In an act of karmic restitution, last year Bob and Harvey Weinstein founded the boutique DVD label Dragon Dynasty to house the trove of martial-arts classics that Quentin Tarantino long ago instructed them to purchase. Dragon Dynasty's first 10 releases have all been fine-to-excellent, but the label really hits its stride with discs 11 through 14, all drawn from the catalog of Hong Kong's legendary Shaw brothers. In addition to the groundbreaking 1967 wu xia film The One-Armed Swordsman and the seminal 1981 kung-fu comedy My Young Auntie, the first SB Classics wave includes two of the greatest martial-arts films ever made: 1972's King Boxer (known in the U.S. as Five Fingers Of Death) and 1978's The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.
King Boxer was so popular in America that its conventions became the genre's conventions. Lo Lieh stars as a middling martial artist who learns the "Iron Fist" technique so he can fight off collaborating gangs of Chinese and Japanese thugs. After suffering multiple humiliations, Lo finds redemption at a national tournament, where he also learns that his new power can be a curse. More of a cult sensation than a popular success, Liu Chia-Liang's 36th Chamber stars Gordon Liu as a scholar whose family and friends are slaughtered by government-sponsored marauders. Bent on revenge, Liu sneaks into a Shaolin temple to learn their secret, sacred martial-arts methods, but the grueling series of tests—35 different disciplines, to be exact—teaches him patience instead. 36th Chamber's nearly hourlong training sequence overshadows the rest of the movie, but it's the stuff of action-cinema legend.
For those who've had to rely on imports and bootlegs for decades, it's great to see these films in relatively crisp-looking editions, with copious bonus features and multiple language and subtitle tracks. And the movies hold up well. King Boxer and 36th Chamber are handsomely shot and action-packed, with vivid characters and resonant themes. The former is about taking on responsibilities that are difficult to bear, while the latter is about how true individualism includes standing up to the good guys as well as the bad guys. Both show how heroism requires a combination of strength, determination, and problem-solving wit, and how troubles are best faced—in classic kung-fu-movie tradition—one opponent at a time.
Key features: Interviews and commentary tracks galore from Shaw veterans, scholars, and famous fans. Highlights include Tarantino and The RZA, on King Boxer and 36th Chamber respectively, explaining the appeal of oriental exoticism for latchkey kids on opposite coasts.