Hong-Kong-A-Thon: The Shaw Brothers’ 80s Exploitation And Horror Madness

The Shaw Brothers are best known for their kung fu classics of the 70s. But in the 80s they started churning out weird, over the top horror. On February 25th the Alamo Drafthouse is presenting an all-night Hong-Kong-a-Thon with a completely secret program. Could some of these 80s gore masterpieces be showing?

After audiences had their brains blasted during Fantastic Fest’s Hong Kong hoedown, Movies on Fire, there were only two thoughts running through our heads: “That hurt,” and “Let’s do it again, but harder.” So welcome to The Hong-Kong-a-Thon. We’ve gone through our archives, taken the most insane Hong Kong action movies we could find, stitched them into a single movie marathon and now we’re unleashing this Frankenstein’s monster of motion picture mayhem on an unsuspecting world. The Hong-Kong-a-Thon runs February 25th in Austin, and you can click here to find out how to get your tickets to this all-night madness.

The Hong Kong film industry has turned out thousands of movies since the 70’s and while we all know the big prestige items like The Killer and Drunken Master, there are a wealth of forgotten classics made by crack stunt teams, ace actors and razor sharp directors that have been consigned to the trash heap of history. The Hong-Kong-a-Thon is a tribute to these forgotten masterpieces, and while we can’t name any titles, in this series of posts we’ll be giving you some pretty big hints.

Shaw Brothers was Hong Kong’s biggest movie studio and the general consensus is that it reached its peak in the 70’s when directors like Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung were unleashing kung fu classics like Five Fingers of Death and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin that rocked the box office. Well, as far as I’m concerned, the general consensus is wrong. The best years the Shaw Brothers ever had were in the 80’s, and they only got six of them because they shut down their studio in 1986. 

The popularity of old school kung fu movies, a Shaw Brothers specialty, peaked in 1979. Modern Hong Kong movies came of age in the 80’s when the New Wave directors started making socially conscious, stylistically experimental movies set firmly in modern day Hong Kong, rather than in the misty mists of China’s past. In 1980, Cinema City set up shop and started dominating the box office with contemporary action comedies like Aces Go Places and, in 1981, they signed a cooperation deal with Golden Princess that gave the two companies distribution muscle to rival Shaw. There was a huge surge of youth movies, ticket prices kept rising, the number of screens kept growing (from 80 in 1979 to 151 in 1989) and TV was keeping more and more people at home.

In other words, Shaw Brothers was terrified. Time was running out and the sun was setting on their empire. So what did they do? Everything. The early 80’s were when Shaw Brothers pulled out all the stops. They had to show audiences something they couldn’t get on TV, leading to a glut of softcore porn, gory horror and brutal action movies. Exploitation explosions like Disco Bumpkins, Mobfix Patrol, Men from the Gutter, Sex Beyond the Grave and Seeding of a Ghost started to erupt out of the once-dignified house of Shaw. 

While the old men in charge were engaged in co-producting labor-intensive, Hollywood flops like Blade Runner and Meteor, younger directors like Wong Jing and TF Mous were hired to direct brain boilers like Mercenaries from Hong Kong. Rarely has an all-star cast been harnessed to a more crack-brained movie than in Wong Jing’s Mercenaries. It starred kung fu stalwart, Ti Lung, along with gangster-turned-actor, Chan Wai-man, international superstar, Lo Lieh, kung fu jester, Wong Yu (who was a passenger in the car accident that killed Shaw Brother’s great martial arts hope, Alexander Fu Sheng, the same year Mercenaries was shot), and even Jackie Chan’s opera school “brother” Yuen Wah. 

Wong Jing’s third film, Mercenaries from Hong Kong, features all the bad taste the portly auteur would become best known for in the 80’s and 90’s only with a big budget sheen. It kicks off with Ti Lung half-naked and working out to a cover of a Blue Oyster Cult song, before he straps on a shotgun and busts into a gang lord’s bedroom to kill the dude for peddling LSD. As the baddies flood the posh pad to kill the man who killed their boss, Ti Lung nonchalantly flips out of an eighth story window, lands in the back of a truck, then comes exploding out of it on a dirt bike. Next he assmbles a crack team to go to Cambodia and blow shit up. On the way, they wear matching track suits, stick a drill through someone’s hand and shoot arrows into people’s necks. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum was TF Mous’s Lost Souls. Mous would go on to make monumental exploitation masterpieces like Men Behind the Sun that mixed animal atrocity footage, nudity and extreme gore to tell the tale of Japanese wartime crimes. But at Shaw Brothers he became best known for Lost Souls, a harrowing film about illegal immigrants trying to reach Hong Kong and getting raped, tortured, burned to death and sold like slaves for all their troubles. It’s been called Hong Kong’s version of Pasolini’s 120 Days of Sodom, and that’s not too far off.

 

But these movies were just ants in the afterbirth compared to Shaw horror. Western horror flicks were huge in the early 80’s, but most Hong Kong horror came with a hearty helping of comic relief. Shaw decided to make their horror laughter-free. Their offices in Malaysia and Singapore had gotten a whiff of Southeast Asian black magic and in 1975, director Ho Meng-hua took folk magic, true crime stories, and a dose of xenophobia and stirred it into a chunky porridge called Black Magic. A Chinese lady living in Malaysia makes a play for a studly young architect, enlisting a wizard to cast a love charm. Unfortunately, the charm involves human bodies boiled down for oil, the removal of tongues and then…things get really nasty. That was just a warm-up for his Black Magic 2 which featured corpses reanimated with iron spikes driven into their skulls, immortality serums made from breast milk and pubic hair, and worms wriggling out of open sores.

Shaw’s neglected master craftsman, Kuei Chih-hung, had spent the 70’s making movies like Bamboo House of Dolls and Killer Snakes but in the 80’s he took Ho Meng-hua’s brand of horror and made a series of films — Hex, Hex versus Witchcraft, Hex After Hex, and The Boxer’s Omen — that made audiences barf in their popcorn. Boxer’s Omen in particular is nothing more than a 90 minute freak out that looks like the last 10 minutes of 2001: A Space Odyssey if you replaced the flashing colors and swirling stars with writhing maggots and bright green pus. And then you made your actors eat it. (On sidenote: Kuei retired from Shaw in disgust, tired of being treated like a slave. The one movie he made for another company in 1979 turned into a legal battle with Shaw and he was exhausted. He moved to America to open a pizza restaurant and passed away in 1999). This trend came to a truly traumatic end with Seeding of a Ghost. I am not going to talk about Seeding of a Ghost because I saw it once and it scarred me so deeply that I feel sick just thinking about it. All you need to know is that the ghost of the title does, indeed, get seeded. Graphically.

 

In 1986, Shaw decided that if they couldn’t beat them, they’d join them, and they became a TV network. Some people feel that their star faded in later years, but to me they went out on a high note, trying anything that worked, throwing it all against the screen and praying something stuck, giving young talent the keys to the studio in a desperate attempt to figure out what “the kids” wanted to see and, ultimately, turning out some of the riskiest, craziest, most sincerely experimental movies they made in their 30-year history. 

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