Arrow Heads #98: THE 8 DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER: A Kung-Fu Masterwork Hits Blu-ray [Review/Unboxing]

Lau Kar-leung’s “updated formula for the 80s” period kung fu classic gets a stunning release from Arrow Video

As far as Gordon Liu kung-fu epics go, 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is second only to the Lau Kar-leung’s other masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Both films share the same narrative thread that has Liu as a man who comes to the Shaolin Temple trying to escape his past, only to invent a fighting style that didn’t exist before his time at the monastery to achieve his goal.

Diagram hit Blu-ray a few weeks ago in the states sporting a brand new transfer thanks to the folks at Arrow Video, who strangely didn’t include this film in their Shaw Brothers Volume 1 set. The primary driving force behind this could possibly be due to the time period, while most of the films on the Shaw set were made in the 70s, early 80s, and Diagram was released in 1984 beginning with a very 80s inspired Shaw shield logo, compared to the one those that have been following along with our write up of the set has grown accustomed to. It’s a bigger, darker and at times a grittier story that has the studio leaving their quaint brightly lit sets behind for a film that takes place mostly on locations and larger sets, which adds a whole new flavor to the cinematography and overall vibe of the piece.

The film is based on a historical event that took place 1000 years ago and has since transcended into folklore: the extermination of the Yang family. The Yangs were a loyal family that were ambushed and assassinated by the Song dynasty general Pun Me and the Khitan-ruled Liao dynasty. General Yeung Yip Yang and his seven sons are ambushed, with only his fifth (Gordon Liu) and sixth son (Alexander Fu) surviving the ambush on battle on Golden Beach. This opening massacre is played out surreal and almost dream-like on an obvious theater set that only heightens the abstract nature of the set piece.

After the battle the Sixth Son (Alexander Fu) then struggles with PTSD after watching his family being slaughtered and lacks the mental capacity to testify against those that betrayed his family. Alexander Fu delivers a much more realistic and nuanced portrayal here than we’ve witnessed on previous Shaw films. Tragically he died halfway through production in a car accident, causing the ending of the film to be changed from the story it’s based on, into something a bit different in the final act.

Gordon Liu is the hard-headed fifth son, who escapes from the battle and seeks refuge at a temple. In this film however, they are less keen to let Liu join in and train with the monks, due to his temper and military training. Of course eventually, he is able to join the monks inventing the 8 Diagram pole style based on Daoism, and get his vengeance in the end.

This represents the Eight Diagram that the pole style is derived from in the film

The film feels more tied into spiritualism than the 36th Chamber since there’s a real struggle here in the narrative as the Fifth must earn his place at the temple and fight his aggressive nature to find peace and there is a bit more of a deep discussion into how the fifth son’s beliefs differ from the monks. It’s a story that is fraught with a bit more drama and bloodshed than the films from the 70s, yet it still adheres to the studio tropes and hallmarks of righteousness and good triumphing over evil we’ve grown accustomed to.

The film’s overall look stands in contrast to the brighter 70s films that were always obviously nearly completely shot on soundstages, here it’s about half and half and that only adds to the grittiness on screen. The new restoration by Arrow also highlights this cinematography compared to the 88 Films disc, which felt a bit more artificial in its color, where this is more natural. It’s odd, but this film looked to me slightly better than the films contained on the Shaw Brothers Vol. 1 set in its transfer, since it had that broader color spectrum and has a more pronounced grain presence overall. The film has three audio tracks Cantonese, Mandarin, and English mono audio, with a new commentary by Jonathan Clements, author of “A Brief History of China” who digs into the fascinating historical and cinema background on the film.

I love that Arrow is really doing the Shaw catalog justice after so long, some having only been available on gray market releases with terrible transfers. It gives films like these the ability to have the impact they deserve with their lush cinematography and engrossing performances on full display. While Fu is the stand out here, he is not to be outdone by Liu who adds a darker complexity to the character we met in the 36 Chambers. It’s something that I wasn’t expecting as he really goes for broke in one particular scene where he burns his head with incense and you can see the pain and loss in his expression. It’s not something you expect in Shaw Brothers film, but 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is one of the best of the bunch for a reason, because it goes there and delivers both a physical and emotional brutality to its heroes.

Check out the full Rundown of the extras and an unboxing below:

Special Edition Contents:

  • Brand new 2K restoration from the original camera negative by Arrow Films
  • High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray™ presentation
  • Original lossless Cantonese, Mandarin and English mono audio
  • Optional English subtitles, plus hard-of-hearing subtitles for the English dub
  • Brand new commentary by Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of China
  • Newly filmed appreciation by film critic and historian Tony Rayns
  • Interviews with stars Gordon Liu, Lily Li and Yeung Ching-ching, filmed by Frédéric Ambroisine in 2004
  • A Tribute to Fu Sheng, a short film commemorating the late actor that played before early screenings of The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, presented via a German-dubbed telecine (the best available copy) with English subtitles
  • Alternate opening credits, as The Invincible Pole Fighters
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Image gallery
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Marc Aspinall

First Pressing Only: Illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing on the film by Terrence J. Brady

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