Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Bruce Lies Collection

Sweet looking box, right? It's packed to the gills with 11 discs [4 Blu-ray + 7 DVD] with a retail price of $120 - though most pre-orders are hovering in the $70~80 range. It includes all of Bruce Lee's Hong Kong produced action films - THE BIG BOSS/ (aka "Fists of Fury"), FIST OF FURY/ (aka "The Chinese Connection"), WAY OF THE DRAGON/ (aka "Return of the Dragon") and GAME OF DEATH (aka "This Movie Actually Sucks, But Ends With A Bunch Of Cool Ass Fights Bruce Lee Never Got To Finish So Watch It Anyway And Forget 90% Of It"). Also included are two feature length documentaries, Bruce Lee: The Legend (plus a separate, updated cut!) and I Am Bruce Lee, along with over two hours of newly commissioned interviews on a separate bonus disc, packaged in an oversize book with original essays and rare on-set photos. Neat!

Notably absent are ENTER THE DRAGON - which Warner Brothers just re-released as a collectible 40th Anniversary Edition, since they own the North American rights - and GAME OF DEATH II/, which is actually kind of cool little flick on its own, but has so amazingly little to do with Bruce Lee that you're better off watching Bruce Lee Fights Back From The Grave or The Clones of Bruce Lee or... seriously, anything that wasn't a handful of outtakes stuffed into a completely unrelated film.

Shout Factory went out of their way to include original MONO mixes in both Mandarin and English, and promised that all the titles had been newly color corrected for their North American Blu-ray premier. This also marks the first ever "official" home video premier of the original, rejected English dub for The Big Boss, as well as the US premier of the Japanese alternate dub for Game of Death, which features a handful of exclusive music cues and Lee's actual battle cries where applicable.

The set is due to drop August 6th, but was shipped a few weeks early to anyone willing to pay the $102 price tag they were asking for from their own website, which a handful of excited fans were happy to do. By all counts, it sounded like Shout Factory had brought on their A-Game and really made this pricey Blu-ray collection the centerpiece of any Lee fan's shelf... it's just too bad they weren't smart enough to double check that the High Definition masters they got from Golden Harvest were actual High Definition masters, and NOT upscales of the older NTSC DVD masters.

Full disclosure - I made none these caps, nor have access to the Shout Factory release personally - but the handful of very excited Bruce Lee fans who have gotten their hands on sets early by way of paying an extra $30 have all confirmed that the results are exactly what we're about to see below. If ANY of this information turns out to be less than accurate, I'll make a new post and update this one to avoid any further confusion, but with this release being an expensive item that a lot of readers may be ready to pull the trigger on, consider this a public service announcement until proven otherwise:





I can't find a proper matched cap for Way of the Dragon (and I'm far too lazy right now to dig out my German BD copy), but... trust me, it's just as bad as the other two, and the confirms that, once more, the import is a legit HD transfer. If someone does proper 1:1 comparison, same frame and all that, I'll happily update the lot of them - in the meantime, here's the from which the Shout Factory BD caps first surfaced.

There's really no squirming out of this one. This isn't me being an asshole and taking a shot in the dark on a handful of crumby caps to guess what the source might have been; someone to have ordered the set and gotten it early by willingly paying more for it has gone above and beyond to confirm that this is what the Shout Factory box set transfers actually look like, and with a "Full HD" master having already been released abroad for 3 of these films, there's no question as to if we're just expecting too much from dated materials. Shout Factory's High Definition Blu-ray box is nothing but upscaled content, and consumers got hosed out of HD transfers that already exist. With them having pimped the fact that they paid Fotokem to color-corrected the Fortune Star sources they were given, this smacks of almost comedic incompetence.

Some clarity is required here, since it's just hella confusing: Fortune Star is the international entity that owns and distributes a massive chunk of Hong Kong's cinematic past, and are responsible for creating new video elements for all of Golden Harvests features - including the Bruce Lee films. Kam & Ronson does the home video distribution for much of Fortune Star's catalog in Hong Kong. Fortune Star restored all three of Bruce Lee's "original" Hong Kong films from the original negatives in 2006, and released these new masters to DVD in a restored box set, along with the slightly different cut of ENTER THE DRAGON, which - outside of East Asia - is distributed by Warner. (And Game of Death II, which is not actually a Bruce Lee movie by any sensible definition.)

Blu-ray releases for the Bruce Lee films followed in 2009, and... well, by that point Kam & Ronson had released BDs for several Fortune Star titles starring genre regulars, and - to put it bluntly - they were virtually all SD upscales. At this point I don't think anyone with more than a half a brain even questions it. Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat and Jet Li movies have ALWAYS looked like piss on DVD though, so plenty of long time fans shrugged and decided that lossless audio, high resolution subtitles and no obvious MPEG-2 compression artifacts were all "good enough" reasons to upgrade anyway. To be fair, even a crumby upscale is such a dramatic step up from the usual LD dumps made from theatrical prints that most fans were willing to take it anyway. There's a handful of legit HD masters kicking around, including City Hunter and The Accidental Spy, but they're so few and far between that you're safer assuming that anything Kam & Ronson are offering is a dusty ol' Digibeta, and getting a nice surprise if it turns out to be an HDCAM tape instead.

The Bruce Lee early HK trilogy, however, was a bit of a shock in that they were - gasp! - legit HD masters. THE BIG BOSS in particular shows a dramatic improvement in HD over any prior home video release, and while both FIST OF FURY and WAY OF THE DRAGON have their problems, there's no doubt in mind that was a fairly fresh scan of the original camera negative on a piece of legit High Definition hardware. Even Enter the Dragon got a completely new scan from Fortune Star, though having less than ideal duplicate film elements for that film to start with and some pretty severe color timing issues, it was still beaten out by Warner's own problematic "BOB'ed 540p" Blu-ray from 2007 (though the margin of error on that one was far too thin to give anyone a pat on the back - they're both incredibly mediocre presentations). Also, the HK release of Enter the Dragon only has various Chinese dubs and English subtitles - no original English dialog, again, due to licensing restrictions between Golden Harvest and Warner Brothers, who distribute slightly different editions of the film.

For the record, there's been a lot of hemming and hawing about that Warner 40th Anniversary remaster for Enter the Dragon, and while I agree that there are some minor issues, it's easily the best presentation the film has had in HD so far, and everyone who finds an excuse not to upgrade is probably doing so more out of the $40 MSRP than any major grievances with the slightly dark color timing. Well, I guess that that or they really don't want to lose A Warrior's Journey, which was evidently removed from later pressings of the old Warner BD due to licensing issues.


There was, however, a dirty little secret hiding in the expensive Kamyou see, Game of Death didn't get stand-alone HD releases in Hong Kong, they were only sold as part of the complete box set. Having been produced later on and likely with more accurate sales numbers in mind, both Game of Death films were - much like the rest of Fortune Star's output - merely an upscale of an older standard definition tape master. As of 2012 they finally released the upscaled Game of Death disc as a stand-alone release in Hong Kong, though how many fans in Hong Kong are willing to upgrade to the English-only upscale is anyone's guess. Also included is the Bruce Lee: The Legend documentary on DVD, which proves that Shout Factory was trying really, really hard to emulate this thing stateside.

As far as I know, both France and Germany were both provided the same HD materials by Fortune Star used in Hong Kong - and yes,that means the European releases of Game of Death are also upscaled from an NTSC source, which means previous PAL masters may technically yield higher resolution. The oddity here is the Japanese release through Columbia Home Video, which - in the case of Game of Death, anyway - includes both Fortune Star's SD upscale, and a newly created HD master of the slightly different Japanese theatrical cut, often known as "Bruce Lee in G.O.D." Sadly, the Japanese 35mm master has optically printed Japanese subtitles during all dialog scenes and more than its fair share of optically printed dirt and scratches, but at least the result appears to be decent (if not reference) 1080p transfer from archival 35mm elements, which is more than I can say for the upscaled garbage everyone else has had to play with. The Japanese release of The Big Boss also includes a slightly alternate Japanese theatrical cut, but with that being - by far, in my personal estimation - the best of the Fortune Star HD masters, it's more a curiosity than a major selling point.

So why not just import the damned films and be done with it? Well, there is no "perfect" import, particularly if you speak English as a first language. The Hong Kong versions include English subtitles and ridiculous 6.1 surround remixes on the various Chinese dialects, all of which sound like garbage due to overzealous new foley effects and over the top noise reduction to eliminate any and all hiss, getting dangerously close to some T-Payne level auto-tune. Also, there's no English dubs on the otherwise quite English friendly HK editions, which - much as they aren't my preferred way of watching the film - are easily the most familiar versions seen by anyone in North America, the United Kingdom or any other typically English speaking region. (Game of Death is in English with optional Chinese subtitles though, because reasons I don't have the time or energy to get into right now.)


The German and Japanese (and probably French?) releases all include the old-school English dubs, but no English subtitles. This is a sticking point since, after all, three of these four films were originally shot in Hong Kong, which - as was standard at the time - means they planned for the master language to be Mandarin Chinese. This may sound silly, with Hong Kong being a region that speaks the Cantonese dialect, but the standard practice of the era was to shoot the film silent, dub it in Mandarin and then subtitle it in both Traditional Chinese and English, so anyone in Hong Kong who didn't understand Mandarin could still follow the movie. They would later sell the prints to mainland China, which was a dramatically larger market than Hong Kong by itself. Lee himself didn't speak Mandarin, but he'd fake it on set, asking those who were familiar with both forms of Chinese what dramatic moments would sound like in the mainland dialect, and contort his performance to match better. Hong Kong didn't start embracing Cantonese as the "original" dubbed dialect until guys like Tsui Hark took control of the HK industry in the early 80s, recognizing that home video and cable TV revenue was going to justify proper Cantonese dubs sooner rather than later. Incendentally, the quality for Mandarin dubbing took a sharp turn down once they were being made as an after-thought, so if you watch a Tsui Hark or John Woo movie and it sounds like a pack of dogs vomiting through a plate of rancid spaghetti, you're probably

Back to the shameful upscaling part, though. Thus far, Shout's own genre guru Cliff MacMillan - or "cmac", as he's known on the Blu-ray forum - has only had this to say to the increasingly frequent criticisms of what's clearly a clusterfuck of unwarranted proportions:

The masters received from Fortune Star are HD.We color corrected the first three films at Fotokem.I asked my telecine [operator] "do these look like HD masters" and he said "yes".He's been a colorist for over 25 years and has worked for Fox and Universal.

Your colorist was clearly wrong, Cliff... and so far, it's the customer who suffers. Shout Factory even went out of their way to offer it through their own website at a less than cheap $102 to get the set early, versus paying around $70 on Amazon and getting it in August. From the looks of it, no more than half a dozen or so posters have actually chosen this option, and after the first round of terrible screenshots and resulting discussions surfaced, at least half of them are sending it right back.

Oh, did I mention that Shout Factory have released I Am Bruce Lee on Blu-ray, but here it's ONLY included as a DVD? Yeah, that's just pissing on the open wound, but whatever. Apparently Bruce Lee: The Man, The Legend is also a PAL > NTSC conversion, so have fun with two different ugly frame-blended DVD presentations that were originally shot on 35mm film. Also, the Bonus Disc and one of these docs (can't remember/care which) have their silk-screen labels flopped. So yeah, this package is just amazing on every possible level.

With the constant questions this set has raised marching on to Facebook - which is, I admit, where all the cool kids are doing their official announcements these days - we basically got more of the same:

Hi Sam, we are told these are the new HD transfers from Fortune Star.They might have a better idea of the details beyond that. Thanks!

Shout Factory drops the ball, and keeps on running like a champ. Way to show you're okay with living in denial, if it means you don't have to cop to having completely fucked up what might be your most impressive release of the year otherwise.

It's a shame, honestly. Shout Factory clearly spent a lot of time, money and effort to cobble all the available audio materials, created new subtitles from scratch, and offer a total of over two hours of exclusive video content. If it weren't for this cruel joke of giving us SD upscales instead of the "real" HD masters Fortune Star created, we'd finally have the single definitive English-friendly release of a trio of films that have always had a nightmarishly convoluted history on home video. Internet denizen and long-time Bruce Lee Master "Old Pang Yau" has done these films proud by providing restored original mono tracks for the lot of them. (Fortune Star has the nasty habit of down-mixing their awful 5.1 mixes, effectively saying "There's your fucking mono, asshole.") Shout Factory's literal Mandarin to English subtitles are most welcome, and the consensus has so far been that they're quite good - if not quite perfect.

Honestly, everything BUT the transfers for this set are a suitable tribute to the man who single-handedly introduced the world to Kung Fu Mania in the mid 70s, and had this been a DVD-only set for half the price, I may have been willing to accept the positives and ignore the lack of proper HD materials. But as it stands this release is a hot mess, and that's really a sadder story than it ever had to be.


Wait a second, didn't Shout Factory just release some Double Feature Bruce Lee DVDs in butt-ugly packages for a bargain price? They sure did! But don't even bother, since they went out of their way to remove the original Mandarin audio tracks and English subtitles. Yep, the 20th Century Fox/Fortune Star R1 DVD box set may have had numerous flaws, but at least it still included original Mandarin audio (with some minor sync anomalies) and English subtitles for the three original Hong Kong films... which, may or may not be dubtitles. I think the subs were okay, but it's been so fucking long I don't even remember. (It even has the fun-in-their-own-right Cantonese tracks, but they're 2.0 down-mixes and sound like ass on tape.) It's still easy enough to find used for dirt cheap though, which only makes Shout Factory's box look bloated and overpriced by comparison. At that point the only real advantage Shout offers are the bonus features, and while I'm sure they're pretty damn cool, I doubt it's worth the $50+ difference between them.

The most recent twist in this whole ordeal was the fact that Shout Factory has changed the status from the Legacy Collection to "Sold Out" on their own website, despite the fact that repeated cancellations would suggest they've got more stock than they know what to do with. Are they investigating materials and considering a recall/replacement for this expensive collection? One can only hope, but the fact that pre-orders are still being taken elsewhere neither confirms nor denies a damned thing... but it gives me hope that they're at least looking into it. For what it's worth, I've already contacted them and offered my services. No, I don't expect to hear a word back, but fuck it, they know where to find me when they're done embarrassing themselves if they're that desperate to fix it without going back to Fotokem (who clearly know even less about SD upscales than I do).

Once more, consider this more a PSA than a review, or even a permanent condemnation: SOMETHING went horribly wrong at Shout Factory, and while part of me thinks they're aware of just how badly they screwed the pooch, I have no idea how much money went into producing what already exists, and thus how much it would cost to fix the three main films. To be perfectly honest I expected Game of Death would be an upscale, but the other three films is a left-field shocker. This isn't a title that's never had a Blu-ray release for, and this isn't a title who's fans aren't familiar with the concept of importing, either; heck, anyone who really wants these movies probably already has the Kam & Ronson box set, and was merely looking forward to this as the "Definitive" upgrade. If Shout Factory can't convince the hardcore fans who have been buying Bruce Lee movies since the days of Laserdisc, they've already lost the battle to sell a $120 box set... and that's just depressing for everyone involved.

I'll keep you posted as this one develops. In the meantime, vote with your wallets, but take the 5 minutes and tell Shout Factory WHY you aren't picking this up. I certainly haven't been shy, but... then again, when have I been?

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