Shanghai Joe Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: May 16, 2023 (standard definition)
Audio: Italian and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 98:04
Director: Mario Caiano
Chin Hao (Chen Lee) arrives in America looking for a better life and is faced with locals that don’t take kindly to outsiders. Much to their surprise, Chin is not your average drifter as he rips his way through racist bad guys with his unstoppable fighting techniques. After word of his skills spreads, he gets a job at a ranch only to find that the owner, Stanley Spencer (Piero Lulli), is a cattle smuggling slave trader who brutalizes Mexican farmers and anyone else who dares get in his way. Chin ramps up the violence as he stops at nothing to free the slaves and enact revenge on the sadistic Spencer. (From Cauldron’s official synopsis)
We tend to think of spaghetti westerns as a mostly European phenomenon, since they were largely made by Italians, they were shot in Spain, and were sometimes financed by West Germans. They were certainly designed to be shown in other countries – shot without sound, utilizing international casts, often impersonating Hollywood westerns – but the few that became international hits often feel like the exception to the rule. At least from a North American point-of-view. The truth is that they were also popular across Asia, especially in Japan, where the genre’s connections to samurai cinema weren’t forgotten, and in Hong Kong, where the style and mythical revisionism of the spaghettis inspired pioneering filmmakers, like King Hu, whose groundbreaking classic, Come Drink with Me (1966), became (by my estimation) something like the region’s answer to Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (Italian: Per un pugno di dollari, 1964).
This mutual respect and combined international popularity (New York’s famed 42nd Street grindhouses and rural America’s drive-ins were loaded with kung fu, samurai, and Eurowestern flicks) led to a small collection of East meets West spaghettis, in which Japanese samurai and Chinese martial artists had adventures alongside cowboys in the American Southwest. Early examples include Enzo Peri’s Death Walks in Laredo (Italian: Tre pistole contro Cesare, 1968) and Don Taylor & Italo Zingarelli’s The 5-Man Army (Italian: Un esercito di 5 uomini, 1969), but, probably owing to the fact traditional westerns losing box office space to comedies, 1973 was the year the idea of an East meets West Eurowestern really ‘broke.’ This included Bruno Corbucci’s The Three Musketeers of the West (Italian: Tutti per uno... botte per tutti, September), Tonino Ricci’s Karate, Fists, and Beans (Italian: Storia di karatè, pugni e fagioli, October), Alberto de Martino’s Here We Go Again, Eh Providence? (Italian: Ci risiamo, vero Provvidenza?, November), and Mario Caiano’s Shanghai Joe (Italian: Il mio nome è Shangai Joe; aka: My Name is Shanghai Joe and The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe, December).
An important distinction that sets Shanghai Joe apart from those other movies is that the hyper-capable man of the East is the title character, not a supporting player. The plot, though derivative of other ‘drifter westerns,’ revolves entirely around Chin Hao’s experience as a Chinese immigrant in the Wild West and how he uses his martial arts skills to defend himself and others against racism and greed. And, while Antonio Margheriti flaunts his superior action direction capabilities on his Lee Van Cleef/Lo Lieh team-up, The Stranger and the Gunfighter (Italian: Là dove non batte il sole, 1974), and spaghetti-blaxploitation flick, Take a Hard Ride (1975), Shanghai Joe takes more chances with its relentless pace and edgier tone. In his film-by-film genre tome, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western (Kamera Books, 2009), Alex Cox initially approaches Shanghai Joe as a gimmicky mashup, but ends up comparing it to Giulio Questi’s horror-tinged western, Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (Italian: Se sei vivo spara, 1967). While it isn’t nearly as strange or unsettling as Quiesti’s sublimely surrealistic film (the two movies do share some cast members and a few story beats), it is shockingly gory – practically a splatter film – and it grows surprisingly dark, following a first act that plays kind of like an Enzo Barboni comedy with Lee filling the Terence Hill role.
The violence makes perfect sense, though – spaghetti westerns were already turning more graphic by the ‘70s and the kung fu/wuxia movies that Italian filmmakers and audiences would’ve been exposed to at the time would’ve included Bruce Lee’s bone-crunchers and Chang Cheh’s blood-soaked epics. For better or worse, violence is the part of martial arts movies that transcends cultural barriers. You don’t need to understand the political histories of the Qing dynasty or the intricacies of Chinese wuxia mythology to enjoy a scene where a good guy punches holes through people or rips some asshole’s eyeball out of his head. Caiano wasn’t a stranger to horror, either. He made a handful of other westerns, including Bullets Don't Argue (Italian title: Le pistole non discutono, 1964), which was shot back-to-back with Fistful of Dollars, but these were mostly forgettable programmers, like A Lone and Angry Man (Italian: Una bara per lo sceriffo, 1965) and Seven Pistols for a Massacre (Italian: 7 pistole per un massacro, 1967). He also shot several peplum films, but his best film is Nightmare Castle (Italian: Amanti d'oltretomba, 1965), which was a standout among the post-Black Sunday (Italian: La maschera del demonio; aka: The Mask of Satan, 1960) black & white Gothic chillers of the 1960s. The year before Shanghai Joe, he also made a particularly eccentric giallo called Eye in the Labyrinth (Italian: L'occhio nel labirinto, 1972), which, though bloody, still has only a fraction of the rubbery prosthetic gore seen here.
Chen Lee was a pseudonym for Japanese-born actor Myoshin Hayakawa, who appeared in only five movies, released between 1972 and 1975. Prior to Shanghai Joe, he had bit parts in Sum Cheung’s Blind Boxer (1972) and Corbucci’s aforementioned The Three Musketeers of the West (though his participation in this film is apparently up for debate). Afterwards, he appeared as an extra in Gianfranco Parolini’s poliziotesscho This Time I'll Make You Rich (Italian: Questa volta ti faccio ricco!, 1974), which was co-produced by Shaw Bros. and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s Return of the Sister Street Fighter (Japanese: Kaette kita onna hissatsu ken, 1975), then seems to have disappeared from acting altogether. He was replaced by Lie Cheen (an Italian using a pseudonym) for The Return of Shanghai Joe (Italian: Che botte ragazzi!, 1975). Funnily enough, Klaus Kinski does appear in both films, but as two different villains, since Chin swiftly stabs him to death in this one.
East Meets West: Spaghetti Westerns and Martial Arts from The Spaghetti Western Database
10,000 Ways to Die: A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western by Alex Cox (Kamera Books, 2009)
Shanghai Joe first appeared on official North American home video in 1986 via Trans World Entertainment’s clamshell VHS. After that, like so many spaghetti westerns and kung fu flicks, it disappeared into the grey market of budget VHS and DVD multi-movie collections, including edited, non-anamorphic transfers on 20 movie sets from Mill Creek and Timeless Media Group. Both releases were also censored versions of the film. The first of which was uncut, blu-ray came from micro-mini indie Wild East Productions in 2020 and, like pretty much all of their releases, it’s now out-of-print. Cauldron Films states that their disc features a 2K restoration of the original negative, though I suspect they got their transfer from the same source as WEP. Regardless of source, this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer is quite good, limited mostly by the dark, overcast look of Guglielmo Mancori’s cinematography. The look serves the film’s tone well, but can be a problem for detail, especially when Mancori sets dark foregrounds against bright backgrounds. Edge clarity ends up being a very important element and looks fantastic throughout, especially when differentiating between warm and cool hues. Grain has a tinge of CRT noise quality, but is mostly natural, as are important textures.
Shanghai Joe is presented with English and Italian dub options, both in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio mono sound. As per usual, it’s important to note that these movies were shot without sound and international casts, so there is no official language track. There’s basically no difference between the two dubs in terms of music or effects and the differences in dialogue quality are minimal, with the Italian track sounding a little cleaner and the English one sounding a bit louder. Lee/Hayakawa, Carla Romanelli, and Kinski are speaking English on-set, but most of the rest of the cast is clearly speaking Italian. The score was supplied by the always fantastic Bruno Nicolai, who mixes his friend Ennio Morricone’s signature spaghetti tones – Spanish horns, driving snare drum, surf-style electric guitars, male chorus, and even a Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-style flute – with generic ‘Asian’ melodies. This wasn’t a completely original score, as sections were taken from other Nicolai compositions.
Commentary with Mike Hauss – The critic and editor of The Spaghetti Western Digest (three volumes, self pub. 2020) discusses the making of Shanghai Joe, the careers of the cast & crew, the film’s use of familiar tropes and actors, and the impetus of kung fu/samurai-themed westerns.
East Meets West: Italian Style (19:45, HD) – In this new visual essay, film historian Eric Zaldivar breaks down the history of Italian-made Western/Eastern mash-ups, from Luigi Vanzi & Vincenzo Cerami’s The Silent Stranger (Italian: Lo straniero di silenzio, shot in 1968 and released in 1975) to Margheriti’s The Stranger and the Gunfighter, Sergio Corbucci’s The White, the Yellow, and the Black (Italian: Il bianco, il giallo, il nero, 1975), and Shanghai Joe, followed by a lightning round of other titles.
Samurai Spirit: Interview with Master Katsutoshi Mikuriya (9:11, HD) – The actor, who portrays Chin/Joe’s final boss of sorts, chats about being cast in the role, his five days on set, working with Hayakawa and Caiano, on-set accidents, and leaving acting after this one performance.
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