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Blood, swords and honour
A UK region 2 DVD review of LAST HURRAH FOR CHIVALRY / HAO XIA by Slarek
 

If you're a fan of old school John Woo, you'll likely to have become so though his Hong Kong crime actioners such as The Killer and Hard Boiled, which you may well have discovered retrospectively after finding content of interest in his Hollywood adventures. If you've done your research you'll know that Woo began his career as a director of martial arts actioners like the 1976 Hand of Death, well made genre pieces notable for their smartly choreographed and extended fight sequences. Those interested in the chronology of style development may be wondering just how what became known as Woo's Heroic Bloodshed movies came to be, whether it was a sudden change of direction or the result of a more gradual shift from one sub-genre to another, and if so, was there a film that marked the mid-way point between the two? Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Last Hurrah for Chivalry.

It all kicks off in typical martial arts movie style when the wedding party of master Kao Peng is invaded by his father's nemesis Pak Chong-Tong and his boys, who leave Kao injured and give his men a pasting. Kao wants revenge, but his sifu assures him that he's not up to the job. A hunt begins for a suitable fighter and one is quickly found in the shape of good-natured stable worker Chang, otherwise known as The Magic Sabre, a warrior who is uncomfortable with his past reputation. These days, you see, he uses his skills to punish rudeness or minor injustice, his time otherwise occupied caring for his sick mother, listening dreamily to the music played by a local concubine, and smacking up his sister's boyfriend for saying he won't marry her. He's not really interested in working as a hired fist, but he and a freelance assassin known as Greeno are pulled into the fray when a mysterious swordsman directly challenges them and kills a few more of Kao's men as a persuasive nudge.

Now if you're not keeping an eye on the clock then much of Last Hurrah for Chivalry appears to play out to generic expectations, from the opening assault to the search for warriors and the pre-last act challenge. There's even the expected final battle, an extended one-on-one fight in which the good guy rediscovers the skills from his past and narrowly defeats his enemy with a particularly well-timed move. Except when we reach this stage we're only halfway through the movie. If you hadn't already realised that this was more than just a standard martial arts film, you'd certainly know it now.

Even in first half there are signs that Woo is planning to deviate from a usually rigid generic norm. The first meeting of Chang and Greeno is particularly memorable, as the former lies on a rooftop overlooking a brothel garden enjoying the concubine's music and Greeno falls into shot, dangling upside down from a tree and bemused by his location. Unfazed, Chang shares a drink with him and the two strike up a conversation in a scene that actually borders on the surreal. Greeno, it turns out, is not only a boozer of heroic proportions but is also the sweetheart of the very same concubine whose music has so enraptured Chang. It's something of a one-way romance – she loves him, but he divides his time between killing for cash and drinking like a dehydrated alcoholic fish. "I'm a loner," he tells her. "I will die alone. I'm nobody's friend." As with Chang, there's the suggestion of a darker past that is never explored or explained. It doesn't need to be.

Once into the second half, fans of Woo's later Hong Kong work will soon find themselves at home, as Chang and Greeno repeatedly cross paths and strike up a friendship based on mutual respect and later launch a two-man assault on Pak's heavily defended compound. At one point they pause during a momentary break in the fighting so that they can briefly discuss tactics and Greeno can have another drink, and you could almost be watching The Killer but with swords substituted for guns. Last Hurrah for Chivalry is not just a pointer to the Heroic Bloodshed movies to come, it absolutely is one of them, in the teaming of the two fighters and their battle against seemingly impossible odds, in the bonding of two killers through a common cause, in the importance of honour in an otherwise corrupt world, and in the betrayal of those beliefs for money and power by the unworthy.

Technically the way forward is also signposted, with splendidly choreographed and briskly performed action sequences that are peppered with handsomely shot slow motion, which is integrated into the action as smoothly as Peckinpah at his best. The final confrontation also prefigures the later Wuxia films with the sort of gravity defying wire work that was eventually to become a generic norm.

Particularly enjoyable is how well the comedic elements are incorporated into the action and drama, the knockabout silliness that characterises and sometimes blights many kung-fu comedies replaced by a more character-based approach and an engaging eye for the oddball. Greeno drinking a flask of wine and then smashing the bottle on his own forehead may have an Animal House ring, but there is peculiar purpose to his actions, and a fighter who employs a style known as Sleeping Buddha kung fu, in which acrobatic combat is interrupted by brief narcoleptic cat-naps, provides the film's oddest fight scene and was borrowed by Stephen Chow for a similarly comic battle in the 1992 King of Beggars.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry has a plot density and dramatic gravitas that was almost unheard of in 70s martial arts cinema, but still delivers in spades on the action, with varied, energetically choreographed and long-running fight sequences (although briefly interrupted for some political intrigue, Chang and Greeno's assault on Pak's fortress runs for almost a quarter of the film's length) and a nice line in offbeat character humour. That these various elements all work so well is one thing, but that they do so in such perfect harmony makes the film one for genre devotees to savour. But it should also be considered essential viewing for all fans of John Woo's Heroic Bloodshed films, as despite the period setting and the swordplay, this is up there with the best of them.

sound and vision

The latest release under Hong Kong Legends' Ultrabit banner, the transfer here is once again an impressive one, with excellent detail, natural-looking colour and generally solid contrast and black levels. For a Hong Kong action film from 1978, previously only available in grubby, often panned and scanned VHS transfers, this is a treat for the eyes. There is some minor flickering and the occasional darker shot where the contrast slips a bit, but this is never a problem.

The Original Cantonese mono is joined by a new 5.1 remix, and this is no quick push through the digital encoder but a well assembled track in which all of the elements, dialogue included, have been cleaned up and mixed for surround. The result is very pleasing, with surrounds well used to place you in the middle of a fight or a rain storm, and to particularly precise and atmospheric effect in the final battle. There is also an English dub, which you're only likely to tolerate if you don't mind watching Chinese actors speaking English with broad American accents.

There are musical differences between the various soundtracks – the opening song, for example, is missing its singer on the English track, and later there are some small differences between the Cantonese remix and the original mono. At least you have both to choose from.

extra features

Only one, and that's a bit of a cheat. Familiar Faces: A Film Retrospective (10:49) is a collage of clips featuring stars Lee Hoi-San and Damien Lau demonstrating their fighting skills in clips from a number of other Contender releases, making this effectively a slick sales pitch. If by some quirk you are new to martial arts movies, it should do the job well.

There are also the usual collection of trailers for other Hong Kong Legends releases.

summary

OK, there's no doubt that a decent expert commentary would have been good here, and input from John Woo himself even more welcome. But this is a film-only disc, and you're going to have to make the decision to buy solely on the strengths of the film itself and the quality of the transfer. For fans of martial arts and Heroic Bloodshed movies, this is a no-brainer and should already be on your shopping list.

Last Hurrah for Chivalry

Hong Kong 1978
101 mins
director
John Woo
starring
Hark-On Fung
Damian Lau
Kong Lau
Hoi San Lee
Chau Wa Ngai

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
Cantonese
English
subtitles .
English
extras
Fight montahe
Trailers
distributor
Contender – Hong Kong Legends
release date
19 February 2007
review posted
19 February 2007

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