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  • Writer's pictureGabe Powers

The Valiant Ones 4K UHD Review


Eureka Entertainment

4K UHD Release: June 11, 2024

Video: 2.40:1/2160p (HDR10/Dolby Vision)/Color

Audio: Mandarin LPCM 2.0 Mono

Subtitles: English

Run Time: 106:44

Director: King Hu


During the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (Lei Chao), China’s coastal regions have come under attack by wokou – Japanese pirates under the leadership of the infamous Hakatatsu (Sammo Hung). To combat this threat, the Emperor tasks a trusted general, Zhu Wan (Tu Kuang-chi), with assembling a group of skilled warriors to find and eliminate the pirates. Under the command of General Yu Dayou (Roy Chiao), the band of soldiers – including husband-and-wife sword-fighters Wu Ji-yuan (Bai Wing) and Wu Ruo-shi (Hsu Feng) – draw out Hakatatsu and his ally Xu Dong (Han Ying-chieh). (From Eureka’s official synopsis)



Jinquan ‘King’ Hu had begun his career at Shaw Bros. in the late ‘50s as a character actor in period films and made his directorial debut with a historical war drama called Sons of the Good Earth (1964) before pioneering a new brand of wuxia drama for his follow-up, 1966’s Come Drink with Me. Come Drink with Me took a unique approach to adapting the Peking Opera heritage to the big screen and emphasized the elegance of its choreography and production design (without de-emphasizing violence or gore), coupling them with refined cinematic techniques that weren’t regularly seen in Hong Kong swordplay movies. Lead Cheng Pei-pei was cast due to her ballet training and the fight sequences were based on dance, rather than real-world or opera-designed martial arts. Come Drink with Me was a hit and Hu was a star, but disagreements with studio head Run Run Shaw drove the director to leave Hong Kong behind for greener pastures in Taiwan, where local film productions were trying to compete on the world stage after years of low-budget movies and government-financed propaganda.


In Taiwan, Hu had more freedom, larger budgets, and lush environments at his disposal. The scope of his vision grew and he produced another pair of all-time classics in Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). Hu returned to Hong Kong, this time as an independent, in order to finance two more wuxia epics, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and The Valiant Ones (1975), which were shot back-to-back with less funding. While there is a bit of a quality dip from the peak that is A Touch of Zen, The Valiant Ones still works as a culmination of this specific kind of filmmaking. Minus the fact that it doesn’t center on female knights-errant, it is, otherwise, a natural extension of the director’s favorite storytelling tropes and character types. The overall plot is occasionally strangled by rigid pacing and sudden location-hopping, but the scene-by-scene editing is fabulously inventive, highlighted by the scene where strategy is dictated by a Go board and flute song. 



All of Hu’s wuxia influenced post-Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Matrix (1999) crossover hits, like Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2004), but I think the latter three also set the stage for the big-budget historical Chinese action pieces of the mid-to-late 2000s, like John Woo’s Red Cliff (2008) and Ching Siu-tung’s An Empress and the Warriors (2008). In that tradition, The Valiant Ones plays fast and loose with the legends, elevating historical figures to superbeings that can turn the tide of war through individual feats of heroism. The major difference is that Hu’s film didn’t have multi-millions in its coffers or CG effects artistry to play with, so it skips over the most massive battles in favor of covert skirmishes and political tactics. Stylistically, it’s perhaps the outer limit of Hu’s balletic action style, especially the final act, which builds in scale and intensity from one fight to the next, culminating in a spectacular showdown between all of the remaining characters.


The cast is brimming with the biggest Hong Kong all-stars of the era, including Bai Ying, Roy Chiao, Hu favorites Yuen Siu-tien and Hsu Feng (the sole leading woman), and up-and-coming actor/choreographer Sammo Hung. One of Hung’s first adult film roles was as assistant action director (to Yuen Siu-tien) on Come Drink with Me and he continued working with Hu on Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen. The Valiant Ones’ operatic, sometimes abstract choreography often contrasts the brutal kung-fu and slapstick martial arts Hung had been developing for other Golden Harvest releases, but is still eclectic and aggressive enough to match the audience’s changing expectations. Hung has a bigger on-screen role to play here, as well, where he employs Japanese sword fighting stances, alongside blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos from his Peking Opera school brothers Corey Yuen, Yuen Wah, and Yuen Biao (reportedly, Jackie Chan is somewhere in here, too, but I didn’t see him).


Bibliography

  • Chinese Martial Arts Cinema: The Wuxia Tradition by Stephen Teo (Edinburgh University Press, 2009)

  • King Hu: Shall We Dance? by Tony Ryans, from A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film (printed and released at the 4th Hong Kong International Film Festival in April of 1980)



Video

It appears that The Valiant Ones skipped official VHS and DVD release in the US and UK, but there was importable on disc from Taiwan as of 2010 and, as of 2023, Blu-rays were released in Hong Kong and Germany, the latter taken from a 2K restoration. This new restoration premiered first on French UHD from Spectrum, just a couple of weeks before Eureka released their Masters of Cinema Limited Edition UHD in the US, Canada, and the UK (each country also got a Blu-ray version). According to Eureka’s specs, the original camera negatives, which were gifted to the Hong Kong Film Archive by King Hu himself in 1996, were scanned in full 4K in 2017, then taken to L’Immagine Ritrovata Asia in Italy for restoration.


I have included screencaps from the same-day Blu-ray release for illustrative purposes. They give a pretty good idea as to the color timing and general cleanliness of the transfer. The 2160p upgrade offers better fine detail and fewer sharpening effects. There are minor inconsistencies in grain throughout that appear, mostly based on general damage or certain frames being purposefully zoomed by the filmmakers, but there aren’t notable issues with either DNR or artificial grain. The biggest hurdles pertain to clarity during dark and day-for-night scenes. As you can see from my screencaps, the Blu-ray copy has problems with bluish, shallow blacks. This largely is not the case for the 4K transfer, which benefits from a nice HDR boost, primarily during brighter sequences. The moody presence of smoke on set causes some natural fading and the highlights could be a bit punchier during night/day-for-night scenes, but the overall effect is nice, especially wherever vivid costume and set colors are concerned. Do note that, like many Hong Kong and Taiwanese films from this era, there are a number of anamorphic squeezing effects, which are natural.



Audio

The Valiant Ones is presented in its original Mandarin, uncompressed LPCM, and mono sound. To my ears, the audio hasn’t quite experienced the same level of restorative care that the image has, but it’s never overly distorted. There’s just a bit of muffle and hiss to some of the dialogue and clunkiness to the minimal effects work. Composer Yun-Dong Wang’s score mixes elements of traditional Chinese music with surprisingly busy symphonic pieces (and at least one unexpected electric guitar riff). It is, by and large, the richest audio element, though it is sparingly used. The diegetic flute pieces hit a few shrill notes – I’m guessing because they were recorded separately from the other music.



Extras

  • Commentary with Frank Djeng – Everyone’s favorite NY Asian Film Festival programmer and Hong Kong film expert returns for another charming and informative track. He jumps right into Hu’s larger body of work, the film’s themes, wider themes across Hu’s filmography, the careers of the cast and other crew members, the true history and legends behind the plot, Hong Kong locations, and cinematic and choreographic techniques.

  • Tony Rayns on The Valiant Ones (23:58, 4K) – Given that Ryans’ own essay was a major source of information for my own review, I was eager to hear him speak further on this film in particular. He discusses the director’s early life and entry to filmmaking, Hu leaving Shaw Bros. for Taiwan, Golden Harvest’s role as financiers (not producers), Peking Opera’s Seven Little Fortunes (which included Hung, Chan, and the Yuens), the careers of cast & crew members, and, like Djeng, the history behind the plot.

  • Tsar of All Wuxia (21:44, HD) – Critic, author, filmmaker, and educator David Cairns explores Hu’s life, work, style, and favorite themes in this new video essay. There’s overlap with the commentary and Rayns’ interview, but the tone is different and Cairns includes both quotes directly from Hu and clips from work outside of The Valiant Ones.

  • The Life of a Lucky Stuntman (20:54, HD) – Stuntman and actor Billy Chan looks back on his training, various periods of his career, Hung’s choreography, and Hu’s directing style.

  • My Father and I (25:50, HD– Actor Ng Ming-choi (the flute player) talks about Hu’s studiousness, their close relationship (despite the title, they weren’t actually father and son), working on multiple Hu films, the specificity of the director’s planning, and shooting The Valiant Ones.

  • Frédéric Ambroisine archival interviews

    • Memories of Hu (26:15, HD) – In this 2003 interview, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society’s Robert Garcia discusses the director’s filmography.

    • Actress Hsu Feng (16:54, HD) – A 2003 interview recorded at Cannes, in which Hsu looks back on her work as actress and producer.

    • Actor Ng Ming-choi – The final interview and second with Ng was recorded in 2016.



The images on this page are taken from the same-day BD – NOT the 4K UHD – and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.

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