AKA DUNG FONG TUK YING
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, in the ‘THREE FILMS WITH SAMMO HUNG’ BOXSET FROM EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 94 mins/ 92 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
1976 just after the end of the Vietnam War. Lieutenant Colonel Lam is given a top-secret mission by the U.S. military. It entails entering Vietnam to destroy an old American bunker filled with missiles before the Viet Cong can get to them. 12 Chinese American soldier convicts are selected to accompany him, led by Ming Sun-tung. Survivors are promised a pardon, U.S. citizenship and $200,000 each. During the jump, Lam learns that the mission has been aborted, but everyone else has already jumped so he still goes ahead. Once in enemy territory, they are met by three female Cambodian guerrillas and first have to locate Yeung, a man who was left behind when the Americans left – but the Vietcong are on their trail….
And so we come to the only one of the three films that I’d seen before, Eastern Condors. While it still features some mind boggling martial arts displays, and even some humour, it’s really quite different from The Iron-Fisted Monk and The Magnificent Butcher. It’s a war movie [a rarity in Hong Kong cinema and a flop when they are made, as John Woo found out twice with Heroes Shed No Tears and Bullet In The Head]] first, and a martial arts movie second, the kung fu consisting of short bursts and being gradually worked into the film before going full-on during the final reel. Indeed it’s quite amazing how well this works, the martial arts never really seeming incongruous, and never taking away from what it overall a moderately intelligent, well balanced war movie even if it’s obviously influenced by American genre efforts like The Dirty Dozen, Rambo: First Blood Part 2, and The Guns Of Navarone. It delivers virtually non-stop action as soon as its group enter Vietnam, but also contains a surprisingly humane, emotional if downbeat heart to it. Hung showed a rather dark world view in his most personal work, of characters desperately trying to break out off the hell that is life, and it’s probably at its most to the fore in this film. Yet the humour here and there usually works, in fact some of the most touching moments combine chuckles with tragedy in scenes that could have gone really wrong but which instead really showcase the skills of Hung, now at the peak of his powers as a filmmaker, screenwriter Barry Wong who didn’t always have a good day but who still remains one of the greatest of Hong Kong movie scripters because of the number of classics under his belt, and the all-star cast which Hung assembled for his film.
One can probably read something into the opening scene of Lam scaling up a pole to help some American soldiers who are having trouble raising their flag, maybe suggesting that the Americans are incompetent so they need the Chinese to do their jobs. The final scene has someone uttering the words “go to hell America, f****** American, Goddamn America” with very good reason for doing so, but then this is countered by a joke before the end credits start rolling. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and really this is one of the least political Vietnam films ever. We see some stock footage of the Americans leaving Vietnam, hear some English where unusually the actors seems to be speaking it too, and then meet meet our team, none of whom we’re told are “rapists, smugglers or pimps”. This is not the film for you if you want detailed character development. Some are given simple characteristics, and some aren’t given any at all. Hung’s character Tung Ming-sun is very taciturn, in contrast to the others who all bicker amongst themselves. One wears silly goggles, one stutters, one is constantly exasperated by his brother, etc – while among the variety of familiar Hong Kong movie faces such as Charlie Chin [it’s funny to see the heartthrob star get rejected by all three women], Lam Ching-yin, and Shaw Brothers star Hsiao Ho are director/choreographers Yuen Woo-Ping and the constantly cigarette-spouting Corey Yuen who was another of Hung’s Peking Opera buddies along with Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Before we know it they are off for their mission, though Lam is not supposed to tell them what it actually is. Cut to the first action bit where the three lethal Cambodian fighters who happen to be female dispose of a small Viet Cong camp using their hands, feet and daggers to good use including one of the latter in between the buttocks. This is already a good example of what I meant earlier when I said the martial arts doesn’t seem forced – instead it seems quite believable that these women would employ it when doing this as they wouldn’t want to use guns because of the noise.
The women are clearing the area so our team can land, but the poor stutterer stutters so bad that when he’s told to count to 20 before he pulls his chute when jumping off a plane, he dies because he only makes it to 16 before he slams to the ground! Well it’s just typical Hong Kong movie un-PC humour that you probably wouldn’t get today. After a blistering encounter with some Viet Cong in gun boats, they take refuge in a small town where we meet the film’s oddest character. Hung often put strange, rather out of place, touches into even his more serious films, and prominent among the ones in Eastern Condors is the character played by Yuen Biao, a crafty budding capitalist named Weasel who rides around the country sporting one of those ’80s haircuts that hide half a person’s face, blasting out Cantopop on a bike full of differently coloured balloons. Then there’s his mentally ill ‘uncle’ Yeung Lung who may be more clever and be noticing far more than he lets on, kind of continuing a theme from Wheels On Meals of people who may be mad but are not stupid. He’s played by The Killing Fields‘s Haing S. Ngor in a rather goofy though I guess appropriate performance. Lung doesn’t do any fighting of any kind, but Weasel soon leaps into action so we can marvel at Biao’s dexterity again. Lung is grabbed by our group because the Americans left him behind, and Weasel joins them too in the search for the hidden base, but pursuing them in is Yuen Wah in his star-making role as the “Giggling General’, variations on which he played several times afterwards. He’s another bizarre ingredient, hardly belonging in a gritty Vietnam movie, but certainly a unique and unforgettable creation, with his weird hiccup, freaky laugh, constant mopping of his face and waving of his fan. He’s rather effete, but scary too – you know he’s totally lethal and that he won’t disappoint when he goes into action. James Tien and Wu Ma also turn up for cameos – it’s astonishing how many Hong Kong stars are in this, yet it was still a flop.
The cliches are certainly piled on, from the need to cross a dangerous bridge to a traitor being in their midst. However, it usually manages to provide original twists on its familiar situations. When Ming-sun and Weasel have to silently dispose of a group of Vietcong soldiers, Ming-sun improvises a weapon out of coconut leaves that somehow fires with enough force to penetrate a person’s neck. Then our group is captured, held in a water cage and forced one by one to play Russian Roulette, but even The Deer Hunter wasn’t brave enough to have children playing the deadly game. It all ends up in a James Bond-ish underground base [which looks suspiciously like it was partly re-used in Dragons Forever] where we can really see the money that was spent on this film, and where the kung fu takes over because it’s obviously not wise to fire guns around nuclear missiles. The Giggling General finally unleashes a strange but convincingly deadly type of fighting style, and genre regulars Billy Chow, Dick Wei, Phillip Ko and Yasuaki Kurota provide villainous support. In keeping with the somewhat evolved style of most Hong Kong martial arts films of the time, and in contrast to what we see in The Iron-Fisted Monk and The Magnificent Butcher, the fighting is even less ‘classical’ and the duels aren’t that long, but one still sits there with his or her mouth open at what is being witnessed. Of course Hung, in one of his most restrained performances, gives his character the coolest stuff to do throughout, like jumping off a cliff and landing in a truck full of bad guys whom he holds hostage by threatening to pull the pins on some handy grenades. Watching Hung, who went on a diet to lose 30lbs in 3 months for this film, bounce off steel rooftops like trampolines to take out a machine gun post or scuttle upside down from the treetops really is like watching a superhero at work, even if cuts indicate that some moments were done in two portions or that doubles were employed.
Of course he gives Biao some neat stuff to do too – just look out for the way he jumps over a jeep, it out Jackie Chans Jackie Chan – while every performer is allowed to have one one ‘big’ moment. Many die in moments which are both very poignant and rather comical, yet the humour doesn’t seem forced or inappropriate. Rather, it oddly adds to the scenes, partly because the reactions and attitedes seem quite realistic. In fact, I’m going to go further and say that this film contains some of the best scenes of their kind. Sentimentality is held at bay, even during a potential cheesy moment where somebody says that the death of his brother was a positive thing because it will make him lead a better life, because it’s followed by those around him having a go at him for saying that. Yet one is properly touched, feeling sadness at these people, none of whom have done anything really bad [all seem to be illegal immigrants into the US, adding a timely touch that may strike a nerve into some], and all of whom just want redemption and a better life, and are willing to do things that may seem bonkers to try and achieve this. While hardly a gore fest, sights like a decapitation, a hand severing and a knife between the legs make this slightly stronger meat than most Hong Kong films of the time which toned down the violence that had previously been common place. The most shocking scene involves a native child who suddenly puts a knife to lethal use, it’s a truly nasty surprise. There’s only one intrusive bit of ‘humour’, where the Guerilla Girl Leader apparently stinks to high heaven – and she’s the character played by Joyce Godenzi who became Hung’s wife after meeting him on this film! A nasty thing does happen to her later, but then nasty things happen to nearly everyone, and there’s no rape element this time around.
Arthur Wong’s glorious cinematography makes the very most of the Phillipine locations, and Hung’s direction is top class if you ignore some of the slow-motion. I should warn you that slow motion is used throughout. Of course there are some instances where it’s a bonus because it enables us to see specific moves better, but it’s overused and interrupts the flow of some scenes, especially when it’s blurry too. But if you love your action it’s probably the only thing you’ll complain about. Hung’s fight handling is just about perfect otherwise – there are more cuts then you’d get if this film had been made five years before, but you still get lots of long takes and you never lose a sense of what’s happening. I wish that many modern film makers would do the same. Of course you get stunt people jumping into the air when being shot, and Sherman Chow Gam-Cheung’s score awkwardly veers from Vangelis-esque atmospherics to Tangerine Dream-like rythmns [one of which was used in Inglourious Basterds] to quotes from Ultravox’s ‘Vienna’! Several times, I wondered how much a better score would improve things. Overall though though I’d probably agree with the general opinion that this is one of Hung’s best directorial efforts, even if the incongruous touches seemed to rather stick out, and my personal taste means that I’ll probably return to The Magnificent Butcher more frequently. I do think that even those action fans who aren’t much into the martial arts will get a real kick [sorry], out of this one.
Unsurprisingly, Eastern Condors looks very good, detail and grain management being spot on, though it seemed to be rather darker than I remembered it, and some comparing revealed this to be the case. There’s a lot of blue tinting to night time scenes too, which doesn’t seem to have been there before. Closer to the theatrical print? Who knows. Now for me the ‘classic’ English dubs only really suit traditional martial arts efforts, and only up to about 1980 when said dubs began to lose their flavour anyway [weird I know], so stuff like Eastern Condors I prefer to watch in Cantonese. I did briefly switch over to both English dubs and they’re surprisingly similar. The ‘modern’ one is in Stereo. The alternate Cantonese dub uses the ‘classic’ on efor the opening scenes in English, but I didn’t spot any other differences. The export version loses the opening flag scene and two violent shots near the end. Originally a scene of Weasel pulling a snake’s head off was cut from the UK version as the BBFC thought the snake was real, obviously not spotting the cut. It’s now present in both edits on the Blu-ray.
This one gets more special features than the others, including two new audio commentaries. Mike Leeder and Arne Venema do the first, which is slightly less fun to hear than their previous one – Leeder dominates and doesn’t let Venema say enough. But their love for the film is obvious and you learn a lot, such as why war films flop in Hong Kong, and when Chin Gar-lok almost died on set after being set on fire. We also hear about some cut footage, and a Hung story is repeated. Because these two often know some of the stars of these films, we often get a sense of what they’re like as people. Still very good. Frank Djeng returns for the second one, and it makes for an interesting comparison with the previous track. Obviously Djeng’s one is more sober and scholarly, and unsurprisingly repeats some things that Leeder and Venema mention, but there’s much that’s new too, including loads more ‘making of’ stuff, such as the deleted footage mostly comprising a 20-minute chunk near the beginning which would have let us get to know the characters better, you hearing Godenzi’s real voice, why Biao has that haircut and why Woo-Ping has that cigarette. He even informs us that a hand lopping wasn’t even in the original Hong Kong release. A Hung story is repeated from his The Iron-Fisted Monk track, and he occasionally goes against his word by going biographical, but overall it’s a fine track. Both ones compliment each other and are well worth listening to in their entirety.
The Hong Kong Legends material includes one Hung interview that’s also on the disc of The Magnificent Butcher. The overall set is so good that I’m not going to complain. The other Hung interview has him talk surprisingly extensively [for him] about the production of Eastern Condors, including his unique way of losing weight, how he trained Godenzi hard despite she being his girlfriend, and how he miss-timed a jump and injured his leg, was rushed to hospital – and returned the next day on the final day of shooting to shoot a scene with Baio on an unseen dolly! It’s interesting to note that this film’s popularity overseas far exceeded its popularity in Hong Kong. The Wah interview, also on the Hong Kong Legends DVD though ported from a Chinese release, has Wah mention how his character’s odd features were not of his own doing, how Chan and Biao are far livelier than him in real life, and Hung’s films were always especially hard to work on. Eastern Condors Live, which was on the German DVD from Eyecatcher, is rather odd but if you liked the film you’ll probably get into it after a couple of minutes. Part of a fashion show, it tells the basic story of the film in vaguely ballet form, with the main characters very obvious, Weasel being a woman, and a stage full of models of missiles. There’s lots of back flips and a bit of fighting, plus a very random detour into a very familiar song number – but then it stops, as if the whole thing wasn’t filmed.
For many, Eastern Condors will be the jewel in the crown of this set. I preferred Magnificent Butcher slightly, but all three films are fine examples of their kind and are great showcases for Mr Hung. Kung fu cinema lovers will often be in heaven. Eureka’s Three Films with Sammo Hung set comes Highly Recommended.
THREE FILMS WITH SAMMO HUNG BOXSET SPECIAL FEATURES
*Includes O-Card slipcase
*Stunning 1080p presentation of all three films on Blu-ray, from brand new 2K restorations and in their original widescreen aspect ratios
*Original Cantonese mono tracks for all three films
*English audio options, all three films include the option of “classic” English dubs from the films original international releases, and the newer English dubs produced for later home video releases
*Alternate Cantonese mono track
*Eastern Condors: Export Version
*New audio commentary by martial-arts cinema authority Mike Leeder and filmmaker Arne Venema
*New audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng
*Sammo Hung on Eastern Condors [14 mins]
*Sammo Hung on Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao [13 mins]
*Yuen Wah Interview [7 mins]
*Original and Opening Closing Credits
*Eastern Condors Live [13 mins]