MAIM 9/08

Well, all the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, the candles are lit, and everyone’s digesting the delicious Karamu, so naturally it’s time for my belated holiday gift suggestions for all the martial art movie fans on your list. This year’s been a great one for the DVD lover, with classics old and new finally available in splendiferous special editions.
We’ll start on the Nippon side, with the first two in the greatest ninja movie series ever made. Forget all those Philippine knock-offs (as fun as they can be) and get to the heart of the matter with AnimEigo’s new remasterings of the movies that started the international ninja craze, Shinobi No Mono and Shinobi No Mono 2: Vengeance. Shinobo No Mono roughly means “Band of Assassins,” and that’s what the real ninja were. But why should I tell you? Everything you need to know about ninja history is presented in these movie milestones, chock full of authentic goodness, and complete with the informative, exhaustive liner notes the experts at AnimEigo are known for.
Speaking of AnimEigo, they have also carefully reconstituted the original Shogun Assassin, and are now presenting the full series in a new box set, lovingly translated and dubbed in all their gory glory. Shogun Assassin, of course, was the stitched-together monster compiled from the first two films in the landmark six-film Lone Wolf and Cub movie series, so they gave the same honorable treatment to the remaining four films, complete with flesh-rending new titles. In any language they are bloody good fun.
Meanwhile over at the fine house of Media Blasters, they’ve released the first bunch of episodes in the Lone Wolf and Cub TV series, which were not only a tad more authentic to the original manga series, but, in some cases, superlative to the big screen versions. Look for them, but look even harder for Media Blaster’s remasters from the Shaw Brothers Studio Collection, which contain some of the greatest kung-fu flicks ever produced.
Leading their pack is The Master (a.k.a. Three Evil Masters), cutting-edge director Lu Chin-ku’s crazed, colorful version of a Jackie Chan action comedy starring Yuen Tak – one of Jackie’s boyhood Peking Opera schoolmates (and now one of the industry’s top action directors). Co-starring heroic great Chen Kuan-tai (Dragon Tiger Gate) and Shaw villain supreme Wang Lung-wei, it’s a dazzling, action-packed, kung-fu free-for-all that deserves a golden spot in your collection.
But they’re not the only ones with pieces of the Shaw Brothers pie. BCI is also unleashing their Shaw titles, starting with another one of the greatest. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master also features Chen Kuan-tai, but this time as the heinous drug-pushing villain in legendary choreographer Tang Chia’s unarguable masterpiece. Chia was martial art movie master Liu Chia-liang’s partner for a decade before becoming the action director’s action director. Unlike Liang, however, Chia only directed three films, and this one is his last, and greatest.
The majestic Ti Lung stars as the Ten Tigers of Kwangtung’s leader who brings increasing agony down on himself, his loved ones, and his town the more he becomes addicted to the title opiate. Chia himself stars as Lung’s blind sifu who helps the hero go cold turkey before all is lost, and enlists the help of a full half-dozen choreographers to fill the many fights in his subversive, deconstructive magnum opus which turns the classic Cantonese kung-fu comedy on its head.
These are just the first two Shaw Brothers DVDs coming from the two companies, so watch for subsequent releases. The same goes for Dragon Dynasty, which also has a hunk of Shaw Brothers to share. Already they’ve set a bunch of great titles free, including three of the aforementioned Liu Chia-liang’s greatest: 36th Chamber of Shaolin (a.k.a. Master Killer), My Young Auntie, and Heroes of the East (a.k.a. Shaolin vs. Ninja). But if you were any kind of true aficionado, you’d already have those.
No, this holiday season, the Dragon Dynasty title to put under the tree is Fist of Legend, the looooong awaited recovering, reconstituting, and remastering of one of Jet Li’s finest. Although China didn’t exactly smile down upon Jet’s remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (US: The Chinese Connection), English-speakers were able to look beyond the mythic status of the original to enjoy Yuen Wo-ping’s exceptional choreography and Jet’s prime skill.
And they had plenty of time to do it, too, since a Fist of Legend has been available on DVD for awhile. Notice I said “a” Fist of Legend, because the one hitherto available was an edited, rescored, and dubbed version that was even more politically correct than Jet’s original. And, yes, even though Dragon Dynasty’s two-DVD special edition has an all-new (albeit unnecessary) credit sequence, the rest of the film has never looked or sounded better (but when will everyone realize that all we want is the original film, just as it was, with subtitles as required?).
Finally, however, I’ve saved the best for last – specifically the best kung-fu movie ever made in America. It is, of course, Kung Fu Panda, which was so good that even the Chinese government admonished its own movie industry that they should have done it first and as good. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, go get the DVD already. You’ll be delighted you did, and it’ll make for an even better 2009. Happy holidays everyone!