The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: April 5, 2022
Audio: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English and English SDH
Run Time: 99:39
Director: Lau Kar-leung
The legendary Yang dynasty’s patriarch and all but two of his sons are brutally wiped out in a bloody battle. One surviving son (Alexander Sheng Fu) returns to his mother and two sisters, deeply traumatized, and the other (Gordon Liu) escapes to join a nearby monastery. Once he learns that his sister (Kara Hui) has been captured by their enemies, however, the warrior-turned-monk realizes he must renounce his peaceful ideals in order to mount a rescue mission and avenge his family. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
The ‘60s and early ‘70s were Shaw Bros.’ golden era, when the studio ruled the Hong Kong movie scene, producing hundreds upon hundreds of films and redefining martial arts cinema. Often slavish to their formulas, their influence waned into the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as trends changed and rival studios, like Golden Harvest, took over. In response, Shaw Bros. embraced gimmicks, infused wuxia with other genres, and ballooned the scope of their action and violence. Some might consider this era too desperate for attention and too detached from the studio’s core filmmaking, but, if you, like me, love grand spectacle and exploitation cinema, it’s hard to top Shaw Bros. at the beginning of the 1980s. One of the key contributors of this period was Lau Kar-leung (aka: Liu Chia-Liang), who, after acting as fight choreographer for some of Chang Cheh’s greatest films, struck out as first-unit director on enduring hits, like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (aka: The Master Killer and Shaolin Master Killer, 1978) and Heroes of the East (aka: Challenge of the Ninja and Shaolin vs. Ninja, 1978).
Lau’s best film as director was (arguably) his major collaboration with Jackie Chan, Drunken Master II (aka: Legend of the Drunken Master for its re-edited US release, 1994), but, as far as his Shaw Bros. output goes, it’s hard to beat 1984’s The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (aka: The Invincible Pole Fighters) – a spectacular showcase of choreography and martial arts skill that, in many ways, marked the end of the studio’s dominance, as well as a bridge between the Shaw house style and the Hong Kong New Wave era that overtook it. Lau continued doing what he did best, namely tight choreography and breakneck pacing, but he and cinematographer An-Sung Tsao also adopted a more cinematic look, trading brightly-lit, super-wide-angle images for moody and dynamic photography. The incentive may have been desperation, as the studio was struggling to stay afloat and aging directors began looking to next generation filmmakers for inspiration, but you wouldn’t know it from Eight Diagram Pole Fighter’s pitch perfect blend of Lau’s typical aesthetic with New Wave heroes Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, and Yuen Woo-ping’s favorite techniques, like extensive wire-work and slo-mo photography.
Hong Kong kung fu grew gorier during the ‘80s, seemingly in an attempt to compete with the likes of practical effects-heavy horror films and slasher movies. For instance, Chang’s Five Element Ninjas (aka: Super Ninjas, 1982) famously includes a scene where one of the heroes loses a battle after stepping on his own spilled intestines. Eight Diagram Pole Fighter more than meets the new, brutal standard, but with a balletic flair that anticipates the splashy bloodshed of John Woo’s groundbreaking ‘gun-fu’ epics, like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992). The most graphic highlights are relegated to the opening and closing battles, including hundreds of arrow strikes, dozens of bamboo impalements and lacerations, and a whirling rampage of monks who ‘relieve’ Mongol invaders of their teeth.
The behind-the-scenes difficulties extended far beyond the filmmakers and studio merely striving for relevance, to the point that a major tragedy wound up defining the film for far too long. The screenplay, by Lau and novelist Ni Kuang (aka: Yiming), is based on folk tales of the Yang Family – a military dynasty that itself was based on historical figures Yang Ye and his progeny. Parts of the legend had previously been used for Cheng Kang’s sublime The 14 Amazons (1972), another Shaw production that followed the woman generals of the family. Young star Alexander Sheng Fu, who was an extra in The 14 Amazons and had recently appeared in Lau’s Legendary Weapons of China (1982), was hired to play Luk-long, traditionally one of the main heroes of the piece, but he died tragically in a car crash during production. Lau was then forced to rewrite the script and move some of his character's responsibilities over to Kara Hui’s character (Eighth Sister). The plot is conventional enough that most viewers – especially those of us unfamiliar with the folklore – wouldn’t notice the last minute structural issues brought about by Sheng Fu’s untimely death.
* Historians reportedly believe that Yang Yanzhao (sometimes Yanlang), the historical figure Luk-long is based on, was actually Yang Ye’s second son, but storytellers had cast him as the sixth son for so long that it stuck.
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter was released during the early home video era, so you’d assume there was an official stateside VHS, but I can only find evidence of the typical grey market clamshell tapes from Hong Kong. DVDs were easier to find, thanks to budget label Venom Mob Films’ non-anamorphic, 1.33:1 disc and a 2010 anamorphic release from the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty imprint. The film made its Blu-ray debut in 2020 via 88 Films, followed by this US disc from Arrow (though 88 Films still holds the UK license). On average, the Celestial Pictures-produced HD Shaw Bros. scans, which have been used for various streaming and Blu-ray releases for a while now, are nice, but overly scrubbed. Also, the overlapping 88 Films and Arrow Shaw BD releases have looked basically the same, additionally matching HD streaming versions. According to the included booklet, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter had a couple of extra steps between Celestial’s vault materials and this 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer. The original 35mm negative was scanned in 2K resolution at L'Immagine Ritrovata Asia, restored at L'Immagine Ritrovata Bologna, and then graded at R3Store Studios in London.
While I don’t have the 88 Films disc on hand for a direct comparison of artifacts, I do know that this new remaster corrects the first Celestial restoration’s “frame cutting error,” which lost frames at each negative splice point and resulted in about two minutes of missing footage. This new restoration has used the entire film negative so as to not lose anything. The image quality is definitely an upgrade on the majority of Celestial Shaw transfers, including deeper black levels (important, given the occasional bleakness of this particular film), higher contrast, and more natural grain structure. Additionally, all the good things about the Celestial Shaw transfers are present as well, such as vivid colors and tidy elemental separation.
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is presented with English, Mandarin, and Cantonese audio options, all in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono sound. 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 & subtitle options. I personally have fond memories of watching these movies in English, so I opted to watch the majority of the film that way, but bounced around to compare. The English track is actually the weakest of the three, featuring a more muffled tone, while the Mandarin track is a bit overly sharp, especially at higher volume. I’d definitely recommend first-time viewers stick with the Cantonese dub for the superior layering, better representation of Stephen Shing score, and fact that the cast was speaking it on set, leading to superior lip-sync. For the record, there was a 5.1 remix of the Mandarin and Cantonese tracks made for IVL’s 2004 HK DVD. I haven’t listened to it myself, but assume it is unnecessary.
Commentary by Jonathan Clements – Not surprisingly, the author of A Brief History of China: Dynasty, Revolution and Transformation (Tuttle Publishing, 2019) discusses the film largely from a historical and literary standpoint, breaking down the Yang family’s history and legend, the traditional theater representation of the story, how Lau paid homage to that theatrical tradition, the political context of the story and connections to modern political censorship, the history of the Song Dynasty (the period in which the stories take place), Buddhist/Shaolin culture/practices, and the base moral themes. Clements also offers up plenty of information about the cast & crew and the recycled Shaw Studios locations.
Tony Rayns on The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (22:54, HD) – Rayns, whose other work includes writing for BFI, Sight & Sound, and Time Out, and regular commentary track recorder for Criterion and Masters of Cinema, talks about Lau’s career at Shaw, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter’s lack of comedy/levity, how the film became a tribute to Alexander Sheng Fu, the history and legend behind the story, and gives the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan credit for the film’s modern rediscovery (they named their fifth album 8 Diagrams). He also explains the Taoist meaning of trigrams.
The 8 Diagram Tragedy (20:06, HD) – In this 2004 interview by Frédéric Ambroisine, star Gordon Liu recalls the the tragedy of Sheng Fu’s death (he used the pain to fuel his performance), changes made after the accident, technical aspects of the production, Lau’s storytelling/directing style, and compares his character to the one he played in 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
Martial Mom (32:43, HD) – Another Ambroisine interview, this time with actress Lily Li, who chats about the process of becoming a 70 year-old at only 30, studying the character, the eclectic nature of her career, sentimentally looking back at her Shaw Bros. films, Sheng Fu and other members of the cast & crew, and her old training regime.
The Shadow Heroine (32:09, HD) – The last Ambroisine interview features actress Yeung Ching-ching, who chronologically explores her Shaw career as actress and stunt performer, and discusses the specific martial arts she practices, and working with Lau, Cheh Chang, and various Shaw Bros. cast regulars.
A Tribute to Fu Sheng (6:12, HD) – A 1984 short film that played before several screenings of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter in order to commemorate Sheng Fu’s death. This particular version is derived from a German language dub.
Alternate The Invincible Pole Fighters opening credits (4:04, HD)
Trailer and digital release trailer
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.