There are a lot of big names in the martial arts film industry that people will be familiar with, but these will often be the names of those appearing in front of the camera: actors like Jackie Chan, Bruce Li, or Donnie Yen. It’s not as often that audiences will be familiar with the people who make the films, with the exceptions of a handful of directors who have made such an impact outside of China that their names become recognised.
A director who is often overlooked by the larger cinema-going audiences but who very much deserves to have their films seen is Joseph Kuo, who is responsible for more than sixty films across a thirty year career from the 1960s through to the 1980s. Luckily, Eureka Entertainment have gathered together eight amazing examples of his films in the new Cinematic Vengeance boxset.
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Cinematic Vengeance brings together eight examples of Kou’s work, presenting these cult favourite films in new high definition restorations for the first time, alongside a host of new artwork and feature length commentaries by martial arts and Asian film experts, giving both long term fans and new viewers the chance to discover this director’s work as it’s never been seen before.
The first film in the set is 7 Grandmasters (1977), and follows an old grand master named Sang Kuan Chun (Jack Long) as he travels the country to challenge several martial arts masters to prove that he is worthy of receiving the king’s blessing. Along the way he picks up a new student and begins to train him, though it turns out a plot of revenge against Sag Kuan Chun has also been put into motion. This film is one of the later films in this set, and seems to have been filmed quite quickly as it features a snappier, quicker form of camera work and choreography to the other films on offer here, but is also very well paced and gets right into the action.
36 Deadly Styles (1982) has a much more comedic tone, and has some truly fun and bizarre moments as it follows Wah-jee (Cheung Lik) and his uncle as they’re beset by a group of bandits. Making their way to the nearby Buddhist temple, Wah-jee is able to find safety, but his uncle dies. A fighter turned monk agrees to take Wah-jee in, and he’s soon put to work around the temple. Unfortunately, the bandits haven’t stopped their pursuit and have made it their mission to get Wah-jee, even if they have to fight their way through the temple to do so.
World of Drunken Master (1979), despite the name, has no connection to the hit Jackie Chan film Drunken Master, other than the fact that Joseph Kuo wanted to cash in on the mega hit as soon as he could. Despite being something of a cash-in, the film manages to have a lot of heart as it follows two Drunker Masters named Fan Ta-Pei (Jack Long) and Beggar Su Hua-Tzu (Simon Yuen) who meet up after thirty years. As the pair reminisce over their past we discover how the two of them came to be friends and trained with the same master, and how tragedy united them.
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The film that’s the biggest cash in on other martial arts hits is The Old Master (1979). With Jackie Chan having become the biggest star in China, and with his films making it across to the US, Kuo wanted to get some of that hype and money for his own films. The Old Master didn’t have Jackie Chan, but it did have Jim-Yuen Yu, the man who trained Jackie Chan. The film was literally built around his inclusion, with him refusing to travel from LA resulting in it being set in modern day California as a result. Whilst it might not be the best film around, the different vibe it has makes it stand out amongst the other films in this set, and it has some genuinely enjoyable moments.
Shaolin Kung-Fu (1974) has a very different feel, however, and returns to some undefined period of China’s past as it sees a gang of criminals move into a small town to help a business owner push other rickshaw drivers out of business. One of the men they target, Lin Fung (Chiang-Lung Wen) refuses to back down and gets into a few fights with the gang. Unfortunately this results in his blind wife being kidnapped, spurring Lin Fung into a quest to take them down once and for all to save the woman he loves.
The Shaolin Kids (1975) is possibly one of Kuo’s most lavish and ambitious films, and certainly stands out as something a bit different from the others in this set. The film opens big, with crowd scenes and lavish sets that show an ancient China. Despite its name, there’s very little in the film to do with Shaolin, and it feels closer to a wuxia movie than it does a standard martial arts film, with a bigger focus on swords and spears than unarmed combat in a film filled with political intrigue.
A film with a bigger focus on Shaolin than the previous mentioned film is 18 Bronzemen (1976), which sees the surviving family of a political coup hiding out in a Shaolin temple so that the enemies hunting them can’t find them. This also allows the opportunity for Shaolung (Tien Peng) to train in martial arts so that once he’s ready he can leave to get revenge for his family; but before he can he must prove himself through a series of trials against the 18 Bronzemen of the temple.
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Return of the 18 Bronzemen (1976) is unusual as it’s the only sequel present in this set, if sequel is the right word for it. Filmed alongside the first, featuring many of the same sets, and with the same cast returning but in different roles, the film doesn’t have too much of a direct relation to the first. Rather than attempting to continue that story or doing more with the characters it simply tries to recreate the look and feel of the first film, and features a similar flair for the dramatic as the heroes fight their way through the Shaolin trials once again.
Each of the films in this set come with a feature length commentary that goes into good detail about the movies, and sheds light not only on how they were made, but martial arts cinema and the people involved as a whole. It’s interesting stuff, but it’s sadly the only extras that come with this set outside of some art prints and a booklet with a series of essays about the film. Despite being low on extras, the chance to see several classic martial arts films, given the care and attention they have been in their Blu-ray restoration is worth the price alone.
Cinematic Vengeance is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.