The Skyhawk [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (31st October 2023).
The Film

Great master and healer Skyhawk (Dreadnaught's Kwan Tak-Hing) travels from China to Thailand to visit loyal friend Master Zhu (The Shaolin Plot's Chang Ching-Po) while his pupil Fatty (Millionaires' Express's Sammo Hung) visits his sister (Kiss of Death's Lily Chen Ching). Along the way, they come across Leo (Big Trouble in Little China's Carter Wong) who they see fighting off members of his former school. Upon arrival in the village, they discover him again, but this time beaten and left for dead by his former master (Hapkido's Hwang In-Shik). Skyhawk treats Leo's injuries and the younger man requests to train under him.

Eager to make Skyhawk's visit a pleasant one, Master Zhu keeps from him the conflict he has been having with wealthy Master Gu (The Iron Fisted Monk's Chao Hsiung) over control of the ports, with Gu wanting Zhu's men to join his company for significantly lower wages, and Gu is not above using intimidation tactics including murder to scare foreman Wei Min (The Big Boss' Lee Kwan) into joining his company and poaching workers from Zhu. Meanwhile, Fatty has discovered that his sister is miserable because her husband has become addicted to gambling at Gu's casinos and is in danger of losing his business; but it is Leo and Fatty who wind up being forced to apologize by Skyhawk to Gu for their loss of self control when they use their training to defend themselves, Fatty's sister, and Zhu's daughter (The Way of the Dragon's Nora Miao) from provocations by Gu's men. Suspicious of the cause of his dwindling workforce, Zhu discovers that Gu is using the ports to smuggle opium. When Gu learns that Zhu has discovered his operations, he assumes that the other man has brought Skyhawk to help fight him and recruits Leo's former master for a cut of the profits.

Hiding behind the nondescript title The Skyhawk is not only another Hong Kong martial arts film using the "real life Cantonese folk hero" Wong Fei Hung described in the press release for Eureka's release of the better-known Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy as a "a physical embodiment of traditional Chinese values and moral incorruptibility" but a return to the screen of Kwan Tak-Hing who was famous in Hong Kong for essaying the part of Wong Fei Hung in nearly seventy feature films between 1949 and 1970. Comic relief is kept to a minimum, with most of the trouble Fatty and Leo get into being motivated by good intentions, and the action-filled climax is appropriately bittersweet as Leo feels ashamed of letting his anger get the better of him while even Skyhawk seems uneasy about his own reaction to the deaths of the principal villains. Shot in Thailand with a bit of carelessness in the depiction of the period setting including a few extras in modern T-shirts and jeans as well as a couple backdrops that look more like municipal parks and curated landmarks and helmed by veteran Korean director Cheng Chang-Ho who started in the fifties and joined Shaw Brothers in the sixties where he directed films like King Boxer before joining Golden Harvest in the seventies, the film is rather generically-plotted and drawn out as the villains have to go to extremes before Skyhawk will fight back (partially due to Kwan Tak-Hing's age with much of the more athletic feats left to Wong and action director Hung); however, one can see the influence the plotting had on Hung's future star vehicles including The Magnificent Butcher in which Kwan Tak-Hing played master to Hung's "Porky".

Video

Released in the U.K. in 1974, Skyhawk received a DVD remaster in the early 2000s but did not net a Hong Kong Legends edition in the U.K. although the film did get a stateside release as part of Shout! Factory's Martial Arts Movie Marathon (as well as being a bonus film on the French release of Iron Monkey. The film made its Blu-ray debut in Hong Kong from Panorama two years ago, but we have no idea if it utilizes the "brand new 2K restoration" represented here on Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray, although it is missing frames at every splice point like some of the Shaw Brothers titles when they first made their way to DVD and Blu-ray. The image is clean and the colors appear true to the era, but it is difficult to determine if some of the darker interiors like the saw sequence are underlit or if the grading was skewed in an effort to get true blacks.
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Audio

Cantonese, Mandarin, and classic English dubs are available in LPCM 2.0. Although Cantonese should be the "official" language for the film since Wong Fei-Hung was a Cantonese folk hero, the Mandarin track sounds the cleanest while the English and Cantonese tracks sound weaker. The protagonist is referred to even in the English subtitles as "Skyhawk" and people unfamiliar with the film might not realize it is a Wong Fei-Hung film.
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Extras

As usual for Eureka, the film is accompanied by a pair of audio commentaries. The first is an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng who discusses Kwan Tak-Hing's career before he became an actor, his Wong Fei-Hung roles in both film and popular culture, his retirement from the series and return here (as well as his two subsequent returns in the role and other film cameos). He also discusses the Thai co-production, the career of director Cheng Chang-Ho, the music score of Joseph Koo (A Better Tomorrow) which also incorporates some Pink Floyd cues, and the odd choice of casting Miao in a "flower vase role" despite her larger roles the previous year.

The second track is an audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema which is a bit jokey but informative, noting that Hung left production of Enter the Dragon early to work on the film, that the character played by Hwang In-Shik became the prototype for characters he would essay in subsequent films including The Young Master (noting that his hair here is probably a wig but it was real in the aforementioned film) as well as Kwan Tak-Hing and his Wong Fei-Hung persona as the face of safe sex in Hong Kong with a contraceptive ad campaign.
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The disc also includes a conversation with Martial Arts cinema academic Blade Po (20:10) who notes the rise in martial arts films with real folk hero characters in light of the successful Bruce Lee films, the need for actors with martial arts skills since viewers wanted to see physical fights rather than drama, as well as an earlier Mandarin Wong Fei-Hung film that preceded The Skyhawk but also putting the success of the film in the context of the relatively few films of the time compared to what was to come in the next few years.

The disc also includes the Hong Kong theatrical trailer (3:25).

Packaging

Not provided for review is the O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling included with the first two-thousand copies; however, a PDF of the equally-limited collector's booklet featuring "The Wong Man: Of Kwan Tak-hing, Wong Fei-hung and The Skyhawk" by James Oliver has been provided. Oliver notes that the earlier Wong Fei-Hung series is better known in English-speaking countries as an entry in the Guinnes Book of World Records for "most films in a movie series" but that Bruce Lee was well aware of the series when he cast series villain Shih Kien as his adversary in Enter the Dragon as well as the aforementioned Hong Kong family planning campaign where Kwan Tak-hing in character berates a man his part in an unplanned pregnancy.

Overall

The title The Skyhawk is rather nondescript to Western viewers of a martial arts film, but - in spite of its routine plot - it is a significant work as a return to the screen for Kwan Tak-Hing, the cinema face of folk hero Wong Fei-Hung as well as Hong Kong family planning.

 


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