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The dragon enters
A region 2 DVD review of THE BIG BOSS / TANDG SHAN DA XIONG by Slarek
 

It has to be the best tease in martial arts movie history. You have on your hands a new action star whose fighting skills are soon to become the stuff of legend and what do you do? You set up a plot that repeatedly puts him in situations where the audience expects him to fight and then incorporate a device that forbids him from doing so. And you keep it that way for the first 44 minutes of a 96 minute film. Imagine what that must have been like for those coming to the film as their first experience of Bruce Lee back in 1971. I cannot speak from experience because I, like many in the UK, arrived at The Big Boss in retrospect, having discovered Lee through the Hollywood backed Enter the Dragon. But the tease still worked a treat. Enter the Dragon, like almost every Hollywood actioner since, made sure to give you a taste of things to come in the opening few minutes, a hook designed to stop the terminally impatient from walking out during the few minutes of activity-free plot-building that followed. By the time I got to The Big Boss I knew all too well what Lee could do and every time characters exchanged even hard looks I was sinking in my seat, read to revel in what was about to be unleashed. Except... As new boy in town, Chao-an Cheng, Lee looked on, started to move, but every time he showed signs of joining the battle he'd fondle the necklace his mother gave him and remember the promise he made to her not to fight. How long, I pondered seriously, could they keep this up?

Looking back, you can't help wondering if the makers of The Big Boss really appreciated just what they had on their hands. Given Lee's extraordinary martial arts skills, it's surprising how little fighting he actually does. There's nothing for the first half of the film, and once his medallion and with it the vow to his mother is broken, the pasting he administers is over in seconds, and we're 75 minutes into the story before he really gets to let rip. Added to that, there are whole chunks of the story in which he either does not feature or is almost a secondary character – for the first half-hour you could almost be forgiven for thinking that Chao-an's friend Chien Hsiu (played by James Tien) was the lead character. Until he gets killed, that is. There are other fights, sure, but none of the other cast members, decent fighters though they may be, can hold a candle to Lee.

The plot follows martial arts cinema tradition by quickly establishing the moral gulf between the good guys and the bad, pitting the good-natured employees of the ice factory at which Chao-an finds work against a corrupt management and owner, who are using the factory as a cover to smuggle drugs and killing anyone who gets wind of their dealings. When two more workers disappear after finding a package in the ice, their comrades threaten to strike. The protest is broken up by hired goons, and it's in this scuffle that Chao-an's medallion is broken and from that point on all bets are off. But instead of punishing Chao-an, the boss makes him foreman. The workers are overjoyed and in their triumph completely forget about their missing co-workers. Hoping to get information on them from the Big Boss of the title, Chao-an finds himself increasingly seduced by the high life and starts to lose touch with what is happening to his friends.

All of which is actually rather interesting, offering a socialist revolutionary reading in which honest working men are pitted against morally bankrupt and evil capitalists who put profit over human life and revel in the luxuries of their ill-gotten gains. It even offers a comment on the dangers of being seduced by materialist trappings, as well as providing a link to kung-fu as a method of self-defence employed by those near the bottom of the social ladder, a fighting form for the unarmed peasant rather than the protected social elite.

But The Big Boss has earned its place in the martial arts cinema hall of fame not as a social commentary, but the film that really launched the career of the late and great Bruce Lee, who to this day remains the genre's most rightly revered performer. His fight time may be limited, but from the moment he walks on screen he radiates the sort of star quality that seems to come naturally only to the blessed few, and when he does get to fight he electrifies the screen. You'd be hard pushed to make a case for The Big Boss as Lee's best film, but it remains an important, enjoyable and intermittently thrilling career launcher for the genre's most radiant and durable star.

sound and vision

Fans of the film will no doubt already own the previous Hong Kong Legends release, and the first thing they will want to know is if this Platinum edition, with its claims of a "new, high-definition transfer," improves on what was already a pretty decent print. The simple answer is yes. This is a largely excellent transfer, the sharpness, contrast and colour as good as that on many new Hollywood releases. As with the previous version, there is some occasional quality variation, but the standard only really drops in a couple of shots in the gambling scene, where there is light leakage onto the darker areas. The framing is 2.35:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The original Cantonese mono and a Cantonese stereo track are offered, but there is frankly not much to choose between them. No 5.1 remix has been attempted, and thankfully there has been no attempt to just bang the soundtrack through an AC3 encoder and call it 5.1, which usually results in randomly placed sound effects. Those wishing to recapture the spirit of that first UK screening can tune into the English dub, with its inappropriate voices and completely different music score.

extra features

Audio Commentary. As genre fans will by now know, the venerable Bey Logan has left Hong Kong Legends for lands afar and probably more money, and rather than repackage his excellent commentary from the previous release, HKL have commissioned a new one for this release by Andrew Staton and Will Johnson. There's no doubting that they know their stuff, but their delivery is sometimes a little dreary, occasionally sounding like two guys watching TV after a crate of beers and a night without sleep. Interestingly, Bey Logan gets a mention, described as "ubiquitous" in a tone that suggests the pair are perhaps not his biggest fans, but re-visiting Logan's commentary from the previous release confirms how much livelier and more enjoyable it is, and most of the information supplied by Staton and Johnson was previously covered by Logan and a lot more besides. One more thing – a clearly recorded commentary is one thing, but I, for one, could have done without all of the amplified gulps, inhalations and mouth noises that fill the space between the words.

The rest of the extra features are on disc 2 and are divided into three sections.

Promotional Gallery

The UK Platinum Trailer (1:25) is the usual HKL video release stuff, and is joined by the UK Promotional Trailer (1:28), which is narrated by one of the Trailer Voice Man clan.

The Original Theatrical Trailer (3:37) is more specifically the original Hong Kong trailer. Some entertainment value can be found in the shaky English translations, which inform us that "Tony Liu gives an impassive performance" and "Han Yin-Chen plays rotten and sinful," but its main value is the the inclusion of shots from the much-discussed but still unavailable deleted scenes. I'd bet real money that this trailer has been fiddled with by the people at HKL – several of the shots that do not contain any text appear to have been replaced by identical ones from the new transfer, resulting in some shot-to-shot quality jumps.

There's not much to say about the Hong Kong Promotional Trailer (2:18), and although the Rare Uncut 8mm UK Trailer (3:56) may indeed be rare, it is essentially a UK release version of the Hong Kong trailer detailed above, but with the dialogue (there's not much) in dubbed English rather than Cantonese.

The Original 35mm UK Title Sequence (1:29) is as charmingly cheap as the one on the actual print, and the Textless 35mm Title Sequence (2:15) is just what it says, but in widescreen rather than scope.

Original Lobby Cards (4:32) features a number of lobby cards in sparkling condition, which the camera drifts over and zooms slowly in and out of.

The Story Continued

Paul Heller: Breaking the West (15:46) is an interview with the Warner Bros. Executive in the 1970s who co-produced Enter the Dragon with Fred Weintraub and co-developed the film script that would later become the TV series Kung Fu. He talks about the development of Kung Fu (which was originally supposed to star Lee, but you knew that) and working with Lee on Enter the Dragon, but whoever put this together repeatedly employs that terrible two-screen nonsense that HKL have become too bloody fond of recently, which is REALLY distracting and visually detrimental to an otherwise interesting interview.

Fred Weintraub: A Rising Star (15:14) gives us a second view of the same events and is similarly interesting and is also cursed by the 2-screen wank every time the editor wants to hide an edit in the interview.

The trilogy is completed with Tom Kuhn: What Might Have Been (10:51), an interview with Weintraub's partner and the man who was president of TV at Warner Bros. In the early 1970s and responsible for developing Kung Fu as a series. Not wanting to break with tradition, this suffers the same visual irritation as the other two interview in this section. Once again, it's very worthwhile stuff – Kuhn first meeting with Lee is particularly memorable – just tiresomely presented.

Dragon Uncovered

The History of The Big Boss: A Photographic Retrospective (14:33) is just what that title says it is, the story of how The Big Boss came about, narrated by HKL's own personal Trailer Voice Man over a series of still photographs, which sometimes are completely unrelated to what he is telling us about. For newcomers to the film and Lee's career, this should prove a useful if uninspired introduction.

Deleted Scenes Examined: The Story of the Elusive original Uncut Print (9:52) is a very slowly scrolling textual essay on the unavailable Mandarin cut of the film, plus a couple of extracts from the version we all know, some on-set stills and brief snippets of the missing scenes culled from trailers, sometimes edited to (kind of) reconstruct the scene as it once was.

Bruce Lee Biography (22:07) is in exactly the same style as the photographic retrospective above, including the all-stills visuals and Trailer Voice Man narration.

summary

The key question for fans is whether this new release represents a worthwhile upgrade if you already own the original. Well if picture quality is of prime importance then I'd say yes, as I reckon this is as good as the film is ever likely to look on regular DVD. If extra features are your thing then it's a trickier call There are more trailers here than on the first release, but the one with the missing footage was there before. The new interviews are all interesting, if visually annoying, and if it comes down to the commentary then the first release wins by some distance, although newcomers will still find plenty of interest in Staton and Johnson's effort.

The Big Boss
Platinum Edition

Hong Kong 1971
96 mins
director
Lo Wei
starring
Bruce Lee
Maria Yi
James Tien
Yin-Chieh Han

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
Dolby stereo 2.0
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles
English
Dutch
extras
Audio commentary
Trailers
Lobby Cards
Paul Heller interview
Fred Weinstraub interview
Tom Kuhn interview
History of The Big Boss
Deleted scenes examined
Bruce Lee Biography
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
23 October 2006
review posted
25 October 2006