Review for 18 Bronzemen
The paranoia of the Qing Emperor sets tragedy into motion. The rumours of rebellion in the provinces compel the Emperor to send forth his assassins, and the Guan family pay the ultimate price. In the end, only a little baby boy survives, spirited away at the last minute to find sanctuary in the Shaolin Temple. Raised as Shaolong, the boy goes through rigorous training along with the other monks, and he forms a strong friendship with two fellow acolytes. To graduate the temple, he has to face the perilous challenge of the 18 Bronzemen, and it’s only when he graduates will he learn the truth of his heritage, and the burden of vengeance his family’s passing has left him. But the assassins didn’t stop looking for the child after he found sanctuary, and he may never find the chance to get his revenge.
18 Bronzemen gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with a sole PCM 1.0 Mono Mandarin track, with optional English subtitles. The restoration is excellent, with a clear and sharp image, great detail, and rich and consistent colours. Even the softness I’ve noted in other films of this vintage in this collection is absent for the most part, and all I could nitpick was the anamorphic lensing at the edge of the frame during pans. The audio is fine too, obviously mono, but with no significant distortion at higher volumes or frequencies.
The audio commentary here is from Frank Djeng and John Charles.
What you really want to watch on this disc is the Hong Kong version of 18 Bronzemen, although it is reconstructed from various, and inconsistent sources. It’s here you’ll find a PCM 1.0 English dub to go with the PCM 1.0 Mandarin, with optional English subtitles and signs. The various sources mean varying aspect ratios and image quality, from low bitrate DVD to HD, 4:3 (more like 1:1) to 2.35:1. The runtime here is 101:00.
The problem with 18 Bronzemen is that the only source that could be found for HD restoration was the Japanese version. That heavily edited the original film, replacing most of the beginning with around 20 minutes of another Joseph Kuo film, Blazing Temple, as well as new footage. The original Hong Kong film version couldn’t be found for this release, and instead had to be reconstructed from whatever sources were available. I watched the Japanese version first, and found it to be something of a frustrating experience.
The story is inconsistent, messy, and confusing, especially early on. It’s also not shy of plot holes. The premise has a passing similarity to Shaolin Wooden Men (and a little bit of David Carradine’s Kung Fu), with a lifetime of training in the Shaolin Temple only completed once the monks have confronted the 18 Bronzemen. There’s an hour following Shaolong and his fellow students at the temple, from infancy to adulthood. What you might think is the whole point of the story, Shaolong discovering his heritage and getting his revenge is consigned to the final act, and half an hour just isn’t enough time to develop that story and those characters. At one point Shaolong has such a drastic image change that I was sure that they had recast the character.
And then I watched the Hong Kong version. It’s not pretty, even the footage it shares with the Japanese version, while proper HD, doesn’t look as it has had the same level of restoration; either that or the contrast with the lower quality footage is too jarring. The rest of the widescreen footage looks as if it’s taken from a low bitrate DVD at best, VCD at worst. And the sudden shift to 4:3 can be a jolt. On top of that, the original Mandarin audio is plagued by a constant, repetitive distortion. But, the image is stable, and when it comes to splicing the various bits together, it’s seamless, with no frame jumps or drops.
Forget the main film in the collection; this bonus feature is the way to watch 18 Bronzemen, as it works as a film, whereas the Japanese version broke it. The original film completely avoids the atonal section at the start of the film, which sees the children grow up in the Shaolin Temple, having a bit of fun, before they’re ready to graduate. The original version has a different opening, with a grandmother dropping her grandson off, with a plea that he be trained enough to take his vengeance. The film then jumps to the opening credits, by which point he’s grown up. The opening half of the film is mostly about the graduation, getting past the 18 Bronzemen, yet it has some more space to develop the characters, and explain the dangers from the Qing that the protagonist still faces.
Yet without that diversion into childhood at the start of the film, we still have half of the film left after the characters leave the temple, so the conclusion of the story feels properly developed and meaningful, as opposed to the afterthought it felt like in the Japanese release.
It is a shame that a decent version couldn’t be found, given the treatment that the inferior Japanese release got, but it turns out that the jarring quality and aspect ratio changes in the piecemeal Hong Kong reconstruction aren’t all that jarring once the story gets its hooks into you. The Hong Kong version is the one that you want to watch in this film collection, and save the Japanese version for when you’re feeling masochistic.
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