Three Films with Sammo Hung on Blu-ray
Sammo Hung is one of the greatest action stars and filmmakers of all-time and with good reason. Rarely talked about in the western mainstream, many audiences discovered him in CBS action TV series Martial Law, which ran from 1998-2000. For decades before this, he was starring in, choreographing and directing top tier martial arts movies in Hong Kong. Unlike his kung fu “brother” and opera school classmate Jackie Chan who found star status in the west, Sammo sadly didn’t cross over in nearly the same way, despite his success with Martial Law and many big screen hits domestically. For die-hard fans, this is hardly a problem, but it explains why many western audiences never got a chance to see his best known work, unless it was actively tracked down. Thanks to the boom of formats like VHS, DVD and, now, top level Blu-ray premieres from the likes of Eureka Entertainment, we have an opportunity to discover, or rediscover, highlights from Sammo’s extensive career, both in front and behind the camera.
I’ve been a fan of Sammo Hung’s work since I was a child. I watched Martial Law when it debuted on Channel 5 in the UK and Dragons Forever was his first film which I owned on VHS, and remains my favourite. I was also honoured to write two chapters for what is, to date, the only book documenting his career. So it was a pleasure to revisit some of his early highlights for this reissue.
What we have here is a hand-picked shortlist of highlights. This set of classic titles, presented on Blu-ray for the first time, sheds a spotlight on some real gems and show a master filmmaker during his early evolution. There is his directorial debut from 1977, The Iron-Fisted Monk, Yuen Woo-ping’s 1979 film The Magnificent Butcher, an unofficial sequel to Drunken Master, and his military action classic from 1987, Eastern Condors, widely considered to be one of his best achievements as a filmmaker.
Kicking off with The Iron Fisted Monk, a simple story unfolds in which a young rogue (Hung) is sent away to the Shaolin Temple after he intervenes in an attack and saves a man from a beating by the Manchus. He becomes instrumental in helping train the locals to defend themselves against oppressive local forces, and fight back. Notably much darker in tone than many of its predecessors, the movie is most interesting as being Hung’s directorial debut. While the action design is far more “old school” in its 70’s kung fu choreography, he is clearly experimenting with how he would shoot, frame and edit his action, and he unveils stylistic choices that would still carry over decades later, such as fast paced, wide framed strike combos and the wound up, high impact finishing strikes and sound design that accompanies it. It’s an energetic slice of 70’s kung fu cinema with some dramatic and nasty twists, even by today’s standards. The villains are truly villainous.
From legendary filmmaker and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, The Magnificent Butcher is seen as a spiritual successor to the famous Drunken Master and introduces Butcher Lam Sai-wing (Hung), a pupil of Wong Fei-hung (portrayed by Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, played here by Kwan Tak-hing). When Lam is framed for murder by a rival clan, he must track down the real killer and fight to clear his name, with a little extra training from the original Drunken Master, Beggar So! Riffing far more on the comedy kung fu stylings of Yuen Woo-ping and Jackie Chan’s contemporary work, Sammo flexes his acting and comedy muscles here, as well as upping his skillset as an action performer. In fact, Yuen Woo-ping has a knack for showing performers in their best state on screen and its a unique discipline which Sammo also took on himself. In later years, even Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and other major talents would arguably never look better than in a Sammo Hung film, with his accumulated knowledge and precision shooting action but also building story and characters. He learned from the best, and The Magnificent Butcher is a good early example of this.
To understand the context of the third entry, we need to jump forward a few years through significant projects and career highs for Sammo - the filmmaker - such as The Victim, Wheels on Meals, Heart of the Dragon and Millionaire’s Express. After earning several more notches on his belt, he was on a roll and in a position to helm his most highly sought after project, and arguably the crown jewel in this collection. 1987’s Eastern Condors is a military, martial arts-infused war movie and a riff on The Dirty Dozen which sees ten convicts offered freedom if they undertake a near-impossible mission behind enemy lines in Vietnam to destroy a top-secret munitions dump. Directed by and starring Sammo, it boasts a top supporting cast including Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, Lam Ching-Ying and Sammo’s wife, Joyce Godenzi. It’s action-packed, super violent with some incredible set pieces, of both the ballistic and feet ‘n fists kind, yet driven by a strong story, script and set of ensemble characters. This is the golden era of Hong Kong cinema at its best.
Presented on Blu-ray for the first time from new 2K restorations in their original widescreen aspect ratios, here’s what the set includes:
Original Cantonese mono tracks
English audio options, all three films include the option of classic English dubs from original international releases, or newer English dubs produced for later home video releases
The Iron-Fisted Monk - Fully Restored Cantonese mono track, with original sound effects reinserted after being absent from previous releases
The Magnificent Butcher Alternate Cantonese mono track featuring a unique mix and different music cues
Eastern Condors: The Export Version [94 mins] Presented in 2K, a shorter edit of the film released to international markets
Newly translated English subtitles
Brand new audio commentaries on Eastern Condors and The Magnificent Butcher by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema
Brand new audio commentary on The Iron-Fisted Monk and Eastern Condors by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival)
Multiple interviews with Sammo Hung, talking about his work on each film
Interview with Yuen Wah, talking about Eastern Condors
Interview with Yuen Woo-ping, talking about The Magnificent Butcher
Live performance from the 1987 Miss Hong Kong Pageant
Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on all three films by James Oliver
Sammo is an undisputed legend of cinema and a great deal of action genre filmmaking as we know it today, in both the east and west, looks and feels the way it does thanks to him and his peers. His impact cannot really be understated, especially for the impression Hong Hong cinema has made on countless Hollywood franchises, filmmakers, stunt teams and an entire global film industry which ultimately took notes from counterparts in the east. To witness the early work of an action cinema pioneer and chart his career course through the 1970’s and 80’s is not only a great deal of fun, it’s an essential education.
Three Films with Sammo Hung is out now from Eureka Entertainment