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The Russians are coming

The most prominent star in the world of martial arts choreography at present has to be Yeun Woo-Ping, he of Iron Monkey, Wing Chun, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and (yay-hay!) Kung Fu Hustle. So revered is his name that that pretty much any film on which he worked gets dubbed a Yeun Woo-Ping film. A bit unfair on the actual director, you might think, but in a genre in which the fight sequences are any film's raison d'être, it's kind of inevitable. So although the intriguingly named Snuff Bottle Connection was directed by Tung Kan-wu, you can guess whose name is plastered all over the publicity. It kind of makes generic sense – after all, despite Tung's decent handling of the dramatic elements, it's ultimately Yeun's fight scenes that the fans will turn up to see.

In many respects genre fans will find themselves at home from the moment the opening titles conclude, with familiar elements plainly on view, from the period setting and imperial intrigue to the roguish hero and evil foreign bad guys, here Russian prime minister Tolstoy and his kung-fu cronies. There's still some interesting misdirection in the early stages, with two of the Russians throwing their weight and most of the customers around in a local restaurant while an undercover imperial agent sits in a corner and quietly observes the mayhem but does nothing to intervene.* There are three things you'll be certain of by the end of this scene: that the agent is the film's hero; that he's armed with considerable fighting skills which we are soon to see demonstrated; and that the two Russians are going to get their arses kicked. No surprises, then, when a short while later the agent catches up with the bullies and gives them a seeing to. And then he's killed. Ah.

Enter cheeky gambler and skilled fighter Hwa and his acrobatic street kid sidekick Shao-doz and his equally skilled old friend Shao-tin, plus a streak of good natured comedy and some skulduggery between the Chinese and Russians. There's actually quite a bit of plot in the first third of the film and a fair amount of chat, but it's not long before fists and feet are flying. The surprising thing, given the choreographer's later track record, is that that the early fights would be better described as efficient than spectacular – breezily shot and cut and energetically executed, they are unlikely to drop too many jaws. But as the story progresses the combat becomes more interesting, an impressive set-piece that pitches Hwa and Shao-tin against four armed warriors giving a flavour of things to come, spearheading an action-led second half that sees bad things happen to Hwa and Shao-doz (including a genuinely unexpected twist), before our boys get to do extended battle in fifteen splendid minutes of very smartly and inventively staged kung-fu, where all the players and Woo-ping the chance to really show their metal.

It's damned good stuff and another example of quality old school kung fu that could easily have been lost in time and has received here a welcome revival. Fans of old school martial arts cinema should definitely check out Snuff Bottle Connection, but before you take the plunge and shell out for the DVD there are a couple of things you should be aware of...

sound and vision

The film has been digitally remastered, restored to its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced. The results are in many respects very pleasing, with colour, contrast and sharpness very good, especially for a film of its Hong Kong vintage. All good news, then? Well, not quite. Despite the remastering, the print is fairly riddled with dust, scratches and occasional more serious damage (believe me, the grabs here give no idea). I was for some while mystified by this curious mixture of good and bad, but the commentary track reveals that this is not print dust that has gone uncleaned, but damage inflicted on the original negative, the result of poor storage and the decision to use the negative itself (rather than an inter-positive) to strike all of the theatrical prints, and the simple fact that the producers never imagined that the film itself would find an new audience at some future date. Now whether or not you can tolerate this almost constant damage dance may well be the deciding factor in your decision to buy, but we have to take it on trust that, painstaking reconstruction aside, this is as good as the film is likely to look for the time being. I'd be very happy, of course, for someone to prove me wrong.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is also in less than sparkling shape, with clarity and fidelity on the weak side, and minor distortion in places. Both the original Mandarin and English dub are included – the English track is in worse condition than the Mandarin, with a noticeable and intrusive hum at times. The quality of the dub varies, with some voices done rather well but others hilarious enough to be bordering on parody, and delivered in a bewildering array of accents.

The English subtitles are not available for the opening voice over, and then differ from the dub enough to change the meaning of a couple of scenes. There are also a few moments of creative grammar: "He must be treat properly," "He doesn't suppose to have this snuff bottle" and "I'll spy the Russians" are three that sprang out.

extra features

First up there is a Commentary by Roy Horan and Toby Russell. Horan is the American martial arts actor who plays the Russian Prime Minister in the film, while Russell is a kung-fu film aficionado and has directed a number of documentaries on the genre. He's also the son of a certain Ken Russell. Essentially it's Horan who drives the commentary with a string of interesting and entertaining recollections of the shoot, regularly and effectively fed by Russell, who sounds like he's been up all night drinking and is fighting off a heavy cold. The quality of the recording is less than perfect, at times sounding like it was grabbed on a cheap cassette recorder, but the interview below suggests that it may have been done on the built-in mic on Russell's DV camera, with the pair sitting some way from it and the sound boosted to compensate. Given how enjoyable the commentary is, I'm prepared to forgive quite a bit here. At one point it goes quite seriously out of sync with the action, but later recovers.

The Exclusive Interview with Roy Horan (20:38) is also conducted by Russell with his DV camera on autofocus and using the on-camera mic, with the result that Russell's questions are somewhat louder and clearer than Horan's answers. Horan talks about how he got into martial arts cinema and repeats a few stories about working on and promoting the film from the commentary. Actually seeing Horan as he is now makes him even more likeable.

The Original Trailer (3:56) is largely drained of colour and has a fair amount of damage, but given the situation with the negative I'm frankly surprised a copy even exists.

Stills Gallery Slideshow (2:30) is just what it says. Soulblade have stuck their logo on each picture in case you try to nick them.

There's also a Trailer Gallery for 6 other Soulblade and 9 Dragon DVD releases.


Snuff Bottle Connection may be not one of the best titles for a martial arts actioner (and was probably just invented anyway by the international distributor), but the film itself is most definitely worth checking out by genre fans, especially those who prefer their fights to be wire free. The print is the only real issue here, with a decent transfer blighted by negative damage that we are unlikely to see removed, more's the pity. The sweetener may well be Horan and Russell's commentary track, which is engaging and informative, and nicely debunks a couple of publicity-fired myths about this and other martial arts films of the time.


* I was irresistibly reminded here of the Simpsons episode in which a snack selling war climaxes in a battle between the Mafia and the Yakuza. Marge drags the family indoors, much to the chagrin of Homer, who has spotted a member of the Yakuza gang who has so far remained rigidly immobile. "He's not done anything yet!" he whines. "I want to see what he's going to do!"

Snuff Bottle Connection
Shen tui tie shan gong

Hong Kong 1977
95 mins
Tung Kan-wu
Yeun Woo-ping
John Liu
Yip Fei Yang
Wong Yat Lung
Hwang Jang Lee
Roy Horan

DVD details
region 2
2.35:1 anamorphic
Dolby mono 2.0
Commentary with Roy Horan and Toby Russell
Interview with Roy Horan
Original trailer
Stills gallery
release date
Out now
review posted
12 May 2006

See all of Slarek's reviews