Kung-Fu and the Shaw Bros.

Jaime Grijalba

Shaw Brothers Studio, a Hong Kong production company whose logo mimicked that of Warner Bros., was officially established in 1958, after years of attempts by the Shaw brothers to establish themselves as film distributors and producers in opera and theater. Their biggest successes came in the form of martial arts films for the general public, both local and international. They were also one of the first Asian production companies to openly hire filmmakers from Korea, Japan, Taiwan and even mainland China.

The most prolific among them was, without a doubt, Chang Cheh, who directed 95 films, many of them for the Shaw Bros. Among these is The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), a film that established the classic elements that would become the raw material for the development of the genre in future productions. These are films halfway between wuxia and kung fu: carefully choreographed fights made fluid by camera movement and editing, swordsmen with superhuman powers, martial arts academies with arduous training, and bizarre soundtracks, in this case incorporating free jazz.

But the film that truly internationalized the genre was Five Fingers of Death (1972), by Korean director Jeong Chang-hwa. This film influenced, and even today, continues to influence, filmmakers around the world. For a taste of its ubiquity, just listen to the first few notes of the soundtrack. It’s likely it will sound familiar, as it is an established part of our pop culture canon.

Although the Shaw Bros. did not capitalize so much on faces or star power –always preferring the acrobatic and choreographic aspects of production– they unintentionally birthed the career of Jackie Chan. With Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), by Yuen-woo Ping, instead of becoming the next Bruce Lee as was Chan’s intention, the direction of martial arts cinema and the actor’s own career were radically altered, incorporating elements of comedy and slapstick.

For almost four decades, the Shaw Bros. set the standard for both the artistic aspects and the distribution of martial arts films, creating sub-genres and coproducing films even with the legendary British Hammer Film Productions. Their influence was so great that they even provoked the emergence of competing production companies, which eventually forced them out of business. This is the tragedy of the greats.