[We're very pleased to welcome a special guest reviewer on board for this one. Taking a look at this seminal TVB martial arts drama is Colin Geddes, the programmer of the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival and - until recently - the curator of the long running Kung Fu Fridays series of screenings here in Toronto.]
One cannot under estimate the influence of the TVB adaptations of martial arts novelist Louis Cha (aka Jin Yong), one of the most popular Chinese authors. His most famous book, Legend of the Condor Heroes, was first published as a newspaper serial, concluding in 1959. It has been adapted for television five times, with the latest being a Mainland Chinese series produced in 2006, turned into comics and movies including Ashes of Time, the parody Eagle Shooting Heroes and the Shaw Brothers Brave Archer series.
Due to a complex plot and numerous characters, Cha’s work are best suited for television serial adaptation and the most beloved version is the 1983 TVB series starring Felix Wong (who co-starred with Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2) and the late Barbara Yung. For years, martial arts fans not versed in Chinese have been unable to access to these shows due to the lack of English subtitles, a situation now beginning to change.
In my early days of getting into Hong Kong cinema, I was amazed at the stacks of VHS tapes of these series that Chinese families would rent at my local Chinatown video store. However, due my lack of Chinese language skills, I was relegated to the cinema shelves, where I had the guidance of grammatically dubious English subs.
This is a dilemma that TVB has finally sought to rectify with their recent box set DVD releases of Legend of the Condor Heroes and The Return of the Condor Heroes. This high flying serial serves as the Rosetta Stone to decipher the fun and energetic, but ultimately convoluted Hong Kong martial arts films like the Swordsman trilogy or the art house treatment of the martial world, Ashes of Time.
A quick history of TVB is in order to shed some light on these releases. Of course, Sir Run Run Shaw, along with his brother Runme Shaw, is known for founding the South Seas Film studio in 1930, which later became Shaw Brothers Studios, producing a staggering amount of films and famous for launching the kung fu craze outside of Hong Kong. In the 1980s, with an eye to the future, Sir Run Run started to invest in Hong Kong's Television Broadcasts Limited, known as TVB, the first over-the-air commercial television station in Hong Kong, and soon became the chairman of the board of the multi-billion dollar TV empire. Currently, TVB is the largest commercial Chinese program producer in the world, reaching out to the overseas Chinese communities.
Over its history, TVB has been responsible for many trend-setting series and thanks to their prestigious TVB Actors Training School, created in 1971 amid a shortage for TV talent when the medium was still developing in Hong Kong, they launched the careers of a wide variety of movie actors including, Ekin Cheng, Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat, Stephen Chow, Louis Koo, Andy Lau, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Ray Lui, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, and Eric Tsang. Many directors, writers and action directors also cut their teeth in the TVB trenches including Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yim Ho, Kirk Wong, Alex Cheung, Allen Fong, Shu Kei, Eddie Fong, Ching Siu Tung, and Wai Ka Fai. One of the early hits of TVB was The Bund, a gangland soap opera set in prewar Shanghai which fixed the careers Ray Lui and Chow Yun-Fat, who had answered a newspaper ad for the TVB Actors Training School in 1973.
TVB serials from the eighties are typically filled with soap opera melodramatics, over the top heroics, rickety sets and backdrops and repetitive stock music cues, but that is essential to the charm of these old TV shows. Working in the confines of television technology of the time, they rise above the technical limitations with multilayered plots and colourful characters.
At long last, my first foray into TVB martial arts series has been the previous 2006 DVD boxset release of Return of the Condor Heroes (featuring a young Andy Lau in the lead of Yeung Gor --- see Todd’s review here), and working in reverse, by watching Legend of the Condor Heroes, I am finally understanding the generation that spawned the conflicts in ROCH. It’s kind of like watching Dallas from the episode where J.R. gets shot, then waiting for the series to start into syndicated reruns. I could have referenced Lost or Sopranos, but for sake of argument, let me keep this comparison in the realm of Condors’ American boob tube contemporaries.
Now understandably, a plot summary of a fifteen DVD set with fifty-nine episode series of 40 minutes each, would be damn near impossible, so I will be giving a brief overview of the setup of the series with some highlights. The story spans years and has a cast of multiple characters that weave in and out of the epic storyline. Now I take a deep breathe and try to do the plot justice…
Legend of the Condor Heroes is set in the late Sung Dynasty (12th century), where the failing Sung government is slowly falling prey to the northern tribes.
Following the slaughter of the two heroes Yang Tiexin (played by Patrick Tse, big screen heartthrob from the fifties and sixties and father of Nicholas Tse) and Gou Xiaotian, at the hands of Jin Soldiers, their pregnant wives, Bao Xiruo and Li Ping, become separated in the chaos. Rescued by Genghis Khan (Paul Chun from Full Throttle and The Heroic Trio, and brother of Shaw Brothers star David Chiang and director Derek Yee), Li Ping raises her son, Guo Jing (Felix Wong) on the plains of Mongolia. Meanwhile, Bao Xi Ruo (Yang's wife) is saved by Wanyan Honglie, the Sixth Jin Prince. Unaware he is the one who orchestrated the killing, she marries him and her son, Yang Kang is raised as the Prince’s son in his palace.
The focus of the series is on young Guo Jing, who although clumsy, is filled with heroic rigor. Learning and excelling at archery from his Mongol teachers, he becomes the student of a motley group of martial arts heroes, the Seven Freaks of Jianghan, who must teach him their skills in order to win a peculiar duel. When a conflict ends in a draw due to equal power of martial skills, Reverend Qiu Chuji of the Quanzhen Taoist Sect, challenges the Seven Freaks to a duel in eighteen years time where the combatants will be Guo Jing and Yang Kang, each schooled in their respective martial talents.
The only problem is that Gui Jing is not the sharpest student and teaching him becomes such a chore, the Seven Freaks almost give up several times, for fear that he will not match the talents of Yang Kang, secretly being schooled by Chuji in the Quanzhen sword. At one point even his own mother asks, “How are you to avenge your father if you are so stupid?”
When he becomes a young man, Guo Jing leaves the Mongolian plains and ventures out into the world to meet for the date of the duel, only to encounter the various characters who inhabit the martial world, including the mischievous and charming Huang Rong (Barbara Yung), triggering a romance that finds them in many perilous adventures.
That barebones synopsis of the first few episodes sets the stage for an epic tale with a large cast of charismatic and outrageous characters become part of Gui Jing’s life, usually in the form of a wild martial arts showdown. LOCH bursts out of the gates at a brisk trot and never looks back, as fourteen years pass in three episodes. In the first fifteen minutes of episode one, we are treated to three fight sequences including an Ice Capades-style fight on a frozen lake with Eddy Ko (from Miracle Fighters and also seen as the Chinese refugee patriarch in Lethal Weapon 4). With this level of pacing, the series has great promise.
Watching these old TVB serials reminds me of one of the things that first enamored me to Hong Kong fantasy and martial arts cinema, that even if the strings and wires were visible, it didn’t matter, as the actions of the puppeteer (director/writer) were so imaginative, technical flaws were easily overlooked.
Let me backtrack and explain something - The Seven Freaks? Yup, you read right: F-R-E-A-K-S. This is where Condor Heroes hits the first note of its bizarre chorus. Reminding me a little of the Marvel Comic’s superhero group The Defenders, The Seven Freaks of Jiangnan (aka the Seven Grotesques of Jiangnan) are a group of fighters lead by an ill-tempered blind master known as The Flying Bat, with an acute sense of hearing, highly skilled in projectile weapons and who wields an iron staff as his weapon of choice. The other freaks include: Magic Hands Scholar Zhu Cong (played by Johnnie To regular, Hui Siu-Hung, from Running Out of Time, Exiled, Expect The Unexpected), an educated pickpocket and trickster who uses a fan as an extension of his arm to hit vital points; Han Baoju, a master horseman; South Mountain Woodchopper Nan Xiren; Smiling Buddha Zhang Ahsheng who relies on his size and brute strength to overcome his opponents; Hidden Hero of the Busy City Quan Jinfa who uses a peculiar iron scale as a weapon; and Yue Sword Maiden Han Xiaoying, the sole female member. As nutty as this grouping of heroes are, sadly their appearance is not so freakish, with the exception of the blind man putty make-up on Flying Bat.
The second high note in this opera of mayhem is reached in episode two with the revelation that Flying Bat was blinded by the nefarious fighting couple, Chen Xuanfeng the Bronze Corpse and Mei Chaofeng the Iron Corpse who practice the perverse dark art of the Jiuyin Baigu Claw or Nine Yin White Bone Claw. This technique allows the user’s fingertips to pierce through the top of their victim’s skull, resulting in a deadly bowling ball that is hurled through the air.
Also known as the Twin Ghosts (or The Two Ghosts in Black Wind), their appearance shreds any strand of reality left with the crude but effective camera trickery of skin being ripped off their victims’ bodies leaving their skeletons flopping around in shock. Granted, this effect is done with the charm of a public school Halloween pagent from the 1960s, but the result is still shocking.
From there things get wilder with the introduction of characters like East Heretic aka Medicine Master, West Poison, North Beggar, The Nine-Fingered Beggar Master, and Central Divinity, who practice skills and weapons including snake poison, the Iron Palm, the Hedge Hog protection vest, Toad stance, Yi Yang Finger, a jade flute which when imbued with internal energy, can drive a person to madness, The 18 Dragon Subduing Palms, and last but not least, the 36 dog-beating stick technique of the Beggar Sect.
Now for all you tough guys out there, be prepared for in-between the many action sequences choreographed by wire master Ching Siu Tung (Duel to the Death, Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman 2, Heroic Trio, Hero, etc.), there are heaps of soap opera romance. Yes, LOCH is a soap opera for martial arts fans just as Dark Shadows serves the same purpose for monster fans
Felix Wong’s portrayal of the innocent swordsman Guo Long made him a heartthrob over night. Shy and clumsy, he seems to fumble his way into the heart of every girl that he meets, but the love of his life is the witty rascal, Huang Rong, played by Barbara Yung. Together, they have remained one the most beloved on-screen martial arts couple in Hong Kong's TV history, but there was a tragic end to this affair. On May 14, 1985, Barbara Yung was found unconscious due to gas inhalation in her apartment and pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Many rumors circulated regarding the cause of her death ranging from accident, suicide or perhaps even foul play. Yung's funeral was a big event, attended by throngs of fans and many prominent Hong Kong celebrities. Friends and co-stars in her TV dramas such as Felix Wong, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Andy Lau were pallbearers for her casket. Ironically, before the role of Huang Rong was cast, the director predicted whoever would take the role would rocket to stardom. Ultimately and sadly, the prediction came true. Such an early end to a promising career cemented the status of the LOCH series in pop culture history.
Fans of Hong Kong cinema will have a treat spotting and following upcoming actors like Paul Chun, Patrick Tse, Eddy Ko or glimpsing Stephen Chow in his first television appearance as one of the ruthless Jin soldiers. Yes, Chow in his early years, was miscast as a thuggish heavy. Apparently, even Francis Ng pops up somewhere in the series.
The only extra included on the release is a forty minute behind the scenes special that, while filled with lots of visual information, is lacking English subtitles. Subs would certainly help out in the extensive interview with the series’ director Wong Tim Lam (recently seen as an actor in Johnnie To’s Election 1 & 2 and also the father of director Wong Jing). There are also glimpses of the action team setting up fight shoots, shooting the Mongolian scenes on Lantau Island, Hong Kong and even a young Johnnie To directing episodes. One half of the forty minute running time consists of recaps of scenes that could spoil some of the story, so beware, as the special is the first episode of disc one.
Previously released on VCD in three separate volumes with truncated episodes and no subtitles, this box set consists of three volumes of five discs each. While the price tag is a tad expensive, it is easily worth it when you compare the amount of content that you get compared to a season of Sopranos or Deadwood. The big improvement over the release of the ROCH, which might be minor is some folk’s opinion, is that TVB added western numerals on the dvds. When traveling, I got my ROCH dvds mixed up and had to number them with a wax crayon so I wouldn’t have to play through several discs to figure out what episode I was at.
You’ll want to listen to the Cantonese audio track (Audio Track 1) as that is the original language the series was recorded in and sometimes the music is different on the dubbed Mandarin track (Audio Track 2). That said, there does seem to be some fluctuation on the Cantonese audio, which seems slightly muffled, going from loud and soft throughout each episode, but for a non-Cantonese speaker simply following the subtitles, this is easily overlooked.
The subtitles translation is adequate and HK cinema veterans will settle into their rhythm. The biggest complaint people seem to have is that they flash too quickly on the screen, something that you get soon used to, but I was reminded of their speed when I watched an episode with a novice to the TVB experience.
Honestly, with memories of the lousy VHS dubs rented to me from Chinatown video shops in the early 90s with faded subtitles, the clean presentation of this series for the first time prevents me from being nit-picky. Plus the Toronto winter is almost upon me and I have nothing else better to do then experience and better understand the martial world.
Review by Colin Geddes