Friday, May 31, 2013

The Man From Hong Kong Looks Back on EASTERN CONDORS

Forces of Geek’s Man from Hong Kong, Big Mike Leeder delves back into the vaults for a look back at one of the most high octane high impact action movies ever made, Eastern Condors directed by and starring Sammo Hung, along with Yuen Biao, Joyce Godenzi, the late Dr. Hang S.Ngor, Yuen Wah and a veritable who’s who of Hong Kong action cinema.

Eastern Condors
東方禿鷹/Doong Fong Tok Ying

Eastern Condors could best be described as Sammo Hung’s high octane take on The Dirty Dozen plus elements from Rambo: First Blood Part II, The Deer Hunter and many a Vietnam combat movie combined with some of the greatest martial arts choreography ever committed to film.

When America pulled out of Vietnam, they left behind a secret stockpile of missiles and weapons, that have not been discovered by the Vietnamese forces. In 1976, the US Governmanet gives Lt.Colonel Lam (Lam Ching-ying) the assignment of destroying the weapons stockpile before it falls into enemy hands. Lam assembles a force of Chinese and Vietnamese military prisoners led by Tung (Sammo Hung). The men are recruited with the promise of freedom once the mission is complete.

The team is airdropped into Vietnam where they rendezvous with three female Cambodian freedom fighters (led by Mina Godenzi), but no sooner have they arrived than things start to go wrong. After stopping in a local village, the team is bolstered by the recruitment of Rat (Yuen Biao), a trike riding smuggler and dodgy dealer and his seemingly light headed Uncle (Hang S.Ngor) who seems to have some inside knowledge of the location of the secret base.

Meanwhile the mission is dogged by frequent clashes with the Vietnamese forces led by a manic looking general (Yuen Wah). The final battle lines are drawn with our heroes lives and freedom on the line.

I’ve been a fan of Sammo Hung’s work for the longest time, and Eastern Condors has ranked up there as one of my favorite Sammo Hung movies since the first time I saw it in London’s Chinatown back in 1987. I remember seeing the poster for the film and taking in a somewhat slender looking Sammo, a Phillip Oakey fringed Yuen Biao and then realizing that the poster seemed to feature just about everybody from the Hong Kong film industry apart from Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat. I saw the film about a week later and was utterly blown away.  Yes, the film does pay homage to a few other films such as The Dirty Dozen, The Deer Hunter, and Rambo, but Sammo makes it work all so well.

The film not only stars a slimmed down Sammo courtesy of an intensive training and dieting regime in full fighting form, a top of his game Yuen Biao alongside The Killing Field’s Oscar Winning Hang S Ngor and in her first fighting role, former beauty queen Mina Godenzi.

The film was shot on locations including Canada, Thailand, the Philippines and Hong Kong and boasts incredible cinematography from DOP Arthur Wong. I love this film, it’s hard to choose a favorite moment, but fave scenes include the campsite battle introduction of Mina Godenzi and her fellow resistance fighters, Yuen Biao’s gymnastic introductory scene, Sammo and Yuen Biao’s jungle rumble, the harrowing prisoner of war camp scenario and the incredible high octane high impact finale.

Hung shed some serious weight for the film under the watchful eye of martial arts and physical trainer Eddie Maher (Pedicab Driver, Yes Madam) to give himself more of a believable look as a soldier. It’s an experience Hung often remembers by telling some great stories about going to the supermarket to look at all the food he wasn’t allowed to eat! He’s still a big man but he’s in great shape and really delivers as a fighter in this film, from taking down the bad guys with his hands, feet, knees and legs, to using flora and fauna as weaponry and making good use of high caliber artillery.

Yuen Biao, complete with a very Human League styled fringe gets to showcase his incredible physicality, flipping and kicking to full effect as a fast talking fast kicking Vietnamese scoundrel who finds himself drawn into the biggest adventure of his lifetime. Sammo’s second wife, the lovely Joyce Godenzi, made her action debut in this film and gets one hell of a role, she gets to deliver the goods action wise while also going through some major bumps and bruises to prove her credentials as an action actress. And delusional

The late Dr. Hang S.Ngor made his sole Hong Kong film experience in the film, playing a seemingly deranged former soldier who is supposed to lead the team to their objective. While Bruce Lee’s former acrobatic stunt double Yuen Wah, a long-term mainstay of Sammo Hung’s action team gets the role that influenced much of his subsequent career as the seemingly wimpy and weird looking Vietnamese general who finally lets loose in the finale and wages a battle royal against Yuen Biao and Sammo. The role finally gave Yuen Wah the breakout he needed as an actor, after years of stuntwork and supporting roles, and he’s played a number of variations on the role in numerous films since, including the final Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao triple header Dragons Forever.

The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of Hong Kong cinema with such luminaries as veteran action directors Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo-ping, Mr. Vampire himself, Lam Ching-ying, Charlie Chin, Chin Kar-lok, KK Cheung, Chan Lung and Melvin Wong While veteran screen villains Dick Wei, Yasauki Kurata, Phillip Ko, and Billy Chow fill out the numbers for the bad guys under the command of a bespectacled Yuen Wah.

Now strangely enough the film was not well received in Hong Kong, while getting a lot of attention in the West including producer Ed Pressman to consider the possibility of working with Sammo on a project for the international market. In Hong Kong, audiences claimed to not be able to identify with the subject matter, Hong Kong has not been involved in a war since the WWII and at the time Sammo was at the height of his popularity as a comedic action hero rather than for his serious work. (Two of Sammo’s finest subsequent projects, the drama Painted Faces and Pedicab Driver were also badly received and neither has yet to receive an official DVD release in Hong Kong till this day!)

Now be warned this film is brutal, the action is fast, furious and painful as hell!

There’s a lot of full contact hits and high impact reactions as punches and kicks connect, and there’s some close calls stuntwise including an explosion on a gunboat that saw stuntman supreme Chin Kar-Lok being engulfed in flames and nearly losing his skin in the process, a Russian Roulette scene that gives The Deer Hunter a run for its money, and the finale on an incredible James Bond-ian styled set (although I still wonder why there’s a very visible Tardis central control console from 80’s Doctor Who sitting in the middle of the missile base!) features some of Hung’s best work as an action director.

Eastern Condors was given a brief DVD release in North America through both Tai Seng and later through 20th Century Fox, and the Hong Kong release from Universe is widely available.

Hong Kong Legends in the UK did release a special edition DVD release of the film in the UK which not only features a digitally remastered and restored DVD transfer, it boasts dual Cantonese and English Dub sound tracks and yes remastered subtitles. As well as two trailers, a superb UK promotional trailer and the films original theatrical trailer which includes a number of clips from scenes deleted from the movie as well as a great sing along from the full cast.

But the highlight of the disc has to be the impressive interview with Sammo Hung. The interview in English focuses on the making of Eastern Condors, with Sammo in high spirits as he describes his intensive training and dieting regime for the movie (you’ll never look at bread rolls the same way again!), as well as how he came up with the idea for one of the films most memorable moments when he uses foliage as a weapon.

The interview also sees Hung discussing the rigors that his wife Mina went through for the film, as well as his concern when actor and stuntman Chin Kar-lok was severely injured during the filming. Hung is also candid about his feelings why the film wasn’t as well received in Asia as it was in the west. All in all, the HK Legends DVD of Eastern Condors is very much the best-released version of Eastern Condors to date.

There was also a German release that isn’t bad that did feature a very special bonus, the live action Peking Opera styled performance of highlights from the movie at the Ms Asia Beauty Contest in Hong Kong. (Godenzi had been a previous winner at the pageant).  Highlights include some incredible physicality being demonstrated by an enthusiastic Hung flipping his way across the stage before bursting into song, Yuen Biao showcasing his fliptastic skills to full effect, the Mad Monkey himself Hsiao Ho (protégé of Lau Kar-leung, and star of Mad Monkey Kung Fu) and Yuen Wah who proves that reality can be just as incredible as anything cinematic as he show just how impressive a physical performer he can be.

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