Hailing from the freewheeling, hard-fighting 1970s, when martial arts movies first came to the attention of Western audiences, SBS On Demand's special collection of classic Kung Fu films feature some of the most blistering action sequences ever recorded. Most of these hail from the famous Shaw Brothers production house and director Chang Cheh, Hong Kong’s most prolific merchant of high-flying mayhem.
At the height of his powers in the mid-70s, he was directing between five and eight feature films a year. But even at such a manic production rate, his films retain his signature energy and brio, making him one of the most influential and revered filmmakers of the time.
Bloody Parrot (1981)
A rollicking blend of martial arts action and supernatural horror, this genre hybrid sees mercenary swordsman Yeh Ting-feng (Jason Pai Piao) team up with dogged cop Tieh Han (Tony Liu) and concubine Pei-yu (Jenny Liang) to track down the titular mysterious bird after he’s framed for robbing the emperor. Director Shan Hua throws all kinds of weirdness into the mix, including a vampire, demonic possession, evil witches and a lot of casual nudity, but the breakneck pacing and superb action choreography carry the day.
Boxer From Shantung (1972)
A precursor to the “heroic bloodshed” movies that would dominate Hong Kong cinema in the ’80s and ’90s, this grim, violent crime drama sees country bumpkin Kung Fu prodigy Ma Yung Chen (Kuan Tai Chen) befriend crime boss Tan Sze (David Chiang) and begin working his way up the criminal ranks, attracting the enmity of rival crook Yang (Chiang Nan).
Set in 1930s Shanghai, the film kind of plays out like a culture-swapped riff on Scarface, culminating in an epic, bloody and finely choreographed battle that took 10 days to shoot at a time when Chinese studios were banging these things out as fast as they could. Obscure in the West, Boxer From Shantung remains one of the most influential films on the list, inspiring a generation of filmmakers such as John Woo and Ringo Lam.
Five Shaolin Masters (1974)
This film’s also known as 5 Masters of Death, which should tell you everything you need to know. Following the sacking of the legendary Shaolin Monastery, five Kung Fu acolytes skill up to rain bloody retribution on the Qing martial artists and Manchu traitors responsible for the temple’s destruction.
This is basically the Avengers of ’70s Kung Fu movies, with director Chang Cheh (The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Water Margin) bringing together a number of the genre’s heavy hitters, including Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chi Kuan-Chun and Alexander Fu Sheng for an all-in brawl. There’s little in the way of plot, superfluous dialogue, romance or even much characterisation, to be frank – but there sure is a lot of guys hitting each other in creative and impressive ways.
The Five Venoms (1978)
This one’s also known as Five Deadly Venoms. Yet another film from the prolific Chang Cheh, this effort is sort of the Ocean’s 11 of martial arts movies, in that it stars the “Venom Mob” – Shaw Brothers Studio’s stable of regular Kung Fu character actors and fight choreographers, who had all studied together at the famed Peking Opera School before moving into movies.
In terms of plot, the film sees a dying martial arts master (Dick Wei) sic his last pupil, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), on his five previous pupils, fearing they are using his techniques for evil. Each of them fights in a different, animal-based style – Scorpion, Toad, etc. – giving us a lot of variety in the mayhem this time round.
Killer Clans (1976)
Somewhat reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) or, if you prefer, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Killer Clans also sees a lethal killer caught up in the rivalry between two powerful groups. In this case it’s Chung Wa, who is hired to take out Uncle (Ku Feng), leader of the Lung Men Society, by rival clan the Roc Society. What should be a simple mission turns into a quagmire of intrigue, with plots within plots and dozens of characters conspiring to off each other in imaginative and painful ways.
Crippled Avengers (1978)
Crippled Avengers – also directed by prolific director Chang Cheh, who co-wrote the film with Ni Kuang – sees warlord Dao Tian-du (Chan Kuan-Tai) turn evil after the death of his wife. He holds a town hostage with his reign of fear, but four of his crippled victims train with a wise master in an effort to eliminate the tyrant.
Return To The 36th Chamber (1980)
The great Gordon Liu (Kill Bill) stars in the second of the 36th Chamber series, being preceded by The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin (1978) and followed by Disciples Of The 36th Chamber (1985).
In those, the master head-kicker played Shaolin monk San Te, but here he’s actually an imposter – a good-hearted conman, Chao Jen-Cheh, who pledges himself to the Shaolin Temple after his failure to help the oppressed workers of a local textiles factory against their brutal bosses clues him into the fact that he needs to learn some real martial arts. This he duly does, and all the glorious mayhem that Lui is so good at is unleashed. Goofy comedy and incredible fight scenes go hand in hand in this enjoyable romp.
Invincible Shaolin (1978)
Yet another Shaolin Temple vs. Qing Dynasty epic, and yet another film directed by one-man movie industry Chang Cheh. Also known as Unbeatable Dragon, Shaolin Bloodshed and North Shaolin vs. South Shaolin, this one features the Venoms and centres on a plot by a Qing warlord to defeat the Northern and Southern Shaolin Temples by framing the former for murdering the students of the latter. Kung Fu carnage ensues when the two schools clash, only to team up to take down their true enemy once they twig what’s actually happening.
Shaolin Martial Arts (1974)
Chang Cheh is at the Shaolin Temple vs. Qing battle once more! It’s fun if you imagine all these happening not just sequentially, but simultaneously, with Cheh filming various stories around the same big events in a multi-part epic that would shame Marvel. This time round, two students (Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun) escape the destruction of the Shaolin Temple and study under various masters in order to beat some retribution out of the Qings’ two best fighters (Wang Lung Wei and Liang Chia Jen).
The Water Margin (1972)
Adapted from the classic novel by Shi Nai’an, which is considered to be one of the four pillars of Chinese literature, this is Chang Cheh and the Shaw Brothers’ historical epic. Also called Outlaws of the Marsh and Seven Blows of the Dragon, The Water Margin sees warrior Jade Unicorn (Tetsurō Tanba, of You Only Live Twice) join the outlaws of Liangshen Marsh in their battle against the corrupt government. With 108 heroes at its disposal – it’s a big gang – and countless bad guys for them to face off against, The Water Margin boasts some electrifying action sequences, and Chang Cheh and his co-writer, Ni Kuang, deftly pare down the original sprawling narrative into a brisk, two-hour movie that never fails to entertain.
Stream all the Kung Fu movies you can handle at SBS On Demand.