‘Chop Socky: Cinema Hong Kong’ Review

If you think the term “chop socky” is perjorative, don’t let that keep you from picking up this disk.

Cinema Hong Kong - Image courtesy of Docurama

As a Caucasian/Latino child growing up in Los Angeles, I watched “chop socky” films on weekend afternoon television, complete with English dubbing and frequent commercial interruptions. Nowadays, I shudder at the negative connotations of the term, which has been employed for years as a shortcut to imply “I don’t like Asian martial arts mayhem” or “I’m not interested in those cheap, silly Asian films,” or maybe something worse.

On the other hand, the term is viewed with affection by a number of long-time fans, calling to mind halcyon days of youth, innocence, and the magic of discovering Hong Kong films for the first time. Putting those titular concerns aside, CHOP SOCKY: CINEMA HONG KONG is a rousing and respectful overview of Hong Kong martial arts films in the 20th Century.

It helps if one keeps in mind that this film originally aired during the summer of 2004 on the Independent Film Channel (IFC), a premium cable network in the United States. IFC has also aired the ZATOICHI series of films, among other Asian offerings, and presents films in their original aspect ratio and language without commercial interruption.

Beginning with recent films released by Hollywood studios — the usual suspects (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; KILL BILL; X-MEN) — the documentary rewinds to early silent films (rare clips that are an unexpected treat), notes the influential black-and-white THE STORY OF WONG FEI HUNG in 1949, moves swiftly to the Shaw Brothers, Chor Yuen, and Chang Cheh, and then pays due reverence to Bruce Lee.

Along the way, editing and filming techniques are explained with generous samples from classics and modern-day reenactments from veteran actors and directors, including Lar Kar-Leung. The latter, in talking about Bruce Lee, says that death was good to him “because no one wants to see an old martial artist,” but the director/performer’s own moves belie this statement.

The fighting styles and weaponry used in martial arts films are given special attention, and interview snippets with Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Chor Yuen, David Chiang, and others make the time fly by.

As the documentary wraps up, you only wish there was more to it. For those with a greater and wider previous exposure to Hong Kong cinema, it’s a ride through familiar territory with a couple of new stops. But for newcomers, or friends you want to introduce to the cinematic wonders awaiting on your DVD shelf, it’s an ideal primer.

* DVD Notes *

Docurama. Region 1. NTSC. 55 minutes. Release date: April 26, 2005.

The aspect ratio properly fluctuates depending upon the source material, from the interviews shot on full-screen video to the letterboxed restored clips from the Shaw Brothers. The visual presentation looks fine.

Only one audio track is provided: English-language DD 2.0. To be more precise, the narration is spoken in English, and all interview subjects who speak Cantonese or Mandarin are subtitled in English. The subtitles are easy to read and well timed.

The extras are thin: deleted, separate interviews with Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and John Woo (4:54 total); a “network clip,” the 30 second promotional advertisement that was run by IFC; and nine trailers for other, non-Asian Docurama releases. The entire Docurama catalog is available for review on disk or in an enclosed booklet.

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