Flag of Iron Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 8, 2022
Audio: English and Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono
Run Time: 112:59
Director: Chang Cheh
When the master of the Iron Flag clan is killed by a mysterious assassin known only as Spearman, it sets off an explosive chain of events which pits two brothers against each other in an action-packed adventure. (From 88 Films’ official synopsis)
Filmmakers like King Hu and Lau Kar-leung set the standard for Shaw Bros. martial arts movies, but no other director had a bigger impact on the studio’s output and reputation than Chang (or Chan) Cheh. Chang wrote and/or directed nearly 100 films for Shaw Bros., produced enduring hits over three decades (technically four, as he made three movies in the early ‘90s), and created franchises, such as the One-Armed Swordsman series. His films were steeped in a formula now known as ‘heroic bloodshed,’ which emphasized brotherhood, redemption, and violent sacrifice, but his style evolved with the times and helped usher in the Hong Kong New Wave styles that, in turn, took Hollywood by storm in the mid-to-late ‘90s. While he was not the first of his kind and though he borrowed heavily from other great filmmakers, Chang might still be the single most influential wuxia/kung-fu director of all time.
One of Chang’s crowning achievements was cultivating the team of actors/choreographers known as The Venom Mob. The Venom Mob was so-named, because its members – Kuo Chui, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lo Mang, and Wei Pai – appeared in the massive 1978 hit Five Deadly Venoms (aka: Five Venoms). According to fan/critic estimates, Chang made 32 movies featuring at least two Venom Mobsters and most were released through Shaw. Flag of Iron (aka: The Spearman of Death) was the third of six Chang-directed Venom Mob movies released in 1980. It premiered less than a week before The Rebel Intruders (aka: Killer Army). Needless to say, not every Venom Mob movie is up to the standards of Five Deadly Venoms. Flag of Iron tends to rank around the middle of a lot of fan/critic lists. Still, the middle of the pack is still better than average wherever Venom Mob movies are concerned.
While Chang and co-writer Kuang Ni’s script recycles a lot from other Shaw films, specifically the school vs. school/gang warfare type movies, they tend to use audience’s familiarity with specific tropes to their advantage during the early parts of the story, assuming we already understand the stakes, inevitable betrayals, and character arcs without further explanation. Following the basic set-up, the film finds itself bogged down in plot mechanics. Despite this and a generally overlong runtime, it rarely rests between fight scenes, suspenseful gambling set-pieces, and dramatic reveals. Chang’s choreography is swift and flashy, especially when pitting one fighter against multiple assailants, but it is the brutal creativity of the endless assassination attempts on ousted clan Brother Lo (played by top-tier Venom Mobster Phillip Kwok) that tends to stand out. Each would-be killer has a theme and a corresponding weapon – one feigns blindness and hides a spear in his cane, another poses as an accountant and has a weaponized abacus, and so on – and each meets a gory end at the hand of improvised bludgeon or knife (dishes, chopsticks, stools, et cetera).
Shaw Bros. movies have been shared via official VHS/VCDs, bootlegs, and grey market imports for decades. Flag of Iron appears to be one of the more difficult ones to rent or buy in the VHS era. The only version I can find is an iffy looking tape from Red Distribution under the title The Spearman: Flag of Iron that lists the runtime at 90 minutes. The best official stateside DVD option was an anamorphic disc from Media Blasters released in 2009, though Ground Zero Entertainment had previously put out a non-anamorphic disc back in 2001, alongside a VHS tape. Celestial Pictures’ HD transfer was initially seen via various streaming services, but didn’t have a physical Blu-ray release until this 88 Films collection. This is a typical Shaw HD remaster in that it’s a bit on the soft side and there are signs of too much DNR enhancement, but element separation, clarity, and the lack of compression artifacts all easily outpace previous SD versions. Flag of Iron, in particular, benefits from some especially vibrant colors and deep black levels. The English titles don’t credit a cinematographer, but, whoever was in charge of photography had an also unnamed costume designer (my educated guess is Lui Chi-Yu, who worked on a number of Shaw wuxia films that year) to thank for the bright red uniforms, which pop beautifully against black patterns and neutral backdrops.
Flag of Iron is presented with English and Mandarin language dubs, both in LPCM 2.0 mono. Being a Hong Kong-based studio at a time when Hong Kong was still a British colony, the classic Shaw Bros. movies would have needed English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio and subtitle options. A lot of us saw these films for the first time with their English dubs and will want to stick with that, but I’m happy that this disc includes the Mandarin track, even though I (perhaps wrongly) assume that Cantonese would be the preferred language of most cast members (the lip-sync is off in either language). You’d be hard-pressed to notice any difference in the audio quality of the two dubs, aside from the recording quality of the vocals, specifically. Music (which is made up of library cues, including Eric Towren’s "Sinestre," previously heard in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead ) and effects work is basically identical, and neither track features buzzing effects or obvious compression issues.
Commentary with Asian cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema – Another fun-loving, high energy track from Leeder, who also works as casting director, stunt coordinator, and producer, and Venema, the director and co-writer (with Leeder) of the upcoming doc Neon Grindhouse: Hong Kong. Discussion includes Flag of Iron’s comic book feel and use of wuxia tropes, the careers of the cast & crew members, Chang’s influences, the disadvantages of English dubs, and the preservation history of this and other Shaw Bros. films.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.