Back in 1998 to 2003, my revived interest in “Old School” kung fu films from Hong Kong and Taiwan happened to coincide with a phenomenal outpouring of these films in low-cost VHS editions, usually bootleg or “gray market,” with many available in mainstream video stores (e.g. Suncoast, Virgin, Tower and FYE), but more often found at discount dealers like Record Explosion and Entertainment Outlet. A company called Xenon (with various subsidiaries) released quite a number of these films as part of the “Wu Tang Collection,” often given new titles designed to appeal to hiphop fans and fans of the rap group, the Wu-Tang Clan, which took its name and a significant amount of its content from kung fu films its members had seen on 42nd Street back in the day. One of its members, Ghostface Killah, even took his name from the villain of a 42nd Street hit called THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (aka NINJA CHECKMATE). Ol’ Dirty Bastard was the name applied to another member of the Clan.
I have a stack of VHS tapes that I picked up at Japanese video stores over the years containing episodes from Japan’s long-running “Ultraman” franchise. They’re all in Japanese without subtitles and some of them have been made moot by my purchase of DVD box sets, all with English subs., of the entire runs of “Ultra Q” (1965), “Ultraman” (1966), and “Ultra Seven” (1967). But there’s a lot of material on those VHS tapes that isn’t duplicated anywhere else on an available source. Four of them are compilation tapes featuring clips of monster battles from the franchise over the years.
I was in Barnes & Noble last Monday checking out the cheap DVD section and found something called “200 Classic Cartoons” for $4.99 with 4 discs worth of old cartoons. (The distributor is Mill Creek.) There were enough titles on it that I didn’t have that I either wanted to own or was curious enough about to make it worth $4.99 despite what would surely be a preponderance of poor quality prints and transfers.
I spent a week in Paris, July 1-7, and even though I wasn’t there to see movies, I did photograph a number of theaters and movie posters and various locations attesting to the city’s ongoing cinephilia, including a visit to a treat-filled video store up the block from my hotel. And I did get to see one movie while I was there.
Me and Bette on a Paris street
I bought PAINTED FACES (1988) on VHS at a Chinatown video store in 1999 and only just got to see it a week ago. It’s a drama about a Peking Opera troupe in Hong Kong in the 1960s and the efforts of its stern instructor, Master Yu, to train a group of boys, all sent there by their hard-pressed parents, in the dying arts of Peking Opera performance. Three of the boys just happen to be Jackie Chan (called “Big Nose” by the other characters), Sammo Hung (called “Sammo” by the others although he didn’t get that name in real life until he was an adult), and Yuen Biao, three performers who would revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and ’80s with their stunt-filled action and martial arts comedies. The three starred together in a number of 1980s films themselves, including PROJECT A, PROJECT A II, DRAGONS FOREVER, WINNERS AND SINNERS and WHEELS ON MEALS. Chan and Hung became important directors of their films as well.
L-R: Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao in PROJECT A (1983)
An Olympic Fable: Run for Life
One of the most obscure anime titles in my VHS collection was found in a battered case in a used video bin at a now-shuttered video store back in May 1998. At the time I had no idea what its exact origin was, but I was sure it was Japanese animation, thanks to the © 1983 Harmony Gold credit on the case and the style of art seen in the intriguing image of a young man in Ancient Greece running with a look of urgency on his face. Harmony Gold is the U.S. company that crafted the 85-episode syndicated series, “Robotech,” in 1985 by stringing together three unrelated anime sci-fi series from 1982-84 and adapting the dialogue so that the stringing together made sense. The title on the case of the videotape I bought is “An Olympic Fable: Run for Life,” while the onscreen title on the tape itself is just “Run for Life.”
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.