Goddamn You! Your kung fu is lacking...

Sunday, 26 February 2012

I See A Theme Developing

Over on Kung Fu Cinema forum this week, Drunken Monk started a thread about kung fu movie collector cliches.  There's a few amusing observations on there about fans of the genre, but it got me thinking about one aspect of my behaviour that can probably be described as a 'personal cliche'.

The cliche I have in mind is this: I'm a Pokemon collector.

Get a grip, daft lad.  I don't possess a single card, figurine or novelty lunch box adorned with Nintendo's famous cash cow.  What the hell am I on about, then?

I'll elaborate.  Let's use the phrase differently.  I'm a 'Pokemon-style' collector.

By which I mean, 'I gotta catch em all.'

I'm talking about kung fu movies.  Of course, to aim to collect every single martial arts movie ever made is a lofty, probably unachievable aim.  No, I'm not talking about that.  I'm referring to my own personal penchant for thematic collecting.

When I first started out collecting kung fu movies, I would buy or trade almost anything.  I still will.  But my kung fu fandom to date has been characterised by collecting in themed chunks, whereby I identify something I like and try to grab everything related.

The first time this happened was when I discovered Vengeance Video dvd releases.  In little over a year, I had the entire set.  I love the low quality of the covers; the pictures on the front, the shoddy English on the back, and the hit-and-miss nature of the films themselves.  I was like a man possessed -  I just had to have every single release.  That went for the Rarescope releases, too, and the US-only releases.  Even stuff like Born to Fight was sought, bought and placed in numerical order (by the numbers on the box spine) on the shelf.  Normally, I wouldn't buy Born to Fight, but it's a Rarescope - and I gotta catch em all.

The same tale was played out with Hollywood East, Pegasus video and Firefly releases.  There's very few I haven't got.  I was even so lax as to fail to check 'akas' to avoid owning two copies of Cantonen Iron Kung Fu.

Surely that's just me being a weird hoarder of tat then?  Not necessarily.  DVD brand releases aren't the only aspect of kung fu collecting that I acquire in thematic chunks.  I've also gone through phases of ordering blocks of films by style and by star.  I ordered a load of Tien Peng wuxia films in quick succession.  Shapes classics.  Yasuaki Kurata films.  Wilson Tong-choreographed movies.  Shaw Celestial releases.  Recently, I've been enjoying early-to-mid 1970s bashers, so I've been making lists from Hong Kong Movie Database about the 1972-1975 films of Barry Chan, Chen Sing, Charles Heung, Nik Cheung, Chan Wai Man and San Kuai.  I see something, I like it, I want as much as I can related to it.

I'm keen to stress here that if other films from other stars in different styles became available, I'd still get them.  Even in the most intense periods of thematic acquisition, I still received films not related to the flavour-of-the-month.  I'm not that stupid.  However, the phases of interest I go through are most definitely a personal cliche.  If I'm watching a film and enjoy a style, performance or the choreography, I find myself split between excitement at the thought of discovering more of the same, and sighing at my narrow-minded predictability.  I just know that if I watch a Japanese samurai film and enjoy it, that'll be the next Pokemon session.  

There's frustrations too.  Sometimes the object of obsession is incomplete.  During my early Hwang Jang Lee collect-a-thon, I realised that the existing print of Canton Viper is bloody awful, with no English subtitles or dub.  Yet, it's one of his best performances.  Until Houndslow Team finish their project of translating a better print, I'm stuck.  At least with that, though, there's light at the end of the tunnel.  What about if I wanted to collect the complete works of Judy Lee, Carter Wong or Jimmy Wang Yu?  Where the hell am I going to get The Magic Ring, Mr Kwong Tung and the Robber, and Tiger Boy?  I'm really opening myself up here to future angst, yet I can't help it.  Respect for the stars, styles and films of the genre mean that I just want to see everything they did, even when it's not possible.  I can dream, I suppose.

I blame Godzilla.  When I got into those films, they were easy to track down and complete.  It lured me into a false sense of achievability.  Little did I know when I first caught the kung fu bug that there'd be scores of lost, unbelieveably rare, unsubtitled/undubbed, awful-quality-print films out there to tease and taunt me with their inaccessiblity and unwatchability.  
In the meantime I'll just have to both enjoy and carefully manage this particular obsessive personality trait.  I don't break down into a blubbering wreck if I can't get a film starring Tien Ho.  It's a bit deflating, but it doesn't matter.  I'll be onto another star next month!  And it never gets in the way of enjoying the films.

Wow, Iron Fisted Eagle's Claw was good.  Now, what else has Bruce Liang done..?

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Death Player (1975)

Background: Acquired from a German collector; this looks like a vhs transfer.  It's fullscreen and custom subtitled.  The film is a Taiwanese basher starring Barry Chan, Tsai Hung, Shan Mao and Kong Ban.

Story: Chan Biu is a crook who decides to rob from his own profession.  Smugglers bring in some items (concealed in a bag) via boat, and he robs the recipient before agreeing with his collaborators to split up and share the loot at a derelict town later on.

Tough Bandit Guy is perplexed at the actions of his fellow criminal

Chan Biu takes the loot

Meanwhile, Captain Chen, soon to be married to Xiao Ching, is preparing for his wedding.

The charming Mother-in-law keeps the locals in the loop

His is interrupted by pisshead associate Koo Tsai, who informs him that the boss wants a word.  Chen is told of the day's scuffles, and tasked with investigating.  His bride-to-be and her mother are outraged that Chen is putting his career first - again.

Nevertheless, he receives information from Tsai that the ne'er-do-well is staying at a nearby inn.  Upon arrival, he releases that it's Chan Biu - his brother.  He searches his truck but fails to find the necessary items.  Later, another bad 'un challenges Chan Biu, and Captain Chen and his men watch as a fight breaks out.  Chen's missus turns up and it all kicks off.  They get involved with the crooks' disagreement, and Chan Biu flees in his truck.

Biu busts the truck out of the building as men fight within

Cap runs after him, and eventually manages to apprehend his brother.

Cap Chen smashes the window of Biu's truck with a rock

What follows is a long, near-relentless game of chase, apprehension, escape and chase.  It happens a few times - Chan Biu manages to escape in the woods before Cap hides behind a cow and leaps out, to recapture him.

These guys seem to have a beef with each other

An ambush from Biu's mates at a rest-stop also involves another fight/chase/recapture.  There's another incidence on a rope bridge above an enormous gorge.

Eventually, Cap takes Biu to the derelict town to flush out the bandits, but is ambushed.  Biu is betrayed, however, and rescued by Brother Cap.  He realises the error of his ways, and vows to change.  However, Cap's whiny bint missus is taken hostage by a bandit, and a fight to the death ensues.

We caught him ... again

Impressions:  To be honest, I can't remember the order of the escapes/fights/chases/recaptures.  It's all a bit of a blur.  It makes for compelling Sunday morning viewing - there's no shortage of action here and the film rarely stops for breath.  There's some super little set pieces, such as the scene where Captain Chen chases after his brother's truck, trying desperately to intercept it.  The rope bridge fight is quite splendid, too - there's a decent sense of peril conveyed with some lively camerawork.  The chasing/fights encompass thick woods, rivers, lakes, the ocean, dusty paths, quarries, a small mine and the bust up bandit town.

The final fight on a little boat

The scenery is lovely - as the two guys jump around a rocky river, swinging punches and kicks, it's difficult to know what to concentrate on.

Captain, there's a miner problem ... he's got away.  AGAIN.

The fights themselves are standard basher fayre.  There's some decent-length cuts and the action is always well-framed, which is a big deal to me.  There's plenty of needless leaps towards a man already lying on the ground (why do they do that??) and one or two daft moments of disbelief (Biu jumps off the rope bridge to retrieve the lost bag.  He falls about 100 feet into 2 feet of water and barely breaks sweat, never mind every bone in his body.)  There's nothing special here - Barry Chan and Tsai Hung put on a solid show but nothing particularly memorable.

However, there's a nice little film here.  The pace, as I've said, is breakneck.  The characters ignore their exhaustion, and demonstrate infectious perseverance.  The camerwork and editing help this - though I'm convinced that this copy is cut - and allow the viewer to sit back and enjoy a compact traditional basher.

Good Old Pisshead

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Big Boss of Shanghai (1979)

Background: I received this from a German collector.  It contains an English dub as well as English subtitles.  I watched the film accompanied by the latter.  The spelling and grammar are occasionally poor, but largely clear and understandable.  It's a letterbox print, in decent condition.

After watching a few swordplays recently, I felt the urge to watch something with a different pace and focus.  Something with more advanced choreography.  Something with a different setting.  Big Boss of Shanghai, sat on top of a huge pile of recent acquisitions, looked ideal.  And so it proved to be.

Story (BIG SPOILERS): Two poor knockabout mates, Wong (Chen Kuan Tai, also directing) and Cheung (Jimmy Lee), accidentally get into bother with the local hoodlum, Mr Wang.  Their problems are compounded when Ah Sam, a friend, reveals that he has stolen from Mr Wang.  Wong tells him to return the wallet, but Sam is viciously beaten by Mr Wang's lackeys.  Wong and Cheung intervene, and a man is killed.  Mr Wang swears that he will have Wong arrested, so the two lads flee on a train to Shanghai.

In Shanghai, after grabbing a drink from a water pump, the boys venture out into the streets.  A starving Cheung is humiliated by a weasel-like shit, who forces him to crawl around for a bun.  Wong intervenes, and scolds Cheung for having no dignity.  They secure work at the docks, working fast and hard, but soon discover that the aforementioned Shit-Weasel runs a racket in the area.  Mr Shit only gives them a paltry fee for their labour, so the lads smash him and his toughs up.  One of the workers tells the guys that they run that area now, much to their bemusement.  

Weasel Shit informs his boss, Fan, that Cheung and Wong beat him up and are expert fighters.  Fan asks Weasel to invite them to a meeting to discuss the future.  Cheung seems more open to promises of bigger returns than Wong, but they both go anyway, and are suckered into a trap.  Fan's men attack, but are no match for the powerful fighters, and soon they team up to whup Boss Fan.  Fan's aide, Weasel Shit, draws a knife and kills his boss.

Under Wong's regime, the workers get better treatment.  Cheung is annoyed that they're giving away too much, and easy prey for Weasel, who begins to sow seeds of greater discontent in Cheung's mind.  Meanwhile, Wong tightens his grip on the area, beating up rivals and training his men to defend themselves.  The boys are invited to a meeting at a teahouse by a big fat boss.  Once again, they are attacked, but swiftly make their way up the stairs to take on Fatty himself.  After putting on a tough show, Fatty is despatched.  He concedes to Wong, before Cheung smashes a vase over his head, killing him.  Wong is disturbed that Cheung felt the need to kill a man who had relinquished.  He explains that they should be trying to make friends, not enemies, and play fair.  Cheung retorts that Wong should just become a preacher.

The developing rift is gradually seized upon by another boss - Lam (Chen Sing).  He invites Cheung round to his mansion for a meeting.  Cheung sees the high life offered by greater returns - a huge house with a pool room, brandy, comforts - and gets an eyeful of leg off a waitress.  Lam tells Cheung that his returns aren't as big as they could be due to Wong's attitude, and explains that Wong is hurting his business by refusing to allow opium and arms shipments through his territory.  Cheung initially ignores him and assists Wong in throwing opium shipments off a train, but Lam asks Cheung to team up with him to rule Shanghai's underworld.

Wong is lured to a casino by Cheung.  A fight breaks out, and Cheung steps aside.  Wong leaves on his own, taking a rickshaw, but is thrown off at a rickshaw roadblock.  He takes on dozens of assailants, and receives two stab wounds.  He runs through grotty alleys, and is on the verge of defeat when he is rescued by Ah Sam, driving a car.
Boss Cheung is more ruthless to his workers.  He allows opium and arms through, and strikes anyone who mentions the name of 'Wong'.  Wong recovers at Ah Sam's cousin's house, and is furious to hear of Cheung's actions.  He confronts Cheung at the docks, and they fight.  It ends in a stalemate, as Wong is still injured.  Wong warns Cheung about Boss Lam, but does not attempt to kill his friend, clearly still clinging onto the hope that he can be 'rescued'.

Wong's stock rises again in the area, and Cheung challenges him about taking workers off him.  Wong agrees to give him some back, but guarantees their well-being.  Wong takes Cheung back to the water pump they used when they first arrived, but Cheung is unimpressed and walks off.  Wong also falls into favour with the French rulers of the area, being appointed Director of Public Works.

Boss Lam continues to be worried about the influence of Wong, and persuades Cheung to invite him to dinner.  They arrive to a cordial reception at Lam's mansion.  Wong is betrayed horrifically, and is forced to fight Lam to the death.  Cheung tries to finish Wong off, but Ah Sam stabs him.  The ending is abrupt - it suggests that the dying Cheung reaches towards Wong in reconciliation.

Impressions (Spoilers):  Wow, what a neat little film to end the weekend on.  It's an uncomplicated yet gripping effort, as two friends with the same aim grow apart as their methods differ and others take advantage.  The seeds of Cheung's betrayal are sown early on, when it becomes clear that he has a different ethos to Wong.  Wong is noble, honest and looks after people, but Cheung is more interested in remorseless self-gain.  Right at the start, when Sam reveals that he has Mr Wang's wallet, Cheung is apathetic, whereas the greater moral fibre of Wong tells him he must return it.  Cheung huffs when Wong is generous to his workers, and is drawn towards betrayal all-too easy.  His cruel streak grows as he shows no remorse - the dagger struck into Boss Fan by Shit Weasel is rammed home by Cheung, and he ruthlessly kills Fatty.  In contrast, Wong rises in the world through honesty and integrity, which makes him an easy target for double-crossing.  It's quite touching how Wong retains his naive faith in his friend right to the end.

The fights are very pleasing indeed.  There's some well-choreographed punching and blocking, with particularly striking work from Chen Kuan Tai.  The cuts are of a decent length, and well-framed - the attack on Fatty's teahouse has a camera panning up the stairs, as Wong kicks and throws people here and there.  During the attack in the street, Wong runs towards a camera as it pans back, giving a real sense of speed, and another camera tracks his flight from pursuers at a diagonal angle.  It's simple, yet effective camerawork from CKT.  There's some great work with poles and sticks, as attacks are parried and turned in well-constructed movements.  I'm trying not to over-sell it, as it's nothing amazing, just solid, satisfying work.  There's also some wince-inducing scenes in the last battle.

To summarise, this is a solid, entertaining, undemanding little film that gripped me from start to finish.  The leads are good and the action very decent.  On another day and in another mood, this may have seemed to be a bit cliched and forgettable.  In the event, it was just the job.  Chen Kuan Tai is fast becoming a personal fave - his work is consistently pleasing.    

Kicking in Shit-Weasel and his cronies at the Docks

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Temptation (1968)

Background: Acquired from a German collector, who added custom subtitles to a fullscreen print.  Stars Chang Chi Yu, Wong Yung, Got Heung Ting and Ngai So.  Taiwanese production.

Last week I read the comments of translator Rebecca Tai in her introduction to Gu Long's The Eleventh Son. She stated that in Long's classic wuxia novels, there is often very little fighting.  The martial artists are of such expertise that they rarely have to resort to actual combat.  Instead, cunning and respect play a powerful role within the martial world.

To an extent, this is what happens in this 1968 film.  Whilst it is not from the pen of Long (I presume!), it focuses on the ideas of chivalry and honour.  There's not much combat - a few scenes at most, and the elite pairing at the centre of the film do not actually draw their swords until the final engagement.

Older Brother slices through a waterfall.

The story is set in Xi Nan Province.  Two brothers - Ti (Younger) and Han (Older) - are told by their master that the time has come for them to leave their insular existence and help to protect the innocent from the lawlessness polluting the land.  Bandits are everywhere and the common folk are suffering.  However, the brothers must avoid the three evils of temptation.  Firstly, they cannot allow themselves to get involved in pointless and unnecessary fights.  Secondly, they must resist money and riches.  Thirdly, they cannot succumb to the charms of women.

The brothers are asked to meet up with their uncle and assist in the common struggle.  Their patience to adhere to the 'no fighting' rule is stretched early on, when they witness the ruthlessness of a group of bandits on the road to a local town.

These bandits take over an inn, and cruelly beat a man as they attempt to rape his daughter.  A compromise is reached as the brothers rescue them without actual engagement, using cunning instead.  Meanwhile, a well-off woman is asked by her father to leave town.  He is wary of the threat posed to them by the bandits, and wants to flee to their hometown in Xi Zhou.  Infuriatingly, the subtitles don't give the name of the woman (that I recall), so she'll just have to be called The Woman.  Not The Woman, Holmes fans, just The Woman.

The next day the pair leave town, aided by an escort company.  They are ambushed by the bandits further down the track, causing the two brothers to intervene.  The gang try to buy them off with loot, but this temptation is resisted with ease.  Once again, their skill is legendary - through a series of parries, blocks and punches they defeat the gang without having to draw their weapons.  But not before the father is killed, leaving The Woman isolated and defenceless.  They resolve to take her to her uncle's house in Hsing An Yi town.

The main strand of the story then slowly kicks in.  The remainder of the film is centred on the Brothers' fight to resist the temptation presented by The Woman.  She is a complicated character, and I'm not sure exactly what to think of her.  Her actions throughout the film drive the story towards it's finale, when the two brothers draw their swords on one another.  Younger brother, besotted, intends to make off with her; while older brother, who has resisted her advances throughout, loses control as the sanctity of his brotherhood crumbles.

In some respects, she is portrayed as a bad guy.  She is undoubtedly a selfish, self-absorbed character, whining as her father pleads with her to leave the village at the start and fussing over her hair before they set off.  She flirts with the brothers from the moment she is rescued.  Obviously there's nothing wrong with that in itself, but the way she plays them off one another in the final third presents her as cunning and opportunistic - threatening to kill herself if they leave her in one breath, and trying to pay off Young Brother so she can run off with Older Brother in another.  In one interesting scene, she also tries to kill Older Brother.  During a troublesome ascent up a rocky mountainside, Younger Brother is trying to haul up his brother using some kind of vine or rope.  When they get into some difficulties, she grabs a sword and cuts the vine.  Younger Brother clings on with it wrapped around his boot.

Later, she throws herself at Older Brother, explaining what happened and asking for forgiveness for her selfish act.  He accepts that it was a sensible action - as both may have died instead of sacrificing one - but within minutes she's trying to split the brothers up to satisfy her own needs.

For a time, it appears that the brothers may resist her, giving her a similar response:

Eventually, however, she woos Younger Brother, and the situation reaches a crunch as the experts turn on each other.  At first glance, then, it appears that she is the villain - an agitator whose relentlessly selfish desires ruin the partnership of two honourable men.  Both lose sight of Master's rules as Younger Brother falls in love and Older Brother tries to kill her (a civilian).

On the other hand, and after some thought, it's clear that not all is straightforward.  The Woman's backstory is a rather tragic, and it seems that the story also comments on the inability of noble martial values to react to a complex situation.  In an odd sequence, she sings to the two men, revealing her past.  There was no translation of the words of this song in my copy, but the images seem to suggest that she used to be under the thumb of her Aunt, working as a singer.  At other points in the film she alludes to the cruelty she suffered under her relative, and her panic at the thought of having to go back there is obvious.  Furthermore, she's lost her father, almost raped, and kidnapped by bandits who threaten to kill her in the film itself.  She comes across as a desperately insecure and lonely person.

One of the strengths of this film, then, is the story's ability to encourage some reflection.  This is helped by the bizarre ending.  Younger brother falls at the sword of his friend.  As Older Brother holds him, Master appears in the distance, laughing his socks off.  Older Brother carries the body towards him.  What is that all about?  Has it all been a huge test?  Did Master expect the young guy to fail?  I'd like to hear the opinion of others on this oddness.

The action in this film is rather tame if you're used to faster, more complex work.  It's very much 'of its time' in construction.  Movements are slow and deliberate.  There's some decent work to do with weapon throwing and catching, and one or two inventive deaths.  I actually enjoyed the action more on my second viewing as I was prepared for the style and pace of the film.  It's very much a film about character and themes.  These two brothers lead a naive and sheltered life, but after a short time in the real world they're struggling to hold onto their comradeship and beliefs.  The Temptations offered by the title are simply too great - none more so than Chang Chi Yu's seductress.  In one scene, she has an erotic dream, and the Younger Brother simply can't cope with her moans and groans.  From that point on it's an uphill battle for the brothers to remain focused, and the temptations eventually manage to do what no bandit stood a chance of doing.

Bottom line - it was a strangely pleasant watch.  Not at all like I was expecting.  The themes and ideas interested me, and were quite well performed by the cast.  While the action is lethargic and infrequent, the mood created by the lighting and sound add a pleasing dimension to the movie.  There's some beautiful photography in this film, with lush scenery being commonplace, and used to frame several scenes very nicely indeed.

Chang Chi Yu sobs at her father's grave.
The Brothers escort her to a lodge.
The three wade through a fast river.
Younger Brother chats to The Woman about the attempted murder of Older Brother.
Just before it all kicks off.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Story of the Thirty-Six Killers (1971)

Background:  This is an extremely rare film sourced from a German collector.  I acquired it as part of a consortium.  It has been cited on the 'wanted' lists of many collectors for years.  All images are snapped through vlc.  

Story: I'm not going to go into too much detail here as it's a reasonably good story with a few twists and turns.  A full synopsis would spoil it.  The film starts with two brothers pelting through the countryside on horseback. One, Meng Liang (Pai Ying), returns back home to Ma as the other, Hsiao Shun, takes off into town.  It's a typically ramshackle rural setting.  As Hsiao arrives he finds bodies everywhere, with a group of bandits forcing themselves on the womenfolk.  He intervenes, killing all but one bandit and saving a young woman.

Unfortunately, he has killed one of the sons of Lord Lo, a local shitbag.  Hsiao is recognised as the brother of Meng Liang.  A surviving bad guy returns the son's body to Lord Lo.  When the Lord asks who has killed his son, the scumbag says that "It was .... Meng" before dying (presumably before he could finish the sentence).  Naturally, this means that Lord Lo now thinks that Meng Liang is the culprit, rather than his brother.  Coincidentally, back at home Ma is furious with the boys.  Meng decides to protect his brother and take responsibility for the event, compounding his guilt in the eyes of friend and foe.

After fleeing, Meng splits up from the group and encounters a mysterious assassin in a wooded swamp, named Li Hao (Fatal Hand).  Li recognises Meng as the son of renowned swordsman Meng Tung San (the Soul Sword).  He explains that Lord Lo will pay 100 taels of gold for Meng's head.  After a brief stalemate, Meng asks Li for three days to sort out his affairs, promising to return to face him.  Li takes Meng's word of honour, and leaves.

In town, the group hide away at their uncle Lin's house, but their cousin, Erh Niu, informs them that he's been captured and imprisoned on money-related charges.  The two brothers and cousin decide to try to rescue him, and overhear Lord Lo and his entourage of henchman planning to overthrow the ruler and claim power for themselves.  This positions Lo's vendetta against Meng in the wider context of a rebellion plot.

That's about the first 25 to 30 minutes, and I'll go no further.  There's some extraordinary behaviour from Li Hao throughout the rest of the film, and the tone of the story is unrelenting.  It's dark and serious, and pulls few punches with characters.  I don't know enough about early 70s films to know how common this angle, pace and tone was, but it certainly held my attention throughout.  The ending was pretty damn fine, I thought, and one character seemed to demonstrate some real growth.

Fights: I've heard it said by a few people that rumour suggested that the action in 36 Killers is quite high level for the time.  I have no idea about that.  However, I can say that I found the swordplay to be a lot faster than late 60s indie efforts I've seen.  There's a great scene where the two brothers are trapped on a closed walkway, and henchmen throw dozens of darts at them, which are fended off expertly by Meng wielding some kind of handle-based spinning deflector.  The picture was so unclear (I'll come onto that in a minute) that I can't be sure what it was, but as a spectacle it was highly effective.  The other battles are busy (without being too stylish or gruesome) and match the pace of the film well - reasonably intense but not edge-of-your-seat.  The end engagements are rather good - including some inventive choreography involving a large wooden trunk with swords embedded in it.

Production/ Print Quality:  The settings are typically indie - run down villages, a well-guarded stronghold, dusty countryside - but two design choices stand out.  The first one seems to be in a near-desert-like locale, and adds to the drama of the scene.  The other is a personal favourite.  Meng meets Lo in the pouring rain.  He stands motionless, looking bad-ass, before turning to face his nemesis.  As rain scenes go, it's not up with Sword of Justice or What Price Honesty, but it's genuinely atmospheric and well-filmed.

One major problem with this film isn't a problem with the film - it's a problem with the copy.  As noted, this movie is rarer than hen's teeth, so beggars can't be choosers.  I'll confirm that it's totally watchable - I understood most of the subtitles easily enough and could work out what was going on 99.9% of the time.  However, there are problems.  For starters, the colouration of the print is often poor - whole scenes are in blossoming greens, pinks and oranges:

Through part of one reel, the subtitles are cut in half horizontally, though thankfully this only happens for a short time, and they're still readable.  Another problem that only occurs on a solitary occasion (that I can recall) is a break-up of the image into an odd blue patchwork of distortion:

Above is Pai Ying preparing for a fight.  Trust me.  Finally, we have common shifts in focus throughout the film.  In one scene, the image can blur and re-focus dozens of times.  It's not as off-putting as it sounds, but it can lead to some subtitles being difficult to read:

In spite of this whinging, let me reiterate that this isn't as big a deal as it sounds.  If I went through a checklist of 'musts' for a film as rare as this, I'd say:

Could I understand it?  Yes.  The subtitles are shown fully - no cuts offs. 
Could I see what was going on?  Yes - issues did not last long.  The discolouration is charming, in a way.
Did I enjoy it?  Absolutely.  

And that's the bottom line.  I don't give a toss about the print issues for 36 Killers.  Sure, I'd like to have a glass print, who wouldn't?  But that's not going to happen.  Instead, I'm deeply gratified to have had the opportunity to watch this film; one I'd read about but thought the chances of seeing were slim.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Fusubs - Brief but Brilliant

I remember my first experience with Fusubs rather well. One of the team - Roger Judd Jr - was a relatively recent trade acquaintance. He's a very trustworthy person, and when I spied a thread on kung fu cinema forum about new custom subtitled projects from a team including Roger, I knew it was going to be good.

I wasn't quite prepared for how good.

Fusubs were formed in February/March 2010 by Samson Price, who came up with the idea of forming a subbing group, Roger, Bob O'Brien, and Gerald P. Crane (his wife joined afterward to help him with the Chinese translation). A trans-Atlantic group, they identified an opportunity to release new versions of old movies. The market is, and continues to be, dominated by re-releases of Shaw Brothers films, but Fusubs championed an approach that saw them release a hugely-impressive total of 21 largely-obscure movies in about 18 months. All were custom-subtitled and meticulously produced.

The first couple of dvds I ordered arrived remarkably quickly from Canada, packaged securely with custom covers. These covers were superb. They included a detailed synopsis of the film, the film's year of production, cast and director, the aspect ratio of the picture, and the specifications of the project. An option for white OR yellow subtitles provided viewers with a neat choice. I myself prefer white subtitles, but sometimes on prints with burnt-in subtitles they become unreadable - so yellow was a most welcome option.

On average, a single title took around 60 to 70 hours to produce. Gerald and Hana translated the raw Chinese dialogue. Samson handled the tech work; subbing, timing and authoring the dvds, and even correcting the colour where possible to enhance the picture. Bob designed the cover, while Roger sourced most of the prints, translated the films only available in dubbed French language, and handled distribution matters. These dvds were far, far superior to most kung fu dvds releases. When I think of some of the rank-bad spelling mistakes, the lack of information, and the general damn-shoddy workmanship that's paraded on the front of some releases - well, the professionalism of Fusubs showed just how pisspoor these other efforts were.

Costs were low for the team, but the energy and effort spent were massive. The members had a great chemistry, which was essential for seeing projects that required a huge investment of free time through to completion. As I settled down to watch that first film, I could sense the care and attention that had gone into restoring and bringing to life these old films. A neat little title screen led into the movie, which was invariably the best print available. The subtitles were clear and well-written, not to mention well-timed. Professionalism.

Why do I keep referring to Fusubs in the past tense? Unfortunately, the group are no more. This is a tragedy for fans of films that exist only in raw language prints. Sadly, the lack of support from genre fans - the very people to benefit from their efforts - led them to call it a day. They retained a core fanbase of about 10 people, but a poor response to some hugely-demanding projects sapped their enthusiasm for the venture.

Nevertheless, depite a failure to achieve greater success, I'm reliably informed that the team have no regrets. Quite right. They did like-minded fans a great service. I have watched films that I hadn't previously been able to understand. That's their legacy. I hadn't even heard of The Eight Dragon Sword before Fusubs. Now, I not only had it, but could actually watch it, understand it, and enjoyed it immensely. It is one of my favourite swordplay films, and that's thanks to Fusubs.

Fusubs released the following titles, all still available from r.judd@videotron.ca:

The Mysterious Knight
The Battle for the Republic Of China
Carry On Wise Guy
The Rats of Hong Kong
Ma Su Chen takes Revenge
The Armless Swordsman
To Kill A Mastermind
I Will Finally Knock You Down, Dad!
The Close Encounter of the Vampire
Adventure in Denmark
The Third Sword
From the Highway
Dragon and Tiger Joint Hands
Heroine Susan
Lion's Heart
The Dragon Tamers
Killers on Wheels
Revenge of the Shaolin Kid
The Patriotic Heroine
The Eight Dragon Sword

Many thanks to Roger Judd Jr for his assistance in the compilation of this post.