Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar
Originally tapped as a potential successor to Bruce Lee, Hong Kong martial-arts phenom Jackie Chan soon established his own unique screen persona, blending goofball slapstick and bone-crunching kung fu into intricate feats of supercharged athleticism. Tracing his rise from breakout star to full-fledged auteur, these six unabashedly silly, unstoppably entertaining early-career highlights find Chan refining the lovably mischievous image that would make him a global icon, while also assuming greater creative control over his projects—first as his own martial-arts choreographer, and later as a writer-director who set a thrilling new standard for daredevil action comedy.
The Criterion Collection presents a new box set featuring six early films starring Jackie Chan entitled Jackie Chan: Emergence of a Superstar. Presented across four dual-layer discs in the aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or 2.39:1 are Chan Chi-hwa’s Half a Loaf of Kung Fu, Lo Wei’s Spiritual Kung Fu, Jackie Chan’s The Fearless Hyena and The Young Master, and Chan Chuen’s Fearless Hyena I, followed by Sammo Hung’s My Lucky Stars in the (odd) aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Outside of Half a Loaf (which comes from an older high-def master) all of the films come from new 2K restorations performed by Fortune Star.
The presentations are ultimately fine and serviceable, almost certainly better than previous releases, but they’re still open to improvement. Unsurprisingly, Half a Loaf is the roughest looking, held back by a severely dated master. Granted, it ends up not being as bad as I was expecting, with the (surprisingly) half-decent encode managing to keep things about as stable as possible, yet it still shows many signs of an older master created for DVD. Fine-object detail is pretty weak, and textures get lost, further harmed by a coarse grain structure. I’m happy to see the grain, I will admit (as the other films can lack it), but it has a digital, blocky texture, something I’m more than sure is inherent to the master. Shadow detail is also lacking, and blacks can be crushed at times. Colors, on the other hand, look reasonably good, though with a push towards red, and the restoration work has cleaned up most of the damage, with only a handful remaining. It’s not good, but it could be worse if we’re being honest.
The other five films look better, but they share many of the same issues that can pop up with several (though not all) of these recent restorations from Fortune Star and Celestial Pictures. For starters, it’s clear that some noise reduction has been applied to varying degrees (The Fearless Hyena is the least impacted), which does hurt the finer details, including the film’s grain. Like those other restorations, it’s not the worst I’ve seen, and nothing ever looks overly waxy, but the image across the five films all have the same flat look, with My Lucky Stars featuring more of a digital sheen, I'd say. That said, detail levels are still pretty good, if rarely impressive.
The colors are warmer, though I didn’t find anything egregious about them, and they look about right for the period. Black levels are also solid, and shadows are cleanly rendered with excellent gradations, with a few stand-out moments spread across the five films, particularly one shot in Spiritual Kung Fu, where a monk sits in a darkened room with a single light source coming in. It looks spotless, and the level of detail in the shot is surprising.
Outside of that, they’re all just above-average presentations, which aligns with what I expected.
Half a Loaf of Kung Fu (1978): 6/10 Spiritual Kung Fu (1978): 8/10 The Fearless Hyena (1979): 8/10 Fearless Hyena II (1983): 8/10 The Young Master (1980 - Hong Kong Theatrical Cut): 8/10 My Lucky Stars (1985 - Hong Kong Cut): 7/10
Each film offers various audio options, including several contributed by fans, as mentioned in notes in the included booklet. All six films present original Cantonese or (as in the case of Spiritual Kung Fu) Mandarin monaural soundtracks delivered in lossless single-channel PCM. Despite being clearly dubbed and somewhat detached from the scenes, these tracks maintain cleanliness, decent range, and fidelity.
Apart from My Lucky Stars, all films also include Cantonese 5.1 surround sound options. Surprisingly, these tracks are of good quality, with solid range and fidelity. While mostly front-heavy with limited rear activity, there are noticeable movements between speakers. The Young Master stands out slightly, featuring more activity in the rear speakers, but remains relatively modest.
My Lucky Stars' Cantonese stereo track (presented in 2.0 PCM) effectively spreads the soundtrack across the front speakers. The dynamic range is also relatively wide.
Additionally, all six films feature alternate English dubs, which are intriguing in some instances. Excluding The Young Master, the English dubs are presented in Dolby Digital mono. Despite some background noise, these mono tracks have been reasonably cleaned up. Fearless Hyena II includes two monaural English soundtracks, one potentially created for theatrical release and the other for video. I’m unsure about its significance.
The English track for My Lucky Stars incorporates voice-over narration and inner monologues absent in the Cantonese versions, possibly for better clarity for Western audiences. At the very least, it sounds fine.
On the other hand, the 5.1 Dolby Digital English track of The Young Master is notably the worst soundtrack here, primarily due to detached voices that were clearly recorded in booths. They do not blend into or feel part of the environment at all, far worse than what the other dubs accomplish.
None of the tracks are flawless, but outside of the English 5.1 track of The Young Master, you can't go wrong.
The supplements could be a lot better, considering the set is supposed to work as an intro (of sorts) to Jackie Chan. Since it’s a collection of his earlier films before he broke it big (give or take), I would have expected many features exploring his early career. Sadly, the only new content produced for this release are two new audio commentaries recorded by Frank Djeng for Chan’s two directorial efforts, The Fearless Hyena and The Young Master.
Considering how Criterion has skipped over commentaries the last few years, it was a pleasant surprise to find not one but two new ones here, both delivered with Djeng’s usual fervent energy. Yet, despite that, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. That disappointment is not fair, though, because I think a lot resides in having heard much of this material before, which is not Djeng’s fault. I’ve listened to his tracks across numerous releases for Hong Kong films (mainly from Arrow), and as suspected, the subject matter is going to cross, like when he explains at one point how martial arts films were changing, leaning in more on humor, something he covers in his track for Arrow’s Knockabout, or talks about Chan’s and director Lo Wei’s contentious relationship, covered in his track for Arrow’s New Fist of Fury. It will happen at some point, especially since he has pumped out an incredible number of commentaries, all primarily solid through the years.
Still, if one only listens to commentary tracks leisurely and hasn’t heard many of Djeng’s other contributions, they are in for a treat. Djeng talks quickly but moves naturally from topic to topic, impressively keeping up with the film’s subject matter while also bringing up wonderful little asides without breaking the rhythm. He does a fantastic job breaking down action sequences, talking about camera work, and even contextualizing things that may go over the heads of Western audiences. He also has a beautiful ability to explain the meaning of specific words in the film and the undertones found within them, which would be lost in the subtitle translation. He talks about the actors and members of the crew and also has fun pointing out little bloopers.
It's all quite fun, though it can get exhausting since he can pack so much into his tracks. If there is one actual (and I’d say fair) criticism, it is that on his track for The Fearless Hyena, he doesn’t talk about the much (and deservedly) maligned sequel as much as I would have hoped. Both films are housed on the same disc, but there are no other features related to the films outside of trailers. I was expecting Djeng to use his time on the track for the first film to dig deeper into the second. Still, he only brings it up in the context of how it played into Chan’s and Wei’s, shall we say, professional disagreements (which leads to the Triads eventually becoming involved). It’s possible there isn’t much more to say about the film, but it’s such an oddball one (even when there were so many Bruce Lee knockoffs coming out). I guess I was expecting a bit more about it.
My personal (incredibly minor) concerns aside, they are both excellent, well-researched, and passionately delivered tracks. Unfortunately, this is where all the insight and passion around the films end, though, as a surprisingly slim number of features fill out the remainder of the set, all archival. One is a 10-minute interview recorded for The Criterion Channel in 2020 featuring Grady Hendrix, found on the first disc, which features Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and Spiritual Kung Fu. His contribution offers a surface-level overview of Chan’s early career, explaining how his films are a “genre unto themselves.” He brings up influences and his impact, but it’s not exceptionally in-depth. Neither is a 10-minute one from 2005 featuring Hong Kong film critic Paul Fonoroff, whose contribution summarizes Lo Wei’s work.
On top of trailers for Half a Loaf of Kung Fu and Spiritual Kung Fu (one of which appears to be a newer video trailer for the former), there is also a short featurette looking at Chan’s fighting style, aptly titled Fighting Style. Through interviews with Chan, Sammo Hung, and Stanley Tong, the featurette attempts to illuminate the work that goes into staging Chan’s action scenes, but at only 4 minutes, that’s just not going to happen.
Disc 2 groups together the two Fearless Hyena films but offers nothing outside Djeng’s commentary for the first film and trailers. The second film is a dumpster fire, but an interesting essay could have been created around it.
The third disc, featuring The Young Master on its own, receives a decent amount of material. Along with Djeng’s commentary, the disc also features an 8-minute interview with Jackie Chan from 2004 and a 28-minute one with Hwang In-shik. Chan reflects on his directorial efforts and how he approached the action scenes before commenting on the state of the film industry at the time. Hwang’s piece has a bit more meat as he goes over his career, though he refuses to think of himself as an actor. Sadly, it’s a bit dry since it’s primarily a talking-head feature mixed with clips, though some footage from his martial arts school livens things up a little.
There are then a couple of features around deleted scenes, one that places scenes in the context of where they would have appeared within the finished film, and another that is a compilation of sequences that would have been exclusive to the English-language cut, with scenes crossing over between the two. There’s also a silent 14-minute Cannes promo reel featuring footage from the film (featuring the Dragon Dance opening and a few fight sequences) and then a 9-minute collection of outtakes called the NG Shots (“No Good” shots). The disc then closes with the Trailer.
The fourth disc, featuring My Lucky Stars, throws a few similar features to what is found on the third disc. There’s no commentary, but it does feature archival interviews with director/actor Sammo Hung and bodybuilder/actor Michiko Nishiwaki, running 18 minutes and 21 minutes, respectively. Hung’s is a simple summary of the film’s production, with the director recalling the fight scenes and interjecting humor where appropriate. He also talks about the other films. It’s an okay interview, but Nishiwaki’s is a bit more rewarding, even though she only shows up during the film's final section as one of the villains, and shares stories around her key moments.
There’s another NG Shots featurette, this one running for 22 minutes. There are several flubs and stunts that go wrong, but interestingly, it appears the most problematic moment to shoot was the scene where Hung’s and Chan’s characters meet for the first time, the two consistently cracking up. The disc then closes with Cantonese and English trailers. The English-language trailer pushes Chan and Yuen Biao despite the two being more secondary to the story.
And that's it. Alex Pappademas provides a decent essay in the booklet covering Chan's career during this period. Still, it doesn't compensate for the lack of new on-disc content.
It's a sharp collection (the packaging and artwork are fun), and the presentations are all ultimately fine, but as a look into Chan's early career, it leaves a lot open to improvement when it comes to supplementary material.