What happens when remaining copies of particular films or particular versions of films exist only on VHS tape in individual collections and the copyright owner or rights holder has either gone out of business or abandoned the property altogether? I have quite a few VHS editions of films and TV shows that are not readily available in other formats, mostly English-dubbed Japanese anime and Hong Kong kung fu movies, but probably quite a few other foreign and animated films as well, including many Italian genre films. These are titles that were once distributed on home video in the U.S. or syndicated to television, but are no longer officially available for one reason or another, including the fact that so many companies that once distributed to niche markets are now out of business and the rights holders in Japan and Hong Kong, if they’re still in business at all, have either been unable to find new licensees for these titles or are completely uninterested in any further distribution overseas. Or, as in the case of the film in question here, if the copyright owner is still active, they are unable to find a complete print of something that once got distribution in the U.S.
I’m starting this series on VHS preservation with CHINATOWN KID because it’s the most egregious example I can find of a “restored” DVD being nothing of the sort and a complete print existing only in long out-of-print VHS copies. CHINATOWN KID (1977) is a Shaw Bros. movie set in contemporary San Francisco (but shot in Hong Kong) that starred Alexander Fu Sheng and Wang Lung Wei and a supporting cast that included all five actors who would appear in FIVE VENOMS the following year (and would come to be known collectively as the Five Venoms in a series of exemplary kung fu films over the next five years). It’s an excellent kung fu film that was directed by Chang Cheh, Shaw Bros.’ leading director of martial arts action and historical adventure throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Fu Sheng plays an undocumented immigrant from China, by way of Hong Kong, who has come to San Francisco to escape the heat after running afoul of a local crime boss (Wang Lung Wei) in Hong Kong. When the crime boss comes to S.F., the conflict continues and escalates into a series of epic kung fu battles between rival gangs in the city’s Chinatown district, with our hero caught in the middle. It’s one of the only Shaw Bros. kung fu films to be set in a contemporary time period in a western city.
I have a VHS edition of the English-dubbed version of this film that happens to be 114 minutes and letter-boxed. It’s a legit release from South Gate Entertainment and was issued in 1990. When Celestial Pictures in Hong Kong announced its admirable and ambitious program of restorations of hundreds of Shaw Bros. catalog titles back in 2002 and their release on Region 3 DVDs to Chinatown video stores everywhere, my hope was to finally see THE CHINATOWN KID in its original Mandarin language with subtitles. Imagine my surprise when the 2004 DVD release, an edition touted on its cover as “Fully Restored from the Original Film,” turned out to be only 86 minutes long! That’s a full 28 minutes chopped off. (I have since learned that there’s a longer Cantonese-language version that’s 121 minutes. I’d love to see that.)
So I was in no rush to watch the restored DVD until I had a chance to re-watch the longer VHS edition first and then compare the two. After ten years of owning the DVD, it was only after I got the idea for this series of blog entries that I finally sat down and watched the two versions back-to-back, the longer one first. I was somewhat surprised to learn that not only was the DVD shorter, but it had a whole set of scenes that weren’t in the VHS edition and is significantly re-edited. The DVD version features much greater emphasis on the character of Yang Chien-wen, a student from Taiwan played by Sun Chien (a future Venom). He comes to the U.S., legally, at the same time as Fu Sheng and gets a job at the same Chinese restaurant. The two become good friends until Fu Sheng leaves to work for the gangsters and incurs Yang’s self-righteous scorn. Yang, caught between the pressures of school and work, turns to drugs to cope, prompting Fu Sheng to demand that the gang he works for give up the drug trade, a move that pretty much seals his doom. In the DVD, we see a lot more of Yang in Taiwan at the beginning of the film than we do in the VHS. And there’s an alternate final sequence at the end that follows up on Yang’s fate rather than that of Fu Sheng. There seems to be more of an attempt in the short version to balance out Fu Sheng’s story with that of the Taiwanese student, as if to counter the rise-and-fall gangster story with some kind of upbeat message about a more positive Chinese immigrant experience.
A lot of the Chinatown gangster intrigue that makes the long version so compelling is gone from the short version, including key scenes of consultation between the Hong Kong boss, played by Wang Lung Wei, and the Green Tiger gang leader played by future Venom Lo Meng. One important supporting character, a rival gang boss played by Tsai Hung, is completely absent from the DVD. All the information that was conveyed in his scenes is instead parceled out in alternate scenes involving another gang boss, played by Kuo Chui. Which means we miss a great moment on a Chinatown street where Tsai Hung, who has just witnessed Fu Sheng fight off two Green Tiger extortionist thugs, is approached by two white cops who ask, “What’s goin’ on?,” prompting him to respond, “This is Chinatown. I wouldn’t know.” Which strikes me as a sly and unmistakable reference to Roman Polanski’s CHINATOWN from three years earlier.
It also means we miss a great scene where Tsai’s character negotiates a plan of action with Kuo, but makes it clear that he wants Kuo’s sexy girlfriend, Lena (Shirley Yu), out of the room during the conference. Whenever Tsai says something Kuo doesn’t like, Kuo calls Lena back into the room and plops her down until the guy changes his tune. (The playful Lena seems to enjoy her unusual power here.)
There are numerous other significant deletions of scenes and narrative alterations on the DVD. For one thing, all three leading actresses in the film—Shirley Yu, Shaw Yin Yin as Lo Meng’s girlfriend (and later Fu Sheng’s), and Jenny Tseng as the compassionate laundry worker who befriends Fu Sheng—have much bigger parts in the longer version. Kara Hui Ying Hung, an actress who went on to star in Shaw Bros. martial arts films on her own (e.g. MY YOUNG AUNTIE, 1981), appears early in the long version as a mainland girl sold into prostitution in Hong Kong by Wang Lung Wei’s gang. She is rescued and freed by Fu Sheng, an act that establishes the friction between Fu Sheng and Wang Lung Wei. That subplot is cut from the DVD version. We only see Kara briefly in one shot in the background in an apartment scene and her presence is unexplained. The reason given in the DVD version for Wang’s hostility towards Fu Sheng is because the latter beat him in a late night street fight.
Most of the fight scenes are longer in the VHS, especially the two big set pieces in the film’s final third. For instance, after Kuo Chui has recruited Fu Sheng to fight on the side of the White Dragon gang, the two of them and an army of henchmen stage a massive raid on the Green Tiger Club where Lo Meng and Wang Lung Wei and their men are based. This lengthy and sprawling battle, which takes up two stories of the club’s headquarters and bursts out onto the fire escapes, is mercilessly cut down in the DVD to less than half of its original running time and cuts right to the climax of it where Fu Sheng battles it out with his old HK nemesis, Wang, eliminating all the buildup to the confrontation.
The ending on the VHS consists of a long battle between Fu Sheng, aided only by Sun Chien, and Kuo Chui and his White Dragon gang, a bloody and violent confrontation that ends in tragedy for two of the main characters. It’s a real gangster film finish and is built up and structured in a way that looks forward to Brian DePalma’s SCARFACE (1983), which came out six years later.
In the DVD, however, the finale concludes very differently, with a timely intervention by the police, an avoidance of any tragic fates, and a final pro-education message delivered by Fu Sheng to Yang, while the police wait patiently for him to finish.
Yang then dominates the final minutes of the film as he prepares to transfer to Harvard. The final shot is an inexplicable image of school children crossing the street in either Hong Kong or Taiwan, I couldn’t tell which. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m not sure the average fan of these films was exactly the market for a pro-education public service announcement in the middle of a kung fu battle.
The DVD image is redder, lighter and brighter than the VHS version, which is darker and bluer. We can see more background details in the DVD image.
However, like a lot of the Celestial digital restorations of classic Shaw Bros. titles, the cleaned-up image doesn’t look a thing like the film would have looked in a theater on a Chinatown screen 35 years ago. For better or worse (probably worse), the VHS image is closer to how an average 35mm film print of this title would have looked back then. (To get an idea of how the original Shaw Bros. film prints might have looked after a few years of circulation, check out the original trailers that are provided on some of the Celestial DVD releases.) Celestial’s DVD digital restoration process can sometimes make a film shot in beautiful color on 35mm film amidst spectacular sets and backlots look like it was shot on video. In a case like this one, despite the darker image, the VHS gave me a more satisfying viewing experience, mainly because it offered the better version of the film. (The screen grabs I posted from the VHS in this piece make the image look a lot worse than it actually is. It’s very hard to get decent screen grabs from VHS tapes.)
I’m not sure why Celestial released this shortened, reedited version. Was it the only one they had? Was it given to them in error by Shaw Bros.? Does no other print exist? Who was this version intended for? One account I read on the web says it was the “international” version. What does that mean? If that’s the case, then why was a different version dubbed in English and released in the U.S. on VHS? Which version ran on television as part of the syndicated “Black Belt Theater” package that was popular back in the 1980s? I’m not sure how to find out these answers. In any event, the only way to see the long version of this film in the U.S. is if you purchased a VHS copy in 1990 or afterward. (Unless it’s on-line somewhere. I didn’t find it when I searched on YouTube.) Luckily, I found my copy in a used video bin at the now-closed Record Explosion in Manhattan 15 years ago. As far as I know, the video distributor responsible for this edition, South Gate Entertainment, went out of business long ago.
This isn’t the only kung fu film that’s had these issues. It’s fairly common to find different versions of Hong Kong films in different releases. To give one example, Sammo Hung directed an all-star martial arts action comedy in 1986 for Golden Harvest called MILLIONAIRE’S EXPRESS, which starred himself, Yuen Biao and just about every martial arts star working in Hong Kong at the time, including Japanese actors Yasuaki Kurata and Yukari Oshima, American karate champ Cynthia Rothrock, and Australian martial artist Richard Norton. I have a bootleg VHS copy of this film, plus a Hong Kong import DVD and a legit American DVD edition (from Dragon Dynasty) released as SHANGHAI EXPRESS. I’ve also seen the film on the big screen at the Music Palace Theater, the last movie theater to close in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Every version I saw had a different running time and scenes that weren’t in any other version.
The SHANGHAI EXPRESS DVD offers a supplemental extra consisting of four deleted scenes that are all found intact in the print used for the older HK import disc, which is otherwise still six minutes shorter than the newer DVD. To make matters more intriguing, in one of the interviews contained on the newer DVD, Sammo Hung describes how he shot scenes with many more HK stars than we actually see in the film, but that those scenes then had to be cut to get the film’s running time down to a manageable length (the DVD is 102 minutes, the longest version of the four I’ve seen). Which meant that many of his colleagues who attended the premiere were stunned to learn that their hard work for ol’ Sammo had been cut! I’d love to see those scenes included in an epic two-hour-plus version of this film. Hey, if Hollywood can do epic-length comedies on the order of IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and THE BLUES BROTHERS, why not Hong Kong? In any event, I’m quite sure my VHS collection of Hong Kong films includes many versions that are different from those found on the DVDs.
While CHINATOWN KID represents the worst case scenario of Shaw Bros. restorations, the best case is probably that of BOXER REBELLION (1976), a film about the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in Peking, a historical incident which also served as the basis for Nicholas Ray’s 55 DAYS AT PEKING (1963), a Hollywood epic starring Charlton Heston. The shortened, English-dubbed version of BOXER REBELLION was known as BLOODY AVENGERS and was shown on TV that way. I had taped it once back in 1983 or so and eventually taped over it during a period when I couldn’t afford to keep buying new tapes, something I would come to regret. When I renewed my interest in old school kung fu around 1997, I went looking for copies of BLOODY AVENGERS and the only one I could find was someone else’s taped copy of a TV broadcast of it, so I wound up paying for something I once had myself. When Celestial released its R3 DVD of it in 2005, under its actual title, I was pleased to see that the DVD offered a longer 137-minute version, which made it a very different film from the shortened English dub. It was no longer just a kung fu film, but a historical epic, with a good deal more attention paid to an important figure in the whole story, the Empress Dowager, played here by Li-Li Hua, whom I wrote about in my entry on her one Hollywood film, CHINA DOLL (1958) back on June 30, 2012 . Here is an excerpt from my assessment of the longer version which I added to my review of BOXER REBELLION on IMDB to show the impact of the restored scenes after seeing the Celestial DVD:
“The emphasis in this longer cut is less on martial arts or bloody battle scenes than on the whole arc of the disaster caused by the Boxers, from the Empress Dowager’s tacit support of them, enabled by lies spread about an outright defeat the Boxers suffered at the hands of the Japanese that became a “victory” in its retelling, to the complete failure, from a military and strategic standpoint, of their attack on the Foreign Legation in Peking, to the pillage of the city by foreign troops in the wake of it. The thread throughout the film is the peculiar devotion of the three brothers, played by Chi Kuan Chun, Alexander Fu Sheng, and Leung Kar Yan, to a cause they see through right at the beginning, one they know is lost, but one they cannot tear away from.”
Getting back to my VHS copy of CHINATOWN KID, I wonder about the fate of this version of the film if no one with the rights to do so will find a film print of it and create copies in newer formats. Sure, one of us who owns a VHS copy can always upload it to YouTube and there are probably other video-sharing websites where it may or may not appear. But in my book that’s not the same as preservation. Any and all websites are vulnerable to corporate policy shifts, ownership changes or technological revamps (or server crashes) that could delete a file at any time. I don’t believe anything is “permanent” on the web. Nor am I sure that transferring all VHS copies to DVD is the answer. I’ve seen too many DVD-R copies of films freeze up or suffer digital breakup in my players. Ideally, I’d like to see original VHS copies of films in peril stored in a special archive after being transferred to whatever the safest digital storage medium is at the time. Students, researchers and scholars should be able to visit this archive and watch a VHS edition if that’s how they want to experience the film. The general public would be able to watch it on-line once rights issues are worked out, if possible. I know this sounds like an impossible dream, but there it is.
In any event, I have plenty more titles in my collection like this that are rare and deserving of preservation. I’ll be talking about more of them in future entries.
P.S. Here are some relevant links:
My IMDB review of CHINATOWN KID
My IMDB review of BOXER REBELLION
My Amazon review of SHANGHAI EXPRESS
And here’s the credits sequence from the CHINATOWN KID VHS edition, which includes a song not heard on the DVD: