I consider myself a pretty big fan of martial arts cinema. I began collecting the Hong Kong Legends label early in its life, and now have approximately 80% of everything they ever released. I also do my best to keep up with the genre, though that’s a difficult task due to how few foreign examples get proper UK releases. Before the Golden Harvest era, which was where HKL concentrated their releases, I confess that my knowledge is limited, and that’s probably why I hadn’t stumbled on Joseph Kuo Nan-Hong before this set was announced.
Collecting 8 of Kuo’s films (one of them in two different cuts), in two themed collections, this boxset is an ideal introduction to director whose films have probably previously been largely dismissed in the UK thanks to bad dubs and incorrectly framed releases.
The first four films come under the umbrella ‘Deadly Masters’. First up is The 7 Grandmasters (★★★★). Kuo’s frequent collaborator Jack Long Shi-chia plays a kung fu master who is about to retire, but finds an honour bestowed on him challenged, and has to set out to prove that he really is the best fighter in his area before he can end his career. At the same time, a young fighter (Simon Li Yi-Min) pesters the master to teach him kung fu. The story is beyond perfunctory: the first half unfolds as a series of sporting duels, while the second brings a hoary revenge plot in, but plot is hardly the point.
This film never lets up. It’s 88 minutes long, perhaps 70 of those are either fights or training sequences, with just enough exposition sprinkled throughout to keep the film on the rails. The choreography (early work by the great Corey Yuen-kwei) is big and broad, more in the classical tradition than what Bruce Lee had done or the comedic style that Jackie Chan was developing, but the sequences are fast moving and impressive and the shift late in the film from conflicts that live into ideas of honour and sporting competition to fighting for vengeance and for one’s life is well done. This is terrific start to the set and tremendously good time for any kung fu fan.
The 36 Deadly Styles (★★★) can’t quite live up to that opener, but it’s still a treat if you come to it in the right frame of mind. The storytelling goes from childishly simple to sometimes bafflingly convoluted, as this tale of revenge (of course) flits between present day and flashbacks. There’s more overt comedy and the fighting style is much the same as in The 7 Grandmasters. Here though, we have a couple of more recognisable faces. The two lead villains are played by perennial martial arts baddies Hwang Jang-lee and Bolo Yeung. Bolo in particular is memorable, thanks to a wig that makes him look like a sentient mop.
The influence of Jackie Chan is much clearer here, with an extended comedy training sequence for lead Nick Cheung-lik that draws heavily on Drunken Master. The pace isn’t quite as relentless as in Grandmasters, and you might find yourself lost on occasion, but the wall to wall action should keep everyone entertained.
The second disc leans into the Jackie Chan influence, with the first film, The World of Drunken Master (★★★), being a ripoff/prequel of his massive, and then new, hit. Simon Yuen Siu-tien shows up briefly at the beginning and end, likely as a favour to his son Yuen Cheung-yan, who serves as action director. The action is liberally inspired by the work Cheung-yan’s older brother, Yuen Woo-ping, did on Drunken Master, but the film is not as much of a direct ripoff as the title suggests. The story sees Beggar So (Yuen Siu-tien/Yi Min-li) reuniting with an old friend/rival, Fan Ta-pei (Jack Long, diversifying from the more severe roles he has in the first two films with a light comic turn), the two reminisce and much of the film unfolds in a flashback to 30 years previously.
It’s the usual training/revenge story, but amusingly told and with plenty of varied and dynamic action scenes to punctuate it, with the action design going from a barely choreographed brawl early on to the flowing moves of drunken boxing by the end. This is one of the few kung fu movies I can think of in this era not to simply end with the defeat of the bad guy. It’s an interesting gambit, but the downbeat close Kuo is reaching for isn’t very well seeded, and doesn’t have the impact he’s after. Still, this is another relentlessly entertaining entry in this set, and one that is rather less cynical than you might expect.
There is something to be said for a film showing you something you never thought you’d see. The Old Master (★★) manages that courtesy of a sequence in which Yu Jim Yuen—the man who ran the school where Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and many other legends of martial arts cinema cut their teeth—dances to a disco version of the Popeye theme tune. Sadly, the film isn’t much more than a curio. Yuen seems largely uncomfortable on screen and, a student of Chinese opera more than he was kung fu, does none of the film’s fighting, which is instead delegated to a double not much less obvious than Bela Lugosi’s in Plan 9 From Outer Space.
In a major contrast from the other films in this part of the set, the film lacks action, with long periods being taken up by the painful fish out of water comedy of Yuen’s character having just moved to LA, where a young restaurant worker (Bill Louie) lets him stay in his apartment in return for training. For Kuo’s part, a third act fight that goes from fire escape to rooftop is a clear attempt to ape some of Jackie Chan’s style, but has none of the wildly inventive prop use. Overall, the film feels like it was made by a collection of people who were out of their element.
The second pair of discs comes under the title of Fearless Shaolin! First up is the very route one titled Shaolin Kung Fu (★★★). A feud between two rickshaw operators escalates when Ah-Fung (Wen Chiang-Lung), who has avoided fighting because of his blind wife Shiao-Yuan’s (Yee Hung) fear of the consequences, finally strikes back when a man from the other company hits a young boy in the street. This turns into a deadly feud between Ah-Fung and local gangsters.
Easily the most brutal of the films, Shaolin Kung Fu has edgier and tougher fights than anything in the first set of films. Kuo gives them a different feel too, employing more close ups and a handheld camera. Some of the violence against women, particularly the attempted rape of Siao-Yuan, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth, but the fights are all dynamic, with standout sequences including a quarry fight and the first face off in the main villain’s courtyard. There’s also an interesting wrinkle here in that the first kill is committed by Ah-Fung (on the man attempting to rape his wife), and the villain is initially the one seeking vengeance. It’s not explored in great depth, but it is a choice that helps set the film apart a bit.
The Shaolin Kids (★★★) is more plot heavy than the other films. When a government official is murdered in the first step of a coup, his daughter Xin-er (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan) sets out for vengeance and to stop the Ming Prime Minister (Yuan Yi) from deposing the Emperor. She’s joined in her quest by an increasing group from Shaolin temple. Slower paced, despite being the shortest of the films so far, The Shaolin Kids sometimes gets bogged down in story, especially in an anti-climactic last ten minutes.
It could also hold a stronger focus on the truly badass Xin-er (in this way it’s rather like one of its obvious models; King Hu’s Come Drink With Me and its sequel, Golden Swallow). That said, when the action kicks in, Kuo and action directors Shao-Peng Chen and Cliff Lok bring their A game. The more complex plot raises the stakes of the action, and the fights strike a balance between the more brutal Shaolin Kung Fu and the showier style of the other films. Not without it’s problems then, but great when it’s in top gear.
The set rounds out with the pairing of The 18 Bronzemen [available on the disc in two versions, of which I chose the higher quality Japanese cut] (★★) and its sequel. The first film, though still just 95 minutes, is the longest in the set and feels like it. The whole first hour is essentially one long training sequence as Shao-Lung (played as an adult by Tien Peng), the young son of another murdered government official, is hidden at Shaolin Temple, where he is taught Kung Fu for two decades, until he can defeat the legendary trials of the 36 Chambers and the titular 18 Bronzemen.
This section of the film is hardly awful—Tien Peng and Carter Wong are charismatic leads and they execute the martial arts brilliantly—but it’s largely stakeless; we’re just biding time before Shao-Lung can leave the temple, discover who he is, and finally meet and defeat the ultimate bad guy. That’s a lot to wrap up in 35 minutes, and yet The 18 Bronzemen manages to do much of it quite slowly. The saving grace of the third act, beyond the final fight, which is worth the wait, is Shaolin Kids’ Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan turning up in a relatively small, but impactful, part. I wish I’d liked this one more, but a lot of it feels like a long wait for vengeance that underwhelms, because the story isn’t particularly well developed.
The Return of the 18 Bronzemen (★★★★) is a major improvement over its predecessor (shared sets and cast suggest that the films were made back to back, but they share no characters and no plot points beyond the Bronzemen). In a bookending story, as his father the Emperor dies, Prince Yong Zhen (Carter Wong) forges his will, installing himself as successor, framing his brother and ordering an attack on Shaolin Temple.
A long flashback then reveals how the Prince came to be this way. After rescuing a young woman, he falls for her but, unable to defeat her boyfriend (Tien Peng) in combat, he goes to Shaolin to train. The use of this structure immediately makes the film’s storytelling and characterisation almost as intriguing as the action, yes, we see a ruthless streak in Yong Zhen from the start, but watching it develop is as key an element as any of his attempts to defeat the Bronzemen and their challenges.
The repeated trials do get a little repetitive, but Wong is an agile and impactful martial arts performer and Chen Shao-Peng and Cliff Lok’s action is perhaps the best of any of the films in this set. Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan pops up again, and again for far too little screen time. Other than that, the only letdown here is the baffling ending. The film simply stops, basically midway through a scene, as if Kuo simply ran out of film. Otherwise though, this is maybe the best film in the whole set.
The films have been restored in 2K, and it’s tough to imagine that they’ve ever looked this good before, indeed this presents a few issues by making the old age make up and hairpieces look even cheaper than they assuredly were. A few faults still seem apparent, especially in The Old Master there are some very abrupt cuts that suggest there may be some missing frames, but otherwise the prints on show here are stunning, given the age and budget of the films.
There are several choices of soundtrack, with Mandarin and English tracks for all the films and Cantonese for some of them. None of these is what you’d call an original soundtrack, as kung fu films of this era were shot silent and dubbed, so all of them have the same sync issues and cartoony sound effects. I chose Mandarin for all of them. The tracks are mono; clean enough, but not particularly impressive.
Extras include an excellent booklet, with valuable contextualising essays by James Oliver on all eight films and printed postcards of lobby cards for each film. On the discs there are commentaries for each film. I have only been able to sample these. From what I have heard, they are extremely informative, but the sound quality on contributor John Charles isn’t great. Frank Djeng and Mike Leeder (who host the various tracks) are old hands at commentary on Kung Fu films, and it shows.
Finally we have the Hong Kong theatrical cut of The 18 Bronzemen. I chose to watch the fully restored cut, as this has elements of different quality as well as sequences that are only available in 4:3, but I’ll be intrigued to see the differeneces, especially in the opening 20 minutes, which were apparently changed significantly, with footage from other Kuo films, for the Japanese cut.
Yes, a couple of the films are weaker than the others, but even they aren’t without entertainment or curiosity value. On the whole, this is a great overview of Joseph Kuo as a filmmaker, with some interesting extras and beautiful presentation from Eureka. Essential for Kung Fu movie fans, if perhaps not the set to convert naysayers.