Snake in the Eagle's Shadow / Drunken Master (1978) Blu-ray Review: A Whole Loaf of Kung Fu

Twilight Time breaks out one of its most unusual releases yet with this double-feature of classic Jackie Chan kung fu flicks in HD.
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Despite their very pledge to release films from a variety of different genres to home video, every once in awhile, the folks at Twilight Time dish out a release that makes me stop dead in my tracks and say "Wait, what?" In a very favorable sort of way, that is. One such unveiling is the double-bill of Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (Se ying diu sau) and Drunken Master (Zui quan), two early break-out hits from Hong Kong martial arts legend Jackie Chan and acclaimed filmmaker and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who varied work includes Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as well as the Kill Bill and The Matrix movies), in what would be his very first contributions to cinema as a director.

Now, if you're already an established fan of old-school kung fu movies, you probably know what to expect here. Moderate to fairly substantial amounts of low-brow humor and jokes that don't translate into Yankee very well. English dubbing that occasionally causes you to pause and wonder if there really is a God or not. Best of all, however, are the frequently employed, utterly outrageous music cues that have been flat-out stolen without any consent whatsoever from other films (or Top Ten charts) and shamelessly placed over the soundtrack. As if we wouldn't notice the immediately recognizable strains of John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack. To say nothing of those selected licks culled from John Barry's 007 film scores.

Why, there are even a couple of chart-toppin' pop hits from the era to dance in your seat to if you're really good at playing Name That Tune. On the one hand, these many peculiar charms ‒ which are not at all uncommon in the world of Asian cinema ‒ only add to the (however surrealistic) fun which beckoned me to watch a lot of Hong Kong flicks as a younger lad. On the other hand, though, we are treated to two early titles from a young Jackie Chan that would not only go on to define his very career, but the entire kung fu genre in general. Even if both films are virtually identical to each other on almost every front, but that's not at all uncommon with any cinematic hit, regardless of the country it originated from.

In Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, young Jackie plays an orphan who works as a janitor at a martial arts school. The crooks running the very shady adminstration (something that's alsonot at all uncommon anymore) literally treat him as their punching bag, calling him in whenever someone feels the need to test out their skills or improve them. Regularly bullied and relatively friendless, Jackie soon makes the acquaintance of an old beggar (Yuen Woo-ping's real life father, Yuen Siu-tien) who is ‒ in actuality ‒ one of the last masters of a mystical fighting technique: the Snake. Officially on the lam from his deadly Eagle Claw rivals, he's just the man to teach our young hero a move or two. Or several kajillion, as it were.

The first official HK movie to effectively combine high-wire martial arts with the kind of slapstick humor Jackie Chan has become so very well known for, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow proved to be an accidental hit when upon release, leading to another production for most of the same cast and crew. Released later that same year, the second film, Drunken Master far surpassed the box-office receipts and long-lasting popularity of the previous movie, cementing itself in the annals of martial arts movie history for all time. And for damn good reason, too. I mean, it may not have the same magnificent copyright infringement soundtrack, but then, Drunken Master doesn't need to: it stands on its inebriated feet just fine.

This time 'round, Jackie plays a nettlesome young man who is more than adept at displaying what a jerk he can be for the amusement of his friends. In one early scene, he publicly scolds an older woman (Linda Lin) of higher standing and tries to put the moves on her daughter (Tong Jing) ‒ only to discover the visiting ladies are his own aunt and cousin. (Hey, we've all been there, right?) Worried his son is only a highly-publicized scandal away from discrediting the entire family name, Jackie's father (Lam Kau) decides it's time to batten down the hatches and tighten the boy's training ‒ to wit he sends for a notoriously tough master to come to town and whip the little shit into shape before he runs for office or something.

Once again played by director Yuen Woo-ping's father Yuen Siu-tien, the aging master character is portrayed as a beggar here, too. The major difference, however, is that Mr. Yuen's guru is an old boozer whose unique skill happens to be known as Drunken Boxing. While the story may be interchangeable with almost any other kung fu flick, Yuen Woo-ping's execution of the tale and the amazing choreography make it stand out far above the rest. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow may have only spawned a few imitators; Drunken Master would inspire a whole subgenre of drunken martial arts movies, leading many fans the world-over to worship such films in the comfort of their own private drunken stupors.

Drunken Master proved to be popular enough years after its initial release. Jackie Chan starred in an official (if not entirely direct) sequel in 1994, albeit without the presence of Yuen Siu-tien, who passed away in 1979 at the age of 66 from heart failure. In 2010, Yuen Woo-ping himself returned to the franchise with a 3D prequel, casting Vincent Zhao as a younger version of his father's most famous character. Released internationally as True Legend, the film even co-starred Michelle Yeoh and a posthumous David Carradine, but was unable to top the box office or viewer appeal of the first film ‒ all the more reason for the devoted and the curious alike to check out the original.

Officially adding "kung fu" to their curriculum with this 50GB double-feature Blu-ray release, Twilight Time presents Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master in stunning 1080p transfers on loan from Sony, which are both encoded in MPEG-4 AVC. Each title is preserved in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio with feature three primary DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio selections ‒ Cantonese, Mandarin, and English ‒ and the only subtitle options for the films are (removable) English "dubtitles" which were transcribed from the English dubbed version of the film as opposed to directly translating the original Chinese audio. This should not be attributed to Twilight Time; rather, this is something we can only blame on Sony.

The Chinese audio tracks for Drunken Master (and, to iterate, Drunken Master only) occasionally switches over to English soundtrack (the film was shortened a bit for its domestic debut). But if you're an established Drunken Master lover, you're probably wondering which English dub this Twilight Time release sports. Well, I regret to inform you Sony once again dropped the ball by handing Twilight Time a beautiful HD print with the same dubbing job featured on the 2002 DVD ‒ which the biggest fans of the film are not very big fans of. Again, this is not the doing of Twilight Time, so if you want to throw stones, make sure you aim them at the company that thought The Emoji Movie was a good idea instead.

That said, both titles receive the usual Twilight Time love here in the form of isolated music and effects tracks, so you can just make your own damn English dub for Drunken Master if you're really all that upset. The bonus scores are presented in DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo, and the only additional extra for this release is an audio commentary for Drunken Master from film historians Ric Meyers and Jeff Yang, which is a great listen and has also ported over from the earlier 2002 Sony DVD. Wrapping up the Region Free Blu-ray are liner notes by the great Julie Kirgo, and the Limited Edition Twilight Time release is reserved to only 3,000 pressings, so get your orders in before the rice wine well runs dry.

Recommended.

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