Alongside Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, one of my favourite figures in Hong Kong martial-arts cinema has long been Sammo Hung (a.k.a. Sammo Kam-Bo Hung). He’s a hugely skilled martial-arts performer and charismatic actor, but also one of the best directors of the genre and a top-quality action choreographer. One of the famous ‘Seven Little Fortunes’ in his youth, alongside ‘brothers’ Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, he’s a much-loved figure in Hong Kong but not quite as well known in the west, at least outside of martial-arts aficionados. When Eureka announced they were releasing a boxset of three of his films, made when he was at the top of his game, I practically jumped for joy. The set is imaginatively titled Three Films With Sammo Hung and features newly remastered Blu-Rays of The Iron-Fisted Monk, The Magnificent Butcher and Eastern Condors. My thoughts on the films follow.
The Iron-Fisted Monk (a.k.a. San De huo shang yu Chong Mi Liu)
Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Feng Huang, Pro Hung Ching, Yu Ting
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Sing Chen, James Tien, Hark-On Fung, Hoi-Pang Lo
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 93 min
The Iron-Fisted Monk was Sammo’s directorial debut, though he’d been acting in films since childhood. He also stars in it as Husker, a man living and studying at a Shaolin temple after being saved by the titular Iron-Fisted Monk (Sing Chen) during a clash with the Manchus, who were beating him up for standing up for his uncle, who they were terrorising. He longs to get revenge on the Manchus (his uncle died at their hands) and can’t wait to complete the years of training to be able to leave the temple, so sneaks out one night. He’s caught by his master (James Tien) but is allowed to leave, as his master understands his motives and even teaches Husker a few special moves to send him on his way.
Meanwhile, a Manchu official (Hark-On Fung) and his minions rape a young woman (Chu Ching) who commits suicide after the incident. Her brother Liang (Hoi-Pang Lo) is enraged and kills a random Manchurian to get revenge. The murder is pinned on Husker though, so he comes under threat from the Manchu forces in the area. Husker and Liang go to the Iron-Fisted Monk for help and he talks Husker into training Liang’s dye factory co-workers in kung-fu, to stand up against the Manchus.
This is a fairly conventional period martial arts movie, though it’s one of the earliest examples of kung-fu comedy. As the plot summary above might suggest, this isn’t an out-and-out laugh-riot though. The tone often abruptly jumps between comedy and drama and there’s some pretty tough content here. The rape scene, in particular, is pretty graphic and nasty. There’s more nudity and blood than a lot of productions from the era too, making for a sleazy watch at times.
On the whole, it’s very entertaining though. Sammo was just getting started as a director here so it doesn’t quite have the dynamism of his later work, but there are some nice shots here and there and more camera movement than many films of the time.
Sammo was the stunt co-ordinator too here and does some fine work. There are some wonderfully acrobatic displays from the portly actor and the final fight is particularly impressive. There’s a great moment where Sammo and Sing fluidly switch opponents mid-fight that’s gracefully executed.
Overall then, it’s a simple, straight-up kung-fu revenge movie. It has a nasty edge that sets it a little apart from the crowd, as well as doses of humour that were uncharacteristic at the time. Lurching between these two styles doesn’t always work, but the choreography and staging are decent, even if Sammo has done better since. So, it remains a solid, no-nonsense martial-arts drama that fans of the genre will enjoy.
The Magnificent Butcher (a.k.a. Lin Shi Rong)
Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
Screenplay: Edward Tang (as Ching-Sheng Teng), Jing Wong
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Tak-Hing Kwan, Hoi Sang Lee, Biao Yuen, Mei Sheng Fan, Hark-On Fung, Kar Lok Chin, Kam Cheung
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 109 min
The Magnificent Butcher sees Sammo play the legendary Lam Sai-wing (a.k.a. Butcher Wing), who was a student of the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung (best known in the West as the lead character of the Once Upon a Time in China films). Wing’s long-lost brother Lam Sai-kwong (Kam Cheung) arrives in town with his wife Yuet-mei (Ching Tong), but Ko Tai-hoi (Hark-On Fung), the son of Master Ko (Hoi Sang Lee), takes a fancy to the young lady and abducts her.
Wing and Sai-kwong go to rescue her, with the help of Beggar So (a.k.a. the Drunken Master, played by Mei Sheng Fan), but end up taking Master Ko’s Goddaughter Lan-hsing (Qiqi Chen) too, who didn’t need rescuing. While she stays at Wing’s house that night, Tai-hoi sneaks in and rapes and kills her. Tai-hoi points a finger at Wing as the culprit, so a furious Ko and his goons descend on Fei-hung’s Po Chi Lam clinic to get Wing and his comrades.
As the above synopsis suggests (and I left out a lot), The Magnificent Butcher is rather more complicated than most martial-arts films. With a large cast of characters and cases of mistaken identity a-plenty, it’s perhaps a little too convoluted, but I never found myself getting lost among the chaos and the plotting helps maintain interest between fights. In fact, I’ve long regarded the film as one of my all-time favourite martial-arts films. It doesn’t have the visual artistry of Crouching Tiger or Yimou Zhang’s work, but in terms of pure entertainment value and staging of action it’s rarely been surpassed.
The choreography is the star here and what brings me back to the film time and time again. With the legendary Woo-Ping Yuen in both the director’s chair and down as fight co-ordinator, it’s no surprise that the action is so good, but here he outdoes himself. The fights are so fluid, diverse and imaginative, it constantly has you picking your jaw up from the floor. Standout sequences include a cleverly constructed calligraphy fight (yes, you read that correctly) with Tak-Hing Kwan, who played the character of Wong Fei-Hung in around 90 films and a TV series, showing amazing skill at the ripe old age of 74. The finale is thrillingly fast-paced too and builds from fluid, classic kung-fu moves to acrobatic stunts involving props.
It’s not just the fight scenes that are well-choreographed either. There’s some wonderfully staged physical comedy too, particularly in scenes featuring Beggar So which match the wonderful work done in the equally excellent Drunken Master series. Much of the comedy is pretty low-brow and a scene featuring a blind man might be deemed offensive to a modern Western audience, but for the most part, it’s quite funny, keeping you entertained in-between the plentiful action scenes. Like The Iron-Fisted Monk, the film lurches between comedy and melodrama, but I feel the balance is more effective here.
It’s a film I could criticise if I wanted to, but I don’t want to. It may not be as stylish or finely crafted as a drama than some ‘classier’ kung-fu films that came later, but for mind-blowing choreography it has few peers.
Eastern Condors (a.k.a. Dung fong tuk ying)
Director: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung
Screenplay: Barry Wong
Starring: Sammo Kam-Bo Hung, Biao Yuen, Haing S. Ngor, Joyce Godenzi, Chi Jan Ha, Ching-Ying Lam, Melvin Wong, Woo-Ping Yuen, Corey Yuen, Billy Lau
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 98 min (94 min – export version)
Eastern Condors has a very different setting and style than the other two films in the set. Taking place shortly after the US have pulled out of Vietnam, we follow a motley crew of Asian prisoners who are given a shot at freedom if they pull off a dangerous mission for the American government. They are tasked with heading back into Vietnam to find and destroy a hidden bunker containing a depot of missiles left over by the US during the conflict. The mission sees many of their group killed as the Vietnamese army are hot on their tail and a mole is leaking information. Nevertheless, they fight on.
The film flopped in its native Hong Kong but did pretty well elsewhere and is highly regarded among Asian action movie fans. I can see why Hong Kong audiences may not have liked it, as war movies were not common in the country (they’ve never been involved in any modern conflicts for one) so it feels markedly different from their usual output. I adored it though. I’ve seen it before, but a long time ago, and this made me realise just how good a film it is.
As ever, it’s the action that’s the prime selling point. There aren’t as many extended fight scenes as in most of Sammo’s films, but there are a lot of swift, inventive take-downs, amazing stunts and explosive gunplay. Sammo had a few films under his belt as director by this point so he was much more confident than with The Iron-Fisted Monk. There’s lots of fluid camera movement and the pacing is spot-on, with very little down-time but not so much repetitive action that it gets boring. Aided by a decent budget, the film looks great too, with some nice location work and an awesome bunker set for the final showdown.
Tonally it’s fairly serious, so works as a war movie, but still has quite a lot of comedy to keep it entertaining rather than earnest. As such, it’s hardly a harrowing, anti-war drama, but as an action-movie it’s stupendous.
There’s a great cast, with many stars of Hong Kong action cinema making up the Dirty Dozen inspired crew. Woo-Ping Yuen is even given a rare on-screen role and the Cambodian Oscar-winner Haing S. Ngor has a decent part too. Sammo is great as usual and his younger ‘brother’ Biao Yuen, another one of my favourite Hong Kong stars of the era, is particularly good. Biao gets to show off his amazing skills as an acrobat and fighter, as well as showing how charismatic he can be in a fun role as street-hawker roped into the mission. I’m not sure what’s going on with his Flock of Seagulls haircut though or his big red trike! Holding their own in the action stakes are a trio of tough women too – Joyce Godenzi (who would later marry Sammo), Chi Jan Ha and Chui Man-yan. Their Cambodian guerrilla characters are introduced in a particularly cool midnight attack on a group of Vietnamese soldiers.
The film borrows liberally from other war and action movies, such as the Rambo series and The Deer Hunter (including a Russian roulette sequence played by kids!) but puts its own spin on them so gets away with it. It has its own Asian action twists to the genre anyway so sits well apart from anything the West has to offer.
Overall then, being stuffed to the gills with superb set-pieces, macho drama and a surprising amount of comedy, it’s one of Hong Kong’s finest action movies and comes highly recommended.
Three Films With Sammo Hung is out on 7th October on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. The transfers look fantastic – clean, detailed and sharp yet natural-looking. You get a variety of audio options too, which cover all the bases you could ask for and the ones I listened to (the original mono tracks) sounded solid.
You get plenty of special features too:
– Stunning 1080p presentation of all three films on Blu-ray, from brand new 2K restorations and in their original widescreen aspect ratios.
– Original Cantonese mono tracks for all three films
– English audio options, all three films include the option of classic English dubs from the films original international releases, and the newer English dubs produced for later home video releases
– The Iron-Fisted Monk – Fully Restored Cantonese mono track, with original sound effects reinserted after being absent from previous releases
– The Magnificent Butcher Alternate Cantonese mono track featuring a unique mix and different music cues
– Eastern Condors: The Export Version [94 mins] Presented in 2K, a shorter edit of the film released to international markets
– Newly translated English subtitles (optional) for all three films
– Brand new audio commentaries on Eastern Condors and The Magnificent Butcher by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema
– Brand new audio commentary on The Iron-Fisted Monk and Eastern Condors by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
– Multiple interviews with Sammo Hung, talking about his work on each film
– Interview with actor and stuntman Yuen Wah, talking about his work on Eastern Condors
– Interview with Yuen Woo-ping, talking about his work on The Magnificent Butcher
– Eastern Condors Live! a live performance from the 1987 Miss Hong Kong Pageant
– Trailers for all three films
– O-Card Slipcase
– Limited Edition Collector’s booklet [First Print Run of 2000 units ONLY] featuring new writing on all three films by James Oliver
The commentaries are all solid, offering plenty of behind the scenes information, and facts and anecdotes about the cast and crew. The Magnificent Butcher’s commentary seemed to repeat quite a few comments Leeder and Venema have made on previous tracks they’ve recorded, but they’ve done quite a few by now, for films featuring a number of the same actors, so it’s inevitable that some crossover would occur. I really enjoyed their Eastern Condors commentary though. They and Djeng clearly have a lot of love for the film so there’s notable passion behind some of their comments.
The interviews with Sammo Hung himself are decent too, allowing him to wax lyrical about his career. The Yuen Wah and Yuen Woo-ping interviews are similarly worth watching to hear more about their lives and work. Possibly my favourite feature though is ‘Eastern Condors Live!’ Featuring a musical number, a dragon dance and more flips than a pancake restaurant, it’s a heck of a lot of bonkers fun, even with its lack of English subtitles.
Eureka’s customary booklet is excellent too, as always.