Mercenaries from Hong Kong 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: 95:25
Director: Wong Jing
A mysterious woman (Candice Yu) hires a mercenary (Ti Lung) and his team of ex-military misfits (Wong Yue, Michael Chan, Lo Lieh, Chan Pack-cheung, and Jonny Wang) to journey into Cambodia and kidnap the man who assassinated her father. But everything is not as it seems…
Shawscope: Volume 2’s two non-kung fu flicks have been relegated to disc seven, offering novice fans a satisfying glimpse of what else the studio was capable of on the eve of major changes to popular martial arts cinema. Wong Jing’s Mercenaries from Hong Kong (1982) eschews costume drama and hand-to-hand combat for a men-on-a-mission military action movie in the style of Robert Aldrich’s Dirty Dozen (based on the novel by E.M. Nathanson, 1967). It was not the first Shaw Bros. film to utilize the formula and post-twentieth century setting; rather, it follows the lead set by Chang Cheh’s Taiwan-shot 7-Man Army (1976), which dramatized the true story of the Defense of the Great Wall, a several months long campaign fought between the Chinese and Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Mercenaries from Hong Kong ignores the historical angle to riff on then-recent mercenary mission movies, namely Andrew V. McLaglen’s The Wild Geese (based on Daniel Carney’s unpublished novel, 1978) and John Irvin’s The Dogs of War (based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth, 1980).
Mercenaries from Hong Kong holds true to late-stage Shaw Bros.’ core creed: nothing succeeds like excess. And, in terms of explosive mayhem, they were actually a bit ahead of the curve this time, because Hollywood’s era of ultra-violent, ultra-masculine, ultra-jingoistic action hadn’t quite caught on. Still, the filmmakers are working from the established kung fu formulas as much as the Dirty Dozen model, so the movie feels distinct from Jackie Chan’s contemporary cop dramas, John Woo’s innovative ‘gung fu’ spectacles, or even Sammo Hung’s The Lucky Stars (aka: Winners and Sinners) and Chu Yen-Ping’s Fantasy Mission Force – ensemble action comedies released only one year later in 1983. The scope of the carnage and one-thing-after-another plotting matches that of Italy’s own men-on-a-mission action from around the same period and the car/motorcycle chases are as unreasonably dangerous as the region’s late-stage poliziotteschi thrillers. Similar to its Italian counterparts, Mercenaries from Hong Kong falls flat in terms of comedy (it’s also very misogynistic), but makes up for it with wall-to-wall pandemonium.
Despite his work only being referenced this one time, Wong (aka: Wang Ching) might be the most enduring and financially successful director incorporated into the Shawscope collection. He was a for-hire transplant who had barely been working in the industry a couple years, initially for Shaw’s competitors. He was also mostly known as a writer at the time and his early credits include two Yuen Woo-ping classics, The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Dreadnaught (1981), both for Golden Harvest. He made his feature directing debut for Shaw on Challenge of the Gamesters (1981), a relatively unknown forerunner to the New Wave gambling craze, a concept that peaked with Wong’s own The God of Gamblers (1989), which he wrote and directed. Mercenaries from Hong Kong was (from what I can tell) his third of eight films as director for the studio, though the other seven were dramas and comedies, not action films.
Following Shaw’s demise, he continued directing higher and higher profile films, including God of Gamblers sequels, Jackie Chan-starring comic adaptation City Hunter (1993), fantasy wuxia comedy Legend of the Liquid Sword (1993), the absolutely insane all-star action parody Future Cops (aka: Super School Overlord, 1993), countless pre-Stephen Chow vehicles, and the recent, big budget effects extravaganza Monkey King (2020, co-directed with Keung Kwok-Man). Separate from Wong, Mercenaries from Hong Kong’s legacy lies in paving the way for more spectacularly bloody and explosive ensemble mission movies, like Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears (1986) and Hung’s Eastern Condors (1987).
Mercenaries from Hong Kong was dubbed into English, but doesn’t seem to have been released in/on North American theaters, VHS, or DVD, at least not officially. An anamorphic, R3, NTSC DVD was issued via IVL in Hong Kong and featured an SD compressed version of Celestial Films’ original digital remaster. I can’t find any evidence that it was included as part of Celestial Films’ Shaw streaming packages, either, so this might be its stateside debut in any format. It shares a disc with Kuei Chih-Hung’s Boxer’s Omen (1983) and is one of the Shawscope Volume 2 collection’s several 2K restorations, made using the original negatives. Having been shot in out the elements and borrowed locations, rather than Shaw Studios sets, and taking place in a contemporary setting, Mercenaries from Hong Kong doesn’t look like any other movie in this set. Wong and cinematographer Tsao An-Sung still inject a lot of color where they can, but this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer is largely a naturalistic affair. Some edges and fine details are on the fuzzy side, but not in a way denoting excessive compression or the heavy-handed DNR seen on some Shaw releases. For the most part, shortcomings appear to be inherent in the material and caused by lens distortion, foggy settings, or film quality.
Mercenaries from Hong Kong includes Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dubs, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and the original mono. Once again, the bulk of the film was shot without on-set sound, so all language tracks are dubbed and there isn’t really an ‘official’ language. I sampled all three tracks and can find advantages to all of them. The Cantonese track has the best lip sync, but is a bit muffled, the Mandarin track has the strongest overall dynamic range, but has buzzy dialogue, and the English track is a decent middle ground with better-than-average dub performances. Shing Chin-Yung and Su Chen-Hou’s synth-rock score is a highlight and comes as a bit of a shock after watching hours of period-set kung fu movies.
Martial Arts Master (28:50, HD) – A 2010 interview with Tong Kai conducted by Frédéric Ambroisine. The fighting instructor/martial arts director/occasional performer discusses his work with Shaw Bros., his favorite collaborators, following trends, the level of graphic violence in Chang Cheh’s movies, non-Chinese/HK movies he helped choreograph, and personal favorites among the films he made.
Hong Kong and digital reissue trailers
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.