Note: No screen grabs for this one, as my DVD-Rom drive doesn't recognise the DVD! My DVD player does. Strange.
The Republic of China was in chaos in early years, as many people suffered from famine. Hero Li San stole the treasures from the wealthy and delivered them to the poor (Chinese Robin Hood anyone?). Inspector Tang failed to arrest him. Li San was back in town to take revenge on Hian and found his lover, Chinny. Lots of action, and a love story in their too.
The Hero Of Swallow is another one of many films which I've bought blindly in the past few years. The only attraction for me to the film was that it starred Yuen Biao. I've been a big fan of Yuen Biao for quite a while, as I believe he is a better on screen fighter than Jackie Chan or Jet Li. As such I was keen to track down as many of his films as possible. Unfortunately, I have seen several of Yuen Biao's headlining efforts and, The Prodigal Son and Righting Wrongs aside, I have yet to be overly impressed with any of them.
In The Hero Of Swallow Yuen Biao plays Li San, the Swallow Thief, who steals from the rich and gives what he steals to the poor. Part of his motivation for doing such a thing was that a rich man, Hian, bought Li San's lover Chinny, and he wanted to save her from him as he kept/bought a lot of woman, and was known to rape them. On breaking into Hian's grounds and beating all his guards, he learns that Chinny had been sold on to a brothel, and was no longer kept by him. In his further efforts to track Chiny down, he continues to steal from the rich which attracts more attention towards Hero Swallow from the police officials.
On one night out Li San discovers a little behind the scenes deal taking place to sell Chinese treasures to a Japanese man. Being somewhat patriotic he feels that he has to do his bit to stop this happening. He does so, and in the process discovers his kung fu master's other student, who is a servant to a member of the Royalty. In some of his charity deads he also picks up a few loyal followers/sidekicks, who are grateful beyond belief for the charity that he has shown them. With their help he manages to learn of Chinny's whereabouts, but discovers that she is the most desired prostitute in one of the city's many brothels, and one of her many devotees is a certain member of Royalty, who wishes to buy out her brothel contract.
That's all I'm going to cover as far as the plot goes. I'm not going to recount more partly because I don't want to tell the whole story here, but mainly because the lack of motiviation to keep talking about this film. In truth I was very much underwhelmed by The Hero Of Swallow. It had its moments but there was nothing in it that made me take notice, and with the lack of anything that really held my attention, the same feeling is coming through as I write this.
So where does The Hero Of Swallow fall short? Well in its story it borrows quite a bit from other films. It is very much similar in some respects to Iron Monkey and principal character comes across like a Chinese Robin Hood. The problem with this is that it doesn't come close to the standard of the former. The plot isn't as coherent, the script isn't as good either (that could be down to subtitle translation though) and the fight scenes are nothing special. What could have saved the film more was having more feeling built up for the characters involved. A lot of people in the film are shown to be in very dire circumstances, down on their luck and in general very, very poor, but I didn't find their acting to be that convincing. The tears seemed forced, and it just seemed like they were going "Oh woe is me... I am poor and unlucky. How can life be so cruel? Ho hum... Oh woe is me..." etc.
The story also feels a little muddled at times. There are characters who are clearly portrayed as the evil ones, but the film's climatic fight scene is not against one of these evil people, but against someone who is very much like Li San - righteous and loyal. While it is expected that the film's hero wins, there is no satisfaction in him beating someone you actually feel a little bit sorry for, rather than hating.
Anyway, a film like this could still always be saved if it contained some really kick ass fighting. It doesn't. There are some scenes which really had potential, but in the end they come across as just simply run of the mill stuff. This is partly due to a large proportion of the film taking place at night. At night it is dark, and Hero Swallow wears a black outfit. As you can probably guess from this, it's not always clear as to what's going on. Had the film print been up to the Hong Kong Legends standards, then it might have been better. It isn't, so its not. The other problem with the fight scenes are the lack of people up to Yuen's standard for him to fight. In the opening scenes there are a few good moves going on, and lots of acrobaticy type stuff which looks good, but there are too many drone guards who get knocked over far too easily, and who don't seem able to even compete in the martial arts stakes.
The main fights for Yuen tend to be the ones against Eddy Ko, but these are quite uneven. I don't know what Eddy Ko's background in martial arts is, if he has any at all, but in some scenes he did handle himself quite well. What I mean by the fights being uneven is that in the closer shots he comes across as the very solid fighter with good hand techniques and a good stance, Southern style kung fu. There is very little flamboyance and his kung fu looks more efficient than aesthetic. Then the camera angle changes to a wider shot, and suddenly his fighting style has completely changed. There are jumping kicks, spinning and other fancy stuff which is far more aesthetic and less efficient. As well as making the fight seem quite uneven, it is frighteningly clear that those shots were done with a double. On the plus side though, even though there is ample amounts of wire work in the film, comparitively little of this wire work is used in the fights.
The Hero Of Swallow is a 1996 production which has aged badly. For fights, Yuen has done much better, for a story Iron Monkey has done something similar and better, for a film lots of others have done much better. Thinking about it, I honestly can't see any reason to recommend this film. Die hard Yuen Biao fans might still enjoy it because he is in it, and does do some cool moves at times, but for everyone else there is no breath of fresh air in here, there is nothing to make it stand out from the crowd and I don't think there is any reason to buy it.
Audio & Subtitles
The Hero Of Swallow comes with the standard Cantonese or Mandarin soundtrack options, both in stereo. Cantonese is the option I chose to watch the film in. First thing that becomes apparent is that the film was post-dubbed, as the words don't often match the movements of the people's lips. Either that, or the timing of the speech track is a little off, making it look like it is poorly post-synchronised. Anyway, the voices are all clear enough and are not muffled or strange sounding or anything like that. Unfortunately, and this isn't a fault of the DVD but the people who made the film, the noises that are used for impacts in the fight scenes are rather crap, and it seems like they didn't have that many different noises to play with, as a lot of the hits sound exactly the same. To make matters worse, these sound effects aren't always in time with the hits. While you wouldn't expect an audio track like this to ever be anything special, this one is probably below par because of these complaints.
The subtitles are burnt in English and Chinese. Much to my surprise the spelling in these subtitles was actually very good. Usually with burnt in subtitles the spelling and grammar leaves a lot to be desired, but not on this ocassion. The grammar is not quite on par with the spelling, but is still ok throughout, with a few badly structured sentences. However, they still get the point across clearly. Unfortunately, on screen Chinese characters are not subtitled. Being burnt in subtitles with no background, when they are on light backgrounds they are harder to read. Fortunately a lot of the film takes place at night, so this doesn't happen too often.
The Hero Of Swallow features a letterboxed presentation. I am led to believe that the print is cropped from its original aspect ratio, though, as the opening title logo thing is not all on the screen. The actual film print itself is not too good. There are lots of speckles, and a few vertical lines, throughout the whole film, and in some scenes there are definite brief motion trails. Grain was hard to judge because of the speckling at times, but I don't think grain levels were that bad. Detail was alright, nothing special, but not too soft either. Lastly, colour levels could have been a little better. Blacks didn't come across as being that deep, there were no vibrant looking colours at all in the film, and in some of the darker scenes it looked as though there was some colour bleeding. All in all, not a great print.
DVD & Extras
For extras there is next to nothing. There is a list of the cast and crew, which is in English and Chinese, and there is the film synopsis, which is the same as on the back of the DVD cover, and again is in English and Chinese.
For me this is another Yuen Biao film which has failed to live up to the potential that is the man. With one or two exceptions his good films always seem to be the ones where he is alongside Jackie Chan and/or Sammo Hung. This is a great shame as I rate him the highest for martial arts out of the three (although I think both Jackie and Sammo are better entertainers), but it just doesn't seem to happen for him on his own. Fortunately there are films out there where you can see Yuen do what he does best, but this is not one of them.