Though there are several quibbles to be made about Hong Kong-based Celestial Pictures DVD releases of the legendary Shaw Bros. library, there’s far more reason for rejoicing. Since the Shaws all but withdrew from movie production in the late ’80s, a whole generation has grown up whose only chance of seeing the pics was either in muddy bootlegs or rare one-off screenings, as the studio refused to get into ancillary. Now, finally, it’s possible to (re-)enjoy these films in impeccable digital restorations, fully letterboxed where appropriate, rescuing a major missing tranche of Hong Kong film history from oblivion.
Celestial’s five-year plan is to issue some 760 of the almost 1,000 movies Shaws produced between 1957 and 1997. Since last December, 43 have already appeared, and Celestial plans to have over 150 available by the end of the current year.
So far, the Region 3 NTSC discs have appeared only in East and Southeast Asia, with Celestial sub-licensing outside Hong Kong. The good news for non-Asian buffs with multi-region players is that all of the pics (and most of the extras) are subtitled, and commentaries are in English; the bad news for fans without multi-region players is that Celestial may release a mere selection of the popular martial arts titles in dubbed versions for Western markets.
In a clear attempt to test the waters, releases so far have encompassed a broad range of genres, including martial artsers, chop-sockies, mellers, tuners, costumers and comedies, with all eras repped.
Celestial has done m.a. buffs proud with some of its initial issues, including King Hu’s 1966 classic, “Come Drink with Me,” which singlehandedly reinvented the genre and established the late director’s own career. Still-sprightly lead thesp Cheng Pei-pei (known to modern auds as the veteran swordslady in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) describes how Hu trained a whole generation of actors. She also recalls how he found his own feet during production, starting with the famous inn scene (quickly to become an m.a. staple) on which he spent a week shooting just the fight section.
Action-movie maven Bey Logan, who shares commentary chores on “Drink” with Cheng, also proves a mine of rapid-fire info on the disc of Chu Yuan’s “The Magic Blade,” the third in Chu’s legendary cycle of 18 movies (1976-82) based on novels by popular m.a. author Ku Lung. Gorgeously restored, in rich, full-spectrum colors, “Blade” is among the best, here mixing spaghetti-western influences into Ku Lung’s labyrinthine, jokey-poetic universe of ancient, power-crazed mafiosi. Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” owes much, aesthetically, to Chu’s pioneering cycle.
Too bad that Logan, who also does a fine job on the first of the cycle, “Killer Clans” (1976), wasn’t rehired for the disc of the commentary-less “Clans of Intrigue” (1977), perhaps the high point of the whole cycle.
Curious, too, that another specialist writer, Paul Fonoroff, and movie director Lawrence Ah Mon are missing from the second box of the engrossing, two-part Sino-Japanese war epic “The Blue and the Black” (1966), after doing sterling work on the first half of the four-hour, “GWTW”-like yarn and even wishing viewers a “see you later” at the end.
Whereas campy musical “Hong Kong Nocturne” (1967) gets the star treatment, with commentary and interviews (including, again, former dancer Cheng), Inoue Umetsugu’s subsequent tuner “Hong Kong Rhapsody” (1968) is bereft of both, despite being a far superior movie, with better integrated musical numbers, direction and acting.That said, it’s still dandy to have good DVD restorations of these Hong Kong-meets-Fox musicals, made by Japanese off-screen talent — especially as so many musicals from rival producer of the time, Cathay, are still unavailable on ancillary.
Celestial’s ongoing project — largely prompted by the company’s need to supply product for its new Chinese movie channel, Celestial Movies — is hugely ambitious. If some discs are short on extras, it’s at least understandable in terms of the project’s scale and schedule, plus the difficulty nowadays of finding interviewees or commentators for many of the titles. But omissions like the above make one wish for less haste and speed from Celestial, as informed commentaries on vintage movies little known beyond hardcore Asian buffs add so much to the viewing experience.