The Kung Fu Master

The Kung Fu Master (1994)
Tai Seng Video Marketing
Cast: Donnie Yen
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurette, Trailers, Biographies

Although there is a big and healthy U.S. market for feature films from Hong Kong these days – mostly thanks to Tai Seng’s relentless and aggressive efforts during the early days of DVD – surprisingly few of the many TV mini-series that are produced in Hong Kong have made it to DVD yet. Typically quite lengthy and based on historical events, these productions often compare quite well to the feature film productions and with "The Kung Fu Master," also known under its original title "Hung Hay Kwan," Tai Seng is now sending one of the strongest contenders in the race. (Note: This film is not to be confused with the 1993 Jet Li movie "Yi tian tu long ji zhi mo jiao jiao zhu", which also often goes under the name of "Kung Fu Master" in the U.S.)

"The Kung Fu Master" was originally broadcast in China as a 30-episode series that contained three main storylines that developed independently. The DVD that has been released by Tai Seng contains the first of these three storylines in a re-edited form that focuses solely on that one storyline and covers approximately the show’s first third, culminating with the ending of that first storyline. Next year, Tai Seng will release DVD versions of the remaining two storylines, which will cover the rest of the show.

Hot on the heels of doing "Wing Chun," martial arts star Donnie Yen co-directed and starred in the mini-epic "The Kung Fu Master." It tells part of the life story of Hung Hei-kwun (Donnie Yen), a young and ambitious martial artist returning to his home village after 8 years of absence. But even after all these years his differences with his father, a famous martial arts teacher, are ever present as Hung decides to open his own martial arts school and tries to become a member of the Sun Moon Sect, a rebellious group of fighters who attempt to overturn the ruling Ching Dynasty. Hung is fascinated by their leader, "Red Dragon," but despite his achievements and abilities is constantly refused membership to the sect. What Hung doesn’t know is that "Red Dragon" is his own father, who has been plotting to murder the Emperor and doesn’t want his son and wife to be dragged into the bloody feud.

Two things are absolutely striking about "The Kung Fu Master" – the beautiful landscape of mainland China where the film was shot, and the amazing martial arts sequences that have been mostly done without much wirework to create a much more natural and organic look and feel without sacrificing their energy and furious speed.

The film is nicely acted and this re-edit of the show is perfectly paced so that despite its length, there is never a moment of padding or real slow-down. Things are going on constantly as the world around Hung Hei-kwun builds in tension. Private feuds, political conspiracies and injustice, personal failures and successes determine the story as it gradually builds towards its inevitable climax.

Chinese TV productions – and those from Hong Kong – do have a tendency to be extremely dialogue-driven – very much like domestic soap operas. Fortunately "The King Fu Master" falls into a different category and compares more to a Hallmark or HBO-style action adventure where the content is more important than the advertising slots and the "stuff" to glue them together. "The King Fu Master" has high production values and can indeed compete with regular Hong Kong feature film productions, while all the while having the opportunity to explore the story in more detail and length without rushing it. The result is an exciting glimpse at one splinter of time from Chinese lore where a hero was born.

Tai Seng Video Marketing is presenting "The King Fu Master" as a 2-disc set with this release to allow ample room for the audio and video transfer. Being a TV production, the film is presented in <$PS,fullscreen> and looks very good – especially considering the embarrassingly and shamefully poor quality that Buena Vista and Columbia are subjugating their Hong Kong releases to by comparison. Colors appear a bit faded at times, which however is fully intentional to create a bland atmosphere for the backstory. When the filmmakers eventually make use of powerful color schemes, the transfer manages to also reproduce those nicely with vibrant hues and good gradients. Black levels are good for the most part, creating an image with deep shadows and solid contrast. There is no edge-enhancement evident in the transfer, which is a very pleasant surprise that helps to maintain the smooth look of the film. Compression has been handled very well as well and no distracting artifacts are noticeable.

The DVD contains the original Cantonese audio track of the film in <$DTS,DTS>, as well as <$5.1,5.1 channel> <$DD,Dolby Digital> tracks in Cantonese, Mandarin and English. You just have to love Tai Seng for their effort and thoughtful work, not only including the original language tracks, but also for presenting them in the best possible quality. While the audio itself may not be as spectacular as that of a new Hollywood blockbuster, "The Kung Fu Master" features an engaging audio track that makes good use of the surround channels. While differences in the DTS track are miniscule, it certainly enriches the experience with a better delineation of textures and a slightly improved surround field.

The DVD also contains two <$commentary,commentary track>s. The first one features the film’s star Donnie Yen and Bey Logan, an expert on martial arts movies. The track is nice and engaging and especially Yen has a lot to contribute in terms of the film’s production. It is an engaging and candid track that is most definitely worth a run. The second <$commentary,commentary track> features Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers and Martial Artist Bobby Samuels. That commentary also contains some very insightful information and analyses, but doesn’t quite reach the intimacy of Donnie Yen’s track.

To add even more value to this release, Tai Seng has also included a "Making Of" featurette on this DVD that will give fans a nice look behind the scenes and is filled with interesting and informative tidbits. The DVD is rounded out with trailers and filmographies, which have been put together nicely once again by Tai Seng’s own Frank Djeng.

"The Kung Fu Master" is a beautiful film and one that captivates the viewer with its engaging storyline. Although Tai Seng decided not to release the entire 30-episode series the way it was shown in China originally, I believe this "compacting" of the three storylines into separate, more focused releases, will give the film a better chance to find an audience herein the U.S.

Despite is considerable length of 200-minutes the movie is extremely well-paced and always manages to keep the viewer’s attention and anticipation level high. Seeing this mini-epic on DVD makes me hopeful – and wish – that soon more such releases may become available. It may turn into a nice and profitable niche for Tai Seng, who are continuously robbed of the best theatrical movies by the major studios – who in turn crank them out for a quick buck in a disgustingly lovelessly and mutilated form. Fortunately there are still studios like Tai Seng, who care about good films and who do go to some lengths to make sure even these relatively unknown gems make it to domestic DVD in the quality they deserve. "The Kung Fu Master" is certainly one such gem that is nicely delivered here with a good presentation and informative extras that greatly enrich the experience! Tai Seng has prepared a lush Special Edition for this film that shows the appreciation this company brings to those films and one that certainly deserves my admiration. This release comes highly recommended for all fans of Hong Kong martial arts cinema… problem is, now I’m waiting for the continuation of the saga!