3 out of 5 stars

Only recently emerging from cult status, King Hu has finally gained the recognition he deserves as an experimental auteur who innovated both the formal and narrative aspects of Asian action cinema. This new Blu-ray edition of The Valiant Ones / 忠烈圖, from Eureka Entertainment’s ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint, has been scanned from a 4K digital restoration of the original negatives.

Once thought lost, they were discovered in the vaults of a film processing lab and, subsequently, gifted to the Hong Kong Film Archive by King Hu himself, making it the definitive director’s cut of this key work that developed out of his earlier martial arts movies and foreshadowed his even more mythic later films.

King Hu’s most distinctive traits, which mark him out from his contemporary action directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan, are his symbolic use of natural landscapes. These landscapes are not only sympathetic to the action but also become integral narrative elements in themselves. Additionally, his use of action is both restrained and ingenious, functioning as an expressive storytelling tool. He often allows gestures and physical actions to do the job that others would rely on expository dialogue for. This creates a more immersive and visually rich experience for the viewer, who’s required to pay active attention to the film.

Like any great auteur, he too has obsessions and recurring motifs. These include the balance between humans and nature. For instance, a harmonious hero might be concealed by a bush, while disharmonious villains might be revealed by its rustle. Similarly, changing power dynamics in an interaction can be reinforced by actual gradients in the landscape, with characters positioned above or below each other.

Then there are the long, lingering shots of vast vistas, with tiny figures traversing them. These serve as a reminder of our transient insignificance against the grandeur of eternally renewing nature. This resonates with an underlying Buddhist philosophy that suggests conquering mortality by becoming one with nature, part of its cycle.

Despite their almost supernatural abilities, Hu’s heroes are often as mortal as anyone. It is through their choices and actions that their presence changes the world. When their values align with the natural order, they leave a legacy that is remembered for generations

Hu’s period dramas tend to present themselves as historically accurate, with correct period detail and costume, and featuring named persons of the appropriate era. Therefore, The Valiant Ones opens with a mini history lesson narrated over old prints of the relevant people and places. The story is set during the Ming Jiajing era and depicts the ‘Wokou Problem’. I recently learned about these 16th-century pirate raids along the coast of China when reviewing Jimmy Wang Yu’s Beach of the War Gods (1973) which depicts the same period in a much more simplistic way, paralleling the wokou attacks with the 20th-century occupation of China by the Japanese. Although Hu’s take remains just as straightforward in narrative terms, the representation of the wokou is realistically complex with some historical accuracy…

In the Imperial Palace, the indolent Emperor (Lei Zhao) is reminded by his adviser that the military governor of Zhejiang and Fujian, Zhu Wan (Tu Kuang-chi), has requested assistance in dealing with the ever-bolder pirates who are striking further inland with each attack. The opening scenes verge on satire as we witness the interactions between a bumbling bureaucracy and the ineffectual General Zhou Li-de (Wei Yang). He guarantees safe passage for visiting dignitaries from Shinan, only to be followed by a single panning shot illustrating his failure—a scene of fallen guards and an abandoned palanquin.

Eventually, they send for General Yu Da-you (Roy Chiao), a top strategist from Zhangzhou. He begins the mission by posing as a wealthy, easily robbed merchant conspicuously arriving in the area by slow boat along the coast. His apprentice, Zhou Fa (Ng Ming-Choi), plays the flute to ensure they are noticed. While resting at a ramshackle inn run by their local contact, Li (Li-Jen Ho), they rendezvous with a husband-and-wife team: Wu Jiyuan (Ying Bai) and Wu Re-shi (Feng Hsu)—both legendary martial arts masters. Ying Bai and Feng Hsu had already been paired in three of Hu’s previous wuxia films, with both actors making their screen debuts in Dragon Inn (1967). Feng Hsu would also go on to appear in the mythic mountain duology, Raining in the Mountain (1979) and Legend of the Mountain (1979).

Now, young Zhou Fa continues playing his flute outside the inn. From his vantage point, he assesses the lie of the land and spots a gang of bandits approaching stealthily through the surrounding shrubs. What they don’t realise is that the tune he plays is a coded language of notes, telling his comrades the number of attackers and how many are approaching from each direction. So, the intended surprise attack is anything but. We’re treated to a slick piece of action as Yu Da-you, Wu Jiyuan, and Wu Re-shi swat arrows aside with their swords, just like a Jedi deflecting blaster bolts with a lightsaber. (Indeed, King Hu’s wuxia films have provided significant inspiration for the Star Wars saga.)

Yu Da-you’s plan involves travelling through remote areas posing as merchant bankers in the hope of drawing out the local bandits suspected of collaborating with the pirates and then following them back to the land-based stronghold of the wokou. So, act one, which is not without humour, presents plenty of opportunities for the small band of heroes to engage in several martial arts set pieces. This culminates in a stand-off against numerous adversaries, some of whom, judging by their dishevelled ronin appearances, are Japanese. This time, their battle strategy is communicated through a combination of flute code and the placement of pieces on a Go games board. However, their plans are soon scuppered by the incompetent General Zhou Li-de, who arrives at the most inopportune moment to check on progress, forcing Yu Da-you to resort to plan B, which involves Wu Jiyuan and Wu Re-shi posing as defectors wishing to join the wokou.

The long approach to the wokou pirate fortress takes us into the second act with a beautiful extended sequence of them being led to the secret destination via narrow passes and along rivers which wind between sheer cliffs. It’s very much like something from a H. Rider Haggard novel and makes the wokou seem alien and otherworldly.

In the throne room, they are confronted by not one, but a consortium of six different leaders and each one wants to test their prowess, or that of their champion, against Wu Jiyuan and Wu Re-shi to determine if they can be of use to their organisation. Of course, the two Wus also want to assess the strength and skills of their adversaries. There ensues the coolest non-lethal martial arts showcases involving an array of styles and weaponry—archery, lances, and various swords.

It’s a testament to King Hu’s genius for action that this long sequence of fights remains not only interesting but highly entertaining and even amusing. It also manages to propel the narrative forward while introducing several new characters, including Xu Dong (Ying-Chieh Han), the leader of the mainland Chinese contingent, and finally Hakatatsu (Sammo Hung), the Japanese clan leader who refrains from fighting Wu Jiyuan. This is slightly ironic as Sammo Hung is the fight choreographer, but we know King Hu is holding him back for a final, climactic fight between Wu Jiyuan and Hakatatsu. By the time we reach that decisive moment, the humour has dissipated and a touch of seventies cynicism has crept in.

Much of the character development throughout comes not from the dialogue but from details within the martial arts sequences. These sequences are shot dynamically in Hu’s original and distinctive style, with fast edits and a dizzying array of angles. The more complex combat scenes required up to 40 takes, including set-ups for shooting from each adversary’s viewpoint, long shots where the characters appear tiny against the austere rocky terrain, and fluid tracking shots through woodland where trees both conceal and reveal the action. The fights are governed by an almost musical rhythm, with the clash of blades providing percussion, and the camera dancing and darting around the leaping and tumbling characters. Often, the movement is so staccato that continuity breaks down, effectively conveying the confusion of battle and the otherworldly swiftness of these seemingly superhuman heroes. The results are exhilarating but more impressionistic than explicit.

The revelation that the wokou were a consortium of interested parties from within China itself and other Southeast Asian territories, operating under the guidance of Japanese pirates, is historically accurate. Although “wokou” is a Chinese term meaning “Japanese pirates,” the numerous raids over a long period were led by various factions. Some opportunistic bandits simply exploited the situation and blamed the Japanese. Other foreign elements, including the Portuguese, were also involved. However, it seems the Japanese were primarily agitating for and often organising the raids for their own reconnaissance and to weaken China’s coastal defences. Nevertheless, the ‘Wokou Problem’ persisted for so long due to the involvement of corrupt officials who dealt stolen goods and accepted bribes.

General Yu Da-you was indeed a real person who oversaw countermeasures against the wokou during the Ming Dynasty. He was a master of the longsword and had studied martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. He planned and led an attack on a land-based wokou stronghold in north-eastern Zhejiang. In 1563, he was involved in the Battle of Putian, which resulted in regaining the territory from wokou control and eventually clearing China’s southeastern coast of the wokou scourge. When officials from an internal spy organisation demanded bribes from him, he refused and exposed the corruption, which resulted in him being briefly imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Much of the plot of The Valiant Ones takes inspiration from these events, though most of his feats are interpreted on a more personal scale and shared with the mythical swordsman, Wu Jiyuan.

Under the influence of Japan’s chanbara genre, King Hu almost single-handedly spearheaded the revival of China’s wuxia films. Chanbara—sword-fighting films—is a subgenre of jidaigeki, a broader term encompassing historical period dramas. Wuxia, a portmanteau of “wu” (meaning “martial”) and “xia” (translating to “chivalrous”), can be summarised as “sword and chivalry,” sometimes with a touch of sorcery thrown in. Wuxia films are characterised by their historical settings and elaborately choreographed martial arts sequences featuring impossibly skilled combatants who often defy gravity with acrobatic leaps, trampoline-assisted bounds, or even “wire-fu” flying techniques.

Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) introduced the genre to new international audiences. More than three decades earlier, King Hu had established the format with his seminal and successful trilogy: Come Drink with Me (1966), Dragon Inn, and A Touch of Zen (1971). Sitting very comfortably alongside these, The Valiant Ones is an excellent focal point, midway through the director’s career, and cited as Hu’s last great wuxia film. This opinion is debatable, as it’s immediately followed by Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountain. Admittedly, they’re both slower and longer, but they share more than enough genre signifiers and further refine many of Hu’s stylistic hallmarks.

Wuxia is currently experiencing a resurgence thanks to the recent influx of Asian dramas on Netflix, following the international success of the fantasy-romance epic The Untamed (2019). The market and audience have suddenly expanded with the rise of easily accessible platforms like Rakuten Viki, a community streaming service that subtitles its content in around 200 languages, and iQIYI, which has made some of its content freely available on YouTube. Hopefully, this lovingly restored Blu-ray of a King Hu classic will be discovered and enjoyed by a new generation of viewers.


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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju) [2000 copies].
  • 1080p HD presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K digital restoration of the original negatives gifted by director King Hu to the Hong Kong Film Archive. An excellent restoration that showcases the luscious colours and details of décor in the interiors and the subtler colouration of the locations, suggesting the palette of classical Chinese watercolours and prints.
  • Uncompressed original Mandarin mono restored from the original soundtrack negative.
  • Optional English subtitles, newly translated for this release.
  • Brand new audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film Festival). A familiar voice for those who’ve been collecting Eureka’s Asian titles, he once again shares a wealth of knowledge about every aspect of the production. This includes funding, shooting schedule, writing, casting, distribution, and probably much more information than a casual viewer would need to know! Interestingly, the original Mandarin title translates as “A Portrait of Loyalty and Martyrdom.” He contextualises the film within King Hu’s oeuvre and the Hong Kong industry of the early-to-mid-1970s, filling in some historical details. He discusses the film’s visual grammar and analyses the use of sound, including pointing out when music is being ‘recycled’ from previous Hu movies as an evocative cue. His insight into the influence of Peking Opera on sound and structure is particularly useful—who knew that a specific style of woodblock percussion signifies impending villainy?
  • Tony Rayns on The Valiant Ones. A new 24-minute interview with critic and Asian film expert Tony Rayns. In this interview, he shares his extensive knowledge of the Hong Kong film industry and how King Hu operated within the Mandarin-language niche. He traces the director’s career film by film and discusses the short-lived New Wuxia Revival that he spearheaded. There’s also plenty of detail about the production and how King Hu cleverly secured a dual deal with Shaw Brothers, meaning he retained the distribution rights for The Valiant Ones. The interview also includes the usual potted biographies of the cast and crew.
  • Tsar of all the Wuxia. A new 22-minute video essay by David Cairns. Informative and thorough overview of King Hu’s career and biographical background.
  • The Life of a Lucky Stuntman. A new 21-minute interview with stuntman Billy Chan. He recounts his memories of the harsh regime at the Peking Opera School, where he began training at the age of 12. Every morning, he learned martial arts and acrobatics, and in the afternoons, he studied stagecraft. Learning the standard plays and the stories behind them formed his education in folklore and history. He then goes on to recall his transition from stage to screen alongside his fellow Peking Opera School student, Sammo Hung, who preferred to work with a stunt crew he knew and trusted.
  • My Father and I. A new 26-minute interview with actor Ng Ming-choi. He reminisces about his father’s study, piled high with books from all over the world. His father researched widely, reading texts in French and English as well as Mandarin. Ng then talks us through his career, from his time as a production assistant to his on-screen roles and his close friendship with Sammo Hung, with whom he often shared action-directing duties. He focuses on the production of The Valiant Ones, offering plenty of insider insights about filming on location along the Shing Mun River near Sha Tin. He shares details about Hu’s working methods, explaining how he organised a shoot with budget in mind, but refused to compromise on quality.
  • 16-minute Archival 2003 interview with actress Hsu Feng by Frédéric Ambroisine. She recalls waiting to hear back about a job at an electrical goods factory when she was offered the role in Dragon Inn. She briefly talks us through her acting career and how, after eight years in the industry, she began producing films. She has an ambition to remake A Touch of Zen as a homage to King Hu.
  • Memories of Hu—Archival 2003. A 26-minute interview with Roger Garcia (Hong Kong International Film Festival Society) by Frédéric Ambroisine. A career overview of Hu from his beginnings as an art director in movies before working with the Shaw Brothers as an actor and director. He also covers some planned, though never realised projects.
  • Four-minute Archival 2016 interview with actor Ng Ming-choi by Frédéric Ambroisine. An informal chat over lunch in which he fondly remembers working with his ‘father and master’ and discusses King Hu’s approach to cinema as an art form rather than commerce.
  • A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Jonathan Clements. A handsome 20-page book presenting a thoroughly researched and insightful essay that unavoidably covers much of the same ground as the generous on-disc bonus material but also manages to cover some additional historical background with clarity. It’s nicely illustrated with stills from the movie, though I would’ve preferred some rarer ephemera or behind-the-scenes photos, storyboard extracts, and costume sketches… but that’s probably wishful thinking as I suspect that kind of thing is now lost.
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Cast & Crew

writer & director: King Hu.
starring: Bai Ying, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Han Ying-chieh & Sammo Hung.