Never officially released on home video before in North America, The Boxer's Omen has been a staple of the grey market circles for years but never received a proper release... until now. Although (at the time of this writing at least) Celestial only released the title on VCD format in Hong Kong, Image Entertainment has opted to make the film available on DVD for discerning North American fans, and the world is a better place for it. If your only experience with the Shaw Brothers library is the martial arts films that they're best known for, this twisted and gory little tale of good versus evil might just take you by surprise.
When the movie begins, a Chinese boxer gets his ass handed to him by his opponent (played by Bolo Yeung of Enter The Dragon) and winds up laying in a hospital bed, unable to see. He asks his brother, Chan Hung, to travel to Thailand and get revenge for what happened to him. Along the way, he's summoned to a Buddhist temple where his life becomes intertwined with that of a dead monk. It turns out that there's a curse on his family and that he and the dead monk will have to take on an evil wizard, the same wizard who killed the monk just as he was on the cusp of becoming an immortal. From there, Chan Hung travels around parts of Asia tracking down the evil wizard and getting into scraps with all manner of strange and evil opponents.
The plot for The Boxer's Omen is fairly straightforward in that it is more or less a simple tale of good versus evil. The way that the story unfolds, however, is a completely different story. Through the use of some truly bizarre flashbacks we learn the back-story of the evil wizard and the dead monk who is helping out our hero from the spirit realm, and once we're up to speed on that and the groundwork has been laid, the movie is off like a rocket. Fast paced and full of strange gross-out scenes, the movie is completely entertaining and a whole lot of fun.
The first of the key elements that makes the movie so entertaining is the effects work. If you've seen Black Magic you know what kind of effects work and what kind of set pieces to expect but this film takes all of that to the next level by upping the quantity and the quality of the work. We witness potions being made out of brain goop, stop-motion animated bat skeletons rising from the dead, and in a very 'Lucio Fulci' moment a scene where two magic tarantulas inject some poor sap's eyeballs with their venom. There's a particularly nasty scene involving the (real) dead corpse of a crocodile, a flying decapitated head that looks like it was lifted from Mystics In Bali and even a sultry clawed lady zombie. Much of this takes place in and around some interesting international locations as well (the film was shot in Hong Kong, Thailand and Nepal), the evil wizard's lair being one of the more interesting with it's primary colored lighting effects and strange, giant statues.
If the flying head and skeleton bats weren't enough, the film also features some pretty decent fight scenes. While not a martial arts film in the same sense as something like Shaolin Master Killer or Eight Diagram Pole Fighter the film does have its share of impressive hand to hand combat scenes, the opening match in particular where Bolo and his opponent get rough and bloody one another up pretty severely. Phillip Ko and Bolo Yeung make for great leads and they both get a fair amount of screen time here as well. On top of all the schlock, the fight scenes and effects work, the movie is quite well shot and it makes great use of its location footage and sets to really pull you into the film.
The whole film is genuinely bizarre but completely enjoyable. It's interesting to see how director Chih-Hung Kwei (who did Killer Snakes and Bamboo House Of Dolls) takes hints from European horror films of the same era and mixes them with some uniquely Asian traits mixing everything up. The film is a bit of a hodge-podge in that it plays around with all sorts of ideas but the end result is truly unique and, even if the effects show their age, genuinely engrossing (with an emphasis on 'gross'!). As a horror movie, well, it's not particularly scary and as a martial arts film it's certainly not at the top of anyone's list but as one of the more unusual efforts to come out of the Shaw Brothers studio it deserves its place as one of those truly manic films that needs to be seen to be fully appreciated.
Oddly enough, The Boxer's Omen was shot to be displayed at 1.85.1 and not in the usual 2.35.1 'Shawscope' so this 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents the film in its original aspect ratio. Framing looks fine and there aren't any obvious compromises made to the picture. Color reproduction looks nice and strong with the reds and the blues used for the more sinister scenes looking quite nice here. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and there are no problems with mpeg compression artifacts to complain about. There is some mild trailing and combing present in a few scenes, particularly when there is some fast movement, but thankfully it isn't overpowering here. Some mild line shimmering shows up from time to time, and it's mostly noticeable along diagonal lines, but again, it's minor. Not a perfect transfer, but a pretty decent one even with the small problems present.
Image gives fans the choice of enjoying the film in its native Mandarin language in either a newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix or in a Dolby Digital Mono mix with optional English subtitles. If you opt for the surround track you can expect to hear some fun directional effects and musical cues coming at you from the rears during a few of the movie active scenes while the Mono track replicates something closer to the original mix that the film would have had. Either way, there's nothing to complain about here as there are no problems with hiss or distortion and the dialogue stays clean. Levels are well balanced and the subtitles are easy to read and free of any obvious typographical errors.
While there aren't a ton of extra features on this release, Image has included a few fun little supplements that are worth taking a look at. First up is a still gallery containing some interesting promotional artwork. There's also a collection of un-subbed Shaw Brothers trailers for upcoming titles to be released through Image (these are the newer Celestial trailers, not the original theatrical trailers) and a collection of other trailers for Asian films that Image has either released or will be releasing soon (none of which include any subtitles). Animated menus and chapter stops for the feature are also included.
Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet which includes some images from the film and some pretty comprehensive and well written liner notes from Stephen Gladwin that explain the background of the film and which provide some biographical information on the people who made it. This essay does a really good job of putting the film in its proper context, explaining where the Shaw Brothers studio was at that point and the various influences that seem to have had an effect on the film.
While the transfer isn't quite perfect, it doesn't hamper the experience that is The Boxer's Omen. For fans of psychotronic cinema it really doesn't get much better than this completely off the wall mix of horror, action and supernatural insanity. Image's disc looks pretty good and sounds decent as well and while there aren't a ton of extra features, that's perfectly forgivable when the movie is as obscure as this one and as completely entertaining. Highly 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.