The final film directed by Chia Tang (a very prolific stunt coordinator and actor who might actually be best known for as the second unit director on Chang Cheh's masterpiece, Vengeance) 1984's Opium And The Kung Fu Master is an odd mix of fairly serious drama and goofy, borderline slapstick comedy mixed in with a series of wonderfully choreographed and executed fight scenes.
The period film follows Tieh Chiao-san (Ti Lung), the leader of a group called The Ten Kwangtung Tigers, who wins favor with the population of his town after he beats the snot out of a criminal who peddles opium and steals from the townsfolk. His new found popularity earns him all sorts of respect with the locals, which trickles down to the students who he trains in the martial arts. What most of the people in the town don't know, however, is that Tieh is actually really into opium himself and is quite content to light up the pipe on a pretty regular basis - all behind closed doors, of course.
Unfortunately for Tieh and his students, the townsfolk expect them to finish the job of cleaning up the criminal element that has been repeatedly causing them all problems. As more and more people in town wind up spending far too much time at the local opium house that's recently opened up in town, Tieh soon realizes how dangerous the drug really is, but not before suffering some personal tragedy. Thankfully, he learns from his mistakes and detox himself and the very town itself.
Chia Tang's experience as a fight choreographer really helps define this picture by way of the director's penchant for staging very elaborate bouts. We not only get a good share of hand to hand combat sequences but some interesting weapons fighting as well, a fair bit of which works elements of its environment into the mayhem to nice effect. The fights are plentiful enough and entertaining enough that they definitely help to compensate for the fact that, while the plot is pretty interesting, sometimes the humor and action and drama don't always mix so well. In fact, the first half hour or so of the film certainly gives you the impression that you're in for an almost entirely comedic film, which, if you stick with the film, you'll find is not really the case at all.
Front and center in all of the lunacy that transpires is a rock solid performance from Ti Lung (who still works plenty to this day, having recently appeared in Three Kingdoms: Resurrection Of The Dragon but who is probably best remembered or A Better Tomorrow). He shows a lot of style in this picture, handling the physicality demanded by the part and making it look easy. He's got moves to spare and plenty of charisma and he's well cast as the teacher-type but he also brings a flawed humanity to the part in the scenes where he struggles with his addiction.
This is first and foremost an action film, however, and it's the action that rightfully remains the focal point of Chia Tang's film (the third and final picture he would direct after toiling behind the scenes for years and then leaving the industry for good in the mid eighties). The camerawork isn't afraid to show the combat scenes from further back, giving us a full, unspoiled view of the various participants and fighters that appear in the picture as they go about their business. While too many modern films rely on close-in shots and shaky camera work to relay their sense of action and intensity, films like Opium And The Kung Fu Master prove that sometimes less is more. There's no need for hyper kinetic editing when, as it is in this film, talented performers are teamed up with great cameraman and a strong director to do it right.
Opium And The Kung Fu Master arrives on DVD in a progressive scan anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer that seems to be identical to the previous domestic release from BCI - though that's not a bad thing. A little bit of print damage shows up here and there but otherwise the source material used for this disc has been very nicely restored. Colors are bright and bold and detail levels are generally very strong. What looks to be some mild edge enhancement pops up here and there but aliasing and compression artifacts are never a problem. The black levels aren't perfect and there are spots where things look just a little bit noisy now and then, but otherwise, the movie does indeed look very good on this DVD.
The Cantonese language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track on this disc sounds more like a mono but it's well balanced and easy to follow. The optional English subtitles, which cover the text screens and the closing sponsors that appear in the end credits, are easy to read and free of any typographical errors. The score sounds good, never overpowering the performers, while the sound effects are presented at the proper volume as well. It's not a track that will amaze you, but it definitely sounds as good as it needs to. A 5.1 track might have been fun, especially during the zany last half hour, but what's here is good. The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track has also been included for those who don't dig subtitles.
Extras are disappointingly light, limited to a few trailers for unrelated Funimation releases and a forced promo spot for their Shaw Brothers line that plays before you can get to the main menu screen (which also offers chapter selection). None of the extras that appeared on the BCI release have been included here.
The mix of drama and humor may seem uneven in spots but Opium And The Kung Fu Master more than makes up for that with fantastic and beautifully choreographed fight scenes and some excellent cinematography. It may not work quite as well as some of the undisputed classics of the Shaw Brother's catalogue but it certainly comes pretty close. Funimation's DVD looks terrific and sounds good too, but sadly omits the extras that were included on the previous BCI disc. That said, if you don't want to hunt down that out of print release, this is a pretty solid disc in its own right and one that can be found easily and at a fair price. 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.