Mad Monkey Kung Fu Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: December 6, 2022 (as part of Shawscope: Volume 2)
Audio: Mandarin, Cantonese, and English DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 109:34
Director: Lau Kar-leun
After falling victim to a criminal plot perpetrated by ruthless gangster and pimp Duan (Lo Lieh) and his crew, alcoholic kung fu master Chen (Lau Kar-leun) is left disgraced and crippled. In order to save him from a death sentence, his sister (Kara Wai) offers herself to Tuan’s service as a concubine. Depressed and suffering from shock, Chen tries to make a living as a street performer. There, he meets a bright young thief named Monkey (Hsiao Ho) and the two men develop a friendship, eventually teaming up against Duan’s gang.
One year after performer/choreographer-turned-writer/director Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang) made Shaolin Mantis (aka: The Deadly Mantis, 1978), he directed a second film based around the techniques and folklore of a real-world, animal-themed fighting system called Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979). As the titles indicate, Shaolin Mantis referred to Northern Praying Mantis style or tang lang and Monkey Kung Fu was based on monkey style or Hóu Quán (monkey fist). Additionally, Yuen Woo-ping made his directorial debut with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), starring Jackie Chan, and, before that, Kwan Cheng-Liang’s The Eight Bandits (1968) included a villain that uses Hóu Quán, but it seemed that 1979 was the year that animal-based martial arts comedies really took off. Not content with one monkey style movie in 1979, Shaw Bros. also produced Monkey Kung Fu, minus the Mad, better known as Stroke of Death, directed by one-time actor Mar Lo (aka: John Law Ma). Rival studio Golden Harvest released Knockabout in 1979, directed by Sammo Hung, where Hung and his ‘brother’ Yuen Biao team up to fight using monkey and crane style. The convention stuck, bled into worldwide pop culture, and found its way into mainstream products, like Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda franchise (2008, 2011, 2016), where CG animated creatures practice the Five Animal style that correspond to their species.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is probably the best-known of these, but Mad Monkey Kung Fu comes a close second, especially for Shaw Bros. fans. It features an all-star cast, including Lau in his first leading role as the crippled master, Lo Lieh as the baddie, and Hsiao Ho as the young student, and might be the most spectacular of the director’s movies in terms of pure acrobatic show-offiness, sometimes to the film’s detriment, as the middle section sags under the weight of endless gag after endless gag. Regarding its position at the center of Lau’s oeuvre, author/critic Roger Garcia compares Mad Monkey Kung Fu to Dirty Ho (also 1979) as an example of Lau trying to confront the constraints of the clichés he’d already built into his own filmography. In his essay The Autarkic World of Liu Chia-Liang, found in A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (presented by the HK Urban Council, 1980), Garcia states:
Both films actively seek to combine a mature mise-en-scene of martial arts with narrative elements that have only a tangential relationship to the type of context surrounding [Lau’s] earlier work. Ho and Monkey revisit the site of the master-pupil relationship, but it is not to reproduce, for example, (their) explicit characteristics, but rather, to subject the relationship to analysis, reinvention, and transformation. …Mad Monkey Kung Fu pursues the implications of this development with the questioning of infallibility of the master and his instruction. Significantly, given the conception of the role [Lau], himself, plays as master.
This becomes more apparent when accounting for the movies Lau made after Mad Monkey Kung Fu, like The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (aka: The Invincible Pole Fighters, 1984) and Drunken Master II (aka: Legend of the Drunken Master, 1994). In particular, you can see the roots of Drunken Master II’s approach to choreography, blocking, and use of humor. You can even see shades of Jackie Chan’s performance in the literal drunken kung fu acrobatics Lau himself does in the earliest fights. As a director, his career wasn’t a long one (at least not compared to contemporaries, like Chang Cheh), but it was full of milestones like this one, that revisited/built upon popular themes – many of which were established in Lau’s first worldwide hit, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, 1978) – advanced the state of the art, and challenge the status quo.
Warning: Lau’s pet monkey is brutally killed in one scene. The ‘animal’ used is clearly fake, but the real monkey is clearly miserable during the scenes it is forced to perform, so the effect is still upsetting.
As one of the more popular Shaw Bros. films, Mad Monkey Kung Fu has been released on various platforms in several countries. Stateside, fans’ best option was, unfortunately, available via The Weinsteins’ and Bey Logan’s Dragon Dynasty label. Good thing you can replace it now. Arrow’s Blu-ray debut shares a disc (disc #3) with Mar Lo’s Five Superfighters (1979), which also features animal-themed shaolin fighting styles, and both films received brand-new 2K scrub-downs from the original negatives especially for Arrow’s release. This means that this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer has a slight edge over any of Celestial’s streaming HD versions and the 2015 German Blu-ray. Wide-angle details still appear a little mushy, but a lot of this is due to lens distortions and stock quality, not compression. Palette-wise, Mad Monkey Kung Fu is also more naturalistic than a lot of the movies you’ll see in this set. That’s not to say it isn’t colorful – there’s actually a wide array of hues – it’s just not as saturated, which also affects contrast levels. With all of that in mind, this is a nice upgrade.
Mad Monkey Kung Fu is presented with Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dub options, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono. Again, these movies were shot largely without sound, so there is no original language dub and the choice between the tracks comes down to taste and comparative audio quality. This time, sound quality is almost identical, not just effects and music, but vocal performances are similar across the board. The best lip sync is on the Cantonese track, but I’m not convinced all the actors were speaking that on set. The music is credited to Eddie Wang, though it is a mix of traditional library music, solo string cues, some really strange Casio keyboard-sounding ditties, and funky breakdowns that I’m assuming were stolen from Hollywood films (edit: sure enough, the commentary lists a number of the stolen musical assets).
Commentary with Frank Djeng & Michael Worth – NY Asian Film Festival programmer, producer, and genre expert Djeng teams up with choreographer/filmmaker Worth to give us a full rundown of the making of and release of the film, the careers of the cast & crew, the similarities to other Shaw films, the filming locations/sets, and the various Peking Opera influences and homages.
Tony Rayns on Mad Monkey Kung Fu (19:56, HD) – The author, critic, and screenwriter returns for another sort of compacted version of the scene-specific commentaries he does for other discs in the set. He covers some of the same subject matter as Djeng and Worth, but focuses more on the real-world history behind the film’s era and setting, the literature behind the legendary character of Monkey (the trickster god), and the behind-the-scenes relationships between the director and his cast/crew.
Kung Fu Madness (39:59, HD) – In this 2004 interview with Hsiao Hou conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine, the actor/performer recalls Mad Monkey Kung Fu as his first chance at lead actor, the training and self-promotion required to climb the Shaw Bros. ladder, working on choreography with Lau, and a number of his other famous roles.
Shaw in the USA (32:12, HD) – In this new featurette, Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali, the co-authors of These Fists Break Bricks (Mondo, 2022), look back on the history of Shaw Bros’ success in North America, from breaking into Hawaiian theaters and aping the arthouse popularity of Japanese films, to Bruce Lee’s international breakthrough (via competitor Golden Harvest), finally scoring a hit with King Boxer (aka: Five Fingers of Death, 1972), the failure of big-budget WB/Shaw co-production The Meteor (1979), finding its most loyal audiences in Black neighborhood theaters and on suburban white television, and post-Shaw bootlegging.
Hong Kong, US, digital reissue trailers
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