Heroes Two (1974; Blu-ray edition), starring Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-tai. Directed by Chang Cheh.
SORRY about the delay for the second entry; I had so many ideas as to what this installment had to be, I got myself in a bit of a pickle, deciding which one to use next. Luckily, this reissue popped up on Tuesday from the fine people at Media Blasters (under their Tokyo Shock imprint), only a week past the second announced release date for this Blu-ray version of a popular film from the unique movie sub-genre that is Hong Kong action cinema. Considering how the end product turned out, any delays MB had taken in doing this movie proper turns out to be justified!
In terms of "old school" martial arts movies, many have seen Heroes Two (1974), the first of director Chang Cheh's"Shaolin cycle" of movies, less as a classic and more as a "quickie" mainly because how fast it was put together. (It was being filmed concurrently with what would be the sequel, Men from the Monastery, also 1974.) Cheh had his own film production company in Taiwan set up at the time, and he was under pressure from Shaw Brothers to make hit movies for them at a fraction of the cost of an epic like his own The Water Margin (1972; co-directed with Wu Ma and Pao Hsueh-li).
Possibly due to fight choreographer Lau Kar Leung's proficiency in the "Hung Fist" martial art, Cheh picked up on some old Chinese history and the account of how a student of the Shaolin Temple, Hung Hsi-kwan, wound up developing his namesake martial art that is still practiced today. (Or was Cheh inspired by The Prodigal Boxer, an independent release from '73, which is an earlier telling of the story of Fang Shih-yu, played by Meng Fei? The film is full of Shaw regulars and features as an action director Lau Kar Wing, younger brother of LKL.) Cheh covered the stories of Hung and fellow Shaolin heroes (like Fang and Hu Hui-chien) in four of the eight movies he would make in this series. (The other three were new stories with new characters, and people like Hung would only be mentioned by name.) After Cheh and his co-scripter Ni Kuang, the three constants in these films were the usage of authentic martial arts styles (primarily Hung fist, of course, but even this was stylized for the movies) and actors Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan-chi (Kuan-chi's only a background player in HT, however). While not an epic in scale and its execution, it still contains an epic's worth of fun, thrills and "heroic bloodshed".
HT begins with a wounded Hung Hsi-kwan (Chen Kuan-tai) killing Manchus as he escapes from the burning down of the Shaolin Temple; the Manchus, led by General Che (Chu Mu), begin to hunt him down in hopes of finding out where more Shaolin escapees may be.
As sure as Hung's outfit is black, we soon see another Shaolin fugitive clad in white, Fang Shih-yu (Fu Sheng), who gives off a strong air of righteousness that borders on arrogance in his capacity of being a hero. (The moment anyone finds out his name, they readily know who they're dealing with, such is his reputation.) More importantly, despite both being from the temple, Fang and Hung have yet to meet. (It's conveyed Hung was in and out of the temple often, compared to Fang.)
Because of this, the Manchus easily convince Fang that Hung is a thief and murderer they're trying to catch; not long afterward, he unwittingly helps them to nab him.
With Hung taken to a nearby town and imprisoned in the basement of a Manchu sympathizer, word spreads of Fang's deed as he arrives in the same locale to see Li Shih-chung (Wu Chi-ching), a friend and Shaolin sympathizer who has a number of refugees staying at his residence. After a skirmish with the guys over the misunderstanding, Fang realizes the big mistake he has made; upon finding out about Hung's location in town, he attempts to free Hung, and he fails, barely escaping the Manchus after enduring two nasty blows from General Che.
After a quick recovery, Fang (starting from the Shaolin "safehouse") manages to dig a tunnel to Hung in just over a week's time (!) and frees him. Che and his men investigate the escape, eventually finding Hung, Fang and the other Shaolin fugitives waiting for them on a steep hill outside of town, ready to take out the Manchus permanently in a final showdown. Che (in his position as the head creep) comes prepared, surrounding the rebels with extra forces and bringing along a few "old friends" (some monks who practice Tibetan martial arts like the general does) to help eradicate the troublemakers quickly. Or do they?
After using The Deadly Duo as a "test run" for BD production, Tokyo Shock pulls off true HD versions (yes, 1080p) of HT and the Three Styles of Hung Fist featurette in fine fashion. If you thought the TS DVD looked great, be prepared to be further wowed with the BD.
Minor flaws inherent in the source materials aside (TSoHF is in better condition than HT), the Blu-ray format breathes new life into these films; it helps emphasize even the smallest of details, ranging from a stronger clarity to the all the sweating the actors did during filming (indoors and out) to facial expressions! (The late Fu Sheng's acting benefits most from the process.)
Audio options are the same as found on the DVD (notably, the commentary track by the late Linn Haynes is given a credit on the packaging); the English subtitles are still yellow, but they're now of a different, smaller font that doesn't block the screen like the subs on the DVD. (The translation is unchanged from the DVD, too.)
As for the special features, the majority of the ones from the DVD make it to the BD, and TS throws in additional ones for the people who've decided to trade up to the more "expensive" model! Most notable of them all are the Celestial Pictures edit of TSoHF (with language options) and the original Chinese opening titles to HT, including the logo for Cheh's film company (yes, it's Chi Kuan-chi pulling back that bow)!
Unfortunately, the English trailer (un-remastered with German subs) and that first Chinese version of the opening are non-anamorphic, which was somewhat a disappointment for me, but I think anybody can live with this arrangement as what most of us want is the short and the feature in HD. Even so, I know I can't be the only who'd love it if TS had built in a playback option where the original Chinese opening (made anamorphic) could be combined with the remastered film for the best approximation of the HK movie-going experience back in 1974. (You'll need to adjust the screen on your LCD TV in order to look at the English trailer in a non-distorted way.)
A must-have for all fans of Fu Sheng, Chang Cheh and "old school" martial arts movies!