Royal Tramp / Royal Tramp 2 (Digitally Remastered) Review
Royal Tramp, a 1992 wuxia comedy starring Stephen Chow is the first of a two-part story which is loosely based on the novel The Duke of Mount Deer which was penned by Jin Yong (aka Louis Cha). Adapted by and directed by Wong Jing, the film features a fine cast of Hong Kong talent who along with Chow in the leading role do enough to elevate the film above the slightly haphazard storyline which although fluid enough on the screen, requires some form of relationship chart in order to understand just who is betraying who.
At its most basic level, Royal Tramp is a very simple tale of warring dynasties who are trying overthrow one another and in this case, all end up using the same unwitting instrument to further their cause. Said instrument is Chow, who plays his trademark smart mouthed young layabout who finds himself working every possible angle except his own as his effortless charm and quick tongue put him in favour of each faction at some point in the film. Moving around the Emperor’s Palace, first as a Eunuch, then as a trusted confidant to the Emperor right through to eventual political positions there is action at every turn. With an almost even split of comedy and action, the production values on the wuxia aspects are often quite impressive with attractive sets and some well choreographed kung fu and swordplay sequences which true to the genre feature all sorts of elaborate wire work. Chow himself gets involved in some of the action, though for the most part he sticks to the “Dragon Hand” which we see taught to him in the film. It’s essentially a nipple twist, which results in fairly predictable though none-the-less amusing physical humour which is balanced out with the smart dialogue. The latter occasionally suffers under the English translation, though the basic constructs of the humour come across very well and offer plenty of comic value. For the most part the dialogue is very witty and the combination of quick fire delivery and physical jokes keep things interesting, particularly one of the favoured gags in the film which sees Chow’s posing responded to with a quick punch in the face. Sure it’s simple, but when used sparingly as it is here these jokes work and spice up the elaborate ruses which predominately rule over the rest of the proceedings.
Early in the film Chow’s character posing as a Eunuch brings about some more fairly predictable humour, both verbal and physical, all relating to the fact he’s meant to be castrated. This level of humour works at a basic level as does another running gag early in the film which sees Chow mistake the Emperor’s sister for a man. It’s that old Hong Kong film tradition wherein a pretty feminine face and soft skin are easily overseen when the rest is dressed in male clothes, and here the lovely Chingmy Yau plays a delightfully playful young thing who knows what she wants, and that is Chow’s body all for herself. Playing into the fact he’s mistaken her for a man, she has her fun with him and eventually gets her way, with Chow’s character left crying on the bed after he’s been so shamefully used. It’s a quirky and fun relationship which allows the two actors to play off each other to great effect, particularly in the early stages when Chow is not aware of the mistake he’s made.
The various sub-plots work their way through to an eventual conclusion which brings the first part of this story to a close, with the mixture of comedy and action continuing full speed ahead as they are fused into the story exposition and even one another with the inevitable final battle featuring an unexpected call-back to a very early scene which maintains that very base level of humour but gets the job done.
The sequel continues the story, with Chow’s Wilson Bond now a Duke enjoying his new found money and power and spending his time at his favourite haunt, the local brothel. Short of a brief opening sequence which explains the changing role of the Empress Dowager character, newly promoted to leader of the Dragon Sect and now sporting her true guise under the delicate appearance of Brigitte Lin, the film jumps right into the action and comedy mould. We also learn that Lin’s character has inherited the power of her master, but will forsake 80% of her power to the man who takes her virginity. You can guess who that will be…
Anyway, back to the brothel where Bond is mistaken by two beautiful assassins as someone other than their target, only for him to first trick them into attacking his subordinate Duo Long, before then concocting a plan to rescue and trick them into sleeping with him. And that folks tends to be the driving force of much of the story, Bond’s eclectic taste in women and the schemes he comes up with in order to bed them. From his “I Love Dicky” potion which drives them insane with lust for all things even vaguely masculine to his more elaborate plans usually concocted with the aid of Duo Long. Another running gag which comes back for numerous pay offs over the course of the film is the double-crossing between Bond and Duo Long, with the latter’s first comeback particularly satisfying. Another great moment is a gag between Bond and his mischievous princess which sees them cover a soap opera moment by delivering their lines Chinese Opera style, something which works beautifully on the surface though I suspect may lose a little something through the subtitles and cultural divide.
Entering production almost immediately after the first film wrapped and hit cinemas to a rapturous reception the sequel arrived in Hong Kong cinemas just two months after the original. That’s a staggering time frame and one you’d be forgiven for thinking might result in an inferior product, but what it lacks in the original’s plot complexities Royal Tramp II more than makes up for elsewhere. Running a slightly leaner 96 minutes the sequel not only features more immediately satisfying humour, but it also boasts more elaborate action set-pieces that – despite a few clumsy moments – are entertaining from both an action stand-point and – when infused with comedy as they so frequently are – a humour stand-point as well. By offering a much more straightforward plot in which the allegiances of the various characters are far more obvious you always know where you are in the sequel, and subsequently by reducing the word play involved in the endlessly twisting plot of the original and exchanging them for broader, more physical gags the sequel is likely to appeal much more to a Western audience. Even if that wasn’t the intent (and I sincerely doubt it was, when time factors meant getting a script that was acceptable were far more important) it definitely works in the film’s favour now, making this a rare case of a sequel which at the very least is as entertaining as the original.
Coded for all regions, this Joy Sales release comes packaged in an elaborate silver coloured box which is slightly larger in length and width than a DVD case and about three times the depth. A sturdy construction, it features a magnetically sealed fold-out mechanism which reveals two inner compartments. The whole thing opens up much like a jewellery box, with one of the compartments holding a DVD case (with cardboard sleeve) which in turn houses the discs, while the other compartment stores a notebook which is fashioned after the 42 Chapters tomes featured in the film. This is mostly blank, with the last few pages featuring deleted dialogue from the films in script form (with both Chinese and English text).
On the whole it’s an interesting package, though with my sizeable collection already overflowing my shelves I was more pleased with the fact there was a normal sized DVD in the set which I could remove and store on the shelf, while the rest is put away somewhere else.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers are considerable improvements over the previous Megastar releases, offering varying levels of detail and good colour reproduction. The images across both films feature heavy grain, but for the most part this is rarely distracting and handled well by the compression. Print damage is kept to a minimum but far from non-existent, while focus can sometimes be a little soft but on the whole I was impressed for films of this age. The only really annoying point is a coloured vertical line running down the far left of the frame which anyone with a display that has no overscan will see throughout. I’ve left this in all of the screencaps, with the line appearing as a bight blue on my monitor, but when playing through my DVD player it was a softer greenish blue.
Audio options on both films are the original Cantonese 2.0 and new 5.1 and DTS Surround mixes. The 2.0 is fairly clean throughout though on the first film the dialogue occasionally sounds like it has been recorded in a concert hall. This however often suits the equally spacious locations featured in the film so could well be deliberate, though it can be a little overbearing and there is a minor sense of reverb throughout the film as opposed to selected scenes. There is also little separation or balancing in the 2.0 mixes, making them somewhat harsh on the ears in segments with high pitched audio. The surround mixes take the basic elements and do their best to balance them across the soundstage, staying true to the source by keeping surround effects to the minimum and instead focusing on creating a more balanced mix that uses the surrounds for music and ambient effects while pushing dialogue through the centre speaker. Between the 5.1 and the DTS, the latter has a fuller, more natural sound, though both tend to push ambient sound effects a little too far into the background, almost to the point of phasing them out completely while the balancing on the dialogue has a tendency to soften certain voices out (with the echo occasionally present on the 2.0 almost completely absent here). Given the option I would go for the original 2.0 as it just sounds more accurate, though the surround mixes are certainly not bad and do give a more balanced mix which some will prefer.
The optional English subtitles appear to offer a decent translation though as noted in my main review text there are moments where I get the impression certain aspects of the comedy are lost through the lack of translation. One such example in the first film is when the Emperor forces Wilson Bond to reveal his master, whereupon we hear plenty of dialogue but the subtitles merely reveal the name Chow eventually reaches. Looking at my older Megastar release this same scene features a more thorough translation attempt, though it really makes no sense whatsoever so I can only assume it’s difficult to translate and Joy Sales simply opted not to bother. These completely obvious instances are fortunately very few in number, though doing another comparison to my Megastar release of the sequel in the Chinese opera segment mentioned in the main review text, once again reveals some differences though here it’s mainly one of refinement in the Joy Sales release, with only some subtleties in the humour lost. Which one is more accurate I have no way of telling you, so I’ll just close this segment by saying there are few spelling or grammatical errors that I recall and overall the subtitles do a good job.
A third-disc holds a small selection of bonus material which doesn’t really add up to a great deal. The highlight certainly is a two-part interview with Wong Jing which runs for twenty minutes and sees him answer questions on both films (one part of the interview for each). Topics covered are the source novel, the story of each film, the main cast members and the working process with the action director Ching Siu-Tung. Jing isn’t particularly charismatic, but he gets straight to the point which makes his answers all the more interesting, particularly when he says Stephen Chow was ideal for the part because he’s ugly and Cheung Man is just a typical idol. Of course the translation might not help and my take on things is certainly deliberately negative (it’s more fun that way) but the overall impression is that while he may not be the best at framing or cushioning his response, he does get straight to the heart of the matter and gives some worthwhile insight. The interview is presented in Full Screen with optional English and Chinese subtitles.
There are six-minutes of deleted scenes which are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen with Mandarin audio and burnt-in English and Chinese subtitles. These appear to be mostly scene extensions or alternate scenes, and are likely taken from a Mainland China or other Asian theatrical release version. There is nothing here really worth bothering with; particularly as the subtitle translation is quite poor.
In the Trailers section you’ll find both Original and New Edited trailers for the Royal Tramp films alongside promotional trailers for other Joy Sales Remastered titles - Crime Story, Once Upon A Time In China and Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain. They are all presented in anamorphic widescreen, though no subtitles are provided.
Finally there is a Photo Gallery section which includes Movie Stills Photo Gallery and a Movie Photo Slideshow for both Royal Tramp films. The former appear to be lobby cards while the latter are simply film grabs played in a slideshow format to the original film score (each slideshow is just under a minute long).
The first is overly convoluted and the second strives to be as simple as possible but the common theme throughout is one of a fun take on the source material and the wuxia genre. The cast are uniformly excellent and the action should satisfy fans, and while the humour may not travel quite as well as some of Chow’s more recent efforts anyone willing to put a little more effort in will find plenty to enjoy. The Once Upon A Time in China “Under the General’s Orders” theme tune parody is worth any Hong Kong movie buff’s time alone, and this set is certainly a good way to enjoy the films though the recent Region 1 set with Bey Logan commentaries is very tempting.