by Tim May
The Shanghai Killers is a film starring James Tien, a common bit player in Bruce Lee movies. Our VHS copy, however, credits him as Paul Tien. An easy mistake to make, really. I often tell people The Graduate starred Matt Hoffman and Sunset Boulevard was directed by Thomas Wilder.
This film’s about a swordsman named Shih who wields a sword that everybody wants for some reason. One bandit asks to see Shih’s sword, and Shih refuses, asking, “Why should I let you see my sword?” The bandit pretty much says, “‘cuz I said so.” This goes back and forth for five or ten minutes, until they finally break into a fight, a pretty impressively choreographed sequence in which Shih decimates the bandit without ever drawing his sword.
We learn that Shih’s sword is some special sword which, when combined with another sword made by the same swordsmith, is the most powerful weapon ever forged. A generic gang is in possession of the other sword, so they’re after Shih for the whole movie. Plus there’s another guy acting on his own (well, he’s also working with his slut cousin, but whatever), trying to get both swords.
I didn’t count how many times the word ‘sword’ is uttered in Shanghai Killers, but it has to be the highest number a single word has ever appeared in one film. Here’s what a typical scene from the film looks like.
INT. RESTAURANT DAY
SHIH sits at the bar, his sword at his side, on the defensive from the bandits who are after his sword. A bandit approaches Shih and his sword.
BANDIT- Hey, let me see your sword.
SHIH- No, thanks, me and my sword are just trying to have a drink in peace. There will be no swordplay today involving any kind of swords.
BANDIT- Hey, I just want to see your sword. I like swords. What can I say? I’m a sword afficionado. I have them hanging all over my wall like a big sword dork. Swords are my life. sword.
SHIH- Sorry, sword friend. Lots of bandits with swords have been after this sword lately, as it’s a special sword, handed down to me by a legendary swordsmith (who made swords). Swords are my life, too, but swords are not toys and I won’t show my sword to just anyone. sword sword sword.
The fight scenes in the film are actually pretty fucking exciting and well staged, especially the scenes in which Shih doesn’t draw his sword, which makes for creative and unique action sequences.
It’s worth noting that this VHS tape has the absolute worst transfer of any film I’ve ever seen. The film was shot in color, but it looks like a lightly tinted German expressionist movie. This transfer makes Good Times VHS look like Criterion Blu Rays. It looks like someone wiped their ass—repeatedly, for many months—with the film print they used to make this transfer.
The Shanghai Killers is a solid kung fu movie for this time period. It moves along at a brisk pace and contains many memorable action setpieces, not least of which is the final brawl, part of which is embedded below. Even the worst of these types of films can be made entertaining by the horrendous dubbing, but The Shanghai Killers transcends that, at least somewhat.