July 14, 2015

Last week Warner Archive snuck out a minor announcement with major implications. Six martial arts films from Golden Harvest studios were made available in HD on their Instant streaming service, in their original language and aspect ratios. Golden Harvest was the proving ground for Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan,  Sammo Hung and Jet Li, producing some of the most enduring kung fu films from the 1970s through the ’90s. These days Golden Harvest has segued from production to exhibition, and their classic titles remain frustratingly hard to see in decent transfers. Warner Brothers owns the U.S. rights to part of their catalog, and the initial six titles are only the beginning. On their Twitter feed Warner Archive promised, “we’re just starting to tackle the domestically unreleased Golden Harvest library”.  Available now to stream on Warner Archive Instant are: Downtown Torpedoes (1997), Big Bullet (1996) , The Blade (1995), Blade of Fury (1993), Pedicab Driver (1989)  & Terracotta Warrior (1989). While many of these titles are far overdue for release on DVD and Blu-ray, the fact that WB is preparing HD masters of these films is reason for optimism. I started the month-long free trial of their Instant service to check out Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver, an irresistible showcase for his knockabout acrobatics that packs in a public transit war, human trafficking, and Triad gangs into its 90-odd minutes.

Golden Harvest was formed in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, two former employees of the Shaw Brothers studio. Shaw Brothers was then the largest production operation in China, specializing in historical martial arts films like King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) and Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman (1967).  Golden Harvest would become their main competitor, poaching director King Hu and most importantly Bruce Lee, who was on the cusp of superstardom. The gargantuan success of Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), The Chinese Connection (’72), The Way of the Dragon (’72) and Enter the Dragon (’73) secured the company’s financial future, allowing them to invest in talents like Sammo Hung. Hung came up through the brutal training of the Peking Opera, enrolling in Yu Zhanyuan’s China Drama Academy at the age of nine, studying acrobatics, martial arts, singing and dancing, along with future co-stars Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. They endured painful tests like maintaining a handstand on a stool for one hour. Hung’s parents enrolled him, he told the New York Times, because, “I was never good at school and was always fighting in the streets. So they sent me to learn to fight.” He was a senior member of the “Seven Little Fortunes” performing troupe, and became known as “Big Brother” to Biao and Chan. In 1971 Golden Harvest hired him as a martial arts instructor on The Fast Sword, and thus began a two-decade association with the company, where he worked with everyone from King Hu (The Valiant Ones) to Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon). He directed his first feature in 1977 with The Iron-Fisted Monk, and would gain success by working with Biao and breakout star Chan — directing hits like Winners & Sinners (’83) and Wheels On Meals (’84).

By ’89 Hung’s relationship with Golden Harvest was strained. His films were getting more ambitious and expensive, including the globe-hopping martial arts Western Millionaire’s Express (’86) and the post-Vietnam War commando movie Eastern Condors (’87), but the box office returns were not keeping pace. Pedicab Driver was a back-to-basics fight film set in 1930s Macau involving a group of pedicab operator friends who get mixed up with a Triad gang. There are few sets but plenty of brawling, and the tone ping-pongs from slapstick comedy to dark melodrama and back again, with the whipsawing speed representative of Hong Kong films of this period (and of pre-code Hollywood films). Sammo Hung plays Lo Tung, a leader of the pedicab union who bikes around town in a bowl cut, checked shirt and suspenders. He looks like an overgrown child in lumberjack costume, but when he throws down, his blows land like giant redwoods to the face. He pals around with a driver nicknamed Malted Candy (Max Mok) who thinks he has found his dream girl in Hsiao-Tsui (Fennie Yuen). However, she is paying off her debts to gang leader Master 5 (John Shum) by working at a brothel. When Malted Candy tries to buy Hsiao-Tsui’s freedom, he invokes Master 5′s wrath. Lo Tung, Malted Candy and their friends are faced with a fight for their lives. Approximately five hundred other things happen, including Lo Tung’s romancing of a bakery girl named Ping (Nina Li Chi), but that is the kernel of the digressive story.

Pedicab Driver contains some of the finest fight choreography of Hung’s career, combining Looney Tunes lunacy and more traditional sparring. The absurdity is stacked up front when the pedicab operators get into a brawl with rickshaw drivers in a cavernous restaurant. Hung makes his entrance by leaping over a rail with the ease of a man a fraction his size. There is supposed to be a negotiation, a splitting of work between the two tribes, but it soon devolves into fisticuffs involving Three Stooges-esque eye pokes and Star Wars parodies. At one point Yuen Biao pulls down a long fluorescent bulb from the ceiling and wields it like a lightsaber. His opponent does the same, and a brief saber duel occurs (with requisite sound effects) until both men get electrocuted  like Wile E. Coyote at an Acme Electrical Line.

The most thrilling bout in the film has no bearing on the plot. After an intensely dangerous pedicab car chase, Lo Tung and Ping crash into a gambling hall. The managers insist upon recompense until their the den boss (Lau Kar-leung) decides to settle it with a fight. This fight represents a generational battle, between a Shaw Brothers legend in Lau versus the more modern, manic and comical Golden Harvest performer in Sammo Hung. Hung begins with a sneak attack, trying to catch Lau unawares. But Lau has those quick, deep strikes that continually send Hung to the ground. Hung tries clowning for distraction, but is thrown through a wall of strategically placed bamboo. Then there is an intricate battle of dueling staffs that (see above) Hung attempts to use his acrobatic skill to evade. But again he is struck down. Eventually he is pinned with his feet over his head, and admits defeat. But Lau sets him free, admitting respect for Hung’s skill, and that he was the only fighter he ever made him afraid he might lose. It is a sweaty, sweet, passing of the torch.

The streaming video was sharp and clean, aside from some speckling during the slow-motion sequences. The subtitles had their fair share of typos, but nothing to distract from the presentation (be sure to click the CC button to turn them on).

The film shifts into darker territory with Malted Candy and Hsiao-Tsui. Master 5′s operation is built on total control of his rapt criminal network, from his indentured servants (prostitutes, hired thugs) to the addicts and johns that fill his coffers. Malted Candy initially reacts to the news of Hsiao-Tsui’s work with chauvinistic horror – she is a “bitch” for resorting to prostitution. But his friends argue him back to sanity, that it is the male populace who condones and perpetuates the sex worker trade, and that Hsiao-Tsui is just doing what she can to get by. Their brief reunion is thwarted by Master 5, who sends his anonymous top assassin (a lithe, hard-kicking Billy Chow) to erase them from his books. Billy Chow is the real villain here, a quiet psychopath who waits his turn after all the pawns have been cleared from the stage. In the climactic battle at Master 5′s mansion, he sits at a table slurping soup as Lo Tung annihilates what’s left of the hired goons. His patience comes from confidence, and the final bout between him and Lo Tung is a brutal succession of high-impact maneuvers. There is none of the subtlety and grace of the fight with Lau here, this one is all deliberately paced destruction set to the tempo of move/rest/strong move.  Lo Tung is victorious of course, a roly-poly hero beaten, bloodied, and exhausted. That’s the state of Sammo Hung after most of his features from this period, leaving it all up on the screen. Hopefully Warner Brothers and the Warner Archive will continue to create HD masters of Sammo Hung’s sacrifices.