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Directed by Lau Kar-Leung, 1981's Martial Club is a later-era martial arts entry from Shaw Brothers that once again teams the director with Gordon Liu, who was still very much a box office draw, after they'd previously worked together on Challenge Of The Masters, Executioners From Shaolin and Heroes Of the East.
As it was in Challenge Of The Masters, Liu once again plays Wong Fei Hung. In Canton, his father, Wong Kei Ying (Ku Feng), runs a martial arts school. He and his students get along just fine with the Chan School, also a martial arts academy and everything seems to be calm, peaceful and sensible. The members of the Lu School, however, have different ideas in mind. They've got a bone to pick with Wong Kei Ying and come up with various schemes to knock him down a few pegs and hopefully put an end to the success of his school.
Wong Fei Hung isn't one to take any of this lying down. He sees these attacks on his father's honor as worth acting on and with his tendency to let his temper get the better of him, he's soon coming to blows with members of the Lu School. His father would rather these issues be resolved without violence, and as such, tension also rises between father and son. With Wong Fei Hung posing a real threat to the Lu School, they bring in a mysterious master martial artist from outside of Canton named Shan Hsiung (Wang Lung-Wei) to step in and take care of Wong Fei Hung once and for all.
Highlighted by an amazing final fight between the leads that is expertly choreographed and that takes place inside a narrow alleyway, Martial Club opens and ends remarkably strongly, making it a bit of a bummer that the middle section tends to get bogged down with some really uneven slapstick comedy and goofy cornball antics. Whenever we get a fight scene, and there are quite a few of them in the movie, the film is a rollicking and exciting one to be watching, but too much of the comedy just doesn't really work and so those scenes do tend to fall pretty flat. The opening scene, involving a lion dance sequence, is also impressive and beautifully choreographed.
Still, there is quite a bit to like here that makes the movie worth seeing. The aforementioned alley set piece really is a sight to behold, the choreography is as impressive as it is unique and, at times, genuinely surprising. It's a very intense sequence that is, on its own, worth the price of admission. In addition to that, we do get Gordon Liu in very fine form throughout, and he plays the legendary Wong Fei Hung character with plenty of enthusiasm, sometimes portraying his character as not only hot-headed but even a little mischievous. He has good chemistry with lovely Kara Wai, cast here as lady friend Wang Chu-Ying, and with a few of the other supporting characters. Ku Feng is also quite good as Liu's father, bringing a sense of seriousness to the scenes that he is featured in and doing a good job of portraying his character as honorable and level headed.
Lau Kar-Leung does keep the pace moving nicely and the film makes great use of color and features a pretty fun, occasionally bombastic, soundtrack, all of which works in its favor. Had this been played completely straight it would almost certainly have worked better but even with the goofy comedic elements dominating the middle stretch, Martial Club is a pretty entertaining watch.
88 Films brings Martial Club to Region A/B Blu-ray framed in 2.35.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition with the feature taking up 22GBS of space on a 50GB disc. Taken from an "HD transfer from the original negative" and nicely restored, this transfer is stronger than those seen on some of the other Shaw Brothers Blu-ray releases that have come out in the last couple of years. Detail is quite strong and there's good depth and texture. Aside from some minor crush in a few of the darker, indoor sequence things shape up quite nicely. Colors look great and skin tones appear lifelike and natural throughout. There aren't any obvious issues with edge enhancement problems or compression problems and if any noise reduction has been applied here, it's very light as the image is never particularly waxy, just maybe a tiny bit smoother than you might expect.
24-bit DTS-HD Mono options are provided in both the both Chinese and English options with English subtitles provided that translate the Chinese track. The default Chinese track plays best as 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.
Extras start off with a brand new audio commentary with Asian cinema expert Frank Djeng and actor/martial artist Michael Worth. They go over quite a bit of the film's history, detailing the lion dancing competition that opens the film, the dubbing featured in the movie, the way that the conflicts between the different schools is portrayed in the movie and how this is handled in the movie, where and when the movie was set, details on the different cast members that populate the picture, the different fighting styles showcased in the movie, the depiction of the father/son relationship that is key to the movie, the cinematography and camera work that is so important to the alley fight sequence and more.
A second audio commentary sees Djeng flying solo. It does cover some of the same ground as the track with Worth but also details the importance of the rules that are established during the lion dance, more notes on who did what in front of and behind the camera, the way that the different schools are depicted in the movie, some details on the character of Wong Fei Hung, insight into where Gordon Liu's career was at this point in time, shooting at normal speed versus speeding up the film for certain fight scenes, thoughts on the fighting styles used and other details surrounding the film's history.
Instructors of Death is a ‘Grindhouse Presentation' of the U.S. theatrical version of the movie. It uses up just under 16GBs of space and features a 16-bit DTS-HD 1.0 Mono track in English. There are no alternate language options or subtitles offered for this version, which runs 1:45:22 compared to the original Chinese version at 1:47:39. The picture quality is quite a few steps down from the feature presentation, there's a good amount of fading and print damage here, but the audio is pretty clean (this same track is the one used as the English audio option on the feature presentation).
As far as the featurettes go, Kung Fu And Dancing is an interview with Robert Mak that runs for thirteen minutes. He talks about his personal martial arts training, applying it to acting, melding kung-fu and dancing in his career, making his first appearance in a kung fu with Martial Club, the differences between real life martial arts and the movies, competing in martial arts competitions, signing up with Shaw Brothers, the challenges of shooting fight scenes on film, why he eventually left Shaw Brothers and what he's done since then.
An interview with Johnny Wang runs for twenty-one minute. Titled Born To Be Bad it allows him to talk about his work with Chang Cheh, getting into the industry, connecting with Shaw Brothers, working with Lau Kar-Leung, being typecast as a bad guy, how he was treated by Shaw Brothers, some of the different actors he's worked with, Lau Kar-Leung's choregraphy skills, thoughts on his character in Martial Club, preparing for key scenes, his favorite fight scenes and more.
Disciples Of Shaolin is an interview with Hung San Nam and Tony Tam that clocks in at twenty-five minutes. They go over how they got their starts in the business, working as stunt men for Shaw Brothers, their training, what it was like working for the Shaws, different directors that they worked with over the years, their payscale, having to work closely with different choreographers over the years, what went into performing some of the stunts we see on screen in Martial Club, when and where to use wires, the importance of always being willing to learn and in making the fights feel right.
The last of the featurettes is The Right Hand Man, which interviews Lawrence Wong for forty-one minutes. After talking about his background, education and training he then goes on to cover how he got connected with Shaw Brothers and what it was like in his early days with them, how he worked his way up the ladder, life in the Shaw Brothers dormitory, different people who he considers to have been mentors to him, collaborating with different directors, always having to be a problem solver, working with Lau Kar-Leung and how he treated his actors and other specifics relating to Martial Club.
Finishing up the extras on the disc is an Instructors of Death trailer, a Martial Club trailer, menus and chapter selection options. The packaging for this is nice as well, we get some reversible cover sleeve artwork featuring newly created artwork by Kung Fo Bob O'Brien on one side and the original poster art on the reverse. Both of these images are used on the folded up mini-poster included inside the case. The limited edition slipcover uses that same newly created artwork on the front. Packaged inside the case with the disc are a limited edition collector's booklet that contains a nice selection of behind the scenes photos and writing on the movie by critic/author Barry Forshaw.
Martial Club isn't a perfect film but it's a very good one thanks to some fun performances and some really strong fight sequences. The Blu-ray release from 88 Films is quite strong, offering up the film in nice shape and with a whole lot of extras, including interviews, commentary tracks and even the alternate U.S. theatrical cut of the film. 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.