Once the 1980s arrived, the kung fu boom generated by the Shaw Brothers was at the end of its life. That didn’t stop some of the studio’s greatest artists from turning out the financially-successful, crowd-pleasing fare. One of those later films is Chia-Liang Liu/Lau Kar-Leung’s Martial Club, which gave Chia-Hui Liu (AKA Gordon Liu) another chance to shine as the legendary Chinese martial artist/folk hero Wong Fei-Hung. Breathlessly choreographed and offering Liu in one of his rare comedic roles, Martial Club arrives on Blu-ray from 88 Films with a decent HD transfer from the original negative and some terrific supplements to dig through. Worth a look!
As mentioned previously, the kung fu boom was at the end of its life in 1981, but the Shaw Brothers were savvy enough to know that and used some of their reliable popular characters to drive revenue. Wong Fei-Hung is one of those popular characters, and Martial Club is probably the oddest use of the Chinese folk hero. For one thing, the film resembles the classic kung fu film structure, which focuses on the travails of a few martial arts clubs and the events that drive them to war. But where it deviates from that structure is what makes the film more interesting, as the focus is taken away frequently from the warring schools to focus on a few students that anchor the film with slapstick comedy and that classic sense of righteousness that runs through many kung fu entries.
The many collaborations between Lau-Kar Leung and Chia-Hui Liu are often cited as some of the best, most acerbic martial arts films ever made. Works like Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter and The Legendary Weapons of China showed us bliss by way of breathless action, incredible production design and creative direction, yet it’s easy to forget that their lesser collaborations provided the space for them to play upon what made their projects so successful. Martial Club is the perfect example of that, as even though it focuses on Wong Fei-Hung, the folk hero who stood up for all that was right, Liu’s slapstick interpretation depicts a hero having a really good time making people laugh. That kind of comedy doesn’t always stick the landing and can feel like padding, but it’s clear that the duo of Leung and Liu were at least trying to separate their projects from one another.
Where Martial Club really excels is of course during the key action sequences. The film’s climactic battle in an alley is incredibly brutal and showcases Liu’s mastery of close combat. And even though it’s a long and brutal fight, it’s mostly bloodless, which actually doesn’t take away from how long and exhausting the battle feels. Each kick and punch lands with so much destructive power that the lack of gore doesn’t matter. Such is the unique strength of the kung fu genre, especially when considering the Shaw Brothers productions.
While the pace moves nicely throughout, the film still suffers a bit from being too long. Running at 110 minutes, the padding between action sequences can feel very apparent. When the slapstick is born from the action sequences, it feels rollicking and exciting. But when the film returns focus to Liu and his friends walking around town falling over each other trying to find the story’s villain, it feels forced. Luckily, those antics are rather short-lived and flanked by incredible action.
Martial Club isn’t the best of Liu and Leung’s collaborations, but it offers much more than your standard kung fu fare in its key action sequences. And despite the comedy bringing things down a bit, the film remains a greatly entertaining watch.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Martial Club kicks and punches its way onto Blu-ray with a single-disc release from 88 Films. The BD-50 disc comes in a clear case within a limited-edition slipcover designed by R.P. “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien. Inside the case is a booklet with an essay by Barry Forshaw, as well as a double-sided poster with both original and Kung Fu Bob artworks present. The sleeve art is also reversible as well.
This new Martial Club Blu-ray is touted as offering an HD transfer from the original negative in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. There’s a great abundance of depth and texture to be found throughout, with those bright primary colors really singing in those sequences in the center of town. I only noticed some slight black crush in the darker sequences and there’s no edge enhancement or softening tools used to smooth out the presentation. Contrast is strong as well, with a moderate layer of film grain nicely resolved over everything.
Both English and Cantonese audio tracks are offered with this new release, with both being DTS-HD MA Mono tracks that offer pretty clean audio throughout. I’ll say that the Cantonese track definitely sounds cleaner than the English dub, but that should be unsurprising given it’s the original language. The boisterous score is handled nicely in the higher range, too.
As has become custom with recent Asian releases from 88 Films, Martial Club comes with a great selection of bonus features to add some great context around the film and its production. Worth noting is the terrific audio commentary with Frank Djeng and actor/martial artist Michael Worth, which goes heavy on the historical details and the types of fighting styles used in the film. Barry Forshaw’s booklet essay is essential reading as well, as its chock full of anecdotes that bring sense to why and how the film was produced.
Martial Club may not be the best collaboration between Chia-Hui Liu and Lau Kar-Leung, yet it still functions well as a showcase for their high-flying antics and Liu’s mischievous charm. The HD transfer included frequently looks much better than its description would indicate, plus this release is packed with great supplements. I’d say 88 Films has done yet another great job, although the film may only be enjoyed by committed kung fu fans.
Worth A Look