The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter

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Synopsis

After one of its lead actors (cherub-faced action icon Alexander Fu Sheng) unexpectedly died midway through production, master director Lau Kar-leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) retooled his latest martial arts epic, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, as the ultimate action spectacular in tribute to the fallen star.

Loosely based upon the legendary Yang dynasty chronicled in Chinese folklore, the film starts as the family patriarch and all but two of his sons are brutally wiped out in a bloody battle. One surviving son (Fu Sheng) returns to his mother and two sisters, deeply traumatized; the other (Gordon Liu) escapes and joins a nearby monastery while in hiding. Once he learns 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.

Made during the legendary Shaw Brothers studio's twilight years as a filmmaking powerhouse, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is often regarded as director Lau’s masterpiece, as elegiac and suffused with anguish as it is thrillingly violent (not least in its bone-crunching, teeth-smashing climax).

Picture 9/10

Lau Kar-leung’s The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter receives an all-new 2K restoration from Arrow Video and L’Immagine Ritrovata, sourced from the original negative, the notes making a point that the entire negative was used without resorting to the practice of “frame-cutting.” The film is presented here on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode.

Of the Shaw Bros. films Arrow has released so far, I’d have to say the presentation we get for this film may be the best one. The restoration work has really cleaned this up and outside of the credits and the title cards I don’t recall any severe signs of damage, the image about as clean as can be. Details levels can vary, sadly, due to the original film elements and camera work, which can, on occasion, look out of focus. Still, at its best, fine details and textures all come out looking cleanly defined, with crisp edges around everything. Film grain is rendered nicely, even in the darker shots, and the image does retain a film look.

The biggest improvement to be found here over the presentations of other Shaw films is the increase in shadow detail. For a lot of these recent Shaw Bros. restorations I find the blacks look nice and rich yet incredibly “heavy,” which ends up limiting depth. There appears to be a wider level of range within this presentation, leading to more details showing up in the backgrounds and in darker sequences. A shot of Gordon Liu being showered by water looks especially great.

The colours lean warmer, as one may expect from Ritrovata, but Arrow seems to have adjusted things, the yellow/green look not coming out all that heavy and allowing whites to look white along with some sharp looking blues. It also hasn’t impacted the blacks in a negative manner, as noted above. In all it’s a wonderful looking presentation, a very pleasant surprise after the mix of presentations I’ve seen so far.

Audio 6/10

The disc comes with three audio tracks, all delivered in single-channel DTS-HD MA: English, Mandarin, and Cantonese. I think, in the end, it will come down to preference. Of the three I’d say the Cantonese one is probably the weakest, coming off a bit flatter than the other two, yet neither range nor fidelity are strong suits of any of them. They also are all clearly dubbed and have a detached sound from the action. At the very least they do all sound clean enough.

Extras 8/10

On top of possibly having the best presentation of all the Shaw titles Arrow has released this release may also have the best batch of features. Things start off with an excellent new audio commentary by Jonathan Clements, author of the book A Brief History of China, who utilizes the film’s running time to extensively cover the film’s origins and its troubled production. The film is based on what is essentially a folk tale around the Yang family (based on actual events, of course) and Clements talks about the original legend and its various iterations, and how this film initially wished to tackle it before tragedy struck: the film’s star, Alexander Fu Sheng was killed in a car accident. This ended up leading to the film having to be reworked since everything around his character wasn’t filmed, changing the importance of Gordon Liu’s character. On top of touching on all of that, Clements also points out culturally specific things, like Buddhist jokes and the meaning behind certain motions or lines of dialogue. He also talks about other forms of inspiration, like Chinese Opera, and he even talks a bit about the English translation, which features a few mistakes. It’s wonderfully researched and structured, moving from one topic to another, even managing to segue to on-screen moments in a natural manner. It’s wonderfully done.

To accompany Clements’ track Tony Rayns pops up for 23-minutes to expand on certain details covered in Clements track, like the original Yang legend, Fu Sheng’s death, the film’s original ending, and the significance of the trigram, the film’s original titles being, roughly, The 8 Trigram Pole Fighter, which Clements also talks about.

Arrow also digs up three archival interviews from 2004, filmed by Frédéric Ambroisine, featuring actors Gordon Liu, Lily Li, and Yeung Ching-ching, running 20-minutes, 33-minutes, and 32-minutes respectively. Li’s and Yeung’s end up being minor career retrospectives, though they both end up focusing a bit more attention to Pole Fighter. Both explain how they managed to get work at Shaw and talk a bit about some of their other notable work, Li touching on Executioners from Shaolin. Yeung also talks a bit about her later television work. Liu’s contribution is focused specifically on this film, Liu explaining how his co-star’s death impacted things before getting into the stagey aspects of the film’s opening battle. Though they’re all static talking-heads segments intercut with scenes from the films discussed they’re still great retrospectives.

Arrow also throws in some archival material including the film’s original trailer, a digital trailer (I think advertising what would have been a new restoration for a digital version), a gallery featuring production photos, posters, scans from the press books and DVD cover art, and then the alternate English-language credits. Most interesting, though, is a Tribute to Fu Sheng, which is a short feature put together by Shaw Bros. around the time of his death, going over his brief career before offering up coverage of his funeral. It’s well intentioned but does get a little uncomfortable when it chooses to focus on the actual car accident, with footage of the Porsche he was killed in. Despite that it’s still a great inclusion and an interesting document of the event. Interestingly the only available copy is from a German telecine, which is presented in German with English subtitles.

The release then closes with a 23-page booklet featuring an essay around the film by Terrence J. Brady. All-in-all, I found the material very satisfying.

Closing

An excellent special edition featuring Arrow's strongest presentation for a Shaw Bros. film yet.

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Directed by: Lau Kar-leung
Year: 1984
Time: 98 min.
 
Series: Arrow Video
Licensor: Celestial Pictures Ltd.
Release Date: April 05 2022
MSRP: $39.95
 
Blu-ray
1 Disc | BD-50
2.35:1 ratio
English 1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono
Cantonese 1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono
Mandarin 1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 
 Brand new commentary by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of China   Newly filmed appreciation by film critic and historian Tony Rayns   Interview with star Gordon Liu   Interview with star Lily Li   Interview with star Yeung Ching-ching   A Tribute to Fu Sheng, a short film commemorating the late actor that played before early screenings of The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, presented via a German-dubbed telecine (the best available copy) with English subtitles   Alternate opening credits, as The Invincible Pole Fighters   Theatrical trailer   Image gallery   First Pressing Only: Illustrated collectors' booklet featuring new writing on the film by Terrence J. Brady