ODD COUPLE [1979]

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Directed by:
Written by: ,
Starring: , , ,

AKA BO MING DAN DAO DUO MING QIANG

HONG KONG 

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: 21ST MARCH, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT

RUNNING TIME: 97 mins

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

The King of Sabres and the King of Spears duel on the same day every year, but it always ends in a draw. As the masters are getting old, they decide that the best course of action is to each take on a student to determine who’s the better teacher. They agree to meet up again ten years later, with their students, and let the next generation carry on the duel. Each one finds a suitable candidate to train, the King of Sabres forcing the reluctant Stubborn Wing to become his student, while the King of Spears makes Fatty beg him to become his master. Once their respective students are ready, each master tells his pupil that he can only receive his inherited title by defeating the other pupil. However, another player is about to enter, a certain Old Yellow Dog, now remained Laughing Bandit, who has a bone to pick with both Kings….

The latest Hong Kong martial arts Sammo Hung-starrer [he didn’t direct this one] to come out from Eureka, Odd Couple, which – as I’m sure you’ve already realised, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Billy Wilder film or subsequent TV series with which it shares its title except for the addition of a “The” – didn’t get a release in the West soon after it came out in Hong Kong, and wasn’t even dubbed into English. “Not dubbed”? you ask, glancing down at the specs for this release which indicate that, yes, there is an English dubbed version. However, it was done a great many years later for a DVD release, so is different to the usual dubs. In fact I gave up on it after a few minutes, instead switching over to the Cantonese track [which is, as I’m sure you all know, also a dub with none or very few of the actors’ actual voices], something which I don’t tend to do for these “old skool” kung fu flicks except to check what they sound like for a minute or so here and there. I love those dubs, see, which I guess the majority of readers of this review know. But the dub for this film – well, I’ll say more about that in the part about the special features. One wonders why Odd Couple wasn’t originally released for home viewing outside of Asia. It does attempt some different things, though it’s hardly uncommercial, so it probably just got lost in the flood of similar films coming out. Its premise is strong, though as an actual story it’s rather stretched out, with some padding material that’s largely irrelevant. Not dissimilarly, the gimmick of having Sammo Hung and Lau Kar-Wing also play their character’s own students seems like a way to give us even more footage of Hung and Kar-Wing battling then you’d normally have. Yet this interestingly if awkwardly constructed comedy actioner perhaps has a bit more charm than some of the smoother efforts that I’ve been reviewing of late, and even seems to deliver some commentary on the idea of fighting.

The opening scene is sure one to get the martial arts movie fan’s juices flowing, as we’re shown “the eighteen different weapons in martial arts”, first at a distance, then in close-up as a man names each one of them, with special emphasis on the sabre and why it’s a risky weapon [though that does seem rather obvious], followed by the spear, though a few of these weapons seem a little silly, as if we’re taking the micky a bit. Then we see Hung and Kar-Wing fighting in the first of their umpteenth encounters, pausing for the titles to materialise, while traditional Chinese Opera music plays. Kar-Wing is billed here as Bruce Lau, for some reason. Surely the days of Bruceploitation were long gone by now? The next two sequences properly introduce the masters. The King of Sabres takes a panel sent to him [we aren’t told what it is but it probably extolls his prowess with the sabre] to a sword maker [Bruce Lee stuntman Billy Chan], telling him to burn it, though the sword maker wants to hang it up. Another man [comedian Karl Maka who also produced] looking to challenge the King of Sabres walks by and with one stroke chops the panel in half so it falls in a fire, then encounters the King of Sabres who points him back in the direction of the sword maker. Misunderstanding is followed by comic fighting with the real deal finally besting both very quickly. Meanwhile the King of Spears has just paid the latest of many men to come and challenge him, and of course beats him easily, even lifting him up by his ponytail and hurling him, though you may be distracted by Kar-Wing’s ponytail eyebrows. But never mind, it’s now time for the two to meet in the Wulin Sacred Space to have their annual duel again, held during a ghost festival. “Why“? you may ask. “Because people will burn paper money, we’ll be rich ghosts”, is the answer.

The pair are like children with their bickering before and after the resulting fight where they spend as much time doing silly things like cutting off a eyebrow for the cutting off off whiskers then doing cool moves. Hardly people to look up to, these masters – which seems to be the point. Cut to ten years later, and a thug insists that a fruit seller pay him money to stop other thugs which he hits though they’re actually working with him. Young Stubborn Wing just stands and watches, which shows that he’s hardly a paradigm of virtue. He only steps in after the transaction has taken place and the poor woman’s oranges are all over the ground and crushed. The King of Sabres helps him out  in the resulting scrape, but Wing is extremely ungrateful, nor does he have any interest in being his student. So what does the King of Sabres do? He burns Wing’s house down and makes him fight by a shrine, ruining his reputation in the village. Amazingly we don’t hate the King of Sabres after this, perhaps due to Hung’s natural charm. Wing finally agrees to become his student, if only to kill him once he’s good enough. Meanwhile Ah Yo encounters the King of Spears while in a rowing boat. The latter sees promise in him despite having cut his spear into several pieces, but tells him that he has to be poor and “helpless” first, which is soon sorted. The two Kings each send their servants to make sure each thinks that the other is already the master of their weapon and therefore their opponent. After some complications their first duel is set, but as soon as it begins nets are thrown over them. They’ve both been kidnapped by the vengeful Laughing Bandit who once lost a fight to both masters and now wants to get them back; I guess that the reason he’s waited a fair few years for this is because he had to train until he felt he was up to their standards. Whatever, he’s prepared to use underhand devices to achieve his aim.

The plot can of course be predicted thereafter, but that’s fine, there’s been some attempt at originality in the set up. The training sequence is a little different to the usual one. We cut back and forth from two sets of trainers and trainees, with the emphasis being more on laughs than super skill or indeed feats of endurance [though animal lovers be warned about one bit where birds are crushed], and we’re getting each old master teaching his student the other master’s weapon. Considering that for most of the time we’re watching the same two people fighting over and over again, whether in training or as a proper duel, we’re not bored. The skill that Hung and Kar-Wing have with both weapons, along with being more loose and experimental and Kar-Wing being more formal, is absolutely spellbinding and thrilling to watch, and there’s a bit when they go bare handed too which is pulsating stuff. Especially striking is when the two use each other as a weapon, something hard to do when the weapon is the rotund Hung, in the end fight, a scene where we need to remember that, not only is there nothing wrong with having two good guys against one bad guy in these films, but that said good guys can basically “cheat” through other means as well. The two also get to fight off a few henchmen now and again, Hung sending one flying with his bum, though there are a few too many kicks from Hung where it’s obvious there’s no connection, something which Hung probably wouldn’t have had if he’d done the fight choreography which is instead credited to Yuen Biao, Billy Chan and Lam Ching-Yin. It’s fairly classical in feel and is also relatively grounded; you get a few flips but very few things that wouldn’t be possible by highly trained martial artists despite the film’s comedy which is often mingled in with the brawls.

This melding is perhaps best shown when Hung gets to battle two assassins who fight in Peking Opera fashion while appropriate percussion accompanies every move. Even if you’re not Chinese, it’s still pretty funny, much like the quartet of killers [who include Yuen Baio and Lan Ching-yin in what really is a who’s who in Hong Kong cinema of the time] whose combined names, the subtitles tell us, mean “imbecile”. Of course whether you’ll find, for example, hairy warts to be funny is another matter. One of the two masters’ assistants is hunchbacked, Billy Chan often mugging in the background [and see if you can spot him in a second role], while Jackie Chan stalwart Mars in probably his oddest role is buck-toothed with bizarre growths on the head. His funniest scene is when he shadows Kar-Wing and whenever the latter turns he pretends he’s going for a wee. Well, it’s funny if you like toilet humour which I know many of us still do. And then there’s the ham that’s Dean Shek in full flow – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen him as over the top as he is here. He’s well and truly unleashed! He plays Master Rocking, a pampered, lecherous official who’s usually accompanied by rock beats. His role is to basically to keep viewers occupied during the middle section of the film where little is happening, though he may go so far as to put some viewers off from watching the rest. Yet his comic timing is excellent, a scene involving him and eggs [and all done for real] is one that you won’t forget for a long time whether you like it or not, and this film does take place in a world where somebody even slips on a fruit for the sake of a laugh. This means that the typically pitiful attempts at old age makeup [dyed hair plus a red nose for Sammo] are hardly important in the great scheme of things.

Kar-Wing as director is happy to mostly just plonk the camera down to observe the action but does employ some surprising jump cuts. Due to having its stars play two roles and sometimes having to all be together on screen, editor Peter Chow had his work cut out for him, but he does a smooth job and few doubles were needed to be employed. Meanwhile the score seems to be pilfering from a wide variety of sources, though the only bit I recognised was a small section from Ennio Morricone’s My Name Is Nobody soundtrack. Yet set against this all this is a curious but welcome maturity that suggests screenwriters Lai Wai Man and Wong Pak Ming were aiming for something higher. It seems to be suggested to us that both the King of Sabres and the King of Spears, and Stubborn Wing and Ah Ya, are basically idiots. They’re all arrogant, childish and fail to see the utter pointlessness of continuing a fight that can never be won by either party. It’s sometimes not fair to blame youngsters from following in the footsteps of adults, but these particular adults are complete morons! They even cause their own deaths by their foolish pride. And now their protegees are set to carry on what they started indefinitely. We’re invited to laugh, but also think. Well, probably.

Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Eureka give us another beautifully restored film that now probably looks better than it did in cinemas. You know you’re in a typically high quality product when the black in hte opening sequence is do good with no crush. Throughout the picture is sharp yet retains a filmic nature.

 

SPECIAL FEATURES

Limited Edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Darren Wheeling [2000 copies]

Original Cantonese mono audio

Optional English dubbed audio
I did sample this a bit more, but it isn’t very good. For some reason, some of the music is different and there seem to be added and expanded sound effects. The dub even renames some characters, most notably Laughing Bandit’s four aides who are now the Spice Girls. The comic nature of the voice work is indeed appropriate some of the time, but not always. I didn’t enjoy what I heard much, but others might find it to be okay.

Optional English Subtitles

Brand new feature length audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival) and martial artist / actor Robert “Bobby” Samuels
These days I actually look forward to hearing the commentary tracks on these releases as much as watching the films. The two pairings are very good. Djeng and Samuels are a bit more serious, but without losing the sense that they’re loving viewing and talking about these movies. This is another one where there isn’t much background information, but the two never lack for things to say, often telling of related personal experiences, such as Djeng wanting so badly to see martial arts movies as a kid but not being allowed due to the rating, and not understanding why the 1976 King Kong was deemed suitable for him but not The Mighty Peking Man, while Samuels tells of how seeing lots of these films in dirty cinemas in New York’s 42nd Street, as well as saying how he couldn’t get shoes to fit in when he lived in Hong Kong and had to order them from abroad! We’re also told that one of the pieces of music that we hear is from a 1856 musical, As usual Djeng is able to explain things that only Chinese viewers would pick up on, such as the name of a place also being slang for “genitals”. And neither commentator complains about or criticisises some people for preferring the English dubs of these films [though they don’t mention this one being an anomily in dub terms] when the subject comes up.

Brand new feature length audio commentary by action cinema experts Mike Leeder & Arne Venema
Leeder and Venema match Djeng and Samuels, and one of the most amazing things about these commentaries is that there’s very little overlapping. Here, for example, we have much more about the Hong Kong industry in general, such as some studios owning cinema chains who therefore just show their releases. We’re also told that Hong Kong films were legally obliged to have English subtitles which is of course why they traveled well, that this film was made at a time when the days of leading men not needing to be handsome if they could fight were nearly gone, and Venema saying how the only thing he doesn’t like about Hong Kong movies is the animal cruelty, though I find it odder that, in a Hong Kong film, you can be graphically violent but not swear, leading to a funny story Leeder tells when some industry luminaries were doing voice work for a computer game and the owner of the building thought that there were problems because he heard so much swearing. Then there’s the tale about Hung being behind schedule shooting a film. When the next crew due to film at the same studio turned up, he parked his jeep on the entrance and had someone pretending to fix the supposedly broken down vehicle. Another about the eccentric Mars which I won’t spoil. Of course in amongst all this there is much talk about what’s ocurring on screen too, if less than the first track. And these two bring up the subject of dubs too and also don’t get all puristy. Awesome!

Master and Student – Archival interview with director Lau Kar-wing [26 mins]
The first quarter or so of this is also on the Kar-wing interview on the Eureka Skinny Tiger And Fatty Dragon Blu-ray; both were therefore taken from the same Hong Kong Legends interview which was probably similarly split into two on the DVDs of these two films. Kar-wing, who’s father in addition to his brother was also a martial arts star, discusses his early martial art life before going on to Odd Couple. We learn that the idea for having him and Hung also play each other’s students came from no less than Shek, it being hard to find performers who’d be good enough. He also mentions not wanting to repeat fight scenes from earlier films, which must be incredibly hard.

Matural Born Killer – Archival interview with Bryan “Beardy” Leung Kar-yan [22 mins]
Leung recalls first auditioning him for a film and commencing work just two days later which was Christmas Eve, credits Cheng Cheh as a very important filmmaker who changed the trend for female-led films in Hong Kong to male-led ones, and confirms that the weapons used in Odd Couple were real. Both he and Kar-Wing mention the contrast between the southern style practised by Kar-Wing and the less formalised Northern style; Leung, who reminds us again that he wasn’t a trained martial artist but was able to emulate things quickly and easily..

Trailers [6 mins]

A Limited Edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing by James Oliver [2000 copies]

 

 

‘Odd Couple’ delivers what you want but is at times unusual enough to make it stick out a bit. Eureka treat Hong Kong movie fans yet again with another fine release. Highly Recommended.

About Dr Lenera 3150 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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