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Emotional kung fu
A region 2 DVD review of THE FEARLESS HEYENA / HSIA OCHUAN YI CHAO by Slarek
 

Jackie Chan is one of the very few stars of martial arts cinema whose name is known far beyond the confines of the genre. This can be put down largely to the films he has made in Hollywood, comedy actioners in which he is always teamed up with an English-speaking actor who is more widely known in the west, the studios convinced that they would never get a mainstream audience into the cinema if the lead character were Chinese rather than recognisably American, or at a pinch English. Thus Chan has got to play the funny acrobatic Asian guy next to Chris Rock (Rush Hour), Owen Wilson (Shanghai Noon), Jennifer Love Hewitt (The Tuxedo), and British comedians Lee Evans (The Medallion) and Steve Coogan (Around the World in 80 Days). If these are the films you know Chan for, then you've been stiffed, though it's probably your own fault for being suckered by the Hollywood publicity machine. The safety restrictions of American studio productions have repeatedly put shackles on Chan's sometimes terrifying stunt work, and no-one in Hollywood seems to have a clue how to direct an even half-decent martial arts sequence (and yes, I am including the Wachowski brothers and Tarantino in that sweeping condemnation).

Any true fan of Chan's films will always point a newcomer to his earlier Hong Kong work, usually to Police Story and the films that succeeded it, but the more dedicated devotees will steer you even further back to his period martial arts films, those that can now be seen as shaping what became recognised as Chan's distinctive style, where furiously choreographed martial arts and acrobatics were blended with knockabout comedy. You'll know you're talking to a real Jackie Chan fan when the first films they suggest you see are Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master.

The Fearless Hyena, made just a year later, rarely gets a mention. This is, in retrospect, a little surprising – this was Chan's first director credit and he also wrote it, starred in it and choreographed all the fights. On its original Hong Kong release it did phenomenal business, out-performing both Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master by a considerable margin. And yet it's hardly known in the west, previously only seen at specialist cinemas or on grubby, pan-and-scan video tapes. I'll admit that I didn't know it until the press release arrived. I grew up on 70s kung-fu, but wandered from the path a little once I got out into the world of work, rediscovering the pleasures of the genre only several years later, since when I've been back-tracking my way through any number of fine films that I missed first time around.

There are a good many genre fans, myself included, who still have a special affection for the so-called old-school martial arts films, those where the thrill of the action was down to the skills of the fight choreographer and the performers rather than the editor and wire-work operators. Seeing an old school kung-fu film is akin to watching a ballet – you don't go to a performance of Sawn Lake to follow the story, you're there to listen to the music and to watch the dancers do their stuff. Fearless Hyena, like so many kung-fu films of the period, has a rice-paper thin plot that is utterly formulaic. But oh man, the dancing...

Chan stars as Shing Lung, the bumbling grandson of kung-fu master Chen Peng-fei. Although he has learned well from his grandfather, Shing does not take his training seriously enough, gambling behind the old man's back and openly using fighting abilities that he has promised to keep secret. A gambling win and a fight in the woods land him a job as an instructor for a local martial arts school whose owner can't fight for toffee. But trouble is on the way in the shape of General Yen and his three armed goons, who are looking for Grandfather Chen with the intention of killing him. They don't know about his grandson, at least not yet.

As we all know, in martial arts films the plot is only there at all to provide motivation for the fight sequences and a bridge between them. I know I've said that before about but I don't think it's ever been truer than it is here – frankly you're lucky there's any plot at all, so brief are the pauses between the action scenes, which initially alternate between training sequences and comical combat, with the shift towards more serious encounters occuring two-thirds of the way in. And they're all superb, a steady stream of brilliantly choreographed and blisteringly performed examples of Chan the martial artist, Chan the acrobat and Chan the physical comedian at the top of his game.

The memorable moments are almost too numerous to mention, but particular favourites involve Chan balancing on pottery, a fight for food using chopsticks, a set-to in which benches are used to assault and humiliate an opponent (in a manner that prefigures a similar scene in Young Master) and a battle that sees Chan ducking and diving to escape a simultaneous three sword assault. There are no short encounters here, with almost every fight running for the sort of length normally reserved for the climactic punch-up, and the energy expended in any of them would be enough to light and heat a small town for a week. Crucially, Chan the director also knows how to best showcase the fights for film, his camera placement always servicing the action, with medium long shots of battles running long enough for us to appreciate and enjoy the work involved in staging them. At a time when such combat is often drowned in a firestorm of machine-gun editing and waggly camera close-ups, this is particularly refreshing.

On the commentary track, kung-fu cinema writer Andrew Staton hopes that this DVD release will allow the film to reach a larger UK audience and ultimately be held in the same regard as its more widely seen predecessors. I absolutely share this view. Fearless Hyena really is a showcase for Chan the performer at his best – it may lack the scale and more detailed plotting of his later Hong Kong films, but for its inventiveness and pace and the consistently jaw-dropping brilliance of its choreography, it actually outshines both A Snake in Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master and leaves Chan's Hollywood films coughing in the dust.

sound and vision

Along with Hand of Death, this is the first Hong Kong legends release to wear the 'Ultrabit' label, indicating that the picture has been encoded at the maximum possible bit rate. Intermittent checks throughout the film confirm this to be the case – the rate wandered between 9.4 and 10, only momentarily dropping below that. The results are seriously impressive given the film's vintage and Hong Kong cinema's poor record of film preservation (the films were never seen as having any longevity). The colour, contrast and sharpness are the equal of many more recent films and a great deal better than many. There is some edge enhancement at work here, but it is not intrusive. The source print has been impressively restored and is almost completely free of dust spots and blemishes.

The original Cantonese mono 2.0 track is included, plus a Cantonese 5.1 remix and a 5.1 English dub. The film's age shows in the dynamic range and minor distortion in some sound effects and dialogue on all three tracks. The Cantonese 5.1 remix throws atmos effects around the room, but introduces a slight hum that is not present on the mono track or the English dub. The latter gives Jackie a most inappropriate British public school accent.

extra features

Commentary
As with Hand of Death, the only real feature of note is tucked away in the Audio Selection menu. The commentary here is by Andrew Staton and Aenie Hayirilioglu, both writers for Martial Arts Illustrated and Impact magazine. I have to admit to being less than enthralled by Staton's commentary (with Will Johnson) on the Platinum Edition of The Big Boss, which had its good points but was a little on the dreary side. On the basis of the commentary here I'm prepared to take it all back. Although the pair sometimes just describe what's taking place on screen, for the most part this is a consistently interesting and informative track and is delivered in lively and enthusiastic fashion. They don't know their Chinese history as well as previous commentary master Bey Logan, but provide plenty of background information on the film and Jackie Chan's early career, particularly his working relationship with Lo Wei. A very worthwhile extra.

The usual HKL trailer collection is also here.

summary

If you really want to see what made Jackie Chan the natural successor to Bruce Lee then this is a damned fine place to start. If kung-fu films are not your glass of tea, however, you'll probably just spend the film complaining about the lack of original plotting. It's your loss, as evidenced by Chan's US films, which have more story but are nowhere near as much fun. As for martial arts cinema fans – consider this an essential purchase.

Fearless Hyena

Hong Kong 1979
94 mins
director
Jackie Chan
starring
Jackie Chan
James Tien
Dean Shek
Hui Lou Chen
Yam sai-kun

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
Mandarin
subtitles .
English
extras
Andrew Staton and Aenie Hayirilioglu Commentary
Trailers
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
15 January 2007
review posted
14 January 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews