Three Films with Sammo Hung: Eastern Condors [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (3rd October 2019).
The Film

The Iron-Fisted Monk: Ever since his master was murdered and he was beaten by a Manchu gang trying to extort protection money, "Husker" (The Victim's Sammo Kam-Bo Hung), so named for his profession as a rice pounder, has been training at a Shaolin temple. When he is not playing pranks on one of the more devout brothers (Warriors Two's Casanova Wong), Husker dreams of revenge, however much he has been taught that his training is to be used for more noble ends. He finally decides to leave the temple and return to his village to serve under Brother Tak (Double Impact's Sing Chen) who sent him to the temple after his attack; however, no one leaves the temple without enduring four tests and he is pursued by his mentor (The Millionaire's Express' James Tien). In the guise of punishing Husker, his mentor puts him through the four tests which he passes. Upon returning to the village, he discovers some Manchu gang members bullying children who had the temerity to stand up to them. Husker humiliates one of the members while the others run away, and it is in this vulnerable position when dye factory worker Liang (Return of the Lucky Stars's Hoi-Pang Lo) stabs the man to death. Husker learns that the Liang's sister (Wei-Ying Chen) was raped by a Manhcu gang leader and committed suicide in disgrace, but that Liang did not know which one committed the crime. Liang runs off and the other gang members tell their leader (Police Story's Hark-On Fung), the actual rapist, that the killer must be Husker. Meanwhile, Husker reunites with Brother Tak who has taken Liang as his new apprentice and also appoints Husker to help him train the workers of the dye factory who are being harassed by the Manchu. Husker emulates his master in focusing training on defense and trying to steer Liang away from thoughts of vengeance, even humiliating himself by enduring bullying by the Manchu for the murder he did not commit. When the Manchu leader's more powerful older brother (Chiu Hung) arrives from the capital, they conspire to take over the dye factory by sending a member in disguise to place a large order with the stipulation that the factory is responsible for compensation if the order is late; whereupon, the gang then buy up all of the red dye the factory needs to complete the order. When Husker realizes that it is a scam to take over the factory, he and Liang sneak into the Manchu headquarters and steal back the dye and humiliate the gang by turning up with the completed order. The leader's brother then sends his men to the factory to slaughter everyone, whereupon Brother Tak and Husker reconsider their stance on vengeance.

The directorial debut of actor/action director Sammo Hung written by his action director mentor Feng Huang (Shaolin Plot) who cameos as the Shaolin temple's abbot The Iron-Fisted Monk introduces Hung as director and actor in terms of action sequences and a tone that combines comedy and melodrama in a not always congruent fashion. Hung provides comic relief and impressive athleticism for his trademark build while Chen garner laughs from his stone-faced reaction to the hijinks, while Lo brings some needed sobriety to the dramatics made (dare I say it) problematic by the film's approach to one of the two rape scenes. While the scene functions to demonstrate the lawlessness of the Manchus and give Liang character motivation, the levity around the more graphic than expected scene with Liang's mother not only seemingly insulted that she was not too violated but also lying later in relaying the events that she too was nearly a victim leaves more of a bad taste than the excesses of some of the Shaw Brothers exploitation films of the period. The action staging is ambitious and accomplished, particularly the climactic bout in which Husker and Tak not only face off against the two Manchu leaders but actually trade opponents several times in one uninterrupted take. The supporting cast includes Jackie Chan regulars Mars (Project "A") and Eric Tsang (Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars).
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The Magnificent Butcher: Hung is Lam Sai-Wing, or "Butcher" Wing, or "Porky" who works as a pig butcher part time while training with the legendary Wong Fei-Hung (Dreadnaught's Tak-Hing Kwan). Wing is overzealous in meeting out justice when he administers a beating to a robber who it turns out only stole a chess peace during a disagreement, but that man is an underling of Wong Fei-Hung's rival Master Ko (Game of Death II's Hoi Sang Lee) who saves face by telling his master that Wing beat him for no good reason and made disparaging remarks about Ko. Ko goes to Wong Fei-Hung and tries to provoke him into violence and is humiliated instead; however, once Wong Fei-Hung learns the reason, he punishes Wing. Meanwhile, Ko's wastrel son Ko Tai-Hoi (Heart of Dragon's Hark-On Fung) finds distraction from his rebuffed designs on his father's goddaughter Lan Hsing (The Butterfly Murders' Qiqi Chen) when he encounters Lam Sai-Kwong (A Chinese Ghost Story's Kam Cheung) who has come to the village looking for long-lost brother Wing (known as a child as "Scrawny Pig"). Tai-Hoi pretends to know Wing in order to get closer to Sai-Kwong's beautiful young wife Yuet Mei (The Buddhist Fist's Jing Tang). When Sai-Kwong tires of Tai-Hoi's lies, he tries to leave but Tai-Hoi abducts Yuet Mei and tells Sai-Kwong that Wing owes him money. Later, Sai-Kwong attacks Tai-Hoi and beats him but Wing comes to the other man's rescue. In despair, Sai-Kwong tries to commit suicide but is saved by wily beggar So (The Story of Ricky's Mei Sheng Fan). So administers another beating to Tai-Hoi and threatens him to produce Sai-Kwong's wife only for Tai-Hoi to then go to Wing and tell him that So is trying to extort money or his wife from him. So and Wing face off under misapprehensions and Tai-Hoi makes away when he thinks that Wing is no match for So. When Wing learns the truth and meets his brother Sai-Kwong, they rescue Yuet Mei and also take Lan Hsing who they believe is one of Ko's slaves. Believing Lan Hsing betrayed him, Tai-Hoi tries to rape her but accidentally kills her. He flees but loses his ring and tells his father that Wing was responsible for Lan Hsing's murder, whereupon Ko declares war on Wong Fei-Hung while he is away. Wing comes to the aide of his fellow apprentices Foon (Once Upon a Time in China's Biao Yuen) and Seven (The Five Deadly Venoms' Pai Wei) but is gravely injured by Ko; whereupon So takes up Wing's training to master the advanced techniques to fight Ko and avenge himself on Tai-Hoi.

While The Iron-Fisted Monk was Hung's directorial debut and Eastern Condors was Hung's most accomplished film in this set, The Magnificent Butcher is certainly the most entertaining of the three films. Helmed by Woo-Ping Yuen, who had already had success with Jackie Chan in the back-to-back pair Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, The Magnificent Butcher better balances the comedic and melodramatic aspects of the story, and the action set-pieces are even more exciting: from the fighting skills of Mei Sheng Fan and Tak-Hing Kwan who are every bit as nimble and energetic as Hung to Ko's henchmen, particularly the outrageous and hilarious Wild Cat (The Haunted Cop Shop's Fat Chung). Hung's comic relief is better integrated into his character and the film's events, and the protracted face-off between Wing and Ko earns its length not only in the thrills it imparts but in terms of the dramatic aspects (even acknowledging that his son is the real killer, Ko still holds Wing responsible for the chain of events, and Wing's part in the fight is self-defense rather than revenge). Long before Once Upon a Time in China, Wong Fei-Hung is introduced with an instrumental version of the Ming Dynasty folk song "Under the General's Orders" popularized in the Tsui Hark film.
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Eastern Condors: A year after the end of American involvement in the Vietnam War, Asian-American officers Colonel Yang (We're Going to Eat You's Melvin Wong) and Lieutenant Colonel Lam (Mr. Vampire's Ching-Ying Lam) are tasked to lead an operation to destroy a leftover American arsenal in a bunker taken over by the Viet Cong. Yang is to lead a group of commandos for the actual detonation while Lam is to create a diversion with a group of Asian prisoners recruited from American and trained as commandos with the reward of American citizenship and two-hundred thousand dollars each: drug trafficker Szeto Chin (My Lucky Stars' Charlie Chin), arsonist brothers Ching Doi Hoi (Peking Opera Blues' Kwok Keung Cheung) and Ching Doi Gong (Police Story 2's Billy Lau), stuttering robber Keung (Heroes Shed No Tears's Chau Sang Lau ) and fraudster Nguyen Siu-tran (Lust, Caution's Kar Lok Chin), old-timer conman Yun Yen Hei (One-Armed Swordsman's Woo-Ping Yuen), murderers Ming-Sun Tung (director Hung) and Phan Man Lung (My Young Auntie's Hou Hsiao), and robbers Wu (Dragon Lord's Kwai Yuen) and Ma Puk-kau (Twin Dragons's Peter Chan). Although Yang good-naturedly advises Lam to stick to the plan and keep himself and his men safe while letting the professionals handle the bulk of the mission, Lam learns once his plane is over Vietnam that Yang's plane has exploded and they have been called back. Since the men under him have already parachuted into the jungle below, Lam tells the pilot to tell his superiors that he has already jumped. Some do not make it to the ground alive, while the others are met by a trio of female Cambodian guerillas "Big Sister" (Mrs. Sammo Hung Joyce Godenzi, The Seventh Curse), "Little Sister" (The Raid's Man Yan Chiu), and Lau Shun Ying (Lethal Angels' Chi Chun Ha) who help them evade the Viet Cong. While hiding in a nearby village, Lam takes it upon himself to fulfill a request made by Yang to find his brother Lung Yeung (The Killing Fields' Haing S. Ngor) and get him back to the states but has a difficult time shaking off local con man Weasel (Biao Yuen) who believes the local rumors that Lung Yeung his sitting on a personal fortune; however, Weasel proves resourceful in helping them fight off the Viet Cong to escape the village and then subsequently a P.O.W. camp when they are captured and discover that there is a traitor among them who has set a ruthless Viet Cong (Human Lanterns' Wah Yuen) general on their trail.

Quite a departure from the usual comedic or comic-tinged Sammo Hung acting and directing ventures, Eastern Condors seems to want to be a searing war drama but is far too quirky in just about every respect to move the viewer. Characterization is threadbare, and it is very easy to forget which character was given which attribute in their too brief introductory scenes so that any irony or emotional resonance meant to accompany their death falls flat. The film's comic elements also seem wildly out of place for an action thriller as otherwise deadly serious, with the multiple brutal deaths of characters we are supposed to care for during the bunker climax undercut by a giggling villain who seems to have stepped out of a Bond film. The greater emphasis on gunfire over martial arts does lead to some deaths that are abrupt and shocking, but the more extended fight scenes provoke laughter with the segues to slow motion with sound effects that recall The Six Million Dollar Man. The film's technical aspects fare far better with plenty of impressive vistas in the Hong Kong, Philippines, and Thai location photography of Arthur Wong (Mr. Canton and Lady Rose) and the impressive bunker set of King Man Lee (Sex and Zen). The film was better received overseas than domestically, ostensibly because it was too much of a departure from the Sammo Hung to which Chinese audiences were accustomed (Hung lost forty pounds on a crash diet that he has not attempted again since then), and Eastern Condors is still enjoyable as a Sammo Hung vehicle for all its faults.
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Video

The Iron-Fisted Monk was originally released to DVD in the U.K. by Hong Kong Legends in a version trimmed of a minute and sixteen seconds of sexual violence. The cuts have been restored to Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray which marks the film's debut in the format. The 2K restoration looks a big softer and grainier during the opening credits, which is to be expected with credits opticals, but improves afterwards. It has the cooler look of the "modern" color grading that has been criticized of other Golden Harvest HD remasters of late but is not so distracting given the original color schemes of the rustic location photography and muted wardrobe. The Magnificent Butcher had no BBFC issues with the earlier Hong Kong Legends but the previous Region A Hong Kong Blu-ray did of course turn out to be another upscale. Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 2K restoration looks more vibrant than The Iron-Fisted Monk with the studio setting exteriors and interiors looking cleaner and flatter than the location work due to the lighting (particularly noticeable during the fight scenes where the lighting seems to have been kept simple for the moving camera to follow the action). Eastern Condors lost some animal violence footage when it was released theatrically in the United Kingdom and in its VHS and Hong Kong Legends DVD release. This footage has been restored to Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray after a letter was submitted by the filmmaker explaining that a dead snake was substituted for the live one in the preceding shot. While the Hong Kong Region A Blu-ray was an upscale as expected, the Eureka comes from a new 2018 2K scan. The image is free of any noticeable damage and fine grain is retained, although criticisms of the color correction of some of the past new HD scans of Hong Kong films apply here, with the image looking a touch too cool but the saturated reds are free of distortion and the jungle greenery is vibrant.
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Audio

Eureka have forgone the option of the 5.1 Fortune star remixes that were included on the earlier sets of Jackie Chan's Police Story & Police Story 2 and the Once Upon A Time In China Trilogy, which is just as well. The Iron-Fisted Monk includes the original Cantonese dub in LPCM 1.0 mono and the "classic" English dub done for the export version in LPCM 1.0 mono as well as the newer Fortune Star dub in LPCM 2.0 stereo. The Cantonese track is the way to go, but the few cockney accents on the original English dub are amusing, while the newer dub has more dynamic sound effects but flat performances. The The Magnificent Butcher includes the original Cantonese dub in LPCM 1.0 and an alternate 1.0 track. I only skimmed the track and the voices sound the same so it may be some different sound effects or music cues. The "classic" English dub in LPCM 1.0 is recommended for at least one listen since the cockney dubbing is so amusingly terrible that it sounds like everyone was dubbed by the cast of Monty Python ("Wild Cat" sounds like one of the Pythons doing one of their fishwife female characters) while the "modern" English LPCM 2.0 stereo dub is less entertaining. Eastern Condors also has original and alternate Cantonese LPCM 1.0 mono dub tracks as well as the "classic" English LPCM 1.0 dub which is actually a hybrid track using some bits from the "modern" dub where the export version deleted footage. The complete "modern" English LPCM 2.0 stereo dub is also included while the "classic" English dub is presented in "full" that is, minus the bits from the modern dub on the separate export version but in lossy Dolby Digital. On all three films, the English dubs and English subtitles are interesting to compare because of sometimes vastly different names given to the characters while the English subtitles and English dub tracks for Eastern Condors ascribe different names and crimes to some of the characters.
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Extras

The Iron-Fisted Monk is accompanied by a new audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng who discusses Hung's movement from action director/actor to director and parallel the tests Tien as mentor administers to Husker to Hung's stylistic and technical ambitions on his debut with the help of mentor Huang, and the origins of the story in the fable "The Ten Tigers of Canton" (also noting the different origin story for the character who originally was taken in by the Shaolin temple because he ate so much that no one else would have him) and some background on the Manchu period. He also highlights the more mobile photography and the use of baby powder coating the clothes of the performers to make impacts of blows look more powerful. He also notes Hung's discovery of Wong in Korea where the location scenes were shot, the question as to whether this film or Jackie Chan's Snake in th Eagle's Shadow was the first martial arts comedy,the typecasting of Hung and Chan as villains, and the treatment of women in many Hung films in contrast to some of his other female leads including Angela Mao (Enter the Dragon), Cynthia Kahn (In the Line of Duty 4), and Cynthia Rothrock (Honor and Glory). The pair of archival Hung interviews included on this disc is made redundant by the commentary. In the first (9:35), Hung discusses the move to directing, the influence of Huang, and his choice of a historical fighter character, while the second (4:52) has him recalling his Peking Opera training. The film's theatrical trailer (4:16) is also included.

The Magnificent Butcher has an audio commentary by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema in which they discuss the friendly rivalry between former Peking Opera "brothers" Hung and Chan, how Golden Harvest hoped the film would be as well-received as Drunken Master with the same director, how the convoluted plotting contributes to the recurring theme of mistaken identity throughout the film, and the original version of the film that stopped production with the death of Siu Tin Yuen (Come Drink with Me) who had played Begger So in the Chan film and Hoi Sang Lee played a different character, as well as noting that Tak-Hing Kwan had not only played Wong Fei-Hung over seventy times but was also seventy-two at the time he played the character here (they also note that he was doubled in a few shots but did most of the martial arts himself) and was so identified with the character that there was skepticism when it was announced Chan would play the character in Drunken Master. As with the first disc, there are a pair of vintage Hung interviews. The first (12:51) might have better accompanied The Iron-Fisted Monk as it once again looks at his Peking Opera background and how it helped him train stunt performers without that schooling, moving from action director to director, and his mentor helping him get The Iron-Fisted Monk off the ground. In the second (7:20), he notes the links between the Peking Opera and the film industry as well as noting that The Magnificent Butcher director Yuen Woo-ping visited the Peking Opera in search of potential stars. More interesting is the interview with director Yuen Woo-ping (20:14) whose recalls that father had no school but a lot of martial arts apprentices including himself, his transition from "performance opera" to film, "discovering" Chan as a Golden Harvest star (when Chan was contracted to director Lo Wei), and the genre of martial arts comedy. The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (4:23).
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Eastern Condors has the most extras in the set with the main one being the film's export version (94:43 versus 98:24). The export version here has been reconstructed from the 2K master of the Hong Kong version using a panned and scanned video master as a guide; therefore, the opening and closing credits are in Chinese and the Chinese onscreen text that accompanies the still photo introductions of the prisoners remains. The end credits of the Hong Kong version froze as soon as the helicopter appeared that would be picking up the survivors while the export version's credits froze just before the helicopter appeared in frame (the former is present here). Video quality is similar to the Hong Kong version since the same master is used, and the only audio track is the aforementioned "classic" English dub in Dolby Digital 1.0. The Hong Kong version is accompanied by two audio commentary tracks. The first is an audio commentary by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema in which they note the title actually translates as "oriental vultures" and describe the film as "The Dirty Dozen meets Rambo meets The Guns of Navarone with a bit of The Deer Hunter and How I Won the War." They discuss the film in the context of Hung's other works, including his collaborations with Jackie Chan, Hung's dieting for the film and other aspects that may have alienated domestic Chinese audiences, and provide plenty of information on many of the lesser known actors and stunt performers in the film. They also mention that Eastern Condors was the film that brought Hung to the attention of American producer Edward R. Pressman (Bad Lieutenant) who proposed a collaboration, and producer S.C. Dacy (The Panther Squad) to propose a star vehicle for Hung's wife Godenzi alongside Sybil Danning (Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf), neither project came to fruition. The second track is an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng of the NY Asian Film Festival who suggests that war films do not really resonate with Hong Kong audiences no to mention negative perceptions of the Vietnamese refugees that came to Hong Kong during and after the war and that the deletion of a twenty minute prison scene in favor of the quick still photo introduction of the prisoners had the effect of robbing the audience of time to get to know the characters (he notes that some of the footage survives in the film's trailers). He also makes mention of Hung's penchant for abusing female characters in his other films in contrast to the strong female guerilla characters on view here (who fight and are brutalized like the male characters here but not sexually abused).

The disc also includes two Hung interviews. In "Sammo Hung on Eastern Condors" (16:44) who also suggests that the war does not resonate with younger Chinese audiences, discusses his diet for the film, and admits to giving his wife a hard time on the production. The second interview "Sammo Hung on Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao" (6:04) focuses on his childhood and being enrolled in the Peking Opera where he met Chan and Biao and their later collaborations. There is also an interview with actor Yuen Wah (7:54) who recalls the film as the first from which audiences recognized him, credits Hung with his character quirks, and recalls trying to make the fight scenes as real as possible. What Eureka call the original opening and closing credits (3:59) are actually the English export version credits from the panned-and-scanned master. The opening credits are pillarboxed fullscreen while the end credits are letterboxed. Also included is "Eastern Condors Live!" (13:46) which is a stage show featuring a dance and martial arts enactment of the production, as well as a teaser trailer (2:39), Hong Kong theatrical trailer (3:50), and Japanese theatrical trailer (3:47).
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Packaging

Also included with the first print run of two thousand copies it is not stated whether a subsequent pressing will be a three disc set or the titles as individual editions is a limited edition O-card slipcase and a booklet featuring new writing on all three films by James Oliver, providing more historical background on the characters of The Iron-Fisted Monk and The Magnificent Butcher, production trivia, and argues that the target of Eastern Condors are not the Asian criminals participating in the mission to get American citizenship but "the recklessness of America, and its failure to clean up after itself."
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Overall

Eureka's Three Films with Sammo Hung provides a nice if not comprehensive overview of Sammo Hung as director and friendly rival to Jackie Chan as a Golden Harvest martial arts star.
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