Shout! Factory gathers up for martial arts offerings produced by Golden Harvest and packages them together on two DVDs as the Martial Arts Movie Marathon Here's what to look for:
The Manchu Boxer:
The first movie in the set, directed by Wu Ma in 1974, follows the exploits of a young man named Ku Ru-Zhang (Anthony Lua Wing aka Tony Liu) who, early on in the movie, gets into a brutal fight and, while defending himself, winds up killing his opponent. Despite the fact that he was only doing what he had to do to survive, his father feels this will bring shame upon their family and he sends him packing. Feeling plenty of regret, he promises never to use his fighting skills again and then soon after befriends a sickly thief named Shen after being attacked by him and having to best him in combat. It turns out Shen is only stealing so that he can support his family and after he dies from his illness leaving our hero with the guilty conscience hoping to somehow provide for his widow and orphaned daughter.
Soon a martial arts tournament is announced in the town where they live and where Ku has relocated to. While this is going on, the town is living in fear of an evil martial arts master named Chin (Kim Ki-Joo). He's in town to win the contest at any cost. Chin, along with his thugs (Sammo Hung and Wilson Tong), is pillaging and extorting the town and taking out anyone he thinks might get in his way. Ku still refuses to fight, however, until he sees that he has no other choice if he wants to save the town.
This one offers up a few decent fight scenes but suffers from some pacing issues. Shot in Korea the cinematography is nice and offers up some good framing and nice compositions but the plot does tend to drag at times. It's hard to get behind the hero when he's so intent on not fighting that he stands by while the bad guys wreak as much havoc as they do. Liu does well enough in the lead and handles himself just fine in the fight scenes but there's just a bit too much lackluster drama bridging those admittedly exciting scenes for this one to fire on all cylinders. On the plus side Sammo Hung (who handled the fight choreography) and Wilson Tong are both fun to watch as the heavies in the feature. The Manchu Boxer isn't the best Golden Harvest martial arts film you're ever likely to see but neither is it the worst.
Directed by Chang-hwa Jeong and also made in 1974, The Skyhawk stars Kwan Tak Hing as Wong Fei Hung, a role he played more than one hundred times in his career, long before Jet Li brought the character back to popularity with his take on the hero in the Hong Kong boom years. When the story begins, Hung and his student, Fatty (Sammo Hung), are travelling to Thailand when they run across a fighter calling himself Little Lion (Carter Wong). The three of them wind up in a scrap with Kwok, a skilled fight with anger management issues who runs a local kung-fu school. The fight leaves Little Lion injured and Hung takes him to the home of his old friend Chu so that he can recover.
What no one really realizes is that Chu is in trouble with a local gangster named Ku (Hsiung Chao), who not only wants to cheat Chu out of his pier business but also wants to put the moves on Fatty's hot (but married) sister (Nora Miao), whether she likes it or not. As all of this comes to a boil, Wong Fei Hung realizes he has no other choice but to step in and issue some serious beatings to all of the bad guys.
This is pretty solid stuff. The fight scenes are well shot, wonderfully choreographed and the violence that they entail carries some serious impact. When the characters in this movie get walloped, you feel it! Kwan Tak Hing's experience really shows here, he carries himself with a nobility worthy of the character he helped make famous but when the kid gloves come off, you don't want to mess with him (though, having aged at this point, there are some scenes where you can't help but notice a stunt double being used). A young Sammo Hung is in fine form here as well and makes the most out of his generous allotment of screen time. The bad guys tend to steal the show, however, with both of the antagonists delivering some admirably intense performances and, like the heroes, not pulling any punches when it comes time to throw down.
Additionally we get some fine cinematography and Thai location shooting here. The score highlights both the dramatic aspects of the story and the fight scenes quite nicely and the movie goes at a really solid pace. Nobody is reinventing the wheel here and the plot is more than a little on the predictable side but The Skyhawk offers up plenty of action with a fine cast and a good sense of style.
This film from 1975 follows Detective Huang Tin-xing (Byong Yu). When the story begins, he's pretty upset that Zhao (Chiu Hung), a corrupt former military type, has made his way up the ranks to captain after the death of the previous captain, who just so happened to be the father of his old girlfriend, Fang Ying (Angela Mao). In fact, Huang knows that Zhao framed Fang for murder when she was in fact trying to save her parents' lives and he holds Zhao responsible for her subsequent execution.
These plot threads come together when Huang is assigned a case involving the investigation of the murder of a young girl, the daughter of a wealthy businessman who was about to have an abortion. Her murder ties into the existence of a place called The Welfare Association that is, in reality, nothing more than a front for a prostitution racket. When Huang learns that Zhao's bodyguard, Song Biao (Hwang In-Shik), has ties to this place he figures Song's bossman probably does as well but before he can dig too deep he's assigned a new case and a new partner in the form of Fang Chu (Angela Mao), Fang Ying's twin sister! Huang and Fang Ying have to track down a mobster named Zhu but despite this diversion, he knows he's got to keep an eye on Zhao to figure out just what exactly is going on here, with a little bit of help from his right hand man, Tiger (Sammo Hung again).
The Association is unnecessarily complicated and completely ludicrous but boy is it ever fun trying to figure out just what the heck is going on here. The movie is really colorful, even artsy in this regard, as it uses a lot of primary lighting gels to build atmosphere and mood. It's also got a lot more gratuitous sex and nudity in it than you'd probably expect from a martial arts movie and it's a film that would have definitely earned its R-rating even if the violence, which is plentiful, were removed from it completely. At one point a naked woman does a bizarre dance around another woman who is preparing to have an abortion for reasons never properly explained. Though it seems like some sort of ritual or rite of passage that the woman must go through first the fact of the matter is it doesn't matter, it's there to provide more nudity whether the film needs it or not.
The movie goes at a good pace and is just strange enough to work, even when it shouldn't. There are definitely some sizeable plot holes here but Byong Yu, in what would appear to be his only screen credit, makes for a decent hero even if he's obviously aping Bruce Lee here and there. He handles himself well in the fight scenes and has a decent screen presence. Sammo Hung and Carter Wong both get small supporting roles here and are fun to watch but the real scene stealer of the picture is Angela Mao. She doesn't get as much screen time as she probably should have but any scene where she throws down is golden. Sammo choreographed the fight scenes in this movie too, and they're up to his typically fine standards. The movie is a bit of a mess as far as the quality of its narrative goes but it more than makes up for that with lots of quality sex and violence, making this way easier to appreciate as a trashy exploitation picture than a traditional martial arts film.
The Dragon Tamers:
An early directorial effort by none other than John Woo, 1975's The Dragon Tamers is pretty far removed from the heroic bloodshed films that would make him a superstar a decade later, it's definitely a decent martial arts film. Early in the picture we meet Fan Zhongjie (Carter Wong), a Tae Kwon Do master who travels to Korea to meet and spar with a master in the art, Shen Rongzheng (Ji Han-Jae). On the way to Korea he meets and befriends another Tae Kwon Do expert named Nan Gong (James Tien) who just so happens to be one of Shen's students. He's also got the hots for Shen's pretty daughter, Mingmei (Chin Chang-Shou), but another of Shen's students, a woman named Jindi (Woo Yeon-Jeong), is jealous of Nan's affections for Mingmei.
When Fan gets to Korea, Shen has retired and the school has been handed over to Yan (Kim Ki-Joo). When Yan challenges and then loses to a competing master named Bai-Mu (Lee Ye-Min), Fan decides he should study with Bai-Mu instead, still hoping to improve his skills enough to best Shen in competition himself. Meanwhile, Yan and his brother Gong (Yeung Wai) have been coercing other schools and students to side with them against Bai-Mu or suffer the consequences. When Bai-Mu gets beaten up, Fan and Nan must work together to set things right even though Nan is none too happy that Fan and Mingmei are hitting it off.
This is another solid entry in this set. Woo, who also wrote the script, does explore themes of loyalty here, a subject he has gone back to time and again, but he doesn't do this by overusing melodrama so much as he does by exploring the ways in which his characters react to their situations. This provides the director with a clear path in which to let the action flow, and it does just that in copious amounts. The cast are all game here as well. James Tien is good here while Chin Chang-Shou looks beautiful throughout. The real start of the show, however, is fast kicking Carter Wong who absolutely kicks a ridiculous amount of ass once the fight scenes really pick up. He's slick, he's tough and he handles himself well, delivering exactly what you'd want in the hand to hand combat scenes but also prodicing his character with a bit of depth as well.
The movie does subscribe a little too tightly to some clichés (the bad guys all wear black, for one) and some of the romantic subplots slow things down slightly but the Korean locations are nicely photographed. Foreshadowing some of the ideas Woo would put into play later on the movie also features some slick slow motion work in a few of the fight scenes and even a sequence in which some doves are unleashed (two signatures that the director has applied to many of his better known and more popular pictures). Throw in a few scenes of intense violence and a pretty fun twist towards the end and The Dragon Tamers, if not a crown jewel in Woo's filmography, turns out to be a pretty fun watch.
The Manchu Boxer, The Skyhawk, The Association The Dragon Tamers are all presented in 2.35.1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. The transfers are taken from what would appear to be unrestored 35mm elements and given the obscurity and niche market for titles like this, that's understandable enough. Some mild compression artifacts are obvious in scenes with dominant blacks like night time scenes but otherwise there aren't any major issues there. The print damage varies a bit from one movie to the next but expect minor scratches and debris to be obvious during each one of the movies in the set. Color reproduction isn't bad but some fading is apparent. All in all, these look like semi-beat up old theatrical prints. Some will appreciate the look, video perfectionists likely will not.
The Manchu Boxer, The Skyhawk, The Association and The Dragon Tamers all get Mandarin and English audio options in Dolby Digital Mono with optional English subtitles. The English dubbing tends to hurt the movies but how much you get out of that will depend on personal preference, really. Quality of the audio is okay. Some hiss can be heard here and there and occasionally there is some distortion, often noticeable in how the sound effects are used in the four films. Dialogue is discernable enough though and the levels are properly balanced. For older mono tracks, these are okay. The Mandarin tracks tend to suit the movies better.
Extras include trailers for The Manchu Boxer, The Skyhawk, The Association and The Dragon Tamers as well as static menus and chapter selection for each of the four movies in the set.
Shout! Factory's release of Martial Arts Movie Marathon offers up four entertaining fight films in reasonably good shape (hey, at least they're in their right aspect ratios and have the Mandarin audio along with the English tracks) for a low price. The Association is the real gem of the lot, an unapologetically sleazy kung-fu film that delivers in spades but the other three are worth seeing if you're a fan of seventies martial arts and action movies. Recommended for fans.
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.