ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Masked Avengers (1981) Blu Ray & DVD (88 Films)
Masked Avengers is one of a series of Shaw Brothers productions featuring members of the legendary “Venom Mob” of martial arts performers. Sheng Chiang plays Chi San Yuen, the leader of a martial arts brotherhood whose members cross paths with a mercenary gang known as The Masked Avengers, who are distinguished by their golden masks and tridents. One member of the brotherhood named Chang is fatally wounded by them, but during his dying breath, he reveals that they hail from a nearby town called Jingyang.
The brotherhood travels to Jingyang and stays at a local inn, where they are greeted by a local lord named Ling Yungchi (Feng Lu), who shows them considerable hospitality. However, Chi begins to get suspicious that one or more of the townsfolk including Ling, another local lord named Fang Zuguang (Li Wang) and the inn’s cook Kao Yao (Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok) may be prominent figures amongst this band of masked killers.
Watch a trailer:
This one’s a bit different from other Shaw Brothers “wuxia” martial arts flicks (such as Five Element Ninjas and Killer Constable) in that it holds back a little on the action - at least until the finale. It’s not exactly true to say that there’s none before then; plenty of unfortunates get gorily impaled by tridents and there are a fair few scuffles throughout. However, the action tends to come in short bursts as the film focuses heavily on a well-crafted tale of mystery and revenge, rather than on a steadily-escalating series of wild confrontations. It almost feels like a Giallo/slasher movie in structure, only with martial arts and numerous (as opposed to one) masked killers.
On the other hand, it suffers from a lot of the same vices and virtues as many other Shaw Brothers productions, such as the obvious painted studio backdrops standing in for the great outdoors. The sets here look suspiciously similar to those seen in Five Element Ninjas (which Cheh Chang also directed) the following year; the Hong Kong production company was notorious for recycling the same sets, props and costumes for different films. The dubbing is also pretty terrible. On the other hand, some of the larger palace and hotel sets are quite colourful and imaginative. There’s also a wild, jazzy Eddie Wang soundtrack livening up the proceedings.
Masked Avengers finally cuts loose during the climactic showdown, which is set in an inner sanctum laden with all sorts of weird/wonderful traps involving spikes, acid, an iris-like metal door and more. There’s a lot of gore on display, along with some incredible feats of trident-fu and blatant breaks with conventional laws of gravity. It’s this sort of unbridled pulp entertainment that makes so many Shaw Brothers movies a delight to watch. While the build-up might underwhelm those who have come for some straight-ahead acrobatic combat it’s not unentertaining either, and does successfully get the viewer quite invested in the characters.
Runtime: 92 mins
Dir: Cheh Chang
Script: Cheh Chang, Kuang Ni
Starring: Phillip Chung-Fung Kwok, Siu-Ho Chin, Sheng Chiang, Ke Chu, Feng Lu, Li Wang
The colourful nature of the production comes out in a bright and clear manner. Everything looks wonderful.
As usual with 88 Films the audio sounds crackly and muddy. At times the English dubbed dialogue is difficult to pick out in the mix, a classic example being during the Masked Avengers’ celebration sequence as the fireworks make the dialogue almost impossible to hear. I gave up on the English dub soon after this point and switched to the Chinese audio with subtitles.
There’s an enclosed leaflet with an essay by Calum Waddell entitled “Cinema City!” It looks at how Shaw Brothers films towed a conservative Chinese Confucian line of individuality taking second place to teamwork and family loyalty, versus rival studio Golden Harvest who tended to depict lone heroes striving out for themselves in line with Hong Kong’s overtly capitalist ethic. As with similar leaflets accompanying other 88 Films Asia discs, it’s a must-read for those who want to bone up on HK genre cinema and place it in a historical/political context.
On the disc itself are the following:
Audio Commentary by Bey Logan
Once again, one of Hong Kong genre cinema’s foremost experts gives a humorous, frantically-paced and incredibly detailed commentary. He talks about practically every actor onscreen, no matter how large or small their part; we even learn that Sammo Hung’s grandmother can be briefly seen in one shot. He also speaks at length about Chang Cheh, who was often trapped in hard deals with Sir Run Run Shaw as he always owed money to him (he was locked into a 25 film deal over 5 years during this period). As usual it’s great to watch the film in his (audible) company.
Ho My God: An interview with Godfrey Ho
This documentary made by Calum Waddell features an interview with Godfrey Ho, a former assistant director to Chang Cheh who went on to make some notorious 1980s ninja movies. He reminisces about working with both Cheh and producer Sir Run Run Shaw. He also reveals that, when Bruce Lee trekked to Hong Kong to make martial arts films, the actor initially approached the Shaw Brothers studio. However Cheh, who interviewed him during a casting call, was unimpressed with his arrogant insistence on getting a starring role despite only being a minor actor at the time, so he turned him away. Ho also talks a little about the early career of John Woo who, like him, cut his teeth at the studio as an assistant director.
Godfrey Ho’s English isn’t perfect, but nonetheless this is another worthy piece in the Hong Kong cinema puzzle.
Another hugely entertaining Shaw Brothers production. Bar the awful audio quality, it’s a commendable release from 88 Films Asia.