Continuing with their recent line of kung fu releases, Shout! Factory's Martial Arts Movie Marathon is a two DVD set containing four pictures from the Golden Harvest studio: The Manchu Boxer, The Skyhawk, The Association, and The Dragon Tamers. Though none of these films are top of the line when it comes to the genre, it is good to see a major US company like Shout! bringing out martial arts movies that aren't from the big stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan's filmographies.
The menus are simple and not all that exciting visually. They do get the job done for the most part -- though, oddly, there is no chapter select option.
As far as extras, this is a lean affair, with the lone entries on both discs being the original Chinese trailers. These have English and Chinese subtitles for the dialogue and title cards.
All the films use source materials from Fortune Star and are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen running at 29.97 FPS and 720 x 480 resolution. None of the prints look outstanding; there's wear present and the colors have faded -- obviously Fortune Star did not take any great pains to remaster these movies. In particular, The Manchu Boxer suffers from a lot of scratches, something which the English print (Masters of Martial Arts) does not. But, for the most part, they look fine for low-budget films shot forty years ago.
Audiowise, even though the cover says the soundtracks are in mono, there are Dolby 2.0 Mandarin and English soundtracks on all movies. The soundtracks are decent enough -- there is none of the hiss present on the English soundtracks that are on Shout!'s previous kung fu release, the Angela Mao themed Martial Arts Double Feature -- but the error on the cover is a bit worrisome, given how badly their Bruce Lee: The Legacy Collection boxset was handled, which had such gaffes as mislabled discs and missing soundtracks. I could find no other issues in this vein offhand, but if Shout! wants to stay one of the top labels for genre cinema, they really need to tighten their quality control up.
English subtitles are provided that are easy to read and free of grammatical errors for the most part; they are not dubtitles. It deserves note that this is the first time that The Association and The Dragon Tamers have been available on DVD with English subtitles -- Fortune Star's DVDs that were released in Hong Kong were missing them.
Reviews and screen captures for each film are below. The screen captures were obtained with VLC Media Player and have not been altered.
The Manchu Boxer
(aka Masters of Martial Arts, Martial Arts Masters, Bonecrushers)
1974; directed by Wu Ma
The first entry in the set is a bit of a dud, which is especially perplexing since it was directed by Wu Ma with Sammo Hung handling the fight coordination. Lau Wing is the lead actor in this pedestrian affair as he plays a young man who promises to stop fighting after killing a man. He begins wandering around the countryside and finds work helping to build the stage for a large martial arts tournament. Of course, our hero doesn't want to participate at first, but after his friends are hurt by some villains (including Sammo Hung in a small role) looking to win the tournament by any means necessary, the fists of fury come back out. The fights here really aren't anything special -- they're certainly not worth wading through the plodding exposition scenes to get to them. It's obvious that Golden Harvest wanted to push Lau Wing as a big star, especially after his appearances in Bruce Lee pictures like The Big Boss, but he never really had the acting chops or kung fu finesse to be anything other than a B-lister.
Note: A more detailed review of the film can be found here.
1974; directed by Jeng Cheong-Woh
The Chinese folk hero of Wong Fei-Hung (sometimes spelled Huang Fei-Hung) is best known to many viewers via Jackie Chan's portrayal in the Drunken Master films. However, Wong was a mainstay of Chinese cinema long before that, with the venerable Kwan Tak-Hing playing the role in a series of over 100 movies that lasted from 1949 to 1969. 1975's The Skyhawk was Golden Harvest's attempt to begin another set of Wong Fei-Hung films, but Kwan's advancing age -- he was nearly seventy years old at this point -- proved to be a roadblock. In particular, his footage for the finale had to be shot on a soundstage in Hong Kong versus on location in Thailand because Kwan could not handle the hot and humid weather. This leads to some awkward looking editing that hampers what is otherwise a very solid oldschool picture that is the high point of this set. While Kwan could not physically display the kung fu aspects of the role as he was once able to do, he still brings a suitable amount of gravitas, and his students (Carter Wong and Sammo Hung) do a good job in fulfilling the action quotient. Golden Harvest was not able to fully resurrect the Wong Fei-Hung series until Jet Li's Once Upon a Time in China came out in 1991, but The Skyhawk's success led them to establish a formula to be able to use Kwan Tak-Hing for other movies featuring the character, such as Dreadnaught, and helped to keep Wong Fei-Hung relevant in Chinese films and pop culture during the 1970's and 1980's.
(aka Operation Ironman)
1975; directed by Jeng Cheong-Woh
Going by various internet reviews and discussions, The Association has become famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) among kung fu movie fans and collectors due to its' copious amount of salacious elements. Namely, there's a whole lot of naked people on display here. This has made it somewhat of an underground cult classic, especially since good quality versions of the movie were hard to come by. Thus, The Association's inclusion, especially in a widescreen and subtitled form, will most likely be enough to entice some into buying this set. Taken outside the realms of rarity, The Association gets by a lot on its' curiosity/shock factor. While it doesn't pander as much to the raincoater crowd as the movies from Hong Kong's Category III heyday of the early 1990's, it is quite sleazy, especially as it features well-known actors such as Angela Mao and Sammo Hung, who thankfully does not get nude. The rest of the movie is really not all that notable, being a martial arts potboiler with a hard-boiled stoic cop played by Byong Yu investigating a prostitution ring, occasionally getting into fights when he isn't too busy looking at boobies. Sammo collaborated with Korean bootmaster Whang In-Sik to coordinate the fisticuffs, but they all seem a bit too rushed and sloppy, lacking the polish the better productions in the genre showed off.
Note: a more detailed review for the movie can be found here.
The Dragon Tamers
1975; directed by John Woo
From the trailer full of battling babes in all manners of dress and undress, one would think that The Dragon Tamers would be slap-and-tickle mild exploitation fare in the vein of The Association. While there is some T&A present, it takes a backseat here to more traditional kung fu action. Though this was only John Woo's second effort as a director, you can already see many of his tropes coming to life here. Technically, this looks like a mature Woo picture, with lots of zooming shots and liberal use of slow motion. Joseph Koo's score will also evoke some of Woo's classic heroic bloodshed films, in particular A Better Tomorrow. Thematically, Woo's often-employed theme of brotherhood and loyalty is front and center here. The notion of homoeroticism in Woo's work can be seen in the way Carter Wong puts aside his (female) lover to help his (male) teacher; there are some shots of student and teacher that could be easily be mistaken for a tender embrace. In many ways, this is a very male dominated picture, so when the subplot of women's martial arts schools fighting each other comes up, they don't quite fit in. Though Woo is credited as the screenwriter, one gets the sense that perhaps Golden Harvest insisted the female-oriented scenes (complete with mud wrestling and catfights in a bathhouse) be placed in to increase the "production value".