Spiritual Kung Fu Review
Rather than taking the saving the best 'til last adage to heart, I simply couldn't face Spiritual Kung Fu until the very end of this long run of kung fu/martial arts films. While there is much to like in this film, not least the sight of red-headed ghosts chiding Jackie Chan over his being both frightened of them and generally inept, this comes down, in the end and like so many of these Lo Wei films, a fight between one style and another, this between between 7 Fists kung fu and 5 Style Fist.
Chan stars as a hopeless student of kung fu at the Shaolin temple and it's this early part of the film that's most entertaining. By hopeless, one means that if there's a scrape to be involved in, Chan will be there in the middle of it. He is, if the faces of the Shaolin monks are to be believed, quite the worst student they've ever had, with not even his skills in kung fu allowing them to overlook how otherwise useless he is. However, there is a young fighter (James Tin) who seeks to learn the secrets of the 7 Fists technique and, breaking into the temple, steals the 7 Fists manual. In the aftermath of the robbery, the monks find the body of a visiting Wu Tang master with a mysterious and bloody palm print on his chest. Chan and several other students are accused of the murder and imprisoned awaiting trial but Chan escapes during a moment of chaos in the temple. Five ghosts have appeared in the temple and not only is Chan the only one to see them, he is also the only one who can force them to do as he asks. Chasing them into the walls of the temple, Chan finds a kung fu that had been thought lost, the 5 Fist Style, a techique that combines the fists of snake, Tiger, Crane, Leopard and Dragon into a single form that is deadly enough to match the 7 Fists. With the help of the five ghosts, Chan sets out to take revenge on the real killer.
Which does, I admit, sound very entertaining but it's hard to believe that this only dates from 1978. Sure, it's difficult to compare the likes of Star Wars and Close Encounters to Spiritual Kung Fu and its red-haired ghosts who look to have arrived in the film by the most basic of optical effects. I don't doubt that there's a strong cultural influence here so while it's possible to explain my not being particularly impressed with this in expecting spectres in white sheets dragging chains behind them, or something similar, given my being used to a western ghost tradition, those with a better knowledge of eastern cinema will be much more at home. However, how much one can really be at home with a couple of gags involving the kind of skeletons that are more often seen in biology classrooms is open to question.
Happily, the martial arts is very much better than average. Although Spiritual Kung Fu does come down to a fight between two styles, the incidental fights are of a good quality and, better yet, it shows some clear thought in its settings. Best of all, that patch of scrubland that's shown up countless times in this recent run of martial arts DVDs has not been used here and, instead, we have Chan and Tin squaring off against one another within a Shaolin Temple. And that is where the ghosts return to, assisting Chan in his sparring against Tin. There's a final note of comedy in Spiritual Kung Fu following their arrival but it's too late to really make much of a difference to the film. The early part of the film is when it's at its best with the setting in the Shaolin temple being very effective and with Chan finding some comic footing under Lo Wei. However, come the ghosts, Spiritual Kung Fu loses its way and though there are brief moments when it comes good once more, it's largely a fairly uninteresting tale that doesn't do very much with what ought to be a winning combination of kung fu, ghosts and ninjas.
Like yesterday's Snake And Crane Arts Of Shaolin, Spiritual Kung Fu is one of the better releases from Hong Kong Legends, perhaps even one of their best given how it's a relatively sharp-looking print with good reproduction of colour and a sympathetic showing of its good set design. While there's still some print damage, it is, thanks to the restoration feature included on the disc, small compared to how the film could have looked there there only being a small amount of fading of colour and the odd stray line. Indeed, there are many shots when Spiritual Kung Fu is actually quite impressive looking, which isn't something that I've said very often with these Ultrabit releases.
There is no mono track this time, only a choice of Cantonese DD5.1 and English DD5.1 and while neither are particularly good, they are capable of carrying the dialogue and sound effects although there is precious little going in the rear channels. Then again, I suspect the DD5.1 tracks are aimed at those who expect nothing less of a DVD no matter how old the film is so I wasn't disappointed when hearing a surround track that does nothing more than a mono track might have done. Finally, there are optional English subtitles that come with the usual disprepancies between it and the dub track.
During the course of these reviews, I've been wondering if Hong Kong Legends have done very much more restoration than to drop the prints in a sink of water and Fairy Liquid and hoped for the best. One of the bonus features on this DVD is a Restoration Special (2m01s) that uses a split screen technique to show the differences between the quality of the print before an after restoration. While there is still the occasional fault in the print, it does look very much better here than on the original print. Although, I grant you, there aren't very many DVDs that look as bad as Spiritual Kung Fu might have done had it come to DVD without any restoration of the picture. There is also the Original Theatrical Trailer (3m29s) and a set of Further Attractions, which includes New Police Story, 9th Company and Duelist.