During its heyday, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. Studio — Asia’s biggest and best — made more films than any Hollywood major. But soon thereafter, its movies became mostly the stuff of legend, with business-savvy company head Run Run Shaw keeping them in the vaults until 2002, when his price was met. Since then, the larger part of the Shaw library has resurfaced on DVD and in occasional retrospectives. The Los Angeles Film Festival follows suit with a small but righteous selection: three bona fide classics and two amusing curios that hint at the breadth of genres actually tackled at Shaw Bros., extending well beyond the kung fu product the studio is automatically associated with. They also demonstrate that not all Shaw productions live up to the legend. Case in point: Hong Kong Nocturne (1967), admittedly the best Shaw film made by Japanese director Inoue Umetsugu, who routinely coated musical extravaganzas with a glossy, synthetic and slightly psychedelic plastic veneer. (Still, the leeway accorded the film’s three feisty heroines serves as a welcome reminder that the studio started out with women’s pictures.) Partly responsible for a mid-’60s turn toward macho action was seminal director Zhang Che, represented here by a characteristic “heroic bloodshed” kung fu epic, The Boxer From Shantung (1972) — a ’30s gangland saga teeming with superbly choreographed combat excess and proletarian anger — and one of his odder pop-projects, the truly campy caper-musical The Singing Thief (1969). Another major Shaw director, Chu Yuan, anticipated the intoxicating, ornamental style of his later Borgesian martial-arts labyrinths with the rape-revenge cult item Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972), a protofeminist exploitation classic tingling with lesbian power play, perverse eroticism and lurid violence. Even better is The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (1983), a veritable Requiem for the Shaws, laying waste to the notion of that kung fu staple: revenge. Director Lau Kar-leung, an actual martial-arts master and venerable fight choreographer (often for Zhang), achieved unprecedented mythic intensity through his dark, operatic mise en scène; the stylized, stripped-down sets are shaken by the powerful rhythms of extended yet precisely choreographed collisions of bodies and weapons. While one of two surviving brothers of a clan descends into madness, the other (Gordon Liu) finally realizes that his quest for vengeance leaves him no option but to turn his back on society and walk away, thus becoming Hong Kong’s worthy equivalent of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers.
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Chu Yuan's Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, screening June 20
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All screenings in the “Shaw Sensation” program take place at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum: The Boxer From Shantung, Wed., June 25, 9:30 p.m.; The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter, Sun., June 22, 9:30 p.m.; Hong Kong Nocturne, Fri., June 27, 4 p.m.; Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Fri., June 20, 10:15 p.m.; The Singing Thief, Sat., June 28, 1 p.m.