‘One of the most prolific figures in the history of Hong Kong action cinema’ – Three Films With Sammo Hung (Blu-Ray Review)

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Sammo Hung’s contribution to the martial arts genre should not go unnoticed.  As a stuntman, choreographer, actor and director, his work has played a pivotal role in shaping action movies as a whole, and to celebrate a career that has spanned nearly sixty years, Eureka Entertainment has given the legend a deserved high definition treatment in a three-disc collection boxset with a fantastic 2K restoration performed on each film.

Judging from his directorial debut, The Iron-Fisted Monk, it’s easy to see the traits that he’s famous for – the deft sleight of hand for comedy, the cheeky, overly confident demeanour, and the slick, choreographed moves and camera direction that revels every slow-mo impact.  For an actor who is not the traditional build of a fighter (e.g. shaped like Bruce Lee), Sammo’s technique and movement is a trailblazer against stereotypes.  But it is also an incredibly uneven film with Sammo mixing hard-hitting drama in the violence initiated by the Bannerman gang with the conflicting, tonal shifts into comedy.

There’s a strong argument that this was Sammo trying to find his feet as a director.  He can do drama – you’re talking to someone who was a fan of Martial Law, the short-lived CBS drama in which Sammo played a police detective helping to fight crime in Los Angeles like an unofficial sequel to Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour!  But his aptness is better served in The Magnificent Butcher, which is more slapstick and highlights the best of his choreography work alongside Yeun Woo-Ping (The Matrix).

And it only serves as a pre-cursor to his latter works, acknowledging how audacious and crazy they become.  Who would have thought calligraphy would make a great, escalating fight scene between two masters of their respective fight schools?  But here it is, the spiritual successor to The Drunken Master in glorious high definition where you see all of its mastery and acrobatic moves as they dance between punches and kicks in the best quality possible.  It’s so characteristically over the top that the enjoyment comes from its execution and its technical brilliance.

However, both The Iron-Fisted Monk and The Magnificent Butcher contain an uncomfortable and horrific rape scene. Undoubtedly, it is a product of its time, but even the most ardent martial arts fan (such as myself) will find it difficult to defend even by today’s standards when the female suffering is prolonged for a lengthy period and its act committed by the same actor in both films! They are shock value scenes and nothing else, included as a jarring insertion amongst its comic undertones. As a result, it doesn’t spend enough time in dealing with the emotional consequences endured but gives plenty of motivational licences for the male characters to act upon revenge. It shockingly comes out of the blue, but instead of dealing with its emotional consequence, it’s quickly swept aside after the female characters have subsequently committed suicide (because of the shame of being raped in The Iron-Fisted Monk) or murdered in the process which is used as a plot device to blame Sammo’s character Lam Sai-wing (The Magnificent Butcher). Unsurprisingly, as much as you marvel the craft of the action scenes that Sammo and co. have conjured up, these particular scenes leave a sour taste in the mouth.

But arguably, where Sammo’s work is best acknowledged and viewed is in Eastern Condors, a glorified and action-packed tribute to Rambo, The Deer Hunter and The Dirty Dozen to name a few.  Here, Sammo rocks up a red bandana behind enemy lines in Vietnam alongside fellow prison convicts offered amnesty and financial reward to keep military weapons out of enemy’s hands.  It’s a noteworthy departure from the Hong Kong period piece that The Iron-Fisted Monk and The Magnificent Butcher graced us with, but here Sammo bombastically stretches his artistic direction and production scale with multiple explosions, machine-gun fire and the classic case of betrayal and spy infiltration.  Furthermore, any martial arts film that includes Biao Yuen at his fun-loving ass-kicking best is also a treat.

As a film that lives up to its guilty pleasure motifs, it’s a move that works.  The female characters are not just objects or damsels in distress but feature as an integral part of the mission.  You care about the convicts and their caricature behaviours as they’re picked off one by one like something in Predator with some truly magnificent action set pieces that is up there with any Hollywood film.  But it’s also a film that goes above and beyond simple clichés to create something with substance, once again proving Sammo’s stylish versatility and maturity, in front and behind the camera, that lives up to the 80s action films of that decade.  Out of the collection, it’s the best one.

As a rare opportunity to see Sammo Hung’s work get the recognition that he deserves, the collection by Eureka Entertainment offers martial art fans a chance to sample his work by reliving the magic and craft of the legendary action star, and hopefully, this is just the first step for future releases.

Dir: Sammo Hung

Scr: Feng Huang, Pro Hung Ching, Yu Ting, Barry Wong

Cast: Sammo Hung, Biao Yuen, Woo-Ping Yuen, Hark-On Fung, Joyce Godenzi, Fat Chung

Prd: Raymond Chow, Leonard Ho, Jeffrey Lau, Wu Ma, Corey Yuen

DOP: Arthur Wong, Yu-Tang Li, Kuan-Hua Ma

Music: Frankie Chan, Ting Yat Chung,

Country: Hong Kong

Year: 1977/1979/1987

Runtime: 299 mins

Three Films With Sammo Hung is available now on Blu-ray.

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