Hong Kong Digital
is a recurring series of movie reviews by John Charles -- a film
reviewer for Video Watchdog magazine and the author of The Hong
Jackie Chan: Five Hard Hitting Movies
Simitar has taken five of their vintage Jackie Chan releases (all but one of them directed by Lo Wei) and packaged them in a box set called JACKIE CHAN: 5 HARD-HITTING MOVIES, thus allowing consumers a five dollar savings on each DVD, compared to what it would cost if each disc was purchased separately. In some cases, the presentations are a nominal improvement over what was available previously but none of these anamorphic films are presented at their original 2.35:1 ratios, even though some letterboxed credit sequences reveal that widescreen materials were available. Each release comes with both English and Chinese language tracks, but no subtitle options, and the only extra on each is a brief Chan bio and a six minute interview the actor gave, while promoting the US release of SUPERCOP, in the summer of 1996. Each of the DVDs are in mono, not stereo as listed on the individual keep cases, and were authored by The Richard Diercks Company.
In the years prior to his substantial success at Golden Harvest, Chan toiled in a number of low-budget efforts for prolific producer/director Lo Wei, who initially tried to position the young actor as Bruce Lee's successor, by starring him in NEW FIST OF FURY, a sequel to Lo's 1972 smash (released in the US and Canada as THE CHINESE CONNECTION). Lo and Nora Miao Ker-hsiu, Lee's co-stars in the original, reprise their roles in this new story, which opens with Miao Li-ehr (Miao) and some friends fleeing from Shanghai to Taiwan, in order to evade capture by the Japanese. Li-ehr carries with her the late Chen Zhen's nunchakus, which are soon stolen by cocky young thief Lung (Chan). While returning the weapons to the girl, Lung is almost beaten to death by the students of a kung fu school, that he criticizes for not standing up to the invaders. When Japanese martial arts master Okumura (Chen Sing) brings about the death of her revered grandfather, Li-ehr decides to get vengeance by opening a new branch of the Jing Wu school. Naturally, Okumura and his minions try to quell this new outburst of patriotism but their efforts only inspire locals like Lung (who previously had no interest in kung fu) to launch an organized resistance.
Nora Miao and Han Ying-chieh in NEW FIST OF FURY. Image courtesy Simitar.
As with the original, the characters and conflicts are painted in very broad strokes but the intended patriotic fervor still comes through fairly well, in spite of a narrative that is stretched well beyond its limits. The choreography is competent, but unimaginative, and Chan does not come close to equalling the magnetism of Bruce Lee's portrayal. Lung becomes a kung fu expert far too quickly and never displays the sort of discipline and mastery of technique needed to defeat his far more experience opponents. Furthermore, Chan does not even come across as the star of the movie; both Nora Miao and Han Ying-chieh (as the senior Jing Wu teacher) get more screentime and are blessed with far more interesting characters. The image is soft and dark, with poor contrasts and dull hues, and there are occasional dropouts on the video master. No attempt is made to scan the image (which is afflicted with gatefloat from time-to-time) and the cropping is often annoying, marring even simple conversations. Some fast movement induces smearing and there is an odd fade out, at 59:28, that was not part of the original production. The English track is shrill, while the Mandarin audio is flat but a little more palatable. The original opening titles have been removed and replaced with video generated English ones.
In the wake of NEW FIST OF FURY's disappointing showing, Lo, still trying to find a niche for Chan, brought him along to Taiwan to play a stoic swordsman in TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE and the villain of THE KILLER METEORS (aka JACKIE CHAN VS. WANG YU). The more interesting of the two pictures, INTRIGUE finds the noble Lei family facing destruction at the hands of a bandit gang, with supernatural powers, called "The Killer Bees" (no SNL jokes, please), who are out to avenge events that unfolded fifteen years earlier. Worried about her safety, Sau Lei (Chan) drives away his pregnant girlfriend, Chin-chin, by pretending to have been unfaithful to her. His parents are killed but Sau Lei's life is spared by Ting Tan-yen (Hsu Feng), the beautiful but scarred and bitter leader of the Bees. Wandering the countryside in search of Chin-chin, Sau Lei joins forces with The Dragon Escort clan but is gravely injured, while defending its leader (played by George Wang Kuo, who has appeared in several European films, including SPY IN YOUR EYE, HAVE A GOOD FUNERAL MY FRIEND...SARTANA WILL PAY, and HERCULES AGAINST KARATE). Chin-chin, meanwhile, has been rescued by Chin Chun, who is both the Hunan governor and the secret leader of the villainous Bloody Rain clan, which seeks to vanquish all potential rivals. When Chin murders the Dragons' leader, Sau Lei seeks to avenge him but must first undergo the torturous whims of Ting, whose abilities he will need to succeed.
Hsu Feng in TO KILL WITH INTRIGUE. Image courtesy Simitar.
Partially scored with music lifted from Japanese swordplay films, this period costumer has its limitations (particularly if you are stuck watching the dubbed version) but remains effective, in spite of the highly melodramatic storyline and staging. Chan is quite good in one of his final, wholly serious portrayals and the proceedings are boosted considerably by a compelling performance from the great Hsu Feng (the talented Taiwanese martial arts actress who would go on to become the successful producer of revered dramas like RED DUST and FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE). The kung fu is less impressive, but adequate, and the Taiwanese locations (the story unfolds in the southern region of China) are gorgeous. The English track is flat and scratchy and has two loud bursts of electronic noise just before the 3m minute mark; the Chinese track (which is Mandarin, not Cantonese, as listed on the packaging) is decidedly clearer but a bit unbalanced, favoring the left channel. The source material is very clean, the image is reasonably sharp, and, while slightly faded, the colors are usually quite nice. Artifacting is rare but compositions tend to look very cramped, in spite of some reasonably well-judged panning and scanning.
Although Chan is all over the packaging, the real star of THE KILLER METEORS is actually Jimmy Wang Yu, who plays Mi Wei, a proficient assassin known as "The Killer Meteor." One day, a man approaches Mi with news that he has been invited to appear before Wa Wu-bin (Chan), who is reported to have mystical powers. Wa hires Mi to do two things: murder his wife, Madame Tempest, and secure an antidote to the poison she has given him. Said cure is guarded night and day by four deadly masters, who possess amazing supernatural powers. While these instructions seem straightforward enough, the path ahead contains many twists and turns that Mi must negotiate to fulfil his mission and stay alive.
Jimmy Wang Yu in THE KILLER METEORS. Image courtesy Simitar.
While some aspects of the storyline are a bit convoluted, the developing mystery remains engrossing, right up to the less-than-lucid ending. However, the kung fu is disappointing, the English- dubbed dialogue is even more laughable than usual, and the effect of Wang's secret weapon is undercut by some impoverished special effects. Chan makes an adequate antagonist, though this is mainly due to the sheer novelty of seeing him in such a part. The best looking presentation in the set, THE KILLER METEORS is derived from nice source material and the image, cropping and occasional gatefloat aside, is usually quite pleasing. Contrasts are somewhat limited and hues are slightly faded but, for a 1970s kung fu film, this is a nice rendering. There is some artifacting in the final chapter but the authoring is, otherwise, competent. The English track is a tad scratchy and muffled, while the Mandarin version (not Cantonese, as indicated) is cleaner and a bit sharper. The package lists an incorrect running time of 120 minutes.
In addition to the two aforementioned films, Lo also cast Chan in a third of his Taiwanese productions, 1978's MAGNIFICENT BODYGUARDS (aka EYE OF THE DRAGON), which was shot in 3-D, but it is not part of this set or available in an authorized US release (probably due to the fact that most of the music in it is stolen from STAR WARS!). None of the three films made much of an impact, so Lo took a different approach with the farcical SPIRITUAL KUNG FU, finally giving Chan room to fully exercise his comedic talents. He plays Yi-lang, a consistently naughty pupil at Shaolin Temple. One evening, a thief breaks into the temple and steals "The Book of The Seven Fists," an irreplaceable kung fu manual. Anyone who masters the techniques described in it could rule the martial world, precisely the goal of the villainous Wei-wu, who sets about using these skills to wipe out his enemies. To make matters worse, five really silly looking ghosts have appeared and none of the monks are able to drive them away. While dealing with the mischievous spirits, Yi-lang discovers the long-lost manual for the "Five Fists" fighting style, which just happens to be the spirits' home. Eager to improve his kung fu, Yi-lang takes lessons from the ghosts and the new techniques he masters allow him to take on Wei-wu.
Jackie Chan in SPIRITUAL KUNG FU. Imager courtesy Simitar.
The special FX date back to the silent era but the storyline (which includes a murder mystery) is interesting and there is a steady stream of action. Those, however, who are bothered by the goofier extremes of Chan's films should definitely avoid this one. James Tien Chun, Dean Shek Tien, and Wong Ching co-star. SPIRITUAL KUNG FU has never looked very good on video and Simitar's DVD continues that tradition. Derived from an old Aquarius Releasing print, the image is quite blurry and coarse. While relatively free of speckles, the print (which looks to be 16mm) has plenty of water marks and other distracting imperfections. Hues are acceptable, but night sequences are far too dark, and contrasts are poor at the best of times. The framing looks very cramped (there is very little scanning) and the martial arts sequences are difficult to follow. The English and Cantonese tracks are adequate, though the former goes dead for the final 34s of the film. The original bilingual opening credits have been replaced with video-generated English titles that appear over still frames of the original backgrounds. All Seasons Entertainment released the movie on VHS in the mid-80s and that version (#6-49009, 94 minutes), while derived from an incredibly speckled print and not very satisfying either, is more complete. There is also a HK DVD, from Ocean Shores, that I was unable to screen but, as that company never remasters anything, I can assess it partially by looking at their 1987 laserdisc. That transfer (a PAL-to-NTSC rendering running 90 minutes, which would clock in at 94 minutes, if run at 24 frames-per-second) presents only the middle of the picture, is taken from worn source material, and looks overly bright. Regardless, the action is easier to follow and the image is a lot more presentable. Unfortunately, some of the scatological gags have been awkwardly spliced out and the English subtitles are cropped off on the sides. The film has been issued on UK video under the ridiculous title KARATE GHOSTBUSTER!
If SPIRITUAL KUNG FU is silly, then Chen Chi-hwa's HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU! is downright nonsensical. Chan made this kung fu comedy behind Lo's back and the producer was so infuriated by the final product, he refused to release it until 1980, when Chan's fame had reached the point where it would have been insane for him not to cash-in. Largely dismissed, even by many of Chan's most ardent fans, much of LOAF is grating and annoying (especially in the English-dubbed version) but it remains an important stepping stone for the actor. Free from Lo's domineering control, Chan was able to create the movie he wanted to make and learned from his mistakes. Chan plays young Jiang Tao, who wishes to be a martial arts master but lacks the discipline to even hold a job. While travelling through the countryside one day, he witnesses a battle between a notorious criminal and the legendary "Whip Hero." As a result of his interference, The Whip Hero is killed but not before mortally wounding his opponent. When he discovers that the fugitive has a bounty of 500 silver pieces on his head, Jiang impersonates the fallen Hero and claims the reward. He continues to play the Hero but, naturally, his impersonation falls to pieces whenever anyone challenges him to combat (which happens a lot). Desperate to learn kung fu, Jiang persuades a beggar (Dean Shek Tien) to instruct him and (through a series of loosely connected events not worth relating) ends up as one of the men guarding the priceless antidote "Evergreen Jade" and the life-restoring "Soul Pills," both of which are sought by The Poison Clan (who else?).
Jackie Chan in HALF A LOAF OF KUNG FU! Image courtesy Simitar.
Disjointed, sloppily edited, and entirely lacking in subtlety, the film does have a certain shaggy dog appeal to it, growing more interesting and accessible as it goes. The final battle, while much too long, contains some inspired choreography, though even the most forgiving viewer will wonder just how Jiang could go from fool to martial arts master in such a short period of time. James Tien Chun co-stars and Wu Ma appears briefly. The image is rather soft and contrasts are limited but the source material is free of major damage and the color is passable. The English Channel is flat and weak, while the Cantonese track has a little more power and dimension. Of all the films in the set, LOAF suffers the least from cropping but the fight choreography is still compromised to a certain degree. The film opens with a number of brief movie parodies, under the opening titles, and the DVD restores the JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR theme (heard at 2:58 on the DVD), another composition I was unable to identify (heard at 3:58), and the "Popeye, the Sailor Man" theme (heard at 14:05), which were all awkwardly replaced with alternate music on the old All Seasons Entertainment tape.