Since Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon kicked box office ass a few years ago, martial arts films have had a bit of a resurgence in popularity in North America but they've obviously been around a lot longer than that and their influence on Hollywood is more obvious today than ever before. Filmmaker Ian Taylor, in association with the Independent Film Channel, takes a look at the history of Hong Kong martial arts movie making with this hour long exploration of fight films, Chop Socky – Cinema Hong Kong.
How the documentary goes about explaining the origins of the martial arts film in Hong Kong is simple – they interview a few celebrities and experts on the genre and spice it up with some narration to put it all into context and plenty of great film clips to keep the visuals interesting and demonstrative. There are on camera interviews with Sammo Hung, John Woo, Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan as well as Liu Chia-Liang, and Liu Chia-Hui.
The film, through those interviews and through the aforementioned film clips, traces the martial arts film from its origins with the early black and white Wong Fei Hung films which had some of cinema's earliest special effects by way of hand drawn animations done right on the negative, through to more modern martial arts films from Jackie Chan and Jet Lie (with a clip or two from The Replacement Killers thrown in for good measure for some reason).
From there we head on over to the Shaw Brothers studios where filmmakers King Hu and Chang Che were breaking new ground and reinventing the genre. King Hu began making films that concentrated on poetic movements and amazing form fighting, while Chang Che began to up the violence and bloodshed in his films. David Chiang appears on camera and talks about his work with Chang Che, and we get to see a clip or two from Vengeance, a personal favorite. The filmmakers discuss how the Zatoichi movies that were popular in Japan at the time influenced the swordplay in many of these films, as well as the violence.
After that we're introduced to the cinema of Bruce Lee and given a quick and dirty look at how widespread his influence was and how he was the man who broke down doors for the genre in that his films played all over the world and his popularity was immense. An interesting old television interview with Lee is supplied, which was a nice touch.
Jet Li discusses his infamous ladder fight scene from Once Upon A Time In China and how wirework was used to ensure that it all happened properly. He talks about how much work and how much time went into making sure this scene turned out as well as it did, and how taxing it was as a performer to be involved in it.
Overall, this is a nice look at martial arts movies. It's not as comprehensive as it could be (no mention is made of the influence of The Five Deadly Venoms or The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin for example) but they've crammed a lot of information into a relatively brief running time and managed to make a coherent and interesting documentary out of it. The film clips are many and varied (look for a few great clips of Jimmy Wang Yu in action) and really do a good job of illustrating the various points that the filmmakers make along the way. Less attention is paid to the influence that the films have had on Hollywood, which is fine, but the filmmakers made the odd choice of using a clip from X-Men to show how far reaching their influence has been rather than something that would have been a better example like The Matrix.
The aspect ratio on this DVD varies depending on whether what we're watching is a clip from one of the many movies discussed or newer interview footage, and as such, is not enhanced for anamorphic sets. Most of the archival clips are in very nice shape save for some of the really older segments taken from the films of the 1920s through the 1940s. The Shaw Brothers material was likely taken from the restored Celestial elements and they all look very nice. The newer interview footage also looks quite decent, if a little soft. It was likely shot on digital video. There aren't any mpeg compression artifacts worth complaining about though there is some mild edge enhancement. Overall though, this transfer is fine.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound mix is more or less problem free. Some of the interviews are conducted in English and some are in Chinese. The ones that are in Chinese have burned in English subtitles, as do the film clips used throughout the documentary. Dialogue, for the most part, is nice and clear. There aren't any serious issues with hiss or distortion. Some of the clips do have a bit of background noise present but other than that, for a movie that is almost entirely dialogue and narration drive, this mix handles everything nicely.
There aren't a ton of extra features on here but there is a nice handful of deleted interview scenes that didn't make it into the final cut of the film for whatever reason (probably pacing, I'm assuming they wanted to keep it under an hour in length). There are also some promotional clips as well, and inside the keepcase is a catalogue containing information on this and other Docurama DVD releases.
While it should have been at least twice as long and given a better title, Chop Socky – Cinema Hong Kong is an interesting look at the always fascinating history of Hong Kong's contribution to action films through the martial arts genre. It's interesting, contains some great interview clips and plenty of archival footage, and it's completely worth seeing. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.