Cine Outsider header
front page    disc reviews    film reviews    articles    interviews  
The Jins are after the nitre
A region 2 DVD review of ARHATS IN FURY / BA BAI LUO HAN by Slarek
 

Buddhist monks, at least as they are usually presented in movies, are the very epitome of peace, wisdom and tolerance, and only use their sometimes considerable martial arts skills to protect the lives of others. Those who run monasteries are wise old sages whose teachings provide inspiration for their young charges, and discipline, on the rare occasions it is called for, is administered with both a firm hand and a kindly smile.

If that's also been your experience, then the bunch who run the monastery in the enigmatically titled Arhats in Fury will come as something of a jolt. No sign of the gentle old souls of Khyentse Norbu's 1999 The Cup [Phörpa] here – these guys run the place with big sticks laced with an unforgiving dollop of Catholic guilt imposition and Islamic fundamentalism. Break the rules here and you have to collect herbs, and that doesn't mean nipping out to the garden with a small basket on your arm, but being dangled over a cliff on a rope as rocks tumble down all around you. If you don't fancy that you can always opt for the alternative and undertake an exhausting ascetic mission. And this is for minor infringements – more serious rule breaches can result in a limb being lopped off. At this draconian establishment the most serious breach of all appears to be using martial arts without permission. Do that and you're really for it, whatever the circumstances.

The film kicks of as two of the naughtier monks – orphaned Zhi Xing and his sifu (master) Jiao Yuan – are returning from the ascetic mission they have chosen as their punishment. Any idea that this might be the easy option (believe me, the herb collecting does not look a barrel of laughs) is quickly dismissed as the two lie in a state of exhaustion and are about to be pecked to bits by crows, when Zhi suddenly wakes and rips one of the birds in half and uses its blood to revive the fading Jiao. The pair stumble into the rustic local township, which is in the process of being terrorised by a warrior army known as the Jins. Not the nicest of people, they set about beating up and maiming the locals, and are on the verge of hurling a child onto a spear when Zhi intervenes and gives a few of them a sound seeing-to. He is soon assisted by a sweet-looking girl with fearsome fighting skills, a key member of a local resistance militia who ultimately drive the Jins out of town. She likes Zhi a lot, but, well, he's a monk, and everyone seems to think she is a he because she tucks in her hair and fights so well.

Back at the monastery, Zhi gets a sharp reminder of just how seriously the rules are taken there. Word has reached the elders about his unofficial use of martial arts and he takes a beating as punishment. Never mind that he saved a child's life and helped the oppressed, no sir. Just as well no-one told them about the crow. A little while later the villagers arrive en masse looking for protection – the Jins have reached the local township and are on their way to the monastery. When they arrive they establish themselves as martial arts movie bad guys in the time honoured way by demanding the building be handed over to them, by humiliating the monks, by killing and maiming a few of them, and by cackling maniacally at everything they do. It all proves too much for Jiao and Zhi, who leap into action for long enough for the resistance army to arrive and once again send the Jins scurrying.

Suddenly Jiao and Zhi are heroes – their fellow monks rejoice and the abbot commends Zhi for saving them. Then what happens? The elders once again berate him for using martial arts without permission and order an immediate amputation. What is wrong with these guys? Zhi manages to escape with help from the girl that everyone except the audience thinks is a boy, but takes his guilty conscience with him and is relentlessly pursued both by the enforcer monks and the angry Jins, while the abbot is left to consider whether he has been true to Buddhism. Not in my bloody book, matey.

All this and more does not make Zhi Xing your standard genre hero – he's in conflict not just with the bad guys but also his own people and even himself, and tragedy follows him around like a sad but devoted dog. But bloody hell can he fight. The action scenes are a while coming, but when they arrive they are something else, a blistering blend of Peking Opera acrobatics and superbly choreographed unarmed combat and swordplay that is as impressive in its way as anything in the recent spate of internationally acclaimed Wuxia dramas of the Crouching Tiger school. The link extends to sometimes epic scale of the background detail (there are a LOT of costumed extras here) and the refreshing gender equality of the fighting skills.

If the storytelling is a little clunky at times and the characters as deep as a paddling pool in a drought, the film still delivers on pace, action, and the odd scene that is so left field that you'd have to be psychic to see it coming – at one point, outnumbered in the woods by Jin warriors, Zhi lets out a loud whistle that prompts all the animals in the vicinity to attack the enemy in force. A handsomely shot and edited production, it's nonetheless the fight choreography and the timing and athleticism of the performers that are the real stars here and which make the film a must-see for all discerning genre fans. There's only real fly in the ointment here, and I'll get to that shortly...

sound and vision

OK, it's a 55th Chamber release and so I know what to expect, except... The film starts and I'm confused. Is this an anamorphic print? Yes it is! And the contrast looks pretty good, and the detail levels and colour aren't bad, and there is an option of three different soundtracks and the subtitles are not burned in! That'll teach me to pre-judge. OK, it's not all good. The contrast and brightness are a tad off at times, meaning that night exteriors are REALLY dark and the shadow detail can be a little weak. There is some visible frame jitter here and there and the odd frame or two is actually missing. Edge enhancement has been seriously overused, resulting in very visible halos not only within the picture, but on the top and bottom borders of the frame itself, and there is a noticeable red hue to some of the scenes that makes faces look a little sunburned. Dust spots are plentiful at times, but elsewhere the print is impressively clean of blemishes. It's still some way from perfect, but it's far and away the best transfer I've yet seen on a 55th Chamber release. I'd venture to say that this has been licensed from another source.

Three soundtracks are available: Mandarin, Cantonese and English. All are technically 5.1, but effectively are mono and a tad fluffy at that, but serviceable enough. There is, however, a small issue here that genuinely effected my appreciation of the film – all three soundtracks appear to be out of sync with the picture by about half a second. While this makes little difference to the dialogue, which is all post-dubbed, it really interferes with the action scenes. Part of what sells a movie punch or a kick as real is the albeit exaggerated noises that subconsciously assure us that contact was made, that this guy here really got hit, that this sword really did cut the air in two. When the related sound effect occurs half a second later, the illusion is effectively shattered. While I appreciate that 55th Chamber probably inherited these problems with the package, a couple of hours on Final Cut Pro could have easily put this right.

The English subtitles, as mentioned above, are removable rather than the usual burned in, and themselves suggest a non-English source. Though largely fine, there are a few interesting grammar and spelling hiccups, from the occasionally random capital letter to not-quite-there phrases like "Buddha is live," "Corner them up," and "I insist to arrest him."

extra features

Rather than the usual so-called trailer made up by 55th Chamber themselves, this time we have the Original Theatrical Trailer (3:57), which is non-anamophic scope but has a signal encoded that stretches it on widescreen TV's nonetheless. It's also the original Chinese trailer, but there are no subtitles in case you want to know what the enthusiastic narrator is rattling on about.

The usual promo for other releases and web links are also included.

summary

A definite step in the right direction for 55th Chamber and a good find for martial arts cinema fans, the disc still comes only cautiously recommended. Retailing at just £6 and available for less if you look around, the low price tag makes the picture imperfections just about tolerable, given the sheer quality of the action. But the synchronisation issue is another matter – speaking personally it really did interfere with my involvement in what are some of the most impressively staged martial arts sequences I've seen all year. For hardened fans, this may be something they have to swallow to get to the goodies, but it's a shame this couldn't have been rectified prior to release.

Arhats in Fury

China / Hong Kong 1985
91 mins
director
Singloy Wang
starring
Hongping Gao
Zhenling Liu

DVD details
region 2
video
2.1:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
Cantonese
Mandarin
subtitles .
English
extras
Trailer
distributor
Prism – 55th Chamber
release date
Out now
review posted
14 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews