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Feeling the force in the stormy mountains

It's safe to say the most obvious claim to fame of the 1978 Magnificent Bodyguards [Fei du juan yun shan] is that it provided an early starring role for the 24-year-old Jackie Chan. He plays Lord Ting Chung, owner of the fastest fists in the East, who is hired by the rich and beautiful Lam Nan to transport her and her sick brother across the Stormy Mountains, a haven for robbers and evil-doers that no sane person would normally think of entering. He knows he'll need help and it arrives in the form of the formidable Twin Sword Sisters, kick-boxing deaf leather-worker Chang, and Chung's old compatriot Tsang, also known as The Skinning Swordsmen, a fighter that newcomers are initially likely to mistake for the bad guy. He joins the party not for profit but because he killed a bandit known as The God of Darts, and he prefers to go after the villain's lover Lady Liu rather than sit and wait for her to enact her revenge.

Some slightly busier plotting than the genre norm (which falls on its face with a last act surprise twist involving the true identity of their foe, as daft a revelation as anything Stephen Chow might play for laughs) moves the group from one encounter to another as they are collectively and individually attacked by a variety of foes, from rock-throwing rogues dressed like Apache warriors to blade-wielding monks and Lady Liu herself. Opportunities are missed to have fun with the various members of the party (there are strong hints about the background of the Twin Sword Sisters, for example, which could have proved interesting enough to warrant a film of their own had they been more fully developed) and the meatier fights are often men-only affairs, although when you have Chan, James Tien and Bruce Liang in the lead roles this is hardly surprising. When they do let rip it's usually memorable, their fighting skills and some nifty choreography (by Chan and Tien) delivering a string of well staged battles featuring a variety of fighting styles and weaponry. Chung's one-on-one with Liu and an exceptionally good brawl in the Luo Han temple give the young Chan the chance to show off some of the skills he would soon be renowned for, although the comedy here is confined largely to brash over-confidence and occasionally amusing one-liners – when Tsang takes charge he insists that no-one leave the group without permission, that they be quiet at all times and that there be no drinking, only to have Chung pipe up hopefully, "Can we be flexible on the drinking?"

The story is kept moving at a brisk trot by Lo Wei, a genre legend whose credits include the Bruce Lee duo of The Big Boss and Fist of Fury and a number of films with Chan, including New Fist of Fury (Xin Chung-wu men 1976), To Kill With Intrigue (Jian hua yan yu jiang nan 1977), Spiritual Kung Fu (Quan jing 1978) and Dragon Fist (Quan jing 1978). In recent years, Wei has come in for some flack from fans, who believe that he held Lee back and that Chan only really blossomed as a performer when he was allowed to take creative control himself. Certainly here Wei's camera placement and editing seem on occasion a little peculiar, and I was a good third of the way before it occurred to me that there may be a reason for the plethora of rocks, fists, feet and spears being thrust into the lens. A quick bit of research (or five minutes with the commentary) confirmed that the film was shot in Dual Strip 3-D, hence the numerous shots inserted just to show off the process and make the audience duck.

Magnificent Bodyguards is a brisk and likeable early Chan vehicle that genre fans should enjoy for the well showcased fighting skills of its leads, and the developing signs of the one man comedy-action machine that Chan was later to become. And it's hard to really dislike any martial arts film that sends the party on their way with such an absurdly sincere but cheerily upbeat musical tribute to their bravery and skills, and which unashamedly steals whole chunks of its score from Star Wars.

sound and vision

There are cynical souls who have suggested that the new Ultrabit label being applied to some recent Hong Kong Legends releases is nothing more than a marketing ploy to suggest you're getting something extra to stand in for the rather woeful lack of extra features on the so labelled titles. After all, the picture quality was pretty spiffy on a good many of the pre-Ultrabit HKL releases, so what's the big deal? Either way, I'll happily admit that previous Ultrabit titles have looked damned good, especially for their age. Until now, that is.

The transfer here is probably the least impressive I've seen on a Hong Kong Legends DVD in recent years. The picture is soft, the colours often muted and the contrast wildly variable, decent enough in places but washed out elsewhere. Fine detail is almost completely lacking, with faces in long shots rendered as indistinct blobs. On top of that, there are whole sections affected by some very noticeable frame jitter. On the plus side, dust spots and damage are almost completely absent. The framing is 2.35:1 and the picture is anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtracks on offer are the usual 2.0 Cantonese mono and 5.1 Cantonese and English dub remixes. The 5.1 does appear to be slightly cleaned up from the original mono, but is still largely a monaural track with a few of the sound effects redirected to the surrounds. Tonal range is not great, but that's hardly surprising, and there is an underlying hum to many scenes.

Now it may well be that this is the best the film has ever looked and sounded and that HKL were working from some ropey source material, and I'd forgive a lot it this was admitted to and indicated on the disc – after all, as it has been pointed out of previous HKL commentary tracks, the Hong Kong film industry of the 1970s were not concerned with film preservation for the simple reason they never expected the product to have lasting interest. But even if this is the case, I still feel HKL have some cheek releasing the film under the Ultrabit banner, which promises to deliver "the ultimate in picture and sound quality" when that clearly just is not possible with this print – the bitrate may be high, but I'm willing to bet that lowering it would make little or no difference here.

extra features

Commentary by Andrew Staton
Staton's commentaries have proved a mixed bag in the past and have tended to depend on who he is teamed up with – paired with fellow martial arts cinema writer Aenie Hayirilioglu for Fearless Hyena he provided a consistently informative and entertaining track. Certainly there is some interesting stuff here, but way, way too much of it has Staton simply describing what is happening on screen, telling you what he supposes the characters are thinking (if you watch their expressions you shouldn't have too much trouble working that out for yourself) and repeatedly pointing out that "this shot would have looked great in 3D." He does highlight the links with other films, but gets his dates mixed up a bit, suggesting a Raiders of the Lost Ark influence on a couple of scenes, despite the fact that Magnificent Bodyguards was made three years before Spielberg's boys'-own adventure. There is a suspicion that Staton has very recently encountered and been angered by some negative reaction to this film, as he gets quite hot under the collar when discussing its merits, rightly but over-indignantly defending the elements that are specific to Asian action cinema.

The usual HKL trailers are also included.


Magnificent Bodyguards is better than some have claimed but is unlikely to be destined for any sort of classic status. A busier plot is not necessarily a smarter one, but the action delivers in the hoped-for manner. As for the disc, well I've said my piece, but really do feel that releasing this one under the Ultrabit banner is taking the piss. Just a little.

Magnificent Bodyguards
[Fei du juan yun shan]

Hong Kong 1978
99 mins
Lo Wei
Jackie Chan
James Tien
Bruce Liang
Ping Wang

DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby 5.1 surround
Dolby 2.0 mono
subtitles .
Andrew Staton Commentary

Hong Kong Legends
release date
5 March 2007
review posted
2 March 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews