Director: Wong Jing
Screenplay: Wong Jing
Based on a Novel by: Louis Cha Leung-yung (a.k.a. Jin Yong)
Starring: Stephen Chow, Sharla Cheung, Deric Wan, Chingmy Yau, Ng Man-tat, Brigitte Lin, Chan Pak-Cheung, Elvis Tsui Kam-Kong, Damian Lau, Sandra Ng Kwan-Yue
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 111 min (part 1) 98 min (part 2)
BBFC Certificate: 15
1992 was Stephen Chow’s year in Hong Kong, seeing how he starred or at least appeared in all of the top 5 highest-grossing films of that year. He was a busy man too, as he made another three titles that didn’t make the top 10.
Two of those films in the top 5 (taking the number 3 and 5 slots) were Royal Tramp and its sequel, Royal Tramp II, which was released only 2 months afterwards.
The pair of films, which were, as you might have guessed, shot back-to-back, were both written and directed by Wong Jing and based on the hugely popular Louis Cha (a.k.a. Jin Yong) novel ‘The Deer and the Cauldron’ (a.k.a. ‘Lu Ding Jì’ or ‘The Duke of Mount Deer’) from 1972.
Following up their release of Chow’s From Beijing With Love, Eureka are releasing both Royal Tramp films together on Blu-ray and I got hold of a copy to provide my thoughts.
With the films being shot back-to-back and being produced with and by largely the same cast and crew, I decided to review them together, rather than separately.
The plot of the two films is rather complicated to repeat here, so I’ll try to keep it to the bare bones. Basically, Chow plays Wei Siu Bo, whom we initially meet as a storyteller who weaves his tall tales in the local brothel where his sister (Sandra Ng) works.
One day, Chan Kan-nam (Damian Lau), a legendary revolutionary from the Heaven and Earth Society, is ambushed in the brothel and Wei saves him from being arrested. For his troubles, Wei asks Kan-nam to train him in kung-fu. Kan-nam accepts and makes Wei part of the Heaven and Earth Society.
Wei’s first mission is to infiltrate the palace and steal the Sutra of Forty-two Chapters. He tries to get a job as a lackey at the palace but accidentally stumbles into the eunuch recruitment office. Thankfully, he manages to retain his manhood but plays the part, as he ingratiates himself with Hoi Tai-fu (Ng Man-Tat), the palace’s head eunuch.
When he tries to get the sutra from the mysterious Empress Dowager (Sharla Cheung), he ends up stumbling upon the Emperor (Deric Wan) and his sister (Chingmy Yau), who he mistakes as another couple of eunuchs.
The royal pair appreciate Wei’s honesty towards them and they bring him into their circle of loyalty. From then on, Wei continues to climb up the ranks, through a mixture of luck and devious charm.
Meanwhile, General Oboi (Elvis Tsui) is plotting to overthrow the Emperor and, in the second film, the waters are further muddied by disciples of the One Arm Nun (Helen Ma) and the Dragon Sect, led by Lung-er (Brigitte Lin).
On top of all this, there a various romantic (or sexual, at least) entanglements between Wei and a number of female characters, and several other villains, traitors and comrades also enter the fold.
As I’ve mentioned in a couple of recent reviews (due to the director having a bit of a Blu-ray-driven renaissance at the moment), Wong Jing is largely known for making quick, cheap knock-offs that often make little sense and are loaded with bawdy humour, no matter what the setting or subject matter. However, the Royal Tramp films are surprisingly grand affairs, with impressive production design and handsome cinematography.
It was also probably Chow’s most ambitious project to that point and it could be considered quite brave too, being how it was based on one of the most popular novels in modern Chinese history which, though lighthearted, is hardly the wild and base sort of comedy Chow and Jing were known for making. Reportedly, Louis Cha was happy with the adaptation though and called Chow an ‘ideal’ Wei Xiaobao. I haven’t read the book myself, but can appreciate Chow being the perfect performer to play the witty, charismatic character who can sweet-talk his way into the upper echelons of society.
Perhaps aided by the fact the films are based on an epic 3-volume novel (in its incomplete English translation. The original, which started life as a newspaper serial, is even longer), they race along at a rapid pace. The films are reportedly surprisingly faithful to their source material too, though the second film takes a lot more liberties than the first.
In the first film, Chow seemed to be a comic character set in a world of largely serious characters whereas in the second everyone lets loose. The eunuch aspects of the first film mean it’s no less filled with lewd humour though.
As usual for Jing, Chow and Hong Kong comedies in general, many of the jokes are lost in translation or are a little too crass for modern tastes. However, being positively loaded with gags, there are always one or two that hit among the crowd.
From the surprisingly brutal, head-lopping opening of part 1 to the string-controlled drones of part 2, the films are packed with inventive and thrilling action sequences too. Jing openly states that ‘Tony’ Ching Siu-tung directed the action scenes in the second film (Jing was busy making City Hunter) and he likely did the same for the first. It’s almost entirely wire-fu (as was Siu-tung’s forte), which won’t be to everyone’s tastes but I thought the action scenes were wonderfully unusual and over-the-top, in the best possible way.
Whilst your enjoyment will depend on your taste for knob gags, convoluted narratives and wire-fu, I had a blast with the Royal Tramp films. Chow and the game cast are hard to resist, the action is top-notch and the jokes come thick and fast. All-in-all, a great time at the movies.
The Royal Tramp Collection is out on 13th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. Both films look great, with rich colours and a light, natural grain. I had no issues with the Cantonese audio tracks I used for my watch-throughs either.
LIMITED EDITION SPECIAL FEATURES
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]
– Brand new 4K restorations of both films, presented in 1080p HD across two Blu-ray discs
– Original Cantonese audio tracks
– Optional English dubbed audio
– Optional English subtitles newly translated for this release
– Brand new audio commentaries on both films by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and producer F.J. DeSanto, as well as and Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
– A career-spanning interview with veteran Hong Kong actress Helene Law Lan, courtesy of the Frédéric Ambroisine Video Archive
– Two archival interviews with Wong Jing about Royal Tramp and the Jin Yong novel the story is based on
– A limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the films by James Oliver [2000 copies]
Arne Venema and Mike Leeder have a lot of fun discussing the lowbrow humour of Royal Tramp, as well as discussing the lives and careers of those involved with the film. In part 2 they dig a bit deeper into the work of the main players and go off on the occasional tangent.
Frank Djeng and F.J. DeSanto take the films a little more seriously, discussing how Wong Jing shows respect to the popular source material by taking a slightly more serious approach than usual, on top of ramping up the production values. I’m not sure I fully agree with that, as the films are still loaded with lewd humour but I can see where they’re coming from. On top of this, they provide the usual raft of information about those involved, whilst discussing cultural gags and how the films differ from the novel.
In his archival interview, which is broken up over the 2 discs, Wong Jing talks about his love of the novel, how it and his film depict important figures of Chinese history, and which scenes were particularly tricky to shoot. He also talks about how he feels Chow was perfect for the role, as well as giving his thoughts on some of his other collaborators.
Helene Law Lan discusses her work, in general. She’s had a long and successful career, so her story is an interesting one, particularly when she discusses the films she made with Bruce Lee when they were both young. She’s a cheerful interviewee too, so her 14-minute piece is a pleasure to watch.
Eureka regular James Oliver provides his usual well-informed thoughts on the films in his essay. This is included in the booklet, which also features some publicity stills.
So, Eureka deliver the goods once again with a pair of hugely enjoyable films, housed together alongside a host of strong supplements. Highly recommended.