Judge Adam Arseneau is a master of the Flying Gavel kung-fu style.
Hey, your kung fu is pretty good!
Within the first 30 seconds of Choi Lee Fut, one dude starts swinging around his hair braids like a chain whip, smacking around all manner of faceless kung fu students and, for some reason, his hair draws blood. Probably split ends, I'd wager.
From the team that brought you Dual of the 7 Tigers comes BCI's newest Rarescope offering, Choi Lee Fut, a kung-fu film so obscure you can't find even a passing mention of it on IMDb.
Facts of the Case
After a deadly battle with a Ching warlord, two Chinese loyalists go into hiding. Their secret is a list of loyalists that the Ching are searching for; if it fell into the wrong hands, the Ching could eradicate their entire martial arts faction. In order to safeguard their secret techniques, outsiders are forbidden to study the kung fu.
However, a young refugee named Chang Hung Sing begins studying the master's techniques after hours, rapidly developing into a martial arts master. His master is unable to teach the boy due to him being an outsider, but helps him indirectly as much as possible.
However, when the Ching warlord discovers the master's hiding place, Chang is forced to travel the countryside, strengthening his kung fu. Soon, he has a veritable army of followers ready to challenge the Ching and protect his master…
There is something ominous and yet strangely exiting about reading a disclaimer on the back of a DVD that says "Every effort has been made to find the best possible source material for this DVD. Unfortunately, this film has been lost for many years and this recently discovered print is the only known surviving element available."
Nothing good can come out of a statement like this, yet there is an exotic element that gets the imagination whirring. Was this a film so terrible that time simply forgot it? Or has it been locked away somewhere, searched for endlessly by cinema fanatics? Is this like, the missing ending to The Magnificent Ambersons, but with kung fu?
Yeah, not quite. That's the thing about foreboding—it usually forebodes.
Directed by Chan Siu-Pang (Wu Tang Swordsman), Choi Lee Fut at first glance is indistinguishable from the thousands of kung-fu films that sprang from Hong Kong and mainland China over the last three decades. Such films were traditionally only available to North American audiences via late-night cable television broadcasts or niche drive-in theaters, or repackaged and sold by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Wu-Tang Clan. The irony of Choi Lee Fut is that the film was forgettable in the literal sense, in that people actually forgot that a copy still existed. Recently re-discovered in some god-knows-where location, Choi Lee Fut covers all the old school kung-fu basics—over-the-top acting, poor special effects, bad dialogue dubbed hilariously into Engrish, and dazzling combinations of fighting techniques, outlandish costumes, and facial hair. Sounds glorious, doesn't it?
Precious little information about Choi Lee Fut is available, at least in the English language. I am hardly a drive-in cinema kung-fu expert by any means, but nobody I know has ever heard of this film before. None of the names ring familiar beyond Philip Ko (Drunken Dragon) and Cliff Lok (Best of Shaolin Kung Fu, Duel of the Seven Tigers). One could hardly classify the film as some unearthed masterpiece, but it is nifty to see a film so thoroughly obscure see the light of day again—even if it is a flickering, scratchy kind of light. Time has not been kind to this film, but more on this later.
Given its title, the film is a veritable showcase of Choy Lee Fut, the Five Animals kung-fu style featuring tiger, dragon, crane, snake, and leopard styles of fighting. Amusingly, the English subtitles are so bad that they don't even bother translating the name of each technique—each move is simply titled "Name of the Boxing act" on-screen. I kid you not. The fighting is a mix of fist and weapon styles, fairly rooted in reality—not much wire fighting or bizarre techniques—and is on-par with other films from this era. It even contains the mandatory "old man putting student through ridiculously absurd training exercises" sequence. Still, I've seen better choreographed fights.
The plot is entirely forgettable. I mean that quite literally—I just finished the film, and I can't even remember. At an arbitrary point in the film, the villain actually leaps out of a tree, and fights against the hero for 20 minutes. After the fight, the film ends. The comedy comes in the form of fat jokes and a cross-eyed master who stinks out loud in kung-fu. Well, not comedy per se, but you get the idea.
Having been unearthed from what I can only assume was actual earth, Choi Lee Fut suffered horribly in the fidelity department. The English dub has the audio clarity of a public service announcement transmitted from the 1950s by shortwave radio, while the Mandarin soundtrack is simply dangerous for your health. Presented entirely in upper frequencies reserved for dogs, listening to it for more than five minutes will cause blood to shoot out your eardrums. Neither choice is particularly viable—the English track is muffled and inaudible, while the Mandarin is utterly unbearable. The audio simply gives up and drops out for five seconds at a time, as if entire sections of film were simply missing, but my favorite part is when the English-language track simply vanishes for three or four minutes, replaced by the Mandarin dub. Then when the film damage ends, it switches back to English. Now that's quality!
As for the visuals, everything that could conceivably be wrong with a film transferred to DVD—scratches, color discrepancies, missing frames, tears, print damage, excessive grain, you name it—happens at a rate of 24 times per second in Choi Lee Fut. I kid you not, it looks like somebody traveled to a drive-in theater in 1979 and recorded the film off the screen using an 8mm camera, and then sandblasted the negatives. I'd love to score this film higher in the presentation department, but I just can't bring myself to do it, on account of this being the worst source material I've ever seen in my entire life. Are there any hard feelings on my part towards BCI? Heck, no—they did the best they could with the material they had. Just set your expectations accordingly.
To make matters worse—or better, depending on your sensibilities—the entire film has those ungodly white subtitles burned onto the screen, simultaneously translating the film poorly into English and Cantonese. Completely at odds with the English dub, one can reasonably assume that either the subtitles or the dub is describing the events on screen…but as to which is correct, we may never know. The subtitles are so faded and washed out that they are essentially illegible.
In terms of extras, we don't get much. A 10-minute interview with director Chan Siu-Pang and an older, pudgier (but still incredibly able) Cliff Lok performing some kung-fu demonstrations in what appears to be his backyard. Lok seems a pleasant enough fellow, discussing all the various masters he has studied kung fu beneath, confirming his abilities as genuine rather than simulated. It would be a more enjoyable featurette had the subtitles not been riddled with grammatical errors and mistakes. On the other hand, the six-minute Rarescope promo trailer featuring all the upcoming releases is almost better than the feature film itself—nothing but endless fight sequences set to fantastic 1970s drumming. Awesome, awesome, awesome!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A terrible, obscure kung-fu film with the most unimpressive, horrifying audio and video transfer to DVD ever created sure sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it? Unless, of course…you love this kind of thing and grew up watching these ridiculously kitsch films on cable television at 4AM on Tuesday nights. Then, this DVD has awesomeness written all over it in gigantic, kung-fu letters.
As a purchase, this one is only for the die-hard of the die-hard of drive-in kung-fu film collectors. Choi Lee Fut is an unremarkable example of the genre, epitomizing the bad, tacky drive-in kung-fu films that are perfect for killing a lazy Sunday afternoon away with. Pizza, beer, and immature friends are optional, but always desirable.
Say what you want about BCE, but you got to hand it to them for digging up this glorious crap and putting it on DVD. It may be hideous in presentation, but the world is a happier place for having such films preserved on DVD.
As mentioned earlier, Choi Lee Fut is gloriously crappy. Not guilty on all counts.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BCI Eclipse
• Cliff Lok Interview & Demo
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