The Dead And The Deadly (Cert 12)

1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Eureka Entertainment) Running Time: 99 minutes approx.

Release Date – November 21st

Loyalty from friends is something most people hope for but only a few really enjoy. I’m not talking about giving you a lift somewhere or buying nice presents for your birthday, but being there for in the direst of times, making huge sacrifices if needed.

Chu Wah-Li (Sammo Hung) tries to do right by his friends, so he is naturally upset when old friend Ma Lucho (Wu Ma) suddenly passes away. To Wah-Li’s surprise, a woman, Yuet-Ling (Mei Hui Leung) and her brother Chin Pa-tat (Yuet-Sang Chin) show up for the funeral, claiming to be Ma’s wife and eight months pregnant with his child. Wah-Li is suspicious about this, as he knew Ma was impotent and suspects foul play.

To get answers, Wah-Li attempts to perform an autopsy on Ma to ascertain if he was murdered – except Ma isn’t dead. Ma, Yuet-Lin and husband Pa-tat, are involved in a scam to get Ma’s inheritance early, pretending the baby is Ma’s heir. But when Yuet-Lin learns there is no inheritance but Ma has a hidden fortune, she has Ma killed. Ma’s ghost visits Wah-Li to ask him to avenge his murder.

Rarely seen in the West since its release in 1982, The Dead And The Deadly is receiving its first ever home media release here in the UK, courtesy of Eureka. Hoping to replicate the success of Sammo Hung’s supernatural comedy hit Encounters Of The Spooky Kind, director Wu Ma recruited many of the cast and production staff to ensure box office lightning would strike twice, but sadly it didn’t happen.

It’s not that it is a bad film, rather an unfocused and confused one. The biggest crime it commits is being economic with the fight sequences, which for a Sammo Hung film is baffling and indefensible. There are just two major fights – only one with Sammo, the other is the climax featuring Yuen (Cherie Chung), Wah-Li’s betrothed, taking on aliens whom turn into animated green spirits. No, really.

Why is this the finale? That is part of the problem – the script’s overarching plot is flimsy, pushed aside for goofy subplots serving as functional catalysts for slapstick comedy. The film opens with Wah-Li dressing as a ghost to admonish a widow and her lover for canoodling days after her husband’s passing, which turns out to be a dream, ultimately seeming apropos of nothing instead of laying the foundation for what is to come.

At one point, we suspect the story might focus on Wah-Li and Yuen – she tries to honour the arranged marriage (said to have been decided while both were in the womb) but Wah-Li brushes her off, thinking she can do better than him. Disappearing for the next hour, Yuen steps aside for the saga of Ma and his fake death to take centre stage, but not before more comic tomfoolery involving Wah-Li’s master, Yee (Ching-Ying Lam).

Ma’s death is sudden and underwhelming as he had scant time to be established with the audience. Similarly, the arrival of Yuet-Li poses the question how did Ma’s closest friends not know he had a wife. As a testament to Wah-Li’s loyalty, only he knew Ma was impotent; we get a flashback set in a brothel to reveal this -alas its main purpose is to get laughs from Wah-Li taking a proto-Viagra herb that works too well.

Back to the story, and Ma has to commit to his fraud by playing dead whilst lying in state ahead of his funeral – not an easy task with Wah-Li probing his body, or a thief trying to steal his gold teeth. Did I mention that Wah-Li was disguised as a Taoist paper effigy to be smuggled into the morgue? Yes, that how crazy this film is, but it gives Sammo a chance to display his comic chops by not moving about for once.

Even with this absurd premise, we still haven’t peaked in terms of offbeat concepts. We might infer the mindset was “the weirder the better” when writing the script, or perhaps the Taoist practices and philosophies it refers to are just as abstruse; there are times I wondered if Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer had a hand in the script! However, this silliness is contextualised by the spiritual environment martial arts films are affined with, somehow blending in with dubious ease.

For a film now 40 years old, the visual effects in the climactic fight are very impressive and not badly exposed by this pristine HD transfer – the only things that are would be the prosthetic make-up. Credit goes to Cherie Chung for her timing in reacting with her animated opponents, making the fight more believable than it should be. Sammo’s lone fight is also short but fun as she is possessed by Ma’s spirit (long story) therefore he has to act like Ma but in Wah-Li’s body.

One has to wonder how the film would have worked had Sammo directed it too – he co-wrote the script, co-produced the film, and handled the action choreography – but Wu Ma, also wearing two hats, brings a lot to the direction maybe Hung wouldn’t have. This ensures we are at least visually invested even when the story stops making sense, if it ever did in the first place, and the cast give more to their performances.

Humour being subjective leaves the comedy open to polarising opinion – it will be either uproariously hilarious or childishly bawdy, suffused with esoteric and regional references to render them arcane. Fortunately, Sammo’s forte is physical comedy and despite the paucity of fights, this is the dominant facet of his performance, with the others following suit.

Personal opinion will decide if 40 years was worth the wait for The Dead And The Deadly to reach UK shores. It is more fun and enjoyable given its obvious flaws and incredulous lack of fights, making its original box office disappointment easy to understand. Sammo Hung fans won’t care though I’m sure.

 

Extras:

Original Cantonese Mono (Theatrical Mix)

Original Cantonese Mono (Home Video Mix)

English Mono Dub

English Subtitles

Audio Commentary by Frank Djeng and Michael Worth

Audio Commentary by Mike Leeder and Arne Venema

Sammo Hung Interview at the 2016 Udine Far East Film Festival

Sammo Hung Q&A at the 2016 Udine Far East Film Festival

Original Hong Kong Theatrical trailer

Reversible Sleeve

Limited Edition Only:

O-Card slipcase

Collector’s Booklet

 

Rating – *** 

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