The Valiant Ones [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (19th June 2024).
The Film

For three centuries, Japanese ronin have teamed up with local bandits to ravage the Chinese coasts of Fujian and Zejiang, smuggling, robbing, and raping wherever they go. Entire armies sent by the Chinese government to annihilate the threat have never returned while efforts on the part of the King Court to the Japanese emperor have also failed due to the collusion of the Japanese consulate and Chinese officials with the pirates. Chinese Emperor Jiajing (The Beauty of Beauties' Chao Lei) complacently rules over a court rife with corruption but his treasury is suffering from the plundering of the pirates, so he appoints General Zhu Wan (filmmaker Tu Kuang-Chi) as Governor of Zejiang and tasks him with eliminating the pirates known to be lead by Hakatatsu (Eastern Condors' Sammo Hung in one of his first assignments as action director), Xu Dong (The Big Boss' Han Ying-Chieh), and Saimon (Police Story's Mars). After a series of failures in the months since his appointment, Zhu Wan angers General Zhou (The Iron Fisted Monk's Yeung Wai) by bringing in strategist Yu Da-You (Bloodsport's Roy Chiao Hung).

Whereas Zhou favors frontal attacks, Yu Da-You thinks the best way to beat the pirates is to bait them and discover the location of their hideout in the mountains and assembles his own trusted team including Captain Tang Ke-Jian (Last Hurrah for Chivalry's Lau Kong), flute-playing Chung Fa (Fist of Fury's Ng Ming-Choi), fool-hardy Wang Shi-Ke (Tiu Wai), Lu Shao-Tan (The Boxer from Shantung's Lee Man-Tai), and skilled civilian fighters Ji-Yuan (Royal Warriors' Pai Ying) and his wife (To Kill with Intrigue's Hsu Feng). Yu Da-You strategy of luring and baiting the pirates makes too slow progress for General Zhou who has to escort a local official and his tributes to the capital. While General Zhou's rash decisions have thwarted Yu Da-You's plan to track the pirates who they have let get away with booby-trapped loot, Yu Da-You discovers the identity of a traitor in the Zejiang government. Ji-Yuan sees as a means of infiltrating the pirates under the guise of betraying Yu Da-you and takes it upon himself to meet with Hakatatsu. After Ji-Yuan and his wife impressively prove their martial arts superiority over Hakatatsu's men, Hakatatsu demands as Ji-Yuan's entry into the gang that he bring him Yu Da-You: dead or alive.

Based on a true incident from Chinese history, The Valiant Ones is not a story of triumph; in fact, we are told in the extras for Eureka's disc release that the title better translates as "Portraits of Valor" and director King Hu (A Touch of Zen) is indeed more interested in using the narrative of trial and error to gradually etch out the qualities that distinguish Yu Da-You and his team from characters like the Emperor and the pirates who are depicted right away to be complacent or corrupt or others like the benign-seeming Prosecutor Lin (Ninja in the Dragon's Den's Wu Chia-Hsiang) and his assistant (Invincible Enforcer's Chiang Nan) whose corrupt natures are revealed as is their cravenness once exposed. In spite of a certain Peking Opera performative aspect of the story – including a physical "freeze frame" into a widescreen tableau of four actors who all manage to simultaneously kill one another in which the fade out looks like stage lights lowering – Hu seems to be trying to get away with certain familiar elements of his earlier filmography up to that point which were being reiterated in The Fate of Lee Khan (which was being shot at the same period although not simultaneously).

After visually introducing Da-You and his team at an inn – a setting ripe for intrigues and the "staging" of Peking Opera choreography and wuxia wirework, so much so for Hu that Dragon Inn, Come Drink with Me, and the aforementioned The Fate of Lee Khan form a loose "inn trilogy" – and a few visits to the imperial court and governmental posts in which Hu deliberately does not emphasize any sort of architectural grandeur or décor, the film plays out much of its drama in expansive woods and striking rocky seaside compositions (cinematographer Chris Chen Ching-Chu would go from shooting for Hu and Bruce Lee to Lo Wei's pre-fame Jackie Chan vehicles). Hu gets the exposition out of the way with simple and direct exchanges, focusing instead on telling the story and conveying character through action. Rather than the cliché of intercutting a fight with a chess game, here we have Da-You and Tang Ke-Jian playing chess in the middle of a forest clearing as their enemies move in on them from all directions only for the villains to discover that they have walked into a trap by seeing the arrangement of the pieces on the board. The ten minute demonstration of Ji-Yuan's and his wife's fighting skills to Hokatatsu's men is not only an impressive action set-piece – particularly so, since the pirate cast is made up of members of Sammo Hung's and Jackie Chan's future stunt teams including Mars, Billy Chan (The Prodigal Son), Stephen Tung (Hard Boiled), Yuen Biao (Righting Wrongs), Yuen Wah (The Iceman Cometh), and Corey Yuen (The Transporter) among others who had all apprenticed like Hung under Han Ying-Chieh – it also reveals the individualist egotism of the pirates and how reckless they become as fighters when humiliated. Although an exemplary work from King Hu, The Valiant Ones sadly shared the same obscurity until later years as his subsequent two examples of artistic growth Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain.


Shot at the same time as The Fate of Lee Khan but dragging on another two years of staggered funding and filming, The Valiant Ones was thought lost until the negative turned up among material Hu had donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive. Apart from a questionable non-anamorphic German DVD with English subtitles, the film has been hard to see because Hu himself had the rights to it and was not able to sell it as widely as Golden Harvest had the companion film. We have not seen the Hong Kong Film Archive's English-friendly region free Blu-ray or last year's German Blu-ray with English subtitles but lossy audio, but presumably they and the recent French 4K UltraHD/Blu-ray edition all come from the same 4K restoration as Eureka's dual-territory 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray and separately available 4K UltraHD disc. The negative had some damage including loose splices and faded colors which were cleaned by the Hong Kong Film Archive and digitally-graded by L'Immagine Ritrovata using 35mm reference materials. Those who questioned the latter's involvement should be pleased to know this is not a "yellow and teal nightmare" as the transfer boasts rich forest greens and a variegation of rich blues in the sea, sky, and wardrobe. Red pop in the wardrobe but skin tones can vary from pinks to browns that in some cases look like foundation make-up. Blacks are deep and the Dolby Vision better delineates those blacks from a few day-for-night blues, and presumably is as responsible as the 4K resolution for better delineating textures in the wardrobe from the saturation of the colors. King Hu's calligraphic opening credits are not subject to the optical coarseness evident in the subsequent cutaways to historical images of the real life equivalents of the film's characters or the closing credits (the aforementioned fade out during the climax may actually be a closing of the iris rather than a post-production optical).


The Mandarin LPCM 1.0 mono track is post-dubbed as expected and the dialogue is always clear as are the foley work of martial arts, firing arrows, and swinging blades. The music track can occasionally sound a tad harsh at the high ends, and one wonders if some of the weaker-quality cues might be library tracks. The optional English subtitles are free of errors, although the spellings of names differ from those present in Eureka's booklet – consistency between Eureka disc subtitles and booklets regarding names in Chinese films is often an issue – and online databases.


The film is accompanied by an audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) who describes the film as Hu's "swan song to wuxia" and reveals that unlike Hu's earlier and later films shot in Taiwan or Korea, the director was able to find locations for the film in Hong Kong and the New Territories. He also notes that while Hu took an anti-authoritarian stance in the film – including how the characters are introduced in descending status the inverse of their integrity, echoed visually in the straightforward shooting of the court scenes compared to the forest and the sea – but also notes that Hu made some allowances by attributing the Japanese involvement to ronin rather than corrupt official. He also sheds light on the backgrounds of the historical figures including the reputations of Da-You and emperor Jiajing. He also discusses the split in ownership between The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones which had both been funded by Golden Harvest who believed that the former had more box office potential.

In "Tony Rayns on The Valiant Ones" (23:57), Rayns discusses Hu's beginnings in graphic design, art direction and acting at Shaw Brothers, and his early film credits, with no recognition or pay raise for the success of Come Drink with Me the reason he walked out of his Shaw contract and went to Taiwan, and returning to a different Hong Kong where Golden Harvest offered better deals and autonomy compared to the Shaw model. Rayns also sheds light on the historical background and the accuracy of the depictions, highlights elements lost on Western viewers like the ethnic status of Ji-Yuan's wife evidenced through her headdress, the "portraiture" of Hu's storytelling.

In "Tsar of All Wuxia" (21:44), film historian David Cairns discusses the wuxia tradition in Chinese filmmaking going back to the thirties before it was banned by the Chinese government. He places the film and The Fate of Lee Khan in the context of Dragon Inn's success and A Touch of Zen's flop, as well as the more conventionally back-to-back production of Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain. In discussing Hu's style, he describes the director as a "shameless aesthete" and the film as an "anthology of ways of staging and shooting combat" even violating screen language to aesthetic effect.

In "The Life of a Lucky Stuntman" (20:54), Billy Chan discusses his childhood in the Peking Opera, being mentored by Han Ying-Chieh and then Sammo Hung who was promoted to action director after the former left Hong Kong. He also relates memories of some of his colleagues during the period and the importance of success for films in the Southeast Asian and Japanese markets. He reveals that working with Hu taught Hung and his team the aesthetics of shooting fight scenes, including Hu's more exacting use of storyboards.

"My Father and I" (25:50) is an interview with actor Ng Ming-choi who describes Hu affectionately as his "father" and that Hu directed with far less creative freedom for his collaborators than Chang Cheh (The One Armed Swordsman) who was hands off despite being considered a master of action filmmaking. The actor also discusses the three year staggered shoot of the film during which Hu would travel abroad to give lectures to raise more money for filming.

"Memories of Hu" (26:15) is an interview with Roger Garcia (Hong Kong International Film Festival Society) who also discusses Hu's early career but also sheds more light on his later years, particularly once Hu retired to Pasadena. When Garcia relocated to Los Angeles, he frequently met with Hu and tried to get projects off the ground with him, including an animated film that Garcia suggested turning into a book using Hu's drawings and a biographical film on Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest who went to China in the sixteenth century in which Hu had managed to interest the Jesuits who provided some early funding. In the aftermath of Hu's death, Garcia is unsure who owns the rights to these projects but would like to see them reach the light of day in some form.

Also included are a pair of interviews from the Frédéric Ambroisine archival starting with an interview with actress Hsu Feng (16:54) who recalls how difficult it was to find a job in movies in Taiwan until Hu started scouting for new talent, her collaborations with Hu and how other director seemed tame in comparison, her decision to move into production after getting married (including the internationally-acclaimed Farewell My Concubine).

There is also another interview with actor Ng Ming-choi (4:18) from 2016 in which he discusses Hu's perfectionism – contrasting the approach of fellow Four Moods director Li Han-Hsiang to try different ways if a shot did not work while Hu insisted on repeating it until it did – but the subtitles seem to mis-translate calligraphy as choreography.


The first pressing of 2,000 copies also includes a slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jonathan Clements who notes that despite Hu's research, the three prints depicting the pirate leaders were misattributed Japanese actor prints while the portrait of Zhu was authentic and revealed just how closely the actor resembled him, and that his character in the film remains on the sidelines compared to the historical record. He also reveals that the film came during a time of renewed anti-Japanese resentment in Hong Kong due to the normalizing of Japanese and Chinese diplomatic relations after Richard Nixon's 1972 visit, and that Jimmy Wang Yu's Beach of the War Gods "used the historical setting as an excuse to re-run the action and drama of a Western." He also discusses historical figure Qi Jiguang and that the conflicts in The Valiant Ones fuction "as a preface to the pitched battles and mass troop movements of the Qi Jiguang story, suggesting that his victories were only possible because of the actions of unsung heroes winning numerous smaller victories on the coast in the years before his heyday."


Although an exemplary work from King Hu, The Valiant Ones sadly shared the same obscurity until recent years as some of his later, equally-interesting works.


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