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"Cute people die young because they're dumb."

It is a time of conflict between the eight martial arts schools of the Shaolin teaching, but once a year the masters of each school put aside their differences and meet to demonstrate their skills and learn from each other, and to combine their teachings to create a unique and powerful fighting technique known as The Eight Steps of the Snake and the Crane. But one year this meeting results in the mysterious disappearance of all eight masters. A book containing the secrets of The Eight Steps of the Snake and the Crane is known to have survived and is being hunted by everyone from devoted kung-fu students to master criminals. It is revealed to be in the possession of young, self-confident Hsu Ying-fung (Jackie Chan), who has clearly mastered the technique and is thus capable of repelling any attempt to take the book from him. Ying-fung, who appears immune to both bribery and the charms of beautiful women, has a quest of his own, to locate a man with a distinctive mole on his left shoulder, someone he clearly, for reasons he will not reveal, intends to do battle with.

It's a neat set-up that, once established, is all the plot you need to get you to the inevitable final fight between Ying-fung and a man whose identity every genre fan alive will be able to guess as soon as he's introduced. He is, after all, the expected Baddest Guy in Town and head honcho of the Black Dragon Gang – if there's someone else with a mole on his shoulder then he's going to have to wait in line. Everything that happens between the setup and the climactic fight is extra business to provide narrative complication and motivation for punch-ups – no surprises or complaints there, but the density of both does tend to catch you out. Just about everyone appears to be after that book, and Ying-fung can't walk down the street or sit down for a meal without someone or other turning up and trying to snatch it from him. More interesting hopefuls include girl-dressed-as-a-boy Yellow Pearl and her father Huang of Fort Tiger, a cheerful Lord of the Beggars, the beautiful but deadly Lady Sun of the Fragrant Room, and the equally alluring Miss Tang, who believes the book will lead her to her vanished father.

Plot turns get so busy that you need to stay alert to keep up with them. Allegiances are formed and broken almost on a whim, as groups that are trying to kill each other one minute join forces against a third party the next, and you're rarely sure just who the good and bad guys really are, or indeed if we can even apply such familiar generic pigeonholing. The only one we (and Ying-fung) can rely on is the charmingly named Oddball Yu, a man whose kung-fu is about as good as mine but who will leap into a fight regardless and thump enough of the enemy to give his companions an edge.

The fight choreography, courtesy of Chan and co-star Du Wei Her, is always energetic, often imaginative and very smartly staged. A number of sequences serve as pointers to the direction Chan's career was already heading, from his almost dance-like acrobatics and incorporation of props and furniture into battles to the introduction of light-hearted elements, early signs of the comedy-action style for which he was later to become renowned. Barely five minutes pass without a fight breaking out, and although the effectiveness of a few are hampered by unimaginative camera placement (the first restaurant fight in particular almost screams for better coverage), others are impressively staged to camera, including an ambush in a deserted and ramshackle house and the inevitable extended final battle between Ying-fung and the mole man. The latter is interrupted mid way to allow Chan to really show his acrobatic and choreographic worth by dodging and weaving through an attack by three spear-wielding assassins, a sequence that Chan was to recycle the following year in Fearless Hyena. This is the second such stand-alone demonstration of his acrobatic skills in the film – the opening credits, in which Chan performs a variety of moves using spears and swords against a plain red studio backdrop, play almost like an extract from a documentary on the Peking Opera.

Hong Kong Legends appear to be on a mission to restore and release just about every early Jackie Chan film they can lay their hands on, and for genre fans this is definitely good news, allowing us to chart his route from supporting player to international superstar on discs of generally impressive quality. Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin is an important link in that chain, with Chan's star billing, likeable confidence in the lead role and action director credit complimented by the early signs of a drift towards a more comedic approach, which by Fearless Hyena (Chan's first full credit as director) was more or less full realised. But Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin is also a damned good old-school martial arts film, its busy narrative and energetic action serving as a fine backdrop for the well showcased skills of its emerging star.

sound and vision

Another Hong Kong Legends Ultrabit title and one that generally deserves the badge. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is impressively sharp and at its best the contrast and colour are equal to that of many more recent releases. There is some variance in both, especially colour saturation, suggesting more than one source has been used for this version. Although there is some damage to the original print still visible, it has been effectively reduced and is rarely intrusive (it is probably most evident on the plain red background of the opening credit sequence). There are also a fair few dust spots still present, but they are never distracting. A single shot has serious focus issues, which is again likely to be down to the original print(s). On the whole, a very decent job from an imperfect original.

The original Mandarin mono track is joined by a 5.1 remix and a 5.1 English dub. Actually the Mandarin is a dub too, as ever, but somehow a film with an all-Chinese cast and set in historical China sounds a little less silly when the characters don't talk like American z-movie gangsters. The difference in sound quality between the music (which is starting to break up) and some of the sound effects on the 5.1 tracks suggests some of the effects have been re-recorded for this mix. That aside, the 5.1 offers few real advantages over the mono track, apart from a very rare use of the rear speakers and a bit more bass on some of the effects and music.

The optional English subtitles frequently offer a rather different interpretation of the dialogue to the English dub, more in the detail than the overall thrust of conversations. Not being a Mandarin speaker, I can't vouch for the authenticity of either. The subtitles do tend to feel somewhat literal in places, with little account is taken of how the characters would actually speak. Explaining why she feels a bond to Ying-fung, for example, the tough, no-nonsense Yellow Pearl tells him: "You're the first man I've known who isn't a sycophant."

extra features

It's an Ultrabit title, and regulars will know what that means – no extras. There are trailers for three other HKL releases by Chan, but I don't count these.


Jackie Chan fans will need no encouragement and should be well happy with both the film itself, which is a lively vehicle for its then up-and-coming star, and the DVD, despite the usual moan about the lack of extra features. But the picture looks good and the sound is as stable as you're likely to get, and given the treatment such titles received in the VHS days, it's good to see the film so resurrected.

Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin
[She hao ba bu]

Hong Kong 1978
97 mins
Chi-Hwa Chen
Jackie Chan
Du Wei Her
Kong Kim
Tu Mao
Nora Miao

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

Hong Kong Legends
release date
14 May 2007
review posted
29 May 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews