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Knockabout (1979) & Dreadnaught (1981)

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This week, a look at a couple of new Eureka Classics Blu-rays that are released today. First up is Knockabout, an early example of Hong Kong’s kung fu comedy craze, and the first film to star Sammo Hung (who also directed it) and Yuen Biao together.

Bryan Leung Kar-Yan is Dai Pao, while Yuen Biao, in his first leading role, is his brother Yi Pao. They’re are a pair of low-grade grifters who would happily rip each other off if the chance arose. They do enjoy the odd success – like conning a gold dealer who is equally greedy and gullible, but they pick the wrong mark in Old Fox (played by Lau Kar-Wing in a not terribly convincing grey wig).

Outwitted by the older man, they seek revenge by attempting to beat him up. This is another bad idea and results in him giving them both black eyes. Sensing that learning a mastery of kung fu could come in handy whenever their scams fail, they offer to become his students. Old Fox is reluctant but eventually relents, enlisting the brothers to help him in his struggle against some longstanding enemies.

Old Fox really is far from the kindly and virtuous master that we usually meet in kung fu movies, as the brothers will soon discover to their cost.

The balance between comedy and martial arts tips in favour of the former for much of the movie with Yuen Biao and Leung Kar-yan making for a highly likeable double act.

The role of Yi Pao was intended to launch Yuen Biao into the kind of stardom that his fellow Peking Opera School pals Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were already experiencing after box office hits like Drunken Master and Enter the Fat Dragon.

Biao did go on to enjoy a long and successful career, without ever reaching the heights of his two ‘brothers’. His acrobatic cartwheels, kicks and backflips are a true joy to watch here, and Sammo Hung’s Beggar putting him through his paces with a skipping rope is one of the great martial arts training sequences. Sammo, incidentally, is predictably good in the role of the jovial beggar, a man with a pet monkey and some kiss ass monkey kung fu moves. As for ‘Beardy’ Leung, despite having never studied any martial arts, he looks pretty accomplished in his fight scenes.

The cast are all in good form actually, Karl Maka’s memorable cameo as Captain Baldy being only one of many highlights. The movie is a delight which keeps getting better and better. Its ferocious finale is one of the longest in Hong Kong action movie history and entirely justifies its length.

Next up, another kung fu cult favourite, this time one directed by Yuen Woo-ping, the legendary action choreographer of The Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yuen Woo-ping plunges us straight into the action here with an eruption of mayhem in a teahouse, which leaves a number of police officers and the wife of a fearsome criminal dead.

That criminal, known as White-Fronted Tiger (Yuen Shun-yee), seeks out an old pal who lets him hide out with a theatrical troupe he is involved with. It’s here his path crosses with Little Gueng (Yuen Biao), a laundry worker who is scared of dogs; scared of the men who refuse to pay their laundry bills; and even more than a little scared of his domineering big sister – who beats him up because he’s so hopeless at collecting debts. Needless to say, even though he doesn’t know the true identity of the troupe’s newcomer, he’s terrified of White-Fronted Tiger. Worse still, the psychotic wrongdoer takes an immediate dislike to him.

Maybe Gueng’s best pal Leung Foon (Bryan Leung Kar-yan) can persuade his master Wong Fei-hung (Kwan Tak-hing) to teach the fearful young man the fighting skills required to take on the man that Gueng calls Painted Face.

Nobody could ever accuse Yuen Woo-ping of being scared to shift tone. Dreadnaught begins like a Chinese version of a spaghetti western, then switches into slapstick mode soon after. There is some superb physical comedy on display, such as Gueng demonstrating his unorthodox kung fu method of drying laundry – later referenced by Joel Schumacher in Batman Forever – and also some less amusing broad Hong Kong humour, although I did laugh at one visual gag involving some incompetent police officers drawing the wrong conclusion about a dead man covered by a blanket.

There are also elements of the buddy movie, while the final third of the film strays into serial killer territory – and it is bizarre that a movie with cross-eyed cops and men with weird hair sprouting from unsightly facial warts also manages to feature a genuinely unsettling scene when Leung Foon clashes with White-Fronted Tiger.

Consistently entertaining, Dreadnaught also marked the final time that Kwan Tak-hing portrayed Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung – a man also portrayed onscreen by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The actor bowed out on a high on what is said to have been his 77th time in the role. No, that’s not a typo.

Tak-hing, who was in his mid-seventies during filming, even features prominently in the film’s standout scene, a long brawl between two Lion Dance teams that brilliantly showcases Woo-ping’s virtuoso choreography skills.

This Eureka Classics releases of Knockabout and Dreadnaught are their UK debuts on Blu-ray, both in brand new 2K restorations.

Special features on both include limited edition O-Card slipcases featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]; reversible sleeve design featuring original poster artwork; new feature length audio commentaries by Frank Djeng & Michael Worth, and new feature length audio commentaries by Mike Leeder & Arne Venema, plus collector’s booklets featuring new writing by James Oliver.

For more on Knockabout, click here.

For more on Dreadnaught, click here.

Mr. Vampire (Made in Hong Kong #2)

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Friday saw freezing temperatures in my part of the world (-7 overnight) and the next morning I woke up sneezing incessantly. This lasted throughout the day and into the night but luckily disappeared after about twelve hours although the sneezing had been so severe that my ribs hurt like hell for some time afterwards. At least I could be thankful it very likely wasn’t Covid related.

It was time for something that might just be fun entertainment. The dafter the better and 1985’s Mr. Vampire suited that bill ideally. Directed by Ricky Lau, this is an influential horror/comedy/kung fu hybrid from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema that I hadn’t watched since it was featured as part of Channel 4’s Chinese Ghost Story season in 1990.

The rules here are different from those you have learned in Western vampire movies. Vampires become harmless if you stick a special talisman to their foreheads. Twin dabs of blood on the forehead also incapacitate them, as does an eight-sided mirror. They’re blind and so can’t locate you if you hold your breath. If bitten by one, you can be saved by sticky rice. Not a mixture of sticky and non-sticky rice. Only pure sticky rice. That rule is very important.

I should also point out that the vampires resemble zombies as much as they do Count Dracula. And they hop!

A Taoist priest, Master Kau (Lam Ching-ying) is given the task of supervising the re-burial of a businessman’s father, the idea being that the improved feng shui of a new tomb will bring prosperity to his family who are still alive. Together with his bumbling assistants, Man Choi (Ricky Hui) and Chou Sheng (Chin Siu-ho), Kau exhumes the corpse but the body shows few signs of decomposition despite having lain underground for years.

Realising that it must be a vampire, Kau relocates the coffin to his house for further study. Due to the incompetence of Man Choi and Chou, the vampire breaks out and his first victim will be his own son, Yam.

The local police become involved. Led by Yam’s nephew Wai, who is another incompetent, they are of limited use. Wai, like Man Choi and Chou, is more interested in Yam’s daughter Ting-Ting. To impress her, he arrests Kau, framing him on a charge of murdering his uncle. With the only man knowledgeable enough to combat vampires behind bars, the whole situation spirals out of control with yet more hopping vampires, a conniving but seductive ghost and even a cave-dwelling gorilla.

The comedy is obviously far from subtle. And if you’re looking for scares, you might as well watch Hotel Transylvania. The walls in the prison look as solid as cardboard and occasionally the wires are visible in some of the stunts. Whether Kau’s grey monobrow is supposed to look fake, I have no idea. But all of this adds to the madcap fun.

Ricky Lau, on his directing debut, keeps the action moving briskly. There’s some impressive kung fu action, especially from the amazingly acrobatic Lan Ching-Ying. Best of all, Mr. Vampire has a great ensemble cast, although special mention must be made of Lam Ching-ying as the indomitable Master Kau.

Lam had previously worked as an action choreographer, and assistant to Bruce Lee on movies like Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon, as well as appearing in a string of Shaw Brothers chopsocky movies. His performance here will be his most fondly remembered. Deservedly so.

On its original 1985 release, Mr. Vampire proved a real blockbuster at the Hong Kong box-office. It also spawned a cycle of sequels and countless rip-off jiangshi (hopping vampire) movies, though none of them are said to have matched the original.

The movie was released last summer by Eureka Masters of Cinema. For more on Mr. Vampire click here.

Throw Down (Made in Hong Kong #1)

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Throw Down 

Shot in 2004 by Tarantino favourite Johnnie To, Throw Down is a visually stunning and idiosyncratic homage to the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It’s highly unusual for a Hong Kong movie in that it focusses on judo and the action might not be as spectacular as that seen in kung fu or wuxia films, but Johnnie To captures his fight scenes brilliantly. His cast underwent rigorous training before the shoot and To avoided the use of special effects and stuntmen. Hallelujah.

It’s also unusual in that the fights have nothing to do with just knocking an enemy senseless. Arguably, they’re not even about winning, the combatants being more concerned about taking on and learning from a worthy opponent. This echoes the beliefs of Kanō Jigorō, the idealistic founder of judo, who insisted that his sport should not be viewed as just a technique for self-defence and that personal enlightenment was as vital as technical proficiency.

Throw Down tells the story of a very highly regarded ex-judo champion Szeto Bo (Louis Koo), who owns a bar called After Hours (likely a nod to the Scorsese film of 1985). His life now completely lacks the discipline required of a top-class athlete.

After Hours in Throw Down

Rather than visiting the dojo, his time is spent downing pint after pint of San Miguel. And when he’s not drinking himself into oblivion, he’s likely visiting gambling dens where he bets high stakes hoping to win enough to pay off his debt to local moneylenders.

Slowly, we begin to learn why Szeto has likely ended up such a mess. Spelling it out here would be a massive spoiler here, so I won’t.

Luckily two people come into his life who do believe in him. One is Tony (Aaron Kwok), a carefree and cocky young judo enthusiast who dreams of taking on Szeto, a fighter he has always admired. The other is a young Taiwanese woman Mona (Cherrie Ying). A wannabe entertainer and material girl, Mona shows up at After Hours to audition as a singer. Both attempt to help Szeto pull himself out of his current stagnation and reignite his lust for living. This isn’t going to be an easy task.

Aaron Kwok and Cherrie Ying in Throw Down

The film does threaten to veer into sentimentality at times, but there’s much to enjoy including a highly complicated sequence with the camera darting across four adjacent tables with a host of characters in conversation at the same time. This ends with the kind of bar room brawl that would put anything in an old Hollywood western to shame.

Look out too for one of the best ever chase scenes in any movie – a near magical sequence with Szeto and Mona making their getaway through the neon drenched streets of Hong Kong, a gang of thugs in pursuit. Mona has just stolen the money lost by Szeto and as she runs, notes fly from her grasp, the thugs stopping every few strides to help themselves to the stray cash as it lands.

There are flashes of humour too such as the scene with Szeto and Mona hiding together inside a toilet cubicle and I liked Brother Savage (Cheung Siu-fai), an unconventional gangster who can be childish one minute, chilling the next.

Louis Koo in After Hours

A film about redemption, To is very proud of Throw Down, even if it divided critics. Maybe more than any of his works, it best expresses his philosophy that despite any setbacks, life is always full of hope.

Throw Down is now available as a blu-ray on the Eureka Masters of Cinema imprint. Special features include a new and exclusive feature-length audio commentaries by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and Ric Meyers; a lengthy interview with director Johnnie To (40 mins); a Making of Throw Down featurette and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film.

For more on the release click here.