Cinematic Vengeance!: Return of the 18 Bronzemen [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (16th December 2021).
The Film

Born in 1935, Taiwanese film director Joseph Kuo's directorial career started in the late fifties in a variety of genres; however, he found the most success outside of Taiwan from the late sixties onwards in the martial arts genre comprising roughly eighty-percent of his recorded filmography as a writer, producer, and director until his retirement into a film school teaching career. Wildly diverse, uneven, sometimes sloppy, sometimes stylistically ambitious – calling into question just how much of his filmography was actually as a director versus a supervising producer/director and how many of the co-directors and assistant directors actually helmed some of his films – a sampling of eight of the director's better-known film is showcased here as Cinematic Vengeance!.

7 Grand Masters (1977): On the occasion of the king bestowing a royal banner to Zheng Yi Martial Arts School grandmaster Shangguan Zheng (Snake in the Eagle's Shadow's Jack Long) as the Champion of Jiangnan, a note fired into the ceremony on an arrow questions the legitimacy of the title. Shangguan had considered retiring soon, but now he intends to confirm his title by challenging the seven other provincial champions and their Tiger, Panther, Dragon, Snake and Eagle stances against his renowned Bai Mei fist. Accompanied by his daughter (The Deadly Angels' Nancy Yen), his senior student Yong Zhang (Shaolin Traitor's Mark Long) and juniors Tang Min (Deadly Silver Angels' Hsiao-Fei Li) and Nan Fei (The Devil's Wen-Pin Liu), Shangguan starts off on foot, first confronting and beating Sha (The One-Armed Boxer's Fei Lung), pulling his punch back before the death blow having established his superiority. His fight with Monkey Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin's Yuet-Sang Chin) is witnessed by young Shao Niu (The Mystery of Chess Boxing's Yi-Min Li) who learns from an old man also observing that Shangguan is the best master from which he could learn kung fu (further directing him to the Han Shan Temple to train if Shangguan turns him away). Shao Niu begs Shangguan to take him on as a student but is constantly rebuffed by the master and his students; nevertheless, he doggedly pursues the retinue and does all of the grunt work. In spite of Shao Nu's persistence, Shangguan explains to his daughter his reluctance to pass on the Bai Mei technique because his own master was murdered for it by Shangguan's renegade brother Gu YiFeng (Last Hurrah for Chivalry's Alan Chung San Chui) who also made off with part of the Bai Mei fist manual explaining the three deadliest strikes and leaving Shangguan with the first nine. With each challenge, Shangguan becomes weaker and Shao Niu more necessary in shouldering some duties on the trip. When Shangguan finally takes him on as a student, we learn that Shao Niu has been looking for a master to train him to avenge himself on the man who killed his father; however, only his uncle Liu (Revenge of the Shaolin Master's Shen Yuen) knows that killer utilized the Bai Mei fist and may actually be Shao Niu's new master.

Shot almost entirely in outdoor settings in daylight, The 7 Grandmasters is fairly straightforward for the most part, and perhaps the best introduction to the cinema of Joseph Kuo for better or worst. Kuo eschews wuxia wirework and fast cuts in favor of acrobatics and exaggerated foley work, and a generalized use of long takes for narrative scenes and for fight scenes in which the edits seem to be used only to accommodate the staging of the fights rather than to "punch up" the action. The film also hints at the messiness of Kuo's narrative construction more evident in his other works, with abrupt cutaways from the main story to scenes which may be easily confused with subplot or flashback – the subsequent discovery of the murdered Sha and the suspicion falling upon Shagguan as his killer does not result in a manhunt for the grandmaster any more so than the flashback scene depicting the murder of Shao Niu's father – as well as his tendency to compress the entirety of the story's third act into the last ten or fifteen minutes (this includes the entirety of Shao Nu's training under Shangguan's chief foe and the final showdown). Long is at least compelling going through the motions of a familiar character and shallow characterization while fellow Kuo fixture Yi-Min Li feels like another Bruce Lee-successor hopeful thanks to a stock genre character type and little in the writing to distinguish either the actor or the character from the glut of similar films and similar hopefuls (in some circles, a chunk of Kuo's output has been branded "Jackiesploitation"). The library track scoring includes the recurring use of Quincy Jones' theme from Roots.

In The 36 Deadly Styles (1980), young Wah-Jee (Enter Three Dragons' Lik Cheung) and his uncle (Dragon Lord's Chien-Po Tsen) are being pursued by Mie Tsu-Mun (Kung Fu Zombie's Lau Chan) and his men. Senior monk Huang (King Boxer's Tse Lin Yang) gives the pair sanctuary but must soon break his vow not to use his martial arts to kill when Mie Tsu-Mun and his men break in to finish off the uncle and nephew. Mie Tsu-Mun escapes, believing the two men dead; however, Wah-Jee survives and convalesces, after which he remains at the monastery doing menial tasks for Huang before he can start training in Shaolin martial arts to avenge his uncle's death on the gang lead by Lian Jing (Mark Long again) whose gang already murdered his father years before. Wah-Jee strikes up a flirtation with Tsui-Jee (Winter Blossom's Jeanie Chang), the daughter of an ox milk dealer (The Magnificent Butcher's Mei Sheng Fan), whose own fighting skills are superior to his own. Upon learning that Huang belonged to the group he was sent to exterminate, Mie Tsu-Mun summons his senior brothers (Enter the Dragon's Bolo Yeung and The Dragon, the Lizard, the Boxer's Kuo-Cheng Liu) to help him kill the monk. Wah-Jee and Tsui-Jee try to help defend Huang from the killers, only to be rescued by Tsui-Jee's father who must train both in the Eight Immortals Fist style (both previously possessing only, respectively, the defensive and offensive stances). While Lian Jing is on the trail of rival gang leader Kwang Wu-chun (Jack Long again) who knows the secret of the "36 Deadly Styles", formidable Jang Shu (Drunken Master's Jang-Lee Hwang) is traveling the country taking out other gang members, arriving in town just as Huang is most vulnerable and Wah-Jee must use a combination of his untested new skills and his own wits.

One of the more widely-seen Joseph Kuo films – particularly in America where Lian Jing's English-dubbed rechristening as "Ghost Face Killer" inspired the Wu Tang Clan rapper moniker Ghostface Killah – The 36 Deadly Styles is a pretty middling viewing experience. Kuo whips back and forth between the main story and subplots abruptly, but then also pads out he running time with Wah-Jee's comic hijinks with his fellow monks that fail to make Brucesploitation regular Cheung as charismatic as Jackie Chan, and the seemingly important figure of Kwang Wu-chun does not turn up until the last fifteen minutes. The intercutting fights between Wah-Jee and Jung Shu and between Lian Jing and Kwang Wu-chun robs the former of some energy because the latter two characters are largely known by reputation in the dialogue (unless you know they are brothers Jack and Mark Long) while the viciousness of Jung Shu has been built up throughout the film – albeit by killing other barely-introduced characters – and he does inflict some major damage on the good guys (and has no qualms about harming women even as it is obvious he regards her fighting to be inferior); as such, the twin resolutions lead to a rather lopsided ending where Kuo seems to want the viewer to be as invested in Kwang Wu-chun's victory as that of Wah-Jee. The filmmaking feels more refined than that of the earlier The 7 Grandmasters, but the uneven quality of the other earlier films in this set make it hard to surmise that Kuo "improved" as a filmmaker or if there were other deciding factors in either his creative ambition or the production circumstances. Most recognizable in the library score include is the hilariously inappropriate (and presumably unauthorized) use of Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme.

In The World of Drunken Master (1979), masters of the Drunken fighting style Fan Ta-Pei (Jack Long) and Beggar So (Sung Hsi Yu) were once the best of friends but parted ways over a girls, for "heroes do not shed tears easily" unless their heart is broken. Thirty years later, both men are mysteriously summoned to an inn. Each believing the other to have invited them, they are then suspicious about the identity of their host until they are served a cask of sweet premium wine. Over the drink, they look back on their early days when young Fan Ta-Pei (Mark Long again) and young Beggar So (Yi-Min Li again) were caught stealing premium grapes to sell at the market by vineyard manager Ah-Cheng (Fearless Hyena II's Hui-Lou Chen) who makes them work off what they have already taken. After rescuing the pair from being beaten up by gangster Tiger (Fei Lung again) and his protection collectors in the village – and to distract them from flirting with Yu-Lu (Jeanie Chang again), daughter of vineyard owner Cheng Qi (Attack Force Z's Yu Wang) – Ah-Cheng decides to train them in the Drunken style. Offended by Ah-Cheng intervening in this thrashing of Fan Ta-Pei and Beggar So, Tiger teams up with wealthy Chin (Ten-Hsiang Long) – practitioner of the "Eagle Claw" style – who wants to expand onto Cheng Qi's land and contrives a social offense to indebt the other man to him. Things turn deadly when Fan Ta-Pei and Beggar So good-naturedly try to make amends to Chin.

In spite of its flashback structure, The World of Drunken Master is actually one of Kuo's more coherent films in this set, with some sub-Drunken Master comedy that is still amusing, a good performance by Hui-Lou Chen who ekes some depth from his character, a relatively charming youthful trio in Chang, Yi-Min, and Long, some excellent fighting scenes, and a surprisingly poignant ending in which one of the two masters realizes what is truly important. The villains are cardboard cutouts but suitably nasty enough to root for the heroes, and their running time-padding bumbling hijinks are entertaining enough. The unofficial Wong Fei-hung theme "On the General's Orders" makes an appearance here among other Kuo films. Siu-Tin Yuen – who had already played the character in both Drunken Master and The Story of Drunken Master – only appears as the middle-aged Beggar So during the opening credits despite his role being hyped in pre-production.

Next, Kuo gets away from period pieces with The Old Master (1979) in which seventy-year-old Grandmaster Wan (Jim-Yuen Yu) arrives in San Francisco at the invitation of former student Ding who owns a local gym. Easily fending off an ambush by a group of toughs including the man who picked him up at the airport, Wan learns from Ding that rival gyms have been beating up his students in an effort to get him to close up shop. Wan steps up to his former pupil's defense, taking advantage of his competitors underrating him for his advanced age; however, little does he know that Ding is actually setting up the matches in order to pay back his gambling debts to the mafia. While Ding feels some guilt about using his former master, the potential for profit is irresistible. When Wan discovers the truth, however, he disowns Ding but has no way to get back to Hong Kong. Bill (Death Promise's Bill Louie), who has been doing odd jobs at Ding's gym to pay for his own training, however, offers Wan a place to stay and a job at the hotel where he works part-time in exchange for training him in martial arts. While Wan prefers meditation and quite evenings in, Bill tries to rouse the older man to more fun activities like jogging, disco, and the company of his vivacious roommate "Fat Mary". Ding's enemies evidently did not get the memo since they keep coming after Wan and Bill as they plan to shut down Ding's gym for good with deadly prejudice.

Predating Hark Tsui's The Master – in which Jet Li comes to America when his master is being terrorized by a former pupil turned bigtime competitor – The Old Master seems like it should be a fun culture-clash film; but Kuo undermines himself at every turn. In addition to the unlikely scenario of a mob-indebted gambler using a geriatric grandmaster against significantly younger competitors, it is quite obvious that Jim-Yuen is doubled in the many fight scenes where he is shown from behind or in long shot. There's little of scenic beauty in the film's scope vistas, with much of the fight scenes shot in suburban alcoves and the interiors of hotels and apartment buildings – some of which could have been pickup scenes in Taiwan or Hong Kong – and the pairing of Jim-Yuen and Louie lacks comedy or charisma. The "comic" highlight of the film is a visit to a disco that plays an odd Chinese-language disco rendition of "Popeye the Sailor Man" and Patrick Hernandez's monster one hit wonder "Born to Be Alive". While this is only scene in the film in which Jim-Yuen demonstrates much physicality, it goes on for far too long. The casting of Jim-Yuen possesses some significance since, although he only made one film, he was the man who trained the Three Dragons Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao along with the Yuen brothers and many others; however, only a small percentage of the audience would have known this, and this is hardly a physical showcase for him. The fight scenes featuring Louie are a bit more exciting, but some viewers may have forgotten just why they fights are taking place by the time the film remembers the setup. American martial artist Louie did manage to appear in a pair of Brucesploitation pics, the lesser-seen Bruce vs. Bill and the "documentary" Fist of Fear, Touch of Death in which he masqueraded as The Green Hornet's Kato. Starr Hester gets special billing as Bill's girlfriend Nancy.

Kuo is back to familiar stomping grounds with Shaolin Kung Fu (1974) in which rickshaw driver Xiao-Ling (Shaolin Deadly Hands' Chiang-Lung Wen) is getting tired of turning the other cheek when a competing rickshaw company lead by Dongyang (New Fist of Fury's Ping Lu) starts stealing fares and beating up his co-workers. Unfortunately, he has made a promise to his blind wife Xiao Yun (Shan-shan Yang) whose own father was murdered in a senseless fight. While chief rival Cui is able to bully both Xiao-Ling's coworkers and even customers into accepting his rides, high-class prostitute Miss Bai (Forbidden Tales of Two Cities' Hung Yi) feels an affinity for the exploited and picks Xiao-Ling as her personal driver nightly; unfortunately, this rouses the jealousy of playboy Tien-Han Chu (Magnificent Bodyguards's Peng Cheng) who teams up with Cui Bao and his drivers to rough up Xiao-Ling. Xiao-Ling arrives home to Tien-Han Chu trying to rape his wife and administers a beating to the man who dies soon after. Tien-Han Chu's father Master Chu (Crazy Guy with Super Kung Fu's Yuan Yi) swears vengeance upon Xiao-Ling and will kill anyone who tries to help him.

Poorly-written and rather shoddily-made, Shaolin Kung Fu really does cater to the lowest common denominator but making its villains ruthless without nuance, picking on old men, women, blind women, and even orphan children – one of which gets roughed up for having the audacity to ask for payment for the hardboiled eggs he sells on the street – slapping the other cheek every time Xiao-Ling turns it, and really hammering home the class divide with Master Chu with Master Chu. Presented first as seemingly just, Master Chu is neither blind to his son's faults nor is there any misunderstanding or lie that puts the blame on Xiao-Ling so much as a reaction of "how dare you not let my son abuse you." The film only seems to set Xiao-Ling up with a number of family, friends, and concerned bystanders in order to inflict so much violence and death upon them so that Xiao-Ling will have literally nothing to lose when he goes on the offensive, puncturing and snapping necks with equal ruthlessness to Master Chu who even in the final confrontation cannot resist using another child as a human shield. The end result is not really a "vengeance, but at what cost?" film since the blind character seems to be the only person who cannot see that Kuo is less interested in a moral lesson than making his protagonist suffer enough so that the audience cheers the onslaught of revenge killings.

The Shaolin Kids (1975): Humiliated at court by his son's (Avenging Warriors of Shaolin's Nan Chiang) violent acts and his failure to make an example of him by "beating him to death," Premier Hu Weiyung (Yuan Yi again) decides he want to ascend to the throne. He first visits ailing minister Liu Bowen (The Chinese Amazons' Chiu Chen) who once opposed his appointment and poisons him under the guise of recommending a special treatment. When his daughter Liu Xin-Er (Dragon Inn's Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan) discovers the doctor's body along the side of the road after her father's funeral, she vows to kill Hu Weiyung. She goes to her father's close friend General Lu Quiyu (The Victim's Yi Chang) whose Shaolin-educated son Lu Ding (The Tongfather's Peng Tien) appeals to his teacher Shangguan (Big Trouble in Little China's Carter Wong). Upon discovering that Hu Weiyung is recruiting the Japanese and the Mongols to help him overthrow the Emperor (Boxer Rebellion's Hsiang-Ting Ko), Liu Xin-Er and Lu Ding make off with a letter written in Hu Weiyung's hand explaining his plan. Hu Weiyung sends his powerful protectors The Light and Dark Killers (Kung Fu Inferno's Fei-Lung Huang and Vengeance!'s Cliff Lok) to retrieve the letter and kill anyone who gets in the way. Armed with the letter as proof, the general, his son, and Liu Xin-er plan to prevent the emperor's caravan from reaching Hu Weiyung's country home and the death trap he has set up; however, such an act is punishable by death, particularly if one is armed as they will need to be once Hu Weiyung is alerted to their plans.

One of the best entries in the set – enough so that one may wonder if Kuo actually directed it based on the previous films – The Shaolin Kids seems to be galvanized by the presences of Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan, Peng Tien, and Carter Wong, all of whom would be reunited in Kuo's highly-successful The 18 Bronzemen (and, to an extent, in its sequel). The plotting is better, the photography is elegant, the production values are better exploited, characters are better-delineated, the fights are quite exciting, and the film is actually quite suspenseful from the pursuit of the McGuffin letter to the final sequence in which one of the villains is "allowed" to figuratively hang himself. Nothing from the plotting to the violence seems gratuitous; surprisingly so given the presence of another sadistic son character (who barely gets any screen time here). Of the six films thus far in this set, The Shaolin Kids is the Taiwanese martial arts film that seems easily on par with the better Shaw Brothers works of the same period.

The 18 Bronzemen (1976): After her general son is murdered by Qing soldiers, Lady Shang (The Eight Masters's Shu-Fang Chen) brings her grandson to the Shaolin monastery and asks them to take him in to learn how to avenge his father. Years later, Tang Shaolong (Pang Tien) is just as bewildered as his brothers when he is the target of assassination attempts by hooded interlopers. When he receives the call from his grandmother to return home, he requests to challenge the eighteen bronzemen against the advice of his "big brother" Jao-long (Carter Wang) and best buddy Daqi (Nan Chiang again). Tang Shaolong fails the first try, and it is four years before he tries again, with Jao-long joining him in place of Daqi. Although they must compete separately under penalty of death, they encourage each other and eventually make it past all of the arduous tests. Emerging into the outer world with the vow to serve their country and be loyal, Tang Shaolong parts ways with Jao-long to visit his mother, promising to meet his big brother at the Flower Inn in two weeks. He learns from a cousin he has never met that his grandmother went to see his uncle Liu eight months before, but arrives there to discover that she has since passed away. His uncle reveals his true identity to him as Guan Long, and that Lord Hei Chu-Ying (Yuan Yi again) was the murderer of his father General Guan. Guan Long reunites with Jao-long and Daqi – who has failed the 18 Bronzemen but decided to leave anyway – and is also trailed by a mysterious "man" (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan again) who has decided Guan Long owes him his life for sparing him when challenged to fight, and that includes saving him from various assassination attempts. Guan Long is more annoyed than grateful for this man's help; that is, until he discover that "he" possesses the jade trinket that his uncle told him would be in the possession of his future wife. Lord Hei Chu-Ying, however, is aware that they are on the hunt for him and has a few tricks in store.

More of a road movie compared to the relatively epic The Shaolin Kids, The 18 Bronzemen has some impressive moments in the hall of the bronzemen – Jackie Chan's Shaolin Wooden Men sound like a budget version but are more ambitiously-executed – and the various ambushes, but clean-shaven and expressive Wong manages to overshadow Peng and the main villain is rather flat and ordinary until the physically-exhausting climax. The plotting is such that at least two dying characters need quite the last breath to deliver extensive exposition, the only reward of which is brief flashback montage cutaway that calls in question our previous conceptions about those two characters' interactions with the hero. The most novel aspect of the film is the spies having obtained the manual of the bronzemen stances for which he has created eighteen golden statues to which the film cuts away as he recalls each stance used by the heroes and how to counter them. The film performed well in Hong Kong but it was not until four years later that the film became a massive success in Japan (see below), by which time its sequel had come and gone with less fanfare.

Wong takes center stage in Return of the 18 Bronzemen (1976) as the fourth prince Long Zhen (Carter Wong again) who, upon learning that the will of his comatose father has made the fourteenth prince Yinti his successor, has the will revised, has the minister to whom it was dictated assassinated, and has the assassin accuse Yinti. He is prevented from having his brother executed by pleas from the ministers to carry out an investigation and has him consigned to the dungeon. Upon learning that Shaolin monks plan to rebel against the Manchurian Qing usurpation of the Ming empire, Long Zhen thinks back to earlier days when he enrolled at the Shaolin temple in order to learn their fighting style to combine with his own Manchurian boxing to be an invincible warrior. Being older than the requirement of the admission standards, Long Zhen was determined to learn as fast as possible, hoping to face the eighteen bronzemen within a year of his training. Although he failed his first try, he impressed his brothers with his determination to try again and again when others have died in failing, hoping to have mastered the Shaolin form before the three year deadline when he arranged to be collected and returned to the kingdom, or before his secret identity and intentions are exposed.

The flashback structure of Return of the 18 Bronzemen is indeed the source of much confusion thanks to Kuo's usual rushed storytelling, abrupt transitions, and stripped-down editing that gets the setup out the way so fast in favor of spending more than an hour on training montages and Long Zhen's tries at the eighteen bronzemen. Those who miss the flashback transition may think it absurd that newly-appointed emperor with shaky ministerial support (and presumably other brothers as cutthroat as he) would leave the kingdom in other hands for three years to study Shaolin – and that no spies would know his likeness and expose it to the monks – and assume that the film will have Long Zhen redeeming himself and developing a respect for the Ming-allied Shaolin through his training and trials. What the viewer actually gets, is a king reflecting on his bitter failure and having his seemingly sincere dedication rebuffed – as a liability issue, it seems, rather than that fact that they are mortal enemies – and deciding, upon learning of the development of a "powerful weapon" that can wipe out the Shaolin, to deploy it (the "powerful weapon" plot turn sounds lame on the English dub, but the Mandarin track specifies that it is the infamous "flying guillotine" from many a Jimmy Wang Yu vehicle). Peng Tien turns up again but only in an extended cameo as the brother of a young woman Long Zhen rescues on his way to the Shaolin temple, while Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan has bookending appearances (her reasoning for her second attack upon Long Zhen another indicator of offscreen deeds that cement the correct structure of the film's flashback). Even though we are perhaps meant to find Wong's protagonist more likeable with his extreme dedication to training, the character and the story make for a rather disappointing star vehicle (but there are plenty of others to discover for new Carter Wong fans).


7 Grand Masters was not released theatrically stateside until 1982 and in the UK on video until 1997 (cropped and unauthorized VHS releases of the English dub made their way stateside from a couple labels including Xenon's Wu Tang Collection line). While the UK got the cropped, English dub as an NTSC-to-PAL conversion on DVD from Eastern Heroes separately and in the Old Skool Double Bill (with Eagle's Claw), the US got an anamorphic widescreen version in 2004 from Media Blasters' Tokyo Shock line that was the best game in town at the time. Long available on VHS as part of Xenon's Wu Tang Collection line, The 36 Deadly Styles has only been available stateside on DVD from Xenon and Ventura Distribution in English-dubbed, cropped/squeezed transfers off aged video masters while the UK only got a semi-letterboxed, non-anamorphic DVD, and the Hong Kong Mei Ah and German DVDs were non-anamorphic but closer to the original aspect ratio (the former with fake "Sensurround" upmixing).

The World of Drunken Master was released stateside theatrically in 1980 and in unauthorized, cropped/squeezed dubbed versions on VHS on the Wu Tang Collection line, and on DVD from Ground Zero and EastWest before Tai Seng imported Mei Ah's Hong Kong edition which featured a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer and English subtitles. The UK did not get a release until 2001's poor-quality M.I.A. VHS cassette. While it is difficult to believe, The Old Master got a U.S. theatrical release – presumably the modern San Francisco setting was a draw for distributors and/or the audience – but no legit US video release until Tai Seng's VHS which hilariously painted Bill Louie to look like Jackie Chan. Mei Ah put out an R3 DVD featuring a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer. M.I.A.'s Old Skool Kung Fu also featured a non-anamorphic widescreen transfer but also the English dub which seems more fitting here given the setting and English-speaking characters.

Shaolin Kung Fu had a previous non-anamorphic letterboxed DVD from Mei Ah with Cantonese and Mandarin tracks and English subtitles while M.I.A.'s Old Skool Kung Fu DVD featured the same transfer but the English dub. Germany's NEW DVD was the best of both imperfect worlds, including the same non-anamorphic transfer, the original Mandarin track, the English dub, a German dub, as well as English and German subtitle options. Despite it being one of the better films, The Shaolin Kids has been hard to see, possibly because it gets confused with Kids from Shaolin (1983) – a sequel to the Jet Li film Shaolin Temple, not the earlier Chang Cheh film – or even The Shaolin Kid, and it does not appear to have been released in the US or UK before theatrically while the Video Asia double feature DVD (which retitles it "Shaolin Posse" and pairs it with Shaolin Kung Fu under the title "Rickshaw Man")

After its Hong Kong release and international export, The 18 Bronzemen sat around until Japanese investors showed interest circa 1980 in all thing Shaolin. Kuo responded by reediting the film to tailor it to Japanese demands, with a new twenty minute prologue with narration about the Shaolin religion, moving the flashback of the general's death up to the start, and cribbing footage from some of his other films to depict the child's Shaolin temple training. Film elements for this version survived and were remastered by Mei Ah for their Region 3 DVD – even the Japanese version had Mandarin audio – and as an extra on the German Bronzekδmpfer Collection supplementing the shorter German cinema version. The transfer are anamorphic but the originals may be upscaled from the 4:3 letterboxed masters. It is pretty much the same story with the avialability of Return of the 18 Bronzemen (although the Mei Ah disc is cropped to 2.20:1).

Given what we know about Hong Kong and overall Asian film preservation, specifically with regard to assembly line exploitation, looks fairly unblemished, and the color "scheme" in the clothing and banners against gray and brown architecture that would now seem gaudy gives the image some saturated punch. Shadow detail varies in the daylight exteriors with the use of wide to up close zooms making fill lighting difficult while the night interiors and exteriors fortunately lack the modern blue push seen in some new grades of older films. Due to Kuo's editing style and the sometimes abrupt cuts, it is hard to tell if there are any missing frames at shot changes but there does not appear to be any frame damage within shots.

Restoration efforts are consistent with the previous film, colors are saturated without looking pumped up, sharpness is inconsistent due to the use of anamorphic zoom lenses – and those lovely distorted wide angle pans are always evidence – and shadow detail depends on the scene with well-exposed though not always creatively-lit interiors and village exteriors faring better than exterior scenes (with setting the ending of Shaolin Kung Fu in a quarry under an overcast sky yielding the most consistent lighting and shadow results across shots). The guerilla "aesthetic" of The Old Master looks particularly patchwork, with a lot of flatly-lit interiors and backstreet interiors looking less contrasty than the rooftop fight and the park jogging scenes where it almost seems that the camera crew is trying to go unnoticed (the original credits highlight the guest appearances of people most viewers do not know apart from Louie). Most of the films feature both Chinese and English title cards although some are digitally-recreated, and it is not clear if the Chinese prints originally had both cards or one card with both titles; and we have no idea if "The 36 Deadly Style" singular was how the English title originally appeared on Chinese prints (a bit of snake violence has made its way past the BBFCS). The Shaolin Kids and the two bronzemen films look consistently the best of the set (the Japanese version in the case of the first bronzemen film) while the reconstruction of the Hong Kong cut is obviously the "worst" looking in terms of the inserts, although they become less distracting as one finds this version's story more coherent than the Japanese recut.


The 7 Grandmasters, The World of Drunken Master, The Old Master all have Mandarin, Cantonese, and English LPCM 1.0 mono options while The 36 Deadly Styles, Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, and the Return of the 18 Bronzemen have Mandarin and English LPCM 1.0 mono options. The Japanese version of The 18 Bronzemen only has the redubbed Mandarin track created for the film in 1980 in LPCM 1.0 mono while the reconstructed Hong Kong version includes original Mandarin and English LPCM 1.0 mono options.

The Mandarin tracks are the way to go even though everyone is dubbed, but the English tracks take things seriously for the most part, although it is obvious the voice actor for Chan Lau in The 36 Deadly Styles wants to go full Dean Shek and there are a few anachronsitic utterances of "son of a bitch." The Cantonese options are no more authentic than the Mandarin tracks since they are also dubbed. All films have optional English subtitles for the Mandarin tracks - also enabled for the Cantones options - and an additional track for signs, text, and credits when English audio is chosen.


7 Grand Masters is accompanied by an by Asian film expert Frank Djeng and martial artist/filmmaker Michael Worth who discuss Kuo's approach to shooting – only utilizing stylistic flourishes like Dutch angles during the disorienting "monkey sequence" – recurring collaborators onscreen and off (including Golden Harvest star Angela Mao's brother Ching-Shun Mao), visual indicators of the film's temporal setting, the Longs, as well as brothers Corey Yuen and Shen Yuen), Kuo's influences from Akira Kurosawa, and Kuo's Taiwanese production company. The World of Drunken Master, they who provide comparisons to the other "Drunken Master" films, some trivia on the dubbers of the Chinese versions (including artists who worked up until Hong Kong adapted to sync sound with Supercop.

The 36 Deadly Styles features an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema who do provide background on Kuo, his studio, the incarnations of his studio logo and the Shawscope-"inspired" Hwahscope logo, and recurring cast members but approach the track on a more humorous bent, poking fun at the English dub, accurately describing Chan Lau as a "discount Dean Shek," Kuo's lack of subtlety in narrative and the equal lack of depth in the screenwriting, as well as the film's "rap ties." They are back for The Old Master, and their approach is more appropriate here given the film's absurdity (they even suggest that the film might have been thrown together as a front for some money laundering). They speak reverently of Jim-Yuen's reputation while also comparing his range of motion to present day Steven Seagal, discuss the specifics of the Three Dragons' Peking Opera "torture" training and poke fun at his "old people dancing", and note that the film seems uncertain whether its Brucesploitation or Jackiesploitation with regards to Louie's co-lead role.

Leeder and Venema are back for Shaolin Kung Fu placing the film not only in the context of other rickshaw-themed martial arts films but also as a play on both The Big Boss and the western Shane. This is the film out of all where Leeder and Venema call into question whether Kuo actually directed it, noting that some prints list a co-director. On The Shaolin Kids, Leeder and Venema provide some more information on the Kuo stable of actors (pointing out Wong, who is not as recognizable with a beard, and describing Polly Sheng not unflatteringly as the "female Jimmy Wang Yu"), they also note that Shaolin now is as much a business as it is a religion, noting that even this film illustrates some of the differences between real monks and performative ones.

Both The 18 Bronzemen – the Japanese version since presumably the Hong Kong version reconstruction was not ready at the time of recording – and Return of the 18 Bronzemen are accompanied by a pair of informative and entertaining tracks by Djeng and former Video Watchdog editor John Charles, author of "The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1997: A Complete Reference to 1,100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios" and many Hong Kong film reviews from eye-straining cropped and squeezed Tai Seng tapes and discs. Charles points out the use of scenes from The Blazing Temple and The Unbeaten 28, noting that confusion arrives from the footage not only switching between two child actors, but which child it is supposed to be (especially with a cut from the child training to Carter Wong). While Charles provides more detail on the Japanese version, Djeng is able to explain the differences of the Hong Kong version to fill in the details. On the whole, they discuss how the reworking of the film for Japanese distributors made a very basic plot more confusing. Djeng also notes that Kuo is still going strong and teaching film. Charles notes that the film was never released in the United States theatrically. The film called The 18 Bronzemen was actually the sequel (as was the reissue with the "Return of" title). On the sequel, even they seem puzzled by the flashback structure but eventually clarify it for the confused viewer (although neither really explains why they both regard it as the better to the two films). More interesting than discussion of the film itself is their delving into Chinese history, noting that the matter of the altered will was taken from history but now disproven even though it overshadowed the new emperor's entire relatively short rule – his son would rule for sixty years – and that his paranoia was such that his other brothers spend most of their lives under house arrest. They also note that the sequel was actually released before the first film in Hong Kong.


The four disc set comes in a limited edition hardbound case featuring newly commissioned artwork by Darren Wheeling. The first two discs are housed in a case with the title "Deadly Masters" while the third and fourth are housed in a case with the title "Fearless Shaolin" which is presumably how they will be issued in standard edition. Also included is a 60-page booklet featuring new writing on the films included in the set by James Oliver, illustrated with archival imagery and materials, as well as a set of 8 facsimile lobby cards.

In "Independence and Innovation: Joseph Kuo and The 7 Grandmasters", Oliver contrasts the "independent spirit" of Kuo operating without a studio safety net with the notion of the auteur, of which Kuo was certainly not and had no illusions of being despite the complete control he exerted over his film from scripting through production. The through line of the essays in surveying his career from its studio beginnings through the larger independent period – in spite of the films not being in chronological order in the set or the essays – means that this first essay also lays out the basics of his working methods. In "Fighting Talk: Debating The 36 Deadly Styles", he notes how the rate at which Kuo was pumping films out did lead to formalistic failings in filmmaking and narrative but the tradeoff was an experimental and instinctual approach to ideas and stylistic innovations, while in "Dipsomanic Depression: A Rip-Off That Breaks the Rules: The World Of Drunken Master", he notes that the film is one of the more blatant rip-offs – having acknowledged the similarities of Kuo's other films to popular models – but that the tone is overall different from Chan's Drunken Master, being not the story of how Wong Fei Hung's trainer Beggar So learned kung fu but a "mournful explanation for Beggar So’s dishevelment and (high functioning) alcoholism."

In "Mad About Yu – Joseph Kuo and The Old Master: A Better Class of Bandwagon Jumping", Oliver describes the film as Kuo's most cynical film, an "unashamedly mercenary effort that makes no effort at all to disguise the fact it is vaulting onto a bandwagon"; the bandwagon being a vehicle for the man who was (accurately) hyped as the man who trained Jackie Chan in an unofficial (and unwanted) companion piece to The Young Master. The original title of Kuo's film was Shi di chu ma (The Young Master) vs. Shi fu chu ma (The Old Master) with Chan-like Louie as the younger. "The Revengers Tragedy: Digging Deeper with Joseph Kuo and Shaolin Kung Fu" goes back to the early days of Taiwanese cinema and their adoption of the wuxia genre and how Kuo's entries caught the notice of Shaw Brothers who signed him to a three-picture deal, after which he returned to Taiwan and started doing kung fu films. His analysis of the film's moral message of "violence begets violence" and the human qualities of the villain is more charitable than that of this reviewer above. In "Made in Taiwan - The Shaolin Kids: Wuxia Pian Beyond Hong Kong", Oliver notes how the film puts the lie to the notion that Taiwanese films are generally "cheap and unsophisticated" (also taking Ric Myers' damning faint praise of Kuo in "The Kung Fu Movie Book"), noting how King Hu and Jimmy Wang Yu were among the Hong Kong filmmakers who decamped to Taiwan for independence from Shaw Brothers and the ways in which, narratively and visually, Kuo sought to compete with Shaw Brothers' production values in this film.

In "Monk-Ey Business: Joseph Kuo Heads to Shaolin in The 18 Bronzemen", Oliver provides some background on the Shaolin religion and the origins of the common plot element of the Qing empire worrying that the Shaolin temple was a haven for rebels and a place for the mastery of kung fu. He notes that the bronzemen are indeed mentioned in Shaolin mythology but that no one has actually been able to confirm what they are; as well as how the focus on the visualization of them and the training ordeals tries to mask how the film compares unfavorable in other respects to Shaw's The 36th Chmber of Shaolin. In "Metallic K.O. – The Return Of The 18 Bronzemen: Back To Shaolin", Oliver questions whether the film – made back-to-back with the first film – should be considered a sequel in terms of themes rather than characters, and also makes an effort to clarify the flashback structure as a reverie, "not to forgive, but explain" why the main character is the way he is. The booklet also features a promotional art gallery and a viewing notes & production credits section.


Remarkably uneven - and possibly the input of more than one filmmaker - but never boring, the eight films of Cinematic Vengeance! shed light on one of the more fiercely-indepenent and sometimes distinctive practitioners of assembly line kung fu exploitation.


Rewind DVDCompare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to,,,,, and . As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.