Image has been releasing some interesting titles from the world famous Shaw Brothers library onto North American DVD for a few years now and their recent Legendary Heroes collection bundles up four popular titles together for the first time. While those who already own the previous single disc issues will find nothing new here (the discs are identical), those who haven't already picked those up will find this set will definitely deliver all the kung fu and wuxia action you can handle.
Here's a peak at the movies...
The Shadow Whip:
The first film stars the immortally cute Cheng Pei Pei (best known for Come Drink With Me and decades later Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) as Yang Kaiyun, a hardworking young woman who helps her uncle (Tien Feng) run an inn. One day, while out with her assistant to purchase supplies for the family business (which is located up in the mountains) Yang Kaiyun is ambushed by a gang of bandits. Thankfully, a noble young swordsman named Wang Jianxin (Yueh Hua) shows up just in time to help them out. Wang can't help but notice just how handy Yang Kaiyun is with a whip and, as fate would have it, he's actually looking for an older man known as The Shadow Whip who he has a score to settle with who happens to be one of the best 'whip men' in the land. Yang Kaiyun is certain that her uncle is not that man, but Wang isn't so sure.
The good guys head back to the inn where, shortly after they arrive, they have to protect themselves from the encroaching 'Sixteen Bandits of Yanyun' who would do them all harm. Soon, Yang Kaiyun's uncle has to explain his past as it relates to a batch of stolen jewels and to the death of Wang's family all while fending off attacks from the bandits' leader, a man so mysterious he leaves no footprints!
Fast paced and full of some great swordplay sequences, which tie in nicely with the whip fighting, The Shadow Whip may be a bi t predictable as far as its story goes but it's still a lot of fun. Cheng Pei Pei is as adorable as she is dangerous and, as she's shown in a few different films, she's got the martial skills to hold her own even if there are some spots where the wire work is obvious. It all adds to the over the top quality that the film uses to its advantage. This is escapist fun at its core and the movie is certainly entertaining enough.
All of the action, and director Lo Wei makes certain that there's a lot of it, is nicely framed and shot from far enough away that it's never dizzying in the way that a lot of current action films can be, and the bright colors and costumes used throughout give the film a vibrant tone that makes it feel very much like a comic book come to life. The fact that so much of it appears to have been shot on a soundstage adds to this, at times making it feel like the actors are performing in illustrated panels. A lot of Shaw Brothers films have that candy coated stagey feel to them, it's absolutely part of their charm, and that quality is readily apparent in The Shadow Whip.
The Deadly Breaking Sword:
When this second feature begins, a swordsman named Lian San (Michael Chan) who goes by the nickname of the Throat-Piercing Halberd is squaring off against Tuan Changqing (Ti Lung), dubbed the Deadly Breaking Sword. Just as it looks like Changqing is going to emerge victorious when he breaks off a small piece of his sword inside Lian San, his opponent escapes and he winds up in the care of Guo Tiansheng (Ku Feng), better known around town as the Killer Doctor! After a little while in Tiansheng's hands, San is back in action and better than ever.
Meanwhile, Xiao Dao (Alexander Fu Sheng), known as the Little Dagger, is forced to work of a gambling debt he owes to a man who runs a casino. The owner's daughter Luo Jinhua (Lily Li) desperately wants Dao to marry her and she tricks him into working for her dad, all while he lusts after a hooker named Liu Yinxu (Shih Szu). There's a reason Yinxu has shown up in town, however, and it's got nothing to do with turning tricks and everything to do with killing Tiansheng who turned on her brother (Ngai Fei) and sent him to prison. Yinxu pays Dao to bring Changqing to the brothel where she works in hopes that she'll be able to coerce Changqing into taking on Tiansheng, but it's not going to be easy and there might be more to Yinxu than he realizes, especially when Dao gets mixed up in all of this and Lian San winds up back on the scene...
A strong mix of action and slapstick comedy, this film is heavy on swordplay and laughs even if the story doesn't really try to break any new ground. Director Sun Chung throws a few good running gags into the movie to keep it lighthearted but when it comes time for the swordplay scenes, the filmmaker's don't mess around. While not as fancy or freewheeling as other wuxia films, there's a very deliberate pacing to the combat that gives it a determination that adds a certain something to the film. There's also a nice variety here in that not only do we get hand to hand and sword versus sword scenes, but we get a guy with a sword battling it out with a guy wielding a dagger and an even better scene where a swordsman takes on a guy brandishing a bamboo tree. Neat!
The film might seem a little dated considering that it came out in the mid-eighties, past the genre's prime by a bit of a margin, but it stands as a good example of how fun and exciting a well made Shaw Brothers swordplay could be when delivered by a dedicated director and a talented cast.
Legendary Weapons Of China:
The highlight of this collection is the third film, Legendary Weapons Of China, directed by Chia Hui Liu. The movie revolves around Lei Kung (Chia-Liang Liu), a member of the Yi Ho Society who has been sent to the province of Yunnan where he winds up disappearing after breaking up his school to protect his students from the dangers of the changing martial arts scene. Master Li Lin-ying isn't happy at all with Lui Kung's disappearance and so he calls in three of his finest fighters, a trio of assassins named Lei Ying (Chia Yung Liu), Tieh Hau (Hsiao Hou) and Ti Tan (Chia Hui Liu - Gordon Liu!). These three deadly martial artists see Lei Kung as a traitor and are tasked with finding him and putting him out of business permanently. The Yi Ho society might have a few skeletons in their closet, however, and Lei Kung isn't the type to go down without a fight...
Those expecting anything revolutionary in terms of story or plot will be disappointed but the direction and fight choreography on display more than makes up for that in a big, big way. From the opening sequence in which a sleek female combatant dispatches a bunch of male opponents with her martial skills against a black backdrop through to the intense final thirty minutes, the moves on display in this movie are very, very impressive.
There are moments where the film stumbles, primarily in terms of its attempts at comic relief, most of which are groan inducing and not particularly funny but if you're able to look past these bits, most of which are quite insignificant, you can definitely enjoy this one for the fun fight film that it is. Fans of weapons combat will dig this movie, as it features a fair bit of 'kung fu guy versus gun guy' action and a few interesting ideas such as a fighter who uses Voodoo dolls to make people fight for him. Gordon Liu's scene is a highlight, and watching him square off against Chia-Liang Liu makes for a pretty intense bout that stands out in a film full of stand out fight scenes. This is definitely a high note in the later era Shaw Brothers martial arts pictures. It may not be deep, but it's fast paced and as entertaining as you could hope for.
The Shaolin Intruders
The last film in the collection, directed by Tang Chia, begins when a series of brutal murders ripple through some martial arts clans and infuriate a town who wrongly accuse a trio of martial artists - Lei Xun (Derek Yee Tung-sing), Qiao Yiduo (Jason Pai Piao, and Ye Qinghua (Liu Yu-po) - of committing the ultimate sin. The victims were all killed by someone who had knowledge of the Shaolin Palm technique and these guys just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Rather than accept the accusations, they decide to head to Shaolin and try and find out who could have mastered the technique and hopefully find out who the real killer was. Before anyone at Shaolin will give them the time of day, however, the Abbott (Chan Shen) decides that their martial skills need to be put to the test in a series of combat challenges.
Tang Chia's experience as a fight choreographer pushes the fight scenes in this movie above the average martial arts film of the era by showcasing some interesting styles and throwing in all manner of interesting weapons to keep things from getting stale. Once the action moves to the Shaolin Temple and our heroes are coerced into accepting the Abbott's challenges, which involve the monks using various fighting formations, things really pick up as we see the monks literally climb on top of one another to form a unified force and use some interesting staff combinations in their attacks. The big finish involves a brawl set atop a series of conveniently placed benches where the combatant who touches the ground first loses the match. These creative fight sequences might not further the plot very much but they do pad the film's running time out to feature length and make for a fun watch.
The plot meanders a fair bit and might leave you scratching your head from time to time but a few unexpected twists towards the end redeem things and the cast make the most of the screen time allotted them. Liu Yu-po is quite enchanting and plays one of the more interesting characters in the film with a welcome edge. She's quite attractive but has a sense of menace to her at certain parts in the picture that make her more than just a pretty face. Anyone who has seen the berserk A Portrait In Crystal will recognize her right away from that film, and anyone who hasn't seen it should. Phillip Ko shows up to play one of the monks and delivers a few pretty impressive fight scenes while Derek Yee and Jason Pai Piao make for admirable and noble heroes.
The vast majority of the film is shot on a soundstage though one outdoor sequence adds some variety to the visuals. The plot exists solely to string together the fight sequences, so this is likely a film that will appeal more to those who just want to watch a bunch of combatants go at it than those looking f or a riveting storyline but it does the trick and results in a pretty entertaining film with some noteworthy scenes of impressive fight choreography performed admirably by a talented cast.
The four films in the Legendary Heroes collection are presented in their original 2.35.1 aspect ratio (in Shawscope, naturally!) in decent anamorphic widescreen transfers. While the picture is quite clean and clear, each transfer is interlaced so depending on your video set up you may or may not notice some combing effects. There's also occasionally some mild trailing during scenes of fast movement. Aside from that, the picture is good. Color reproduction is nice and natural looking while black levels stay strong throughout the film. There aren't any major issues with print damage, edge enhancement or mpeg compression and skin tones look lifelike and natural. Like the rest of the Image/Shaw releases, these aren't reference quality transfers but the movies don't look bad despite some authoring quirks.
Each of the four films has a Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound option with removable English subtitles provided. Remixed from the original Mono, these 5.1 tracks are a little funny in spots. Directional effects aren't always perfectly placed and some of the sound effects are a bit off. That said, there are no problems with hiss or distortion and the clarity is pretty good. These are the same mixes that appeared on the R3 releases, so expect the same tinkering that affected those discs to be present on these ones as well.
In addition to the 5.1 tracks, Deadly Breaking Sword has Chinese and English Mono options, Legendary Weapons Of China has Chinese and English Mono options, and both The Shadow Whip and Shaolin Intruders have a Chinese Mono option.
Aside from some animated menus and chapter selection, Image has supplied a trailers for the features and trailers for a bunch of other Shaw Brothers titles that are available on DVD. It should be noted, however, that these are newly created Celestial re-release trailers and not original theatrical trailers - at least they're all anamorphic. The Shadow Whip, Deadly Breaking Sword and Shaolin Intruders all feature still galleries as well. All four discs fit nicely inside a standard size keepcase.
If you picked up these discs as they were released one at a time, you can keep on moving, there's nothing new to see here. That said, if you don't already own the individual releases, the Legendary Heroes collection offers a convenient and affordable way to add four great Shaw Brothers martial arts classics to your collection and comes 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.