Killer Clans Review
Killer Clans is based upon a popular Chinese swordplay novel by Ku Lung, whose title literally translates as Meteor, Butterfly, Sword, and was more recently adapted into the distinctly average Butterfly & Sword. The title of the book is somewhat ambiguous, and I suspect the content must be very hard to translate well into a screenplay as much like the muddled Butterfly & Sword this earlier effort suffers from similar problems in terms of finding a coherent storyline. The main problem is not so much one of complexity, as once you have seen the entire film you soon realise the basic concept is very simple. Instead the problem is one of introducing far too many characters at once who all die within the first half of the film, making it very hard for you to relate to any one person and in some cases, making you wonder just how that person was integral to the plot, if at all.
With that said, one reason that holds true for these characters and their various deaths is to quickly show how the films central character, Uncle, commands a great deal of respect from those within his ‘group’ and the local townsfolk. The various killings are brought about by the current rivalry between the clan that Uncle leads, and the Roc Sect who are trying to overthrow Uncle and will go to any means to do so. Rather than reveal the many intricacies of the plot, it is far easier to say that Killer Clans revolves around these two rival groups who are constantly attempting to conspire against each other and win supremacy of the region they inhabit. This leads to tests of loyalty which invariably brings with it traitors within the clans, so when you throw in a master killer for hire (and by whom is the mystery), a beautiful girl in the Butterfly Forest who acts as the love interest, and as many twists and turns in the plot as you can shake a stick at you have a movie that keeps you on your toes as much as it makes you want to switch off as it seemingly goes nowhere for far too long.
Fortunately for the audience the characters motives are finally laid bare and it is from this point on that Killer Clans steps up a gear and becomes a film you can genuinely begin to enjoy as the adventurous story takes hold and drags you along with it. We are talking a castle full of secret tunnels, escape plans that have been formed for some 15 years, treachery from within the clans and of course, some of that good old fashioned swordplay these movies were made for. On that note, you may be interested to know that the action choreography comes from Yuen Cheung-yan, bother of Yuen Woo-ping, while he is assisted by another name who will no doubt soon become synonymous with newcomers to the Shaw Brothers catalogue, Tong Gaai, specialist in staging huge battle sequences. Each of the action directors contribute their own personal style, Cheung-yan brings with him some finely tuned close-up swordplay choreography with the final sword versus spear duel proving especially satisfying, while Gaai makes sure the background action to the varied fight sequences are kept suitably packed with action and energy. Of course I should also mention something I almost take for granted when discussing these Shaws titles, and that is how the action is generally much slower to what fans of 1980’s Hong Kong cinema are used to, but while it may not be as fast or intricate as the standards set by Jackie Chan et al, it still offers much to enjoy while the generous splattering of blood helps to keep your spirits high (as its really quite amusing).
As with the other Shaw Brothers movies I have recently seen (Come Drink With Me and The Heroic Ones) I have to say I was again most impressed by the costume and set designs, the latter of which are a fine technical achievement and always draw you in and require a second viewing to fully appreciate. The acting on display is very much by the numbers, convincing and nothing more with the exception of Tsung Hua and Ching Li who with the aid of some interesting (and very poetic) dialogue for their love story stand out amongst the pack. Direction from Chu Yuan is generally solid though I still feel the film would benefit from a tighter pace, especially within the first half where the inclusion of a few (thankfully brief) tasteless scenes that border upon late night seedy television pornography and one rather unpleasant rape sequence do the film no favours. But still in visual terms he succeeds with great aplomb and delivers (along with the cinematographer) a beautifully framed and colourful film that delivers a story that improves greatly on repeat viewing, though to my mind never becomes anything more than slightly above average.
Published by IVL in Hong Kong and produced by Celestial Pictures Ltd this Region 3 DVD is part of a new range of restored Shaw Brothers classics.
The Shaw Brothers range of releases all use clear armaray cases with an outer cardboard sleeve that uses a high quality piece of artwork. The rear cover contains a synopsis and disc details in both Chinese and English languages along with a small reproduction of the original movie poster art. Inside the case you will find a 'Shaw Brothers Films DVD Catalogue', a questionnaire, and of course the disc with full colour label artwork. The only minor flaw to my mind is the lack of interior sleeve art, which is always a welcome bonus when using clear armarays.
Upon inserting the disc you will be given the choice between a Chinese or English language menu, meaning the discs are easy to navigate for both Chinese and English persons. The menus (in English) do exhibit one minor problem, that being their inability to settle on peoples names. An example is how within the Behind The Scenes photo gallery they refer to Lo Lieh like so, but also use Lou Lie on a subsequent screen, this happens for several of the actors in both this and other sections of the disc.
Presented in the original 2.35:1 'Shaw Scope' aspect ratio though lacking Anamorphic Enhancement this is another high quality restoration job from the team at Celestial. The print sourced is in very good condition other than the occasional signs of print damage that do little to distract from the vivid colours that are superbly rendered. For a non-anamorphic transfer the level of detail on display is still very high and even when zoomed in on a widescreen set-up the transfer still holds up surprisingly well so should not put prospective buyers off.
The original Mandarin language track is presented here in a DD5.1 remix that stays faithful to the source and as a result is a very front speaker orientated mix. There is little in the way of any real separation and almost zero use of the LFE track, though the occasional use of your rear speakers is well handled and adds that little something to an otherwise ‘to the point’ track.
The optional English subtitles are presented in an easy to read white font that uses a fine black outline to make sure the words stand out over the onscreen action. Using up to two lines of text onscreen, the lines are positioned one inside the picture frame, and one outside, and as such are widescreen (zoom) friendly. Spelling and grammatical errors are fairly minimal (no worse than most recent Hong Kong DVD releases) making them easy to follow, though a strange timing error does stand out as rather than a line of text staying onscreen throughout the dialogue being spoken, the line will appear twice (blinking off and then back on again) instead. Strange, but you soon get used to it. The only other problem with the English subtitles specific to this title is the lack thereof for written text, of which there is a little within the movie that while I doubt adds a great deal to the flow, would certainly be appreciated by the majority of viewers.
The most interesting extra feature bestowed upon Killer Clans for the English speaking audience is another excellent audio commentary from Hong Kong Cinema Expert, Bey Logan. Every bit as good as his offerings found on HKL releases, here Logan excels as he delivers biographical information on a huge number of the films many stars, name checks dozens of character actors (including a very young Danny Lee who I completely missed on my first sitting), offers stories about the actors he has picked up over the years and also his own personal observations on the film and its production. The only let down here is a technical glitch that has nothing to do with Logan, and everything to do with the people that put together this disc. What appears to have happened is that while Logan began his commentary from the Shaw Brothers logo (the very start of the movie) it does not begin playing on this DVD until we are a good 30-seconds in to the movie. This results in name checks and screen-specific commentary being out of synch with the onscreen action that in turn results in you, the viewer, having to pay slightly more attention than you otherwise would. Now this is an effort that is more than worth it given the quality of Logan’s commentary, but still this is a glitch that should not be present.
A set of interviews are all presented in Anamorphic Widescreen, though 4 out of the 5 speakers use their native Chinese language and the lack of English subtitles means I can offer no personal thoughts on them. For reference though the speakers are: Chu Yuan (3:35mins), Ching Li (8:01mins), Yueh Hua (3:18mins) and Wong Hop Hi (12:01mins). The fifth and final interview is with film critic Paul Foronoff (2:27mins) where he discusses Shaw Bros history in what appears to be a cut down version of the (informative) interview found on other releases from Celestial.
Also present is a range of static extras including a reproduction of the Original Poster Artwork, a single page of Production Notes (identical to the synopsis found on the rear cover), a set of black and white Behind the Scenes photographs and a set of Colour Stills from the film. Rounding off the static extras are Biographies and Selected Filmographies for actors Ching Li, Yueh Hua and director Chu Yuan, all of which are considerably in-depth.
To complete the extra content you will find 5 all new trailers created to promote these films. Presented in Non-Anamorphic Widescreen with a choice of Mandarin and Cantonese Stereo voice-overs are trailers for: Killer Clans, Hong Kong Nocturne, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, The Warlord and Love In A Fallen City.
Despite the drawn out first half I still found much to enjoy in Killer Clans and to my surprise on repeat viewings it became a much better film as the myriad of characters and who they relate to was much clearer. For these reasons the film still gets a recommendation but only to the more hardcore audience.
This DVD release from Celestial/IVL lacks a preferable Anamorphic Widescren transfer and there are some problems with the subtitles (or lack of them within the Extra Features, something they have rectified on more recent releases) but it still makes for a decent DVD release at a price that is hard to ignore.