It’s astonishing to think how far the martial arts movie has come in the last 30 years. While it was commonplace within the major metropolitan markets of the 1970s (thanks in no small part to Bruce Lee), it wasn’t until home video, and the ready availability of titles, that the real upswing started. By the time DVD rolled around in the ‘90s, fans were no longer happy just getting their hands on certain celebrated efforts. They wanted the original film left intact - uncut, uncensored, un-manipulated by Hollywood studios, and most importantly, un-dubbed by usually over the top Western actors. For the most part, the business model dictated otherwise, while some outsider distributors gladly fed the geek fervor. Now Blu-ray has come along and with it a bevy of new digital reproduction issues. While DVD is often seen as a consumer friendly format, the new high definition dynamic is viewed as the territory of the true film preservationist - and each new release is viewed with a jaundiced, jaded eye.
Indeed, any company that claims attention to be catering to the purist but then fails to fulfill their most-wanted wish list of disc mandates is just asking for trouble - and that’s what’s happening with Miramax right now. While it’s wonderful to finally see these four films - the new releases include The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi, Hero, Iron Monkey, and The Legend on Drunken Master on the technologically advanced system, some are grousing over the various flaws they find in the transfers and audio specs provided. Whether or not they have a point goes beyond the issue of each of the films (which are, in general, some of the best in the genre). In fact, it raises a question of what consumers want from their Blu-ray collection vs. what a small but very vocal contingency of home video nerds demand. Perhaps the best way to gauge this conflict is to rate each film individually, before addressing the actual product and presentation. We begin with one of the more unusual and unknown titles in the set:
As he travels around the countryside, the famed blind swordsman Zatoichi encounters a pair of geishas who were orphaned by the awful Ginzo gang. He also learns that the local village is suffering under the brutal thumb of these thugs. It’s not long before our hero is working his way on the inside, killing anyone who comes between him and the head of this sinister syndicate.
When it was announced that Takeshi “Beat” Kitano was taking on one of Japan’s best loved mythical heroes, film fans around the world sat up and took notice. Imaginations went into overdrive determining what the man responsible for the cult legend Battle Royale would bring to the story of a blind gambler and masseuse who’s an expert at iaido style swordplay. More importantly, the new film was considered a reboot, reminiscence of what Hollywood has done recently with long running properties like Star Trek. Indeed, after 26 films and four television series (almost all dating back to the ‘60s and ‘70s) this was to be the first new title since 1989’s Zatoichi, Darkness Is His Ally. While some have complained that Kitano’s take on the action icon was muddled and unfocused, others have championed his post-modern approach and psychological realism in regards to the character. Seen now, sans all the hype and hoopla (the film won awards at both the Venice and Toronto film festivals), we can gauge Kitano’s production for what it truly is - a compelling and quite complex bit of fractured folklore.
A group of assassins gather together to destroy the King of Qin. A reward is offered for their deaths. A nameless prefect from another part of the country arrives at the palace carrying the weapons of each of these trained killers. Impressed, the wary ruler wants to hear how he did it. Through flashback, we learn how our hero’s exciting exploits, and how his arrival in the kingdom may be far from coincidental.
Beautiful to look at and amazing in its stunning, stylized action, Hero argues for Jet Li’s stature as a living martial arts legend. He is so graceful here, so solid in his onscreen machismo and magnetism that it puts recent turns by the acclaimed Chinese actor (like the awful Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) to shame. Applying a palette of colors so strong that it’s reminiscent of the old school Hollywood spectacle from a bygone era, and expertly composed and controlled by director Zhang Yimou (famed for other sumptuous efforts like Raise the Red Lantern, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower), this is moviemaking of majestic proportions. When we are not left agog by the pristine production design and costuming, we marvel at the various staged conflicts, each one bringing a new level of proficiency and polish to an already overripe genre. In fact, critics were so taken with this combination of heritage and histrionics that Oscar took notice, nominating the film for 2005’s Best Foreign Language Film.
Our title hero is a masked avenger who is actually a well-meaning physician by day. He tends to the poor without charge while gouging the wealthy when they need medical care. One day, a fellow MD (and master swordsman) named Wong Kei Ying comes into town, along with his young son. Hoping to force the newcomer to fight, the government kidnaps the boy. The only option for getting him back? Find the Iron Monkey and kill him.
Like Robin Hood on steroids, Iron Monkey has two very strong elements going for it. The first is actor Donnie Yen, who oddly enough doesn’t play the title character. That honor goes to Rongguang Yu. It really doesn’t make a difference, however. The acting is uniformly good, as is the amazing martial artistry. The fight scenes soar with a clearly crafted efficiency and power - and that makes sense, considering whose staging the stand-offs. Indeed, the second standout facet is stunt god extraordinaire, fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping who here steps behind the camera to act as director. Though battles with producers forced him to add more comic material than he would have liked, the overall effect is one of someone who implicitly understands action. That doesn’t mean that everything functions like cinematic clockwork here. Yuen Woo-ping dives into this story with little set-up, expecting us to catch up on the characters and socio-political underpinning along the way. Even worse, rumors have the movie being trimmed by Miramax from its original 90 minute running time to a supposedly leaner 86. Gone are bits that many feel flesh out the film, including specific subplots and concepts of cultural significance.
When he accidentally learns that the British government is stealing rare antiquities and exporting them out of the country, Chinese patriot Wong Fei Hung decides to defend his nation’s honor. Using his expert style of martial arts (which is enhanced even more when he actually drinks), he battles the bad guys in hopes of restoring his homeland’s honor, pride, and treasured artifacts. .
Don’t try to figure out the franchise serialization of the noted “drunken boxing” hero Wong Fei Hung (the movie’s tag comes from the Zui Quan style of fighting). In 1977, a cast and crew including Yuen Woo-ping and star Jackie Chan made a movie called Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. In 1978, they then released Drunk Monkey In The Tiger’s Eye - what many consider to be the first film to feature the noted Chinese fighter and herbalist. Then a side character in the series, a character known as Beggar So (played by Yuen’s father Siu Tien) starred in three additional films - Drunken Master Part 2, Story of the Drunken Master and World of the Drunken Master. Finally, in 1994, Chan returned to reprise the role of Hung. In Hong Kong, the film was labeled Drunken Master II. When it finally hit American shores, the title was reconfigured to Legend of the Drunken Master. Understand? Actually, you don’t really have to. With Mad Monkey Kung Fu and Return to the 36th Chamber‘s Lau Kar-leung behind the lens (with some uncredited help from his star), we wind up with one of the most mesmerizing, mindbending action films ever.
Which does bring us to one of the bigger issues with these Blu-ray releases. Many consider this latest digital format to be as definitive as possible…this week…within the framework of the current technology and available electronics, and yet Miramax is being called out for not providing a completely polished and pristine home video experience. The biggest argument comes over the lack of a True HD 5.1 mix IN THE ORIGINAL CHINESE for each title provided here. All arguments over print quality and image transfer aside, geek nation is going ga-ga over the lack of such a sonic scenario. Sure, the English dubs get the high profile presentation, but what film fans actually want - the original movie remastered in its entirety, including its native tongue - seems like the last consideration for these releases. Instead, we get ported over bonus features, lots of arguments over picture quality, and a very vocal contingent lighting up Messageboard Nation with their complaints.
So the question becomes one of availability over perfection, the chance of seeing one of your favorite films on the best of current formats vs. waiting years for rights issues, original print locating, footage processing, and other common complications to be addressed and resolved. Those arguing the loudest will claim that it’s not worth releasing these films if you’re not going to do it right. Others, especially those who wouldn’t know 1080i from 1080p, could probably care less. What’s clear is that the martial arts movie has become such a part of our cultural discussion that when the demographic feels underserved by the studios they look to for their regular dose of foreign and other outside the mainstream fare, they want their displeasure known - and in as massive a media savvy way possible. Miramax may have dropped the ball here - that’s for others to truly decide - but each of the four films offered have their own artistic merits (and missteps) as well. Perhaps they should be judged on this basis first before being dismissed as unworthy of the Blu-ray label.