In the name of transparency, let me start off by informing the reader that I sadly don’t currently own a region-free Blu-ray player, and live in the UK/Region B! There are some Region A and C releases that I covet (the Hong Kong restorations of “Righting Wrongs” and “Police Story 3” would be lovely), and some that are only available as (often lovingly-crafted) bootlegs (a fully restored, uncut “Drunken Master 2” with the original audio and aspect ratio a good example). Which is ironic when you consider many fans from the early days of VHS could only buy bootlegs of many of these films!
The latest high definition releases however, really do highlight the beauty and artistic merit of a lot of films, that for many years were often dismissed by mainstream western audiences. Even the less “artistic” movies are just as joyously entertaining as when fans first experienced them at a late-night cinema screening or dodgy, grainy videotape round a mate’s house!
So, with that said, after a mini delve into some historic, and nostalgic background, let’s continue the kung-fu love affair with some of our favourite Region-B Blu-ray releases in the Top 10 Martial Arts Movies on Blu-ray! (in descending order)
Even though there are some great modern releases on Blu-ray, such as “The Raid” or “John Wick” films, or niche titles such as “Re:Born”, I am looking in particular at older films that have really benefited from being polished up and published in the high definition format. There are now many official, beautifully-restored releases of some of the best martial arts entertainment available. Blu-ray players can be found in Playstation 3/4/5 and Xbox One consoles upwards, making it easier than ever to enjoy these titles in the best condition they have ever looked or sounded.
The Japanese market aside, it was UK labels that originally led the way in restoring Hong Kong action films for fans. Starting out as a specialist shop in the 1980s in London called ‘Eastern Heroes’, Rick Baker and Toby Russell were among the first to officially acquire the rights, and often the original prints, of many Hong Kong movies from the 1970’s and 80’s. A combination of Eastern Heroes magazines, books, late-night cinema screenings and events started to build a solid fan base.
They were the first label to officially release Jet Li’s “Shaolin Temple” trilogy of films in the UK, and brought the star himself, as well as others such as Chow Yun-fat, Gordon Liu and Donnie Yen to exclusive fan events in London, when they were virtually unknown outside of Asia.
Other labels such as ‘Made in Hong Kong’ and ‘Hong Kong Classics’, started to break into the booming VHS retail market, with popular titles such as “Dragons Forever”, “Knockabout”, “Wheels on Meals”, “Once Upon a Time in China”, “Fist of Legend”, “Eastern Condors”, “Pedicab Driver”, “Mr Vampire” and many more. Whole sections of major high street retailers, such as HMV, Virgin Music, and Blockbuster Video would be dedicated to these releases.
Although sometimes edited differently, what was great about many of these video presentations was that the prints, brightness and contrast had been improved, with English dubs or new subtitles that you could actually read. They were, more often than not, vastly superior in quality to their import or bootleg counterparts.
I was lucky enough to have regularly visited Malaysia and Singapore in the late 1990’s, and bought the ‘Speedy Video’ releases of “Eastern Condors” and “Fist of Legend”, among others. The night-time scenes in “Eastern Condors” were so dark you could barely see the action, and so many characters wore white clothes in “Fist of Legend” that the poorly-translated subtitles were often invisible. When I got the Made in Hong Kong versions, it was almost like watching completely different movies, as I could finally see and read what was going on!
With wider releases and re-releases in Western markets of films like “Hard Boiled”, “Chungking Express”, “City on Fire” and “Rumble in the Bronx”, directors and stars such as John Woo, Ringo Lam, Chow Yun-fat, Jackie Chan and Jet Li were being courted by Hollywood. Hong Kong cinema, having “borrowed” from Hollywood for so many years, was now openly and actively influencing Western filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, The Wachowskis and even Martin Scorsese.
With the advent of DVD, one label in particular really took fans’ love affair with these titles much more seriously. In 1999, operating out of the small market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, Hong Kong Legends began acquiring the rights to what would become a library of over 100 classic titles.
Each release featured cleaned up or “digitally re-mastered” visuals, often several audio options, newly-translated subtitles, audio commentaries, and extra features such as brand new interviews with the actors and directors. Over the next eight years, they released some of the best works of stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Jet Li, Chow Yun-fat, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, not only building a loyal band of collectors, but introducing a whole new generation of fans to Hong Kong action cinema.
Other labels such as ‘Dragon Dynasty’ and ‘Cine Asia‘ built on the foundations laid by Hong Kong Legends, releasing a mix of classic and current titles. It could be argued that this interest in the West helped to make Hong Kong studios and distributors finally realise that their back catalogue of films were of value.
At the turn of the millennium, Asian cinema finally broke into the mainstream worldwide box office with huge hits such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, “Hero”, “Fearless” and “Kung Fu Hustle”. Asian companies, such as Celestial Pictures, began to preserve and restore dozens of classic titles into the latest high-definition 2K and 4K formats.
In recent years, British labels such as Eureka Entertainment and 88 Films have led the way, releasing many of these restorations with new audio options, original and international cuts, commentaries, extra features and interviews. They are frequently beautifully packaged with the original and new artwork, informative accompanying booklets, and reproduction lobby cards. Many of the restored versions are available on streaming services such as Amazon Prime or Netflix, and labels outside of the UK such as the ‘Criterion Collection’, have also built an impressive catalogue of titles. OK, so on with the list…!
An issue that is perhaps highlighted by the popularity of Blu-ray re-releases and re-masters is that very often, western distributors would edit the original foreign films, removing perhaps cultural references or humour that they think non-Asian audiences wouldn’t appreciate or understand.
The original theatrical and DVD release of director Ronny Yu’s “Fearless”, based on the story of real-life martial arts master Huo Yuanjia, was cut from 140 minutes to 105 minutes, “to meet market demands”.
In December 2008, Universal released the Blu-ray version of the film, which contains three versions; Theatrical, Unrated and the Director’s Cut. Although the longer cuts don’t contain a great deal of additional action, the film’s emotional core and central message of using martial arts to better oneself, are much more effective. The Blu-ray release, as you would expect, also has far superior visual and audio quality compared to the lower-definition releases.
Taken from a flawless restoration by Celestial Pictures, 88 Films premiered “Come Drink With Me” on UK Blu-ray, a highly significant movie in the history of Chinese films from acclaimed director King Hu.
The cinematography, framing, lighting and colours really are a work of art that fully benefit from a high- definition presentation. It’s hard to believe this film is over half a century old! Actress and star Cheng Pei-pei is a revelation in the leading role as ‘Golden Swallow’, with this film proving to be hugely influential on the Chinese martial arts films that followed it.
“Mr Vampire” is a hilarious kung fu-horror, comedy classic starring Lam Ching-ying, Ricky Hui, Chin Siu-ho and Moon Lee, that was produced by Sammo Hung, having kickstarted the “Jiangshi” genre himself with “Encounters of the Spooky Kind”.
Taken from a gorgeous, brand new, uncut, 2K restoration, it finally made its worldwide debut onto Blu-ray in 2020 courtesy of Eureka Entertainment. Aside from never looking better, this is a shamelessly silly, funny and entertaining film featuring some barnstorming martial arts action scenes!
Mr Vampire: False Teeth!
Since 2002, Celestial Pictures have been at the forefront of restoring dozens of classic kung fu films from the legendary Shaw Brothers library. Along with “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”, “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” must rank as one of the definitive period kung fu films of the 20th Century, and makes regular appearances in the Top 10 Favourites lists of fans!
Beautifully packaged and released for the first time on Blu-ray in the UK by 88 Films, this is an unmissable classic. Directed by the legendary Lau Kar-leung, the film stars Gordon Liu Chia Hui, Alexander Fu Sheng, Phillip Ko-Fei, and Kara Hui Ying-hung.
Originally a film that wasn’t considered a success at the box office, it eventually became a fan favourite, particularly in the west, following subsequent VHS and DVD releases. It made its UK debut on Blu-ray courtesy of Eureka Entertainment.
A lot of this film takes place at night, but there are no worries about missing any of the action thanks to a great 1080p presentation from a bright and bold 2K restoration! There are some fun audio options to play with too. This is a movie with great re-watch value and it has never looked better!
Iron Monkey – Donnie Yen as Wong Kei Ying vs Yen Shi-kwan as Hin-hung
What startled me with Eureka Entertainment’s definitive release of Jackie Chan’s classic, was that I thought I had already witnessed this film at its best. “Drunken Master” is one of many films that I have ended up buying several times over, from poor quality VHS, to VCD, and eventually DVD.
When I bought the excellent Hong Kong Legends release, the film looked better than ever. The Blu- ray version though absolutely blows it away, and highlights the gulf in quality between digitally remastered 720p DVD resolution and a 1080p HD presentation of a 4K restoration!
The DVD looks thoroughly grainy and washed-out in comparison! If you are feeling especially nostalgic watching this Blu-ray, in addition to the different dubs, you can select the Hong Kong theatrical subtitles, intentionally reproduced with the original grammatical errors, adding to the fun and humour of the film! “Drunken Master” is a long-time fan favourite and deservedly established Jackie Chan as Hong Kong’s biggest film star.
The holy trinity of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, have worked together delivering some amazing action over the years in films such as “Project A”, “Dragons Forever” and the “Lucky Stars” comedies. For me, this was their best collaboration, with a great blend of action and comedy. It features a top supporting cast, and one of the most exhilarating fight scenes ever committed to film between Jackie Chan and Benny Urquidez.
Another benefit of Blu-ray releases is the ability to include “branching” or interactive features. The Eureka Entertainment Blu- ray features a unique “hybrid audio option”. It combines the original Cantonese dialogue track mixed with the alternate, and much funkier, music soundtrack from the original international release!
Wheels on Meals: Morning Workout
Along with their release of “Project A 1 & 2”, Eureka Entertainment produced an unbeatable edition of the first two “Police Story” films. Taken from immaculate 4K restorations, it is packed with extra features, with the film itself showcasing some of Jackie Chan’s most ground-breaking work.
Aside from the incredible action in these films, which has rarely been bettered, Eureka included an extra bonus feature of particular interest to UK fans. It is an episode of the series “The Son of the Incredibly Strange Film Show”, presented by television personality Jonathan Ross, that first aired on Channel 4 in 1989.
Focusing on the weird and wonderful world of Hong Kong film making, for many viewers it sparked what would become an obsession with Jackie Chan and Hong Kong action films. Even if you have never seen this episode, it remains a fascinating look behind-the-scenes at the incredible stunts and action that fans love, and why after all these years, we are still buying these films on Blu-ray!
Police Story 2: Playground Fight
As with “Drunken Master”, I thought the Hong Kong Legends DVD of the first three “Once Upon a Time in China” movies couldn’t be bettered. Happily Eureka Entertainment once again proved me wrong! Aside from the thoroughly entertaining action, director, writer and producer Tsui Hark’s masterpieces are visually breathtaking.
Presented from a 4K restoration, some 30 years later they look as dazzling as ever! The character of Wong Fei-hung was Jet Li’s defining onscreen role, and these films are arguably Tsui Hark’s finest hour as a director. The Blu-ray release also features a bonus movie in “Once Upon a Time in China & America” from a 2K restoration, which marked Jet Li’s return to the role.
Once Upon a Time in China 3: Jet Fighter!
All the films in this list (and many of the other titles available from 88 Films and Eureka) are worthy of a place in every fan’s collection. However, one box set that arrived late in October 2019 from Eureka piqued my interest. Featuring three excellent examples of work from the prolific career of Sammo Hung, they were presented from brand new 2K restorations and marked the worldwide debut of these refurbished versions on home video.
Even better, “The Iron-Fisted Monk” and “Eastern Condors” were being released fully uncut for the first time ever in the UK. Aside from the excellent picture quality, there is just about every audio option you could want, from The Iron-Fisted Monk’s fully restored Cantonese mono track, with original sound effects reinserted after being absent from previous releases, to the classic, often hilarious, English dubs from the old releases.
Eastern Condors: Sammo Hung vs Yuen Wah
A fascinating and entertaining additional bonus feature is “Eastern Condors Live”. A live performance recorded at the 1987 “Miss Hong Kong Pageant”, it features many of the main cast acrobatically recreating scenes from the movie in the style of a Chinese opera.
Just about any three films from Sammo Hung’s career could have been chosen and they wouldn’t disappoint, but these three demonstrate particularly well his mastery of martial arts choreography, whether it be traditional old school, spectacularly acrobatic, or hard-hitting modern-day contemporary.
“The Iron Fisted Monk” was a stunning directorial debut for Sammo, and “Magnificent Butcher” and “Eastern Condors” are two of my favourites from his filmography, making this set my number one Blu-ray!