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Doing the laundry
A region 2 DVD review of DREADNAUGHT by Slarek
 

For UK martial arts movie fans, well this one actually, the comedy-laced kung-fu films of the late 70s and early 80s were a bit of a mixed blessing. Heavily in their favour are fight sequences that showcase the athletic skills of the stars rather than the grace of the wire work, but this is sometimes undermined by comedy broad enough to make even a pantomime audience groan. At its best, usually in the hands of Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan, the mix can work a treat, but if you're going to widen your viewing experience you'd best keep a bottle of tolerance pills handy. It's usually worth the effort – if you can cope with the bad gags, the wild mugging and the "wah-wah-wah-waaaah!" musical riffs then you'll generally be rewarded once the comedy takes a back seat to action. Such is the case with Dreadnaught [Yong zhe wu ju], whose comedy certainly varies in quality, but the action is consistently inventive and smartly done, and just occasionally the two elements are combined to most enjoyable effect.

As usual for the genre, you'll have little trouble telling the good guys from the bad and I use the plural with good reason here. Bad guy number one is a criminal named White Tiger (played by Yuen Shun-Yee) who goes completely bonkers after his wife is killed in the violent opening scene. You know it's driven him mad because he spends most of the film with his face screwed up in anger, glaring at everything and everybody and snarling instead of speaking. The only time he smiles is when he pulls a bug in half. He has a hair-trigger temper and tripping it can result in anything from a smack in the mouth to a knife in the stomach.

White Tiger hasn't been in town long before he takes a particular dislike to cowardly laundry man Mousy (the splendid Yuen Biao), mainly because of the small bells he wears around his neck and continuously jangles, which reminds White Tiger of his wife's murder (she was wearing bells when... do you really need all this explained?) and he snaps into a fury every time he hears them. Mind you, if I had to listen to someone jangling the bloody things near me for long I'd probably do likewise. Mousy can't fight for toffee and dreams of having the skills that his good friend Foon (Leung Ka-Yan) has learned under the tutorship of the legendary sifu Wong Fei-Hung (Kwan Tak-Hing). Hung's opposite number, meanwhile, is the shifty Master Tam (Philip Ko), who of course is an old friend of White Tiger, whom he takes under his protective wing.

Tam's rivalry with Wong acts largely as background action to White Tiger's attempts to shut Mousy's bells up and to Foon's hopeless schemes to build his friend's confidence, first by covincing him to impersonate Sifu Wong and help him assault a visiting Marshal and later by dressing up as a demon-faced thug so that Mousy can impress a girl by pretending to beat him up. But wouldn't you know it, White Tiger has gone so mad that he's painted his own face in the very same manner, and when Mousy confuses one for the other, oh, the fun... Actually, this is a good example of the action making the comedy palatable, as cartoonish expressions of terror and loudly signposted gags are blended with some niftily executed non-fighting, so to speak, as the supposedly unskilled Mousy leaps, jumps and dives his way out of White Tiger's furious fists and feet.

The action, as directed by genre legend Yuen Woo-Ping, is both vigorously staged and imaginatively devised. In Dreadnought just about everything becomes a martial art, from treating a patient's injuries to measuring for a suit or hanging out washing, something Mousy learns to adapt for self-defence (and is recognised by Sifu Wong as the bemusingly named "shirt pinching toad trap"), and White Tiger even fashions deadly weapons out of his coat sleeves. You know it's all building to something – you don't cast Yuen Biao in the lead and keep him on the run – and when it arrives it proves worth the wait, with a splendidly staged final bust-up between the two rival Sifus followed by an even better one between Mousy and White Tiger, and the blend of energy, creativity and old school brutality should have even the more demanding genre fan grinning with delight. Camera placement and editing always serve the action well, but just occasionally take the film into more unusual territory, notably an exuberant lion dance competition and an eerily shot scene in a darkened theatre, which has just a whiff of Ichikawa Kon's An Actor's Revenge about it.

Dreadnought is an energetic and enjoyable kung-fu comedy-actioner, and if the action works better than the comedy then the latter still has its moments, from the unexpectedly smutty – the police marshal whose too-casual examination of a covered body mistakes a protruding knife for a hard-on, leading to the conclusion that the man died on the job with "a full gun salute" – to the occasionally well-timed slapstick gag. The dialogue, or at least the subtitled English translation, also prompts a few smiles, with the Marshal describing Mousy after their fight as "a despicable cad," though my favourite has Mousy running from White Tiger in his demon face make-up and screaming, "Help! Help! This actor is trying to kill me!"

sound and vision

Framed anamorphic 2.35:1, the dust spots that assault the opening Golden harvest logo trigger a few alarm bells, but that's the only time you'll see such interference here, as the print itself is otherwise pristine and well up to HKL's usual high standards. Colour, contrast and sharpness are all first rate, and the picture is pretty much blemish free. If they reshot the film tomorrow and made an immediate digital master, I can't see they'd improve much on this.

There are three soundtracks on offer, the original Cantonese mono 2.0 and Cantonese and English 5.1 remixes. Sonically the English remix is the winner – the spread is wider than on the Cantonsese 5.1 and the voices clearer, and comparing it with the mono original it sounds as if some of the effects have been re-recorded. The Cantonese 5.1 is a sometimes slightly odd hybrid of the other two tracks, having the more limited dynamic range of the mono track on voices, music and fight sounds, but some of the cleaned-up effects noises of the English 5.1 track. Both 5.1 tracks are superior to the mono, which is on the tinny side, although this appears to have been dealt with on the Cantonese 5.1 track turning the treble down, making it sound at times like a cloth has been wrapped round the speaker.

extra features

Oh how I miss Bey Logan, and what we have in place of a commentary does not warrant the 'Special Collector's Edition' label you'll find on the DVD box.

Who is Wong Fei-Hung (5:11) is a textual exploration of one of the most popular and recurring characters in martial arts cinema, having been played by such genre luminaries as Jackie Chan in Drunken Master, Jet Li in Once Upon a Time in China, and even as a child by young actress Tsang Sze-Man in Iron Monkey. Kwan Tak-Hing, who plays him here, must hold some sort of record, having portrayed the character in over 100 films. The text is accompanied by music and skewed photos and film clips.

The UK Promotional Trailer (0:54) is typical HKL stuff, voiced by the English Trailer Voice Man.

The Original Theatrical Trailer (4:43) is anamorphic 2.35:1 and in surprisingly impressive shape.

Finally there's an Interview with Lily Li (21:00), who plays a small supporting role in the film as Mousy's bossy sister but has made over 60 films to date. It's visually blighted by a supremely irritating trick that HKL seem fond of at the moment in which the interview repeatedly shifts for no reason whatsoever from filling the 16:9 frame to the sort of nonsense illustrated by the above screen grab. I have a personal detestation of this sort of visual tomfoolery, as it suggests that those putting the interview together do not believe their subject is interesting enough to hold your attention, and that people will tune out unless something 'creative' is done with the image. It smacks of first year film school "Don't look at her, look at ME, I'm DIRECTING!" and is really annoying to watch, and since the interview is conducted in Cantonese with subtitles, most of us will have to watch the screen to follow what is being said. I thought all this crap stopped in the late 1990s, but I was wrong. Anyway, Lily talks about her entry into the business and the development of her career, including her memories of working with Jackie Chan and on this film. Brief extracts from The Young Master and Dreadnought intermittently pop up.

summary

Another enjoyable and worthy release from the Hong Kong Legends label, which again features the sort of sparkling transfer even some modern films fall sadly short of. The extra features fail to justify the Special Collector's Edition status – the info on Wong Fei-Hung will be interesting to genre newcomers, and the Lily Lee interview is worthwhile (if at times visually annoying), but interviews with the leads would have been more appropriate, and oh for a Bey Logan commentary... Genre fans will still have plenty to smile about, though.

Dreadnaught

Hong Kong 1981
91 mins
director
Yuen Woo-ping
starring
Yuen Biao
Leung Kay-Yan
Yuen Shun-Yee
Kwan Tak-Hing
Lily Li

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby mono 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles
English
Dutch
extras
Who is Wong Fei-Hung featurette
Trailers
Interview with Lily Li
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
7 August 2006
review posted
6 August 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews