felt slightly cavalier. But, as my wife pointed out, I rarely spend money on myself (underwear is remarkably robust these days, isn’t it?) and with possible unemployment looming and book sales able to be counted on one Simpson’s hand, this felt like a last hurrah. Who needs heating and food when you have a work of art clasped to your chest?

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)

The first thing to note when you unbox this gorgeous creation is how compact it is; I was expecting some great obelisk that I would have to knock a wall out to accommodate. This, however, is a sleek and stylish collection, popping out of the reinforced cardboard sleeve with David Niven-like elegance. I almost thought Amazon had sent me a very becoming calligraphy set rather than a Blu-ray collection, such was the form it came in. It hardly seemed conceivable that so many discs were secreted within somewhere. On opening the collection, the feeling of uncovering something quite special continued – I showed Mrs Pugh and, though she hasn’t been known to get over-excited by ‘Disciples of the 36th Chamber’, even she was fanning herself like a Jane Austen heroine. Each disc is placed in a cardboard holder that features the original artwork alongside the little digital beauty that is about to slip into the Blu-ray player. As expected, ‘36th Chamber of Shaolin’ gets a disc to itself; it is a new 4k restoration and one of the most lauded Shaw Brothers films, so this is hardly surprising. I won’t go into too many details about picture quality as there are far better and more in-depth examinations of the technical side out there. To my reasonably discerning eyes, ‘36th Chamber of Shaolin’ looked incredible and had me staring at my Panasonic OLED with a tear in my eye.

The combination of the presentation and content makes this second collection worthy of my infrequent ‘In Love With…’ award. The presentation is faultless; fans of these films will be especially appreciative of the reverence that they have been shown. Meanwhile, the list of Shaw Brothers films chosen for this volume is stunning: on disc one we get ‘36th Chamber of Shaolin’; disc two features the brilliant sequel,‘Return to the 36th Chamber’, and ‘Disciples of the 36th Chamber’; disc three has two of the most underrated Shaw Brothers films, ‘Mad Monkey Kung Fu’ and ‘Five Superfighters’; disc four nudges the others aside and gives us some prime Venoms films ‘Invincible Shaolin’/’The Kid with the Golden Arm’; disc five has two more Venoms films ’Magnificent Ruffians’ and ’Ten Tigers of Kwantung’ (though the latter is really more of a Shaw Brothers ensemble than anything else); disc six offers ‘My Young Auntie’; disc seven changes the tone with ‘Mercenaries from Hong Kong’ and ‘Boxer’s Omen’; and the set is rounded off with two later efforts from the studio, namely ‘Martial Arts of Shaolin’ and ‘The Bare-foot Kid’.

As a box-set, it couldn’t be much better of a representation of ‘The Shaw Brothers’; yes, we don’t get any Sun Chong or Chu Yuan etc, but there is only so much wonder a box-set can contain without tearing a hole in reality. I felt like a ten-year-old version of myself again when, during holidays at the seaside with my family, I was permitted to have one of those ‘Kellogg’s Variety Packs’ – never before had such choice and excitement been contained in one place. Only, unlike the Kellogg’s Variety Packs’ that invariably featured a couple of weird cereal-based experiments (that you always try and persuade your father to have), this selection is exceptional; the supernatural shenanigans of ‘Boxer’s Omen’ doesn’t interest me, but the rest is hard to fault.

Alongside the box-set is a lovingly crafted booklet about the films. As with many of these Arrow/88 Films/Eureka editions of Hong Kong classics, the essays are genuinely captivating – I say that as a keen reader and writer myself. You always get that understanding that those penning the words thoroughly respect the subject and that has always been something impossible to fake. The same should be said of the artwork for the whole set which dapples the folds with the original posters and stills. In a world where streaming media is so easy, it is so important to treasure physical media when it is presented with such respect. This becomes especially relevant when you hear about certain ‘problematic’ older films getting ‘tweaked’ to suit modern audiences; the thought that someone should ride roughshod over this great cinematic legacy is barely worth considering.

Invincible Shaolin (1978)

The unusual icing on the cake is the two CDs of music from the DeWolfe library, the production house that was regularly plundered by 70s Hong Kong cinema for their work. It’s one of those things that I would never have expected to appear in a box-set of films, but I’m so glad it’s there; I’ve finally realised what that bit of music in that Shaw Brothers production is. It’s a final masterstroke for the collection and left me with a newfound respect for the unsung heroes at DeWolfe library who created some superb soundtracks knowing that they might end up being nothing more than stock music. It brings all of the previous efforts together nicely and concludes an investment that is worth every penny I spent on it.

A final note must once again make mention of Mrs Pugh. I often tell her of the days of watching bootleg VHS versions of Shaw Brothers films, the kind that was seventh generation and degraded so much that there was barely any colour. Of course, you were just delighted to be able to see these films in the UK; the mere fact that they appeared like some lost Lumiere Brothers effort rather than something made in the same decade as Star Wars didn’t matter. My wife pointed out how the presentation of the films now on offer would barely be conceivable when I first encountered them. And from the original Warner Brothers VHS releases, to the gorgeous ‘Made in Hong Kong’ remasters, down to the bootlegs needed to fill the collection and all the way to that incredible moment when ‘Celestial Pictures’ came into being, I have always appreciated the dedication of a few to bring these masterpieces to a new audience. Each new medium or resolution makes me thankful for that devotion to the art. Many of the stars we watch in these films are now deceased or barely alive, and you wonder if they could ever have conceived of the impact their efforts would continue to have. Would they have put life and limb on the line while imagining that on the other side of the world, decades later, some feckless Anglo-Slav would be looking at their creation with awe? Probably not. Who can blame them for making entertainment for just the immediate audience? Yet unwrapping a box-set of such quality, seeing the work that went into remastering it, filling the discs with endless content and giving food for the mind with thoughtful essays, reminded me of how many lives have been impacted by The Shaw Brothers studio. I look forward to volume three and hope that Amazon has another dizzy spell where the first volume drops down in price. That said, ‘Shawscope: Volume Two’ is worth full price and then some. That’s all from me – I’m just off to cradle the little darling in my arms once again.

Shawscope Volume One and Two are available now from and
Vasily Pugh
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