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Disciples of Shaolin (Special Edition)
Directed by Shaw Brothers superstar director Chang Cheh in 1975, Disciples Of Shaolin tells the story of a young man named Kuan Fung Yi (Alexander Fu-Sheng). Unemployed but skilled in the martial arts, his brother Wang Hon (Chi Kuan-Chun) gets him a job at one of the local textile mills. Almost immediately, Kuan butts heads with the manager of the mill, the older man having no qualms whatsoever about degrading the new recruit or any of his other employees, or flaunting the fact that he makes more money than they do.
Kuan is cocky and self-assured, humility isn't a strong point, but when some of the employees of a rival text mill show up and cause problems, he gets to strut his stuff and prove his skills as a fighter. This wins him favor with employers and employees alike, Kuan decides to teach many of his co-workers some self-defense skills and as he does, he finds himself climbing the ladder and earning himself a management position for his efforts. Kuan's good fortune only last so long, however, leaving Wang Hon there to clean up the mess.
Disciples Of Shaolin is a tonally uneven film that starts off with a lot of comedic elements with a lot of Fu-Shengs work feeling like an early template for the period kung-fu comedies that Jackie Chan would star in during the first days of his headlining career. As the story progresses, however, things get decidedly darker and the tone of the movie shifts. By the time we get to the big finale, the movie has shifted gears completely and what starts off as a lighthearted tale of a cocky fighter dealing with his day job turns into a pretty violent heroic bloodshed movie, that kind that director Chang Cheh made a name for himself with.
As far as the performances go, Fu-Sheng has the type of charisma and screen presence that a leading man needs to pull off a role like this. He plays his part with the right amount of arrogance to work, and just as importantly, he moves well enough to convince us that he is the martial arts superstar he wants everyone to believe he is. His style is graceful but also convincingly deadly, he looks great on camera and Chang Cheh gets a lot out of his leading man here, and the expert fight chorography seems to be, in many scenes at least, designed specifically to show off what he can do. And it works well, the fight scenes in the film are satisfyingly complex and performed with the type of intensity that you'd expect from a Shaw Brothers action film, there are lots of flashy moves, some interesting bits performed with weapons and throughout all of it a gracefulness that is just fascinating to watch.
From the opening minutes where Fu-Sheng, against a stark background, performs some practice moves, his wrists covered in heavy bracelets, through to the blood-soaked finale, the movie holds out attention. While the editors probably could have shaved off ten minutes or so in the films first half and sped things up a bit, the pacing is, for the most part, just fine. Like most Shaw Brothers films of this era, much of the material was clearly shot on a soundstage but the film is colorful and pleasing to the eye, nicely shot and making good use of the 2.35.1 widescreen aspect ratio in the fight scenes to pull out and let us take in all of the action rather than hide it with a lot of tight, close up shots. Some of the film's score will sound familiar to fans of Italian cinema as it uses music from Claudio Mattone and Ennio Morricone quite liberally.
88 Films brings Disciples Of Shaolin to Blu-ray framed in 2.35.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition taking up 33.7GBs of space on a 50GB disc. Colors look quite good here and black levels are fine but some digital noise reduction appears to have been applied, some detail is on the soft side and the image is seemingly free or natural looking grain. There's virtually no print damage, however, and the transfer is free of obvious compression artifacts and edge enhancement.
24-bit DTS-HD 2.0 Mono options are provided in both a Chinese language option with English Subtitles and in an English dubbed track with English SDH subtitles. The Chinese track plays best, it suits the film more and it sounds quite clean with no audible issues. The English track is fun in the goofy sort of way that dubbed tracks tend to be for older Shaw Brothers movies.
Extra features begin with an audio commentary by critic and author Samm Deighan that goes over the basics and offers up her thoughts on what works in the movie. Lots of detail about the cast and crew that worked on the film, some of the themes that the film explores and more. Up next is a second audio commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema that again offers more info on the cast and crew, details on Chang Cheh, some of the ideas at play here, fighting styles and more.
The disc also includes an archival interview with Shaw Brothers actor and director Jamie Luk, who had a supporting role in the film, that clocks in at just over twenty-five minutes. He speaks here about his work in front of and behind the camera at Shaw Brothers during the boom years of their kung-fu output.
Finishing up the extras are a trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection options.
This release also comes packaged with a slipcover, some reversible cover sleeve art and, folded up inside the clear Blu-ray keepcase, a nice double-sided replica of two of the film's poster art styles. Also included in the case is an insert booklet containing an essay by Matthew Edwards and some nice archival images.
The shifts in tone that occur in Disciples Of Shaolin will doubtlessly through off some viewers but in this reviewer's opinion, the movie works quite well. Fu-Sheng does an excellent job in the lead and the direction and fight choreography are top notch. 88 Films' Blu-ray release looks good if not reference quality, and we get some decent extra features as well. 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.