Heroes of the East
THE MOVIE For decades, those interested in but not obsessed with kung fu movies have heard--and heard some more--about how awesome the Shaw Brothers flicks are. But without emptying our wallets on pricey imports of iffy provenance, all we've had to go on are trust and sketchy-at-best memories of Saturday afternoon TV showings. Now, however, thanks to Dragon Dynasty, we're getting a better idea of what those nerds have been palavering over.
Heroes of the East (1979), director Lau Kar-Leung and star Gordon Liu's follow-up to their classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, starts out as a kung fu The Taming of the Shrew. The Chinese Ah To (Liu) struggles in his arranged marriage to Kung Zi (Yuko Mizuno), the daughter of his father's Japanese business partner, who enjoys practicing karate and other Nipponese martial arts a bit too effusively, at one point pulverizing their backyard. "We Japanese ladies are different," she says. While Ah To clearly doesn't like the fact that it's a woman who's fighting, what really steams him is that her martial arts are not Chinese. And so begins a series of battles, culminating in Kung Zi pulling out some ninja techniques, which is just too much for Ah To, who considers such subterfuge "low."
KZ heads in a huff back to China to get some consolation from her childhood friend/ninja Takeno (the '70s-dreamy Yasuaki Kurata). After a series of misunderstandings, she infuriates Takeno's fellow fighters with a letter from Ah To claiming Chinese martial-arts superiority. (By the way, these Japanese vs. Chinese rants start getting old at the 37-minute mark. However, it is fascinating, for East Asian historians at least, to see a somewhat serious discussion about how Chinese culture crossed the sea to Japan in an action movie.) Takeno, his master, and six other fighters then go to China to kick Ah To's ass, one at a time, each using his specialty weapon or fighting technique (sword, daggers, judo, etc.). But this is a Hong Kong flick, so of course Ah To ends up doing the ass-kicking (though honorably so).
It's not fair to review the movie you want rather than the one you get, but I would have liked to see the Shrew-esque marriage battle throughout Heroes of the East. However, the fights between Ah To and the Japanese artists start at about the halfway point, and after that Kung Zi pretty much disappears from the picture. In fact, the movie ends not with reconciliation between the couple, but between Ah To and a sword fighter he had offended earlier. So much for romance.
THE DISC Who knew a kung fu movie of this vintage could look so good? While the picture is at times soft, it's more than fine. And the wide-screen and subtitled presentation allows us to see what made these flicks so effective: excellent direction. The fights are awesomely choreographed, the actors hit their marks and communicate well, and the sets are sparse yet evocative. Extras are plentiful. "Spotlight on a Legend" is billed as a tribute to director (and Gordon Liu's instructor) Lau Kar-Leung but is really just Dragon Dynasty talking head Bey Logan commenting on the movie and its makers. Still, very informative. "Hero of Shaolin" is a meaty interview with Liu, and "Shaolin vs. Ninja" is a martial-arts demonstration featuring various Japanese and Chinese weapons (remember to call up subtitles for this one, as they don't kick in automatically). Logan also does a commentary, which pretty much repeats what he says in "Spotlight," so choose whichever you prefer.