As the Old School Kung Fu Weekend approaches (July 24 and 25), our thoughts turn to these classic martial arts films and the people who made them. There were a ton of producers in Hong Kong and Taiwan who cranked out a lot of Kung Fu movies, but the best of the batch were the members of the Shaw Brothers organization. The original Shaw Brothers began making films in 1924 and by the time the big martial arts boom hit they were seemingly well suited to ride the wave. But in fact their films did not become breakout hits in the US and other export markets while the less polished and more sensational movies made by their low-budget competitors turned big profits.
The Shaw operation was run like a factory, with standing sets, a heavy production schedule, all technical facilities on premises and even dormitories for their star prospects, many of whom were attractive young women from the provinces. It was an old-fashioned, top heavy studio and it could not ride out the glutted market of the mid-70s, a time when every camera in Asia was cranking out martial arts films to sate the post-Bruce Lee international appetite for more.
This British TV documentary takes a very plodding and didactic approach to the subject, but it's tough to beat the access to the Shaw backlot, dubbing studios and talent development classes. The hand of the publicist is visible in the foregrounding of action star David Chiang, whom the Shaws wanted to position as the successor to Bruce Lee. It did not work - as good as Chiang was, Bruce Lee was a one-of-a-kind commodity - but the Shaws had some major hits with the 5 DEADLY VENOMS movies and kept the doors open for several more years.