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Opium and the Kung Fu Master

BCI Eclipse // Unrated // January 6, 2009
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 29, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The past few years have been brutal for cult cinema labels. Panik House, Casa Negra, NoShame Films, Barrel Entertainment, and Subversive Cinema have all
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gone under, and even mainstays like Anchor Bay and Blue Underground have redirected their focus more towards reissues than expanding their libraries of genre titles. The most recent casualty is BCI Eclipse, a label that in recent years has put a heavy emphasis on Eurohorror and kung-fu cinema. It's a crushing blow to see BCI shuttered like this, but if there's anything close to a bright side, it's that the label is going out on a high note. Among its final releases is 1984's Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, one of the first films to bow on Blu-ray from the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio.

Master Tie Qiao San (Ti Lung) is an incendiary martial artist -- one of the legendary Ten Tigers of Guangdong -- and he serves as both the chief of his sleepy little town's militia as well as an instructor who's sharing his mighty talents with a new generation of students. Few could normally hope to match his skills, but Master Tie's speed and ferocity have been dulled by opium. The drug soon threatens to consume the entire town: once-hardworking men abandon their jobs and ignore their families, hopelessly ensnared by their addiction. Even Tie himself is all but useless when pitted against the murderous profiteers behind the opium house. While Tie struggles to overcome his addiction with the help of his blind master (Tang Chia, who also directs), one of his pupils (Robert Mak Tak-Law) is consumed with vengeance, but he's outnumbered and outmatched against these gangsters.

As bleak and
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brutal as I'm sure that sounds, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master is really kind of breezy and playful for the first half of the movie. There's a sinister undercurrent about the opium that's ravaging China, yes, but the movie aims most of its attention towards fumbling almost-romances, slapstick, and sprawling kung-fu battles: one of Tie's students being kicked through a railing in a bar brawl and taking the fight to the streamers dangling overhead, the friendly competition of a lion dance in the city square, tiger claws tearing into sacks of rice...heck, even a dumpy girl mashing one sneering schlub over the head with a mallet. The movie pauses only briefly to catch its breath, and with a seasoned action choreographer like Tang Chia at the helm, it's no surprise that there's some sort of dazzling display of martial arts every few minutes. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master takes a considerably darker turn in its second half, though, starting with a grisly revelation and the blood-spattered suicide that follows. Its goofy, smirking sense of humor vanishes, with grisly imagery of a city addicted taking its place. As the body count continues to rise and the battles escalate in intensity, the gangsters who at first glance seem like bumbling stock villains become a much more ominous, credible threat.

It was one of the handful of films Tang Chia directed that first turned me onto kung-fu cinema, and it's a thrill to be able to experience another of them all these years later in high definition. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master is outstanding, bolstered by an onslaught of startling action sequences and a remarkably effective undercurrent of addiction. It's disappointing to think that there may only be one more Shaw Bros. release on Blu-ray from BCI after this, but at least their final titles are proving to be among their most memorable. Highly Recommended.

The bitrate of
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Opium and the Kung-Fu Master's AVC encode is unusually light; the movie and its three soundtracks combined take up just under 13 gigs, leaving a great deal of space unused on this single layer Blu-ray disc. Its 1080p video still looks better than I ever would've expected, though. There's a reasonably strong sense of definition -- it's clear with even just a passing glance that this is a high-def release -- although some of the texture and fine detail does look as if it's been filtered away. The scope image isn't marred by any damage or wear at all, although contrast tends to be rather flat, marred by particularly weak black levels and exaggerated grain in its more dimly-lit sequences. Its palette is more vibrant and robust than I ever could've hoped to see, especially the brightly colored costumes and the lion dance in the city square.

Opium and the Kung-Fu Master does have kind of a processed, more video-like look to it, and while I'll admit that this isn't ideal, I wouldn't say it's heavy enough to distract either. The movie looks better splashed across a 60" 1080p display than I ever would've thought, and the screenshots scattered around this review really don't do this Blu-ray disc justice. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master is a reasonably strong first showing for Shaw's debut on Blu-ray on these shores, and it makes me even more excited at the prospect of future titles coming down the pipeline.

There isn't any lossless audio on this Blu-ray disc, although I'm skeptical that would've made much of a difference in this case anyway. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master features a set of three Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kbps) soundtracks: Cantonese, Mandarin, and an English dub. Showcase material they're not -- frequency response is limited, and much of the dialogue sounds harsh and dated -- but none of that is particularly unexpected. All three of these tracks are listenable, and the selection of languages is more extensive than I would've thought.

English subtitles are optionally offered. Owners of constant image height projection rigs should note that the subtitles are predominately displayed within the letterboxing bars.

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  • Interviews (38 min.): The centerpiece of this Blu-ray disc's extras is a collection of interviews with three of the actors in the film: Chen Kuan-Tai, Lee Hoi San, and Robert Mak (Mai Ti-Lo). The three of them field a fairly similar set of questions: how they got their starts in kung-fu and in cinema, what their favorite films of theirs are and what genres in general they prefer, how they approach their martial arts styles, what they think about performers like Jackie Chan and Liu Chia Liang, and what they've been up to in the years since their heydays at Shaw. Despite some of the overlapping questions, the discussions are tailored to each actor, including Chen's contractual squabbles and a new kung-fu movie he's prepping, Lee speaking at length about incorporating so many different styles of martial arts into his films, and Mak touching on everything from Thai boxing to recording his first album.

    The interviews with Mak and Chen are conducted in English, and Lee's is subtitled. The quality of the recordings -- standard definition across the board -- is uneven, with Chen's in particular plagued by an overwhelmingly heavy hiss and some nasty clipping. Unless I overlooked someone mentioning it in passing, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master isn't brought up in any of these interviews.

  • Liner Notes: By far the best of the extras in this set is an extensive set of liner notes penned by film historian Ric Meyers.

  • Photo Gallery (HD): A slide show of full-color production stills is the only extra in this set to take advantage of the higher resolution that Blu-ray has to offer.

  • Trailers: This Blu-ray disc includes two trailers for Opium and the Kung-Fu Master as well as clips for Shaolin Hand Lock, 14 Amazons, and Life Gamble. The last of those still looks to be on target for a Blu-ray release later this month. All of these trailers are presented in standard definition only. Some are in anamorphic widescreen while others are letterboxed in a 4x3 frame.

The Final Word
Opium and the Kung-Fu Master features an unrelenting barrage of dazzling martial arts action, deftly incorporating goofy slapstick and a surprisingly resonant level of tragedy as well. This is one of the last great Shaw Brothers films -- one of the last Shaw films, period, actually -- and it's a thrill to have it on Blu-ray. While the movie does look as if it's been somewhat overscrubbed with this digital remaster, Opium and the Kung-Fu Master looks better in high definition than I ever would've expected, and as I write this, the Blu-ray disc is actually less expensive on than the standard definition DVD. It's bittersweet to think that one of the first Shaw releases on Blu-ray happens to be one of the last for BCI, but with Opium and the Kung-Fu Master, at least the label's going out on a high note. Highly Recommended.

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