Being a martial arts movie fan in the UK is tough. When I first really got into the genre at the turn of the millennium, when I was at uni, a DVD label called Hong Kong Legends appeared and it was like mana from heaven. They released 101 classic martial arts films in total, largely from the Golden Harvest vaults. Through their beautifully remastered DVD's, usually packed with features, I was able to work my way through the early films of Jackie Chan, discover the joy of Sammo Hung's master works and uncover a wealth of classic action movies from Hong Kong. Unfortunately, as the decade moved on, key members of the Hong Kong Legends team left to work for Dragon Dynasty in the US and the label's output dwindled and eventually it folded completely. The Cine Asia label formed during this time, bringing out a number of modern Asian action films and even eventually re-releasing most of the big name Hong Kong Legends releases. They never delved deeper into the wealth of old school kung fu available in East Asia though and eventually they too fell by the wayside.
The biggest martial arts gap in UK home entertainment is the lack of Shaw Brothers films. Momentum Pictures started bringing out a few, but gave up before they really got going. Momentum have disappeared now too (although they were bought up by eOne), so these days fans of old school kung-fu are left with that one bunch of Hong Kong Legends releases, floating around in various formats, and little else to quench their hunger for retro kung-fu violence.
Praise the high-kicking Lord then for Terracotta distribution. Just when all hope was lost, they have introduced their very own 'Classic Kung Fu Collection'. Since the end of last year, Terracotta have been gradually treating UK fans to some rare old school kung fu classics. They've only got four out so far, but as my brief reviews of them all below will attest, they're well worth a watch and, fingers crossed, hopefully we'll be seeing more in the future.
The Shanghai 13
Although this isn't technically a Shaw Brothers film, The Shanghai 13 was written and directed by Cheh Chang, one of the studio's most prolific and respected directors. He was the man behind classics such as Five Deadly Venoms, One-Armed Swordsman and Blood Brothers. Although this lacks the grandeur of some Shaw Brothers classics, it still packs a punch.
The film's first half an hour or so confusingly sets up what, in essence, is a very simple storyline. Basically, a man named Mr. Ko steals some important documents which will expose traitorous intentions within the government during the Sino-Japanese war. A politician hires an influential man named Tai to protect Mr. Ko, due to rumours that Tai has control over mysterious martial arts experts, the 13 Rascals of Shaolin. So for the rest of the film, Mr. Ko keeps getting into trouble (often by rogue members of the 13, bribed by bad guy Mr. Hong) and the team fight off the bad guys, allowing him to escape.
And I'm not kidding when I say that's it. After the fumbled exposition and confusion as to who's good and who's bad in the first third, the rest of the film is just wall to wall fighting. If, like me, you love a good old school kung fu film, then this isn't a problem at all, but if you're looking for a tense and involving plot, look elsewhere. What counts is the action, and the film certainly delivers.
Each scene generally brings in at least one new member of the 13 and each one has a different special skill, be it speed, strength or a specific weapon. This makes for hugely varied fight scenes, which is a must when there isn't much else going on in the film. It does mean people are constantly getting killed off and replaced so there isn't much of a core group to root for and fights have little emotional weight behind them. When the choreography is this diverse and acrobatic though, you can't complain. It gets quite bloody at times too, to satisfy those with a taste for gore.
This is easy to recommend for lovers of old school fight heavy martial arts films. The first half an hour is a bit ropey and anyone not attuned to that era of the genre might be put off by the cheap look and lack of narrative, but I had a great time watching it.
The Dragon's Snake Fist
The Dragon's Snake Fist is an early film from the infamous Godfrey Ho. The director got a name for himself with his 'cut and paste' ninja movies in the 80's where he would re-edit and re-dub footage from his films and add in shots from other obscure martial arts movies to create new ones, usually with the word 'ninja' in the title. Made in 1979, The Dragon's Snake Fist was before Ho discovered this technique though, so it's actually got a comprehensible storyline and all its own footage.
The plot is textbook kung-fu movie fare. A kung fu master in the Crane Fist school is beaten by the master of Snake Fist in a secret duel. Shamed and crippled by this defeat, the Crane Fist master spends the following decades trying to make Crane Fist the number one school in the world. Unfortunately, the evil master and some of his vicious students don't go about this in a particularly fair fashion, opting to kill off the Snake Fist master and students through sneaky tactics or shear volume of attackers. Of course one student remains, Dragon, and he vows to take revenge.
Once again, it's the fighting you come for and once again it delivers the goods. The choreography isn't quite as varied as in The Shanghai 13, but it's still very good and the film is packed to the gills with fight scenes. There's no slow build up here – the film opens with the secret duel, which is great. Many martial arts films start with weaker fights and get better as they go on, but this sets off running. The finale is still the standout though, where more weapons and variety of styles are used. Good use is made of some different locations too, including some rocky ones which must have been quite treacherous for the fighters.
The film maybe could have benefited from losing a fight scene for pacing and spending more time developing the characters so you were more invested in them, but when you've got this volume of decent action, you can't complain.
The King of Fists and Dollars
Moving away from Hong Kong, The King of Fists and Dollars is a Taiwanese kung fu film from writer/director Ming-hua Chen.
There's a stronger narrative to this than the other films. In a nutshell, Lord Chien is a rich and greedy tyrant, who has a tight grip over the local populace. The wise old master Tuan won't follow him though and chooses to ignore his orders and threats, opting to live peacefully and train in private. When Chien mistreats local miners who are devastated by an accident, Tuan can sit back no longer and confronts him. This only makes matters more difficult though and as Tuan can see he is getting old and his days may soon be numbered, he needs to make sure he has a worthy successor. Ma, one of his senior students, is too lazy and the other, Feng, is very strong but lacks the brain power. Lu Tan, a young man who appears at the school, desperate to learn from Tuan, looks to have what it takes though. Only he might still need help to defeat Chien, who keeps hiring new and better fighters to do his bidding and has a few other tricks up his sleeves.
So there's more happening here than in the other titles and because of this the action isn't as constant. This works in the film's favour though, making for a better pace (too many fight scenes can get repetitive). There's still more action than in most modern kung fu films though and once again it's of a high standard. The really impressive fights are saved for the awesome final showdown. Just before this you get some impressive extended kata sequences too and the moves used in these are well integrated into the big fight at the end. You can really see the martial arts practise at work so, although there are a few extravagant touches in the finale, the choreography feels very real.
So The King of Fists and Dollars is a good all rounder really. It tries a bit too hard to be comic and its leads can't match the charisma of stars like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. It's never quite as spectacular as the other three titles either, but it's better constructed and still thrills in its fight scenes. It's no masterpiece, but it's a very solid entry to the genre.
Hero of Shaolin
These reviews have been written in the order in which I watched them so this was the last I saw and what a film to go out on.
In Hero of Shaolin, a group of monks head off on a journey to take their temple's Golden Sutra to Tibet after their Shaolin Abbot is killed by their treacherous teacher. The evil master has a crack team of martial arts experts at his disposal to track them down and along the way the monks get attacked by mercenaries, ninjas and even some ghosts/zombies!
I enjoyed the hell out of this one. Like the other films in this series, the action is fantastic. It's very acrobatic, with lots of summersaults and jumps. There's some wirework, but it's not overdone. There's plenty of weapon combat, which I always like to see, including a bow and arrow fight, which is something I've not seen done in that way. It gets a bit unpleasantly nasty at one point, when love interest Ah Mei is captured and abused. Aside from this and a bit of blood spitting here and there though, it's more of a fun action romp than anything else.
What sets the film apart from the others, making me award it that extra half a star, is how bonkers it is. Towards the end in particular, the film gets utterly ridiculous in the best possible way. You can see the notes I made resorting to exclamations like “sledging scene!”, “bad guy hides in a snowman!”, “kung fu fighting ghosts!” There are also some wonderfully cheesy lines of dialogue too like “Hey Mr can you take us to the other side?” “Of the lake? No. To Hell, yes!”
I could criticise the film if I wanted. The plot is pretty bog standard, although there's enough going on to keep you interested. The intentionally comic scenes aren't so great and the finale isn't well built up either, with the main bad guy just popping up out of nowhere. However, Hero of Shaolin is so endlessly entertaining I couldn't care less about its flaws. This is thoroughly recommended to those with a taste for it.
Hero of Shaolin, The Shanghai 13, The King of Fists and Dollars and The Dragon's Snake Fist are out now on DVD in the UK, released by Terracotta Distribution. Unfortunately, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed the films, the discs are a bit of a mixed bag.
In terms of picture quality, Hero of Shaolin and The Shanghai 13 look pretty good for their age, but the other two are disappointingly bad. They almost look like VHS transfers and The Dragon's Snake Fist isn't properly anamorphically enhanced. The audio isn't so hot either, although these old school kung fu films rarely sound good.
What really bothered me though was that The Dragon's Snake Fist and Hero of Shaolin only offered English dubbed audio options. I know a lot of people like the ropey old dubbing for comedy value, but there are plenty of purists like me who prefer the original language and find the comedy cockney accents off-putting. The other two have multiple audio options which is great, but it's a shame that Terracotta haven't pushed for this every time.
The Shanghai 13 is the only title with any notable special features. It's got interviews with cast members Lu Feng and Sonny Yu, which is a nice bonus. The others just contain trailers and some information about Terracotta.