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Inspired Entertainment's Fusian series is the rare DVD label to do justice to old school Taiwanese action, once one of Asia's biggest cinematic forces, but now nearly forgotten in the face of Hollywood and Hong Kong.
When it comes to old school martial arts, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest get all the credit. It makes sense; they had the stars: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Ti Lung, Cheng Pei-pei, Gordon Liu, etc. It also makes sense because these companies are still thriving today as distributors and exhibitors. In other words, they have a stake in archiving, restoring, and repurposing their catalogues for DVD, TV, and even theatrical exhibition.
However, although Shaws and Golden Harvest were incredible prolific in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, there were countless other less-successful studios who got into the martial arts market. Many of these studios were based in Taiwan (usually utilizing pan-Chinese talent and finances), and many well-known directors, for instance Lee Han-hsiang and King Hu, made some of their best-known works outside of Shaw Brothers. Unfortunately, we don't hear of these films today, not because they lacked quality, but because their rights-owners left the film business or went bankrupt. As a result, Chinese film history is overwhelmingly skewed toward the famous studios.
Which makes the appearance of Inspired Entertainment's new Fusian DVD label a welcome addition to the confusingly cluttered U.S. market for old school martial arts. I don't know how Fusian got a hold of these films (perhaps I don't want to know), but I am most grateful. Their first four releases (all originally from 1969, I think) show a respect for history as well as a curiosity for martial arts films that don't immediately fit the Kill Bill mold.
Believe it or not, the four DVDs, listed for purchase at a mere $9.99 each, are probably the best looking pre-1980 DVDs for any Taiwanese film that I've seen. The transfers, though far from perfect, put Hoker Records' recent slate of Taiwanese classics to shame. Most of those were pan-and-scanned and clearly VHS transfers. The Fusian discs are all presented in widescreen 'scope. The prints used for the transfers are battered, faded, splicy, and scratched, but there's a fidelity to the film medium, in all its busted glory. The wear and tear aren't compression artifacts made by lazy DVD producers; they're a historical testament to film as film, and specifically to the physicality of film prints made by companies that came and went, leaving their treasures to collect dust. I loved every scratch, every awkward jump cut, every stain.
But most of all, I loved the burned-in subtitles. Most DVD reviewers hate them and usually I sympathize. Burned-in subtitles (meaning they can't be turned off by the DVD player) are typically hard to read (especially during lighter scenes) and don't give viewers who know the foreign language the option to see the film without the "distraction" of subtitles.
For most films, I'd agree. But as anyone in Taiwan or Hong Kong can attest, Chinese films are traditionally meant to be seen with subtitles. Due to the heterogeneity of dialects in Chinese communities, Chinese subtitles allow different groups the ability to understand the same text. Meanwhile, many of these films included English subtitles to enable them to travel throughout Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and the Chinese diaspora around the world. To take away the subtitles would be to "restore" a style of presentation that historically never actually existed. The recent Shaw Brothers discs put out by Celestial gave users this option to have them on or off.
However, there are two problems with the Celestial subtitles. First, you don't have the option of simultaneous English and Chinese subtitles (DVDs simply aren't designed that way). For many, dual subs seem redundant, but that's how they were always projected. More that historical accuracy, however, the dual subs exemplify the degree to which mainstream Hong Kong and Taiwanese films of the time were simultaneously poly-lingual in their address. Films had to speak a multiplicity of languages to be understood by audiences made up of people converging from all parts of the world.
Second, the Celestial subtitles "correct" the bad spelling and grammar of the original translations. I put "correct" in quotes because it hierarchizes "proper" English by Anglo-American standards of correctness. The Fusian discs respect the specificity of the local English "voice," while they acknowledge that within English itself there are variations. Plus they can be inadvertently funny. And it's not like you can't figure out what's being said anyway.
Finally, these discs are presented in their original Mandarin, which is depressingly rare among U.S. martial arts DVDs releases.
This early film by Joseph Kuo is the best of the four. The plot is the simplest (young man out for revenge), yet it has a visual style that rivals the best widescreen compositions anywhere in the world circa 1969. From stately symmetries to multi-layered compositions, the framings give the action sequences the dynamism you expect from an Akira Kurosawa and King Hu. Kuo would go on to make several classics in the late 1970s (18 Bronzemen, Shaolin Death Squad, 7 Grandmasters), but King of Kings shows that early on, he was already perfecting his spectacular widescreen aesthetic. More than most other martial arts directors, Kuo understood the importance of the long shot and long take in fight scenes; even when the actors aren't the greatest of martial artists, a sustained shot with just the right amount visual "noise" (trees, rocks, hills, background characters, etc.) and camera movement can achieve perfection in cinematic suspense. When you notice that King of Kings was made in 1969, when director Chang Cheh was still finding his groove and Chor Yuen was still making Cantonese romances, you start to wonder who were the real pioneers that, along with King Hu, formulated an aesthetic that would come to define Chinese filmmaking in the following decades.
The DVD for King of Kings is, ironically, the worst of the four. Scratches and vertical lines are everywhere, and an inordinate number of frames are missing from scenes, creating weird "jumps" in the drama. Worst for me is the fact that the DVD is not anamorphic, despite what the DVD case states, and therefore Kuo's magnificent 'scope compositions aren't quite as majestic as they should be for viewers with widescreen televisions.
Like King of Kings, the DVD for The Young Avengers isn't anamorphic either (despite the DVD description), so the glorious "First Scope" (the house technology for Diyi Studio) isn't quite as thrilling as it ought to be. The film, however, is quite good. If King of Kings is closest in style to King Hu, then The Young Avengers is the Chor Yuen; offbeat, silly, and borderline decadent, the film follows a young scholar who falls for the deadly "13th sister," whose twelve other sisters have been kidnapped. Lots of drinking and goofballing abound between rescues and face-offs. 13th sister is a typical wuxia woman warrior: a laconic ass-whooper like the heroine of Dragon Inn, with the comic sass of Kara Hui from Shaw Brothers. The Young Avengers has easily the best story of the four Fusian releases, as well as the most memorable characters.
The weakest of the four films, Whirlwind Knight has a complex plot, but no real direction. Sadly, it's one of those older films that can only be justified by the fact that it's nearly 40 years old. Unlike the other four films, the action here feels dated, staged, and awkward, while the story -- with its secret maps and anonymous masked villains -- already seems clichéd. Meanwhile, there's the knight's young lover, untainted by the evils of the jianghu, and the innocent peasant girl whose uncle is really her father. Redeeming the DVD is the nice anamorphic transfer, the original trailer of the film (as opposed to the re-edited versions on the other discs), and a glimpse of legendary Taiwanese actor Wong Yung in action.
The strangest of the four initial Fusian releases, The Eight Immortals is structured into two parts. The first half episodically introduces us to the famous "eight immortals," god-like heroes who bring equilibrium to the world. Eschewing any narrative, the first half delivers to the audience a series of sensations: special effects, huang mei diao-style songs, martial arts, etc. The second half of the film is where it gets bizarre. The eight immortals team up for a struggle against blood-sucking demons. Just when you thought it doesn't get any weirder, the film rolls out fairies, possessed boar heads, torture devices, killer hawks, dwarves, and more.
But running deep within the weirdness is the hard-core conservative line typical of the government-owned studio CMPC. No matter if you're poor, as long as you're filial, respectful, and honest, the eight immortals will grant you love, health, and wealth. Oh, and in case you didn't know, the eight immortals are on the side of Taiwan in the struggle to win back to the Mainland.
Directed by Chen Hung Min, the editor of King Hu's legendary Dragon Inn, the film is more a series of playful parables and effects than a coherent story. The film presents itself that way: bracketing the plot are two magic lantern storytellers who narrate the tale of the eight immortals to an audience within the film. Magic lantern shows are known for trickery and sensation rather than storytelling, and The Eight Immortals itself, with its fascination with stop-motion and editing effects, becomes the cinematic reincarnation of traditional street performance.
The Fusian discs, with their faithful replication of the celluloid, warts and all, becomes the further reincarnation, bringing martial arts from the streets, to the theaters, and now into our homes.
Date Posted: 4/13/2007