June 8, 2008

DVD Review: Heroes of the East

I love martial arts films. I do not have the best knowledge of the genre, and there are many, many films that I need to see, but that does not dissuade my love for them. When it comes to martial arts films, there are some names that everyone knows, such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. However, if you really want to get into martial arts films you have to dive into the catalog of the Shaw Brothers studios. One of the stars among the stable of Shaw stars is Gordon Liu, who stars in this film, Heroes of the East. Liu is probably best known for starring in 36th Chamber of Shaolin, aka Shaolin Master Killer, and has recently been seen in both Kill Bill films, but his other work should not be overlooked. Prior to this DVD release, I had never heard of this film. Am I glad I know about it now! This movie is an absolute gem and should not be overlooked by anyone interested in kung fu cinema.

As the film opens, Ah To (Gordon Liu) is a young Chinese man who is about to meet the woman who is to be his wife, Kung Zi (Yuko Mizuno). When he was a young boy, his father had set up the arranged marriage with a Japanese family to increase their respective families standing, as well as promote unity between the two cultures. Of course, Ah To is not exactly happy with the prospect, that is until he lays eyes on the lovely young woman. In short order, they are married and the movie begins to take off.

What happens after the marriage is an escalating battle between the two, a battle which hangs primarily on cultural differences. Kung Zi is a practitioner of Japanese martial arts styles such as judo, karate, and ninjitsu. Ah To practices a variety of Chinese kung fu styles, including the great Drunken Boxing. Both of these individuals are fiercely loyal to their nation and their styles, insisting that theirs is the best. This drives a wedge between the two, which leads to Kung Zi returning home to Japan.

In an effort to get her back, Ah To composes a challenge letter to Kung Zi. The problems escalate between the two and between the two nations when the letter is intercepted by a Japanese ninjitsu master, and competing suitor, Takeno (Yusuaki Kareto). Kung Zi returns to Japan with Takeno and a full compliment of Japanese masters to answer the challenge.

It may seem like I have told you everything, and in a way you are right. When you watch these types of movies, you are watching more for the kung fu than anything else, so the stories (at least those I have seen) do not have terribly complex plots. While this is the case, the characters, in the better ones, still inspire reasons to care, meaning the depth is with the characters rather than the plot.

It is in the combination of character and martial arts that Heroes of the East soars. Gordon Liu and Yuko Mizuno both play extremely likable characters and have a definite chemistry. It is their relationship that builds a strong base with which to place the action on. As for the action, there is a great variety of styles on display, both hand to hand and involving weapons (including one of my favorites, the three-section staff).

If there is one problem I have with the film, it is with the ending. The film has two distinct portions, the first half dealing with Ah To and Kung Zi and the second half dealing with Ah To and the Japanese masters. The problem is that the relationship between Ah To and Kung Zi is shoved to the background as the series of fights take the foreground. This would not really be a problem, but it does not have the closure between the couple that I would have liked. It made the switch from a personal tale to a larger, national scale.

In many films this would prove to be a large detriment to the film, in this case, however, it is a minor annoyance. Except for those final minutes, this is an absolutely incredible film. There are strong characters and some great action that is also a fantastic display of the wide array of styles. I cannot help but love this movie.

Beyond that, the film deals very respectfully with regards to its portrayal of Japanese culture. As we all know, relations have not always been friendly between the two nations and considering this is a Chinese production, this could have been considerably less, shall we say, nice to the Japanese characters.

Lau Kar-Leung (who also appears as the Drunken Master), directed the film. He does a fine job of delivering strong action while not losing the characters. Lau Kar-Leung also does some nice work visually with framing and camera movement. Very nice looking film. Lau Kar-Leung has directed a number of other kung fu classics including Shaolin Master Killer, Legendary Weapons of China, and Legend of Drunken Master.

Audio/Video. I think the image is a little to the soft side, but this is very minor complaint. The restoration that must have gone into this has yielded great results, the transfer is spotless, worlds better than those lousy VHS transfers of other Shaw films I have seen (those are awful). The audio tracks include the original Mandarin, and Cantonese and English dubs.

Extras. Like the rest of the films in the Dragon Dynasty line, this disk includes some nice extras.
  • Commentary. Like many of the titles in the line, this track is provided by Bey Logan, who really knows his kung fu cinema and offers a lot of information about the film and about the performers. There are no dead spots and he offers a non-stop flow of facts and background information.
  • Spotlight on a Legend. This is a featurette focusing on Lau Kar-Leung led by Bey Logan. This is a great look at the legendary director, who also happens to be a kung fu master. This combination of martial arts mastery and directorial ability made him unique in that he did both direct and fight choreography. This, like the commentary track is very educational. (36 minutes)
  • Hero of Shaolin. This is an in depth interview with Gordon Liu, where he discusses his upbringing, when his father did not want him learning kung fu, through to his start with Shaw Brothers and his work on Heroes of the East. Gordon Liu seems like a great guy, someone you could listen to stories from for hours. (22 minutes)
  • Shaolin vs. Ninja. This featurette is hosted by Kea Wong. She takes us into the schools where instructors demonstrate a variety of weapons and techniques in wielding them. (26 minutes)
  • Trailer Gallery. Included are the trailers for Heroes of the East and Come Drink with Me.

Bottomline. Ending aside, this is a great film. This is one of the finest examples of the Shaw style that I have come across (granted, there are a ton more films to watch). It features the great Gordon Liu and a plethora of styles. If you want to get into kung fu cinema, this is a must see, and if you already a kung fu fan, this is a must own.

Highly Recommended.


Anonymous said...

That's nice film

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