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The two fingered defence
A UK region 0 DVD review of THE YOUNG HERO OF SHAOLIN by Slarek
 

It's one of the constants of martial arts cinema that Shaolin masters have mental and physical abilities beyond those of normal mortals, skills that they can use right up until the moment they are murdered by some shiftless bad guy. In kung-fu films, Shaolin masters never die of old age and are never beaten in a fair fight. They can be a hundred years old and still do headsprings and somersaults and kill you with their little finger. They are the genre's most revered figures, and to attack one is to openly declare your status as unredeemably evil.

Such is the case in The Young Hero of Shaolin, where an ageing Sifu demonstrates his strength to an awed young audience by balancing on just two fingers of one hand. It's a skill, he informs them, learned from a former student named Fung Hsuin-Yu. At least this is what the English subtitles call him. Those who know their martial arts folklore will recognise him as Fong Sai-Yuk. One of the genre's most enduring figures, Sai-Yuk was a cheerful young martial arts student whose light-hearted approach to life was balanced his awesome fighting skills. The character has appeared in a number of genre films over the years, notably the two 1993 features bearing his name and starring Jet Li, which were released in the West as The Legend and The Legend II.

Here he's played by Shi Bao Hua, a performer whose work I was unfamiliar with and about whom my research has revealed precious little. He's a likeable enough screen presence and can certainly fight, but like so many other martial arts hopefuls he probably never found quite the right project to move him into the genre forefront. There are certainly moments in Young Hero of Shaolin in which his skills are effectively showcased, but as a whole the film lacks that special something needed to make it and its star stand out from a rather busy crowd.

Anyway, following the Sifu's finger demo we nip back in time to Sai-yuk's infanthood, where a passing priest and his son Ray (a likely story) attempt to extort money from Sai-yuk's father and martial arts-trained mother, who with the help of her Shaolin nun teacher gives them both a seeing-to. As they depart they make a promise that they will return to kill Sai-yuk. The teacher instructs Sai-yuk's mother on how to protect her son and toughen his body so that he can take even the hardest blow. Several years later he gets the chance to test it when the priest returns and punches him through a wall. Mum's teacher thinks it would be a good idea to send Sai-yuk to a Shaolin temple to perfect his martial arts.

It's here that the film fumbles several opportunities to shine. Sai-Yuk's youthful and wide-eyed clowning on his arrival at the temple falls a long way short of on-form Jackie Chan, while a series of extended Wushu demonstrations are covered in unbroken wide shots like a documentary record of the Peking Opera in rehearsal, taking little advantage of cinema's unique ability to involve us in the action.

Things pick up considerably during a visually striking scene in which Sai-Yuk and his friend Wai-Kin are tested by a small army of his fellow students, whose shifting formation work (which includes a swastika, an old Chinese good luck symbol) is observed from dizzyingly high-up in the manner of a Busby Berkley dance number. This is all preparation for Sai-yuk's journey to Hang Chow, where he's going to fight in a tournament run by, well, can you guess? Yes it's the nasty, black-bearded Ray, whose fighting skills have been perfected to the level where he can take on all-comers and leave them dying in the dirt. If he can't, then his equally nasty wife will throw a poisoned dart in their back.

Inevitably Sai-Yuk and Ray go head-to-head, and in terms of the martial arts these are the film's strongest sequences, fast and furious displays of acrobatic, old school kung-fu. Dramatically predictable and with little really at stake but Sai-yuk's sense of honour and fair play, they are nonetheless exhilarating to watch.

The Young Hero of Shaolin is an amiable but largely unexceptional genre work that takes a while to deliver on the action and is seriously plot-light, even for a martial arts movie. But it should still be of interest to the genre faithful, for its vigorous final fights, for the novelty and spectacle of the formation work, for a pole-balancing battle that prefigures a famous sequence in Iron Monkey, and – my personal favourite– the monks who casually shape bricks for building work with a sharp flick of their fingers or by breaking them on their head.

sound and vision

Framed 2.20:1 and lacking anamorphic enhancement, the print and transfer are both some way short of sparkling, the slight picture softness exaggerated on widescreen TVs by having to zoom in (which itself will be a problem if you don't have a subtitle mode and you want to watch the film in it's original dub) and while the contrast is reasonable enough on brighter exteriors, it all but collapses when things get dark. Black levels are never quite there and many of the edit splices are visible at the top of the picture area. On the up side the print is very clean, save for a few dust blasts and the odd scratch here and there, and the colour reproduction a lot better than initial impressions might suggest.

Both the original Cantonese and the American English dub are on offer, but neither is in great shape, the unsurprisingly narrow dynamic range on the Cantonese track backed by an oscillating hum that is also clearly audible in the later stages of the English dub. The English track is slightly louder and clearer than the Cantonese, but still has a slight hiss.

The English subtitles are clear and detailed enough, though as mentioned above are positioned low enough to be partially cut off if the picture is zoomed in and not vertically adjusted on widescreen TVs. Grammatically they leave something to be desired, with apostrophes intermittently missing or misused, and the occasional wrong word selected as a result ("your" instead of "you're" as an abbreviation for "you are").

extra features

Stills Gallery (1:42)
A rolling gallery of DVD covers and associated artwork for the film.

Original Theatrical Trailer (4:20)
A long and detailed Chinese trailer that makes the film look positively action packed.

Original Theatrical Trailer (English) (3:45)
Doubtless a rarity hauled from what looks like second or third generation VHS, with drained colour and fuzzy detail. It's also anamorphically squeezed, but widescreen TV owners should be able to stretch it out.

English Credit Sequence
The opening (2:28) and closing (0:53) sequences of the original English language print. The opening provides a bit of background on our hero and a further spelling of his name, which here is Fong Sze Yu. As with the English trailer both are anamorphically squeezed and in iffy condition, but will be of interest to enthusiasts.

Shaolin Dahong Quan Demo (34:18 total)
If you've always fancied a Shaolin workout then this is the extra for you, providing step-by-step guidance in some of the martial arts exercises used by the monks in their training, divided into seven segments with a complete demonstration of the combined steps. The video quality isn't great but is clear enough, while the original voice-over has been replaced by a piercingly over-recorded translation of the master's instructions.

You'll also find a whole slew of trailers for Soulblade and Dragon DVDs.

summary

A technically ragged disc, with the non-anamorphic picture and humming soundtracks complimented by non-grammar checked subtitles and mic-in-the-mouth narration on the main extra feature. Definitely one for the hardcore fans rather than the casual martial arts viewers, as they are likely to be far more tolerant of the picture and sound shortcomings, having spent years trading in second-generation and often dubbed VHS copies of the rarer works. It is they who will see past the technical issues to the hardcore enthusiast motivation that pulled the disc together in the first place. Word is that the sequel, Young Hero of Shaolin II, is actually the superior film. Handily, it's just been announced for a UK DVD release by Soulblade.

The Young Hero From Shaolin

Hong Kong 1984
110 mins
directors
Yang Fan
Ye Hoi Fung
starring
Shi Bao Hua
Chen Yong Xia
Tao Hung Ming
Kok Kiang

DVD details
region 0 UK
video
2.20:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
Cantonese
subtitles .
English
extras
Stills gallery
Trailers
English credit sequences
Shaolin Dahong Quan Demo
distributor
Soulblade
release date
Out now
review posted
23 August 2007

Related review
Young Hero of Shaolin 2

See all of Slarek's reviews