Cinephile's Notebook: Return of the 36 Chambers 

The Shaw Brothers Studios movies that provided creative fodder for Tarantino, the Wu-Tang Clan, and others aren’t quite the grindhouse fare that springs to mind; ongoing DVD releases from Celestial Pictures (with 760 restored DVDs hitting the market over the last three years and later this year) and B.A.M.’s upcoming nine-film retrospective will, hopefully, rectify some of the damage done by the cheesy dubbing, poor picture quality, and, most damagingly, the chopping up of the ShawScope anamorphic ratio that characterized most U.S. prints and video releases of Shaw Brothers movies. It’s remarkable what a difference a competent transfer makes: without the panoramic, strong-arming palette (feudalism has rarely looked so vibrant) of Chang Cheh’s Blood Brothers, its quotations from the story of David and Bathsheba wouldn’t go down so easily. And though King Hu’s Come Drink with Me is made with an enthusiasm which far outpaces its precision (check out the fake severed hand in the opening scene), its obsessively styled soundstage sets hint at an awareness of its own spectacle- of course, without the picture quality of the new Celestial DVDs, the effect is lost in translation. (Another Hu film, Dragon Gate Inn, is conspicuously absent from both this series and the DVD releases as yet; given that it’s been remade by Tsui Hark and waxed rhapsodic over by Tsai Ming-liang, this is rather surprising.)

Of course, as their influence over the above-mentioned cultural luminaries would seem to indicate, even the choppiest import of a Kung Fu movie still has the universality of its wordless, kinetic action scenes going for it. Not so for the other genres churned out by Shaw Brothers; this is probably why its taken so long for the world to catch on to Li Han-hsiang (three of the films screened by B.A.M. are his; he was also the major focus of another Shaw Brothers retrospective, at the 2004 New York Film Festival). The highlight of the B.A.M. series is his swooning operetta The Love Eterne, which Ang Lee claims to cry over every time he sees it; Li’s commitment to the never far from ridiculous girl-dressed-as-boy-meets-boy melodrama and arrangement of the Eastern-rococo set dressing into smaller frames within the Shawscope screen constitute the most exquisite set of quotation marks imaginable.     

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