Since 1999 Hong Kong Legends had released remastered versions of classics (relatively) old and new that had gained them an international reputation. But that wasn’t enough to keep them in business – why?
On 5 November 2007 affiliates for the DVD label Hong Kong Legends where told to remove all links to their site. The company would be no more. But why had this happened, and what does it say for the future of Asian film releases in the UK?
The DVD label Hong Kong Legends debuted in 1999, fresh faced, it entered the new and burgeoning DVD marketplace, releasing Kung Fu classics, iconic Bloodshed films and new films too. All remastered and restored to a level that many of them hadn’t even been in to begin with. Few of these films had even been available on Video in the UK, and back before the internet truly opened up international retail, getting hold of them was nearly impossible. Even if you could, most DVD transfers coming out of Hong Kong seemed straight off the Video or Laserdisc releases of films. (Often the original Laserdisc version was a better quality!)
In comparison, a HKL release had seal of class that swiftly got them an international reputation. Discs often bulged with heaps of extras, even if they could be of varying quality. And then there were those audio commentaries by Bey Logan. A HKL release became the definitive version of a film, the must have.
So what went wrong?
Wasn’t there a wealth of films waiting for the HKL treatment? John Woo still had a good (though swiftly tarnishing) reputation for action movies. Jackie Chan was only beginning to ruin his career with Hollywood films like Rush Hour. The same could be said of Jet Li. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was yet to captivate audiences.
Early releases reflected a predictable snapshot of the favourite stars of the time. The release of Jackie Chan’s double act with Simon Yuen in Drunken Master and Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow gave us a reason to see why he’d become so popular in the first place. But gaining the rights to release Media Asia’s back catalogue gave HKL incredible scope for the future, and of course that jewel in any one’s kung fu fantasy, Bruce Lee.
HKL backed up their release of Lee’s first three kung fu films, The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury, and Way Of The Dragon, with a seemingly impressive host of extras – for back in those days at least. And taking advantage of the relaxing attitude of British Film Censors, the films could finally be shown with their nunchuk scenes intact. But that was nothing compared to what they found for Game Of Death, Lee’s posthumous film, completed by the director of Enter The Dragon, Robert Clouse, long after Lee had passed away. They found 40 minutes of original footage, reduced to 12 minutes in the final film, re-edited it to how Lee had imagined it. (That didn’t, of course, stop the film itself from being a shameless cash in on Bruce Lee’s name.)
HKL even expanded to a sister label, Premier Asia – able to mop up those titles that weren’t strictly speaking, from Hong Kong. Now Japanese, Thai and Korean titles could also be included.
So far, so good, but following HKL seemed unable to capitalise on the success of Crouching Tiger to bring that audience to the films that inspired it. Their release schedule was slow, and the effort put into creating those extras waned over the years. And then there were still those commentaries by Bey Logan.
The magic was fading. Remastered versions of many of those films were now becoming available in HK and the US, and worse still HK was catching up on releasing new, improved versions of series like A Chinese Ghost Story and Once Upon A Time In China. Stranger still the label held off on releasing some of it’s most best known (or at least notorious) back catalogue, ignoring Sex And Zen for years, and overlooking John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II and Last Hurrah For Chivalry for some of his lesser titles.
What exactly was going on?
Late in 2006 pr agencies began to seek opinions from Asian fan sites and magazines on HKL’s behalf. A large retailer was arguing that their audiences didn’t care about the quality of the films. Of course they did, often ALL they cared about. That was what made it different.
Soon HKL changed tactic. Releasing what it called the ‘Ultra-bit collection’ it concentrated on the quality of the movie rather than a wealth of extras. The schedule was changed to a title a month. Finally here was Sex And Zen and Last Hurrah For Chivalry. And bizarrely a host of early Jackie Chan movies. But it was too late, in more senses than one. The writing was on the wall.
The effort and research was sadly missing from these new titles, it wasn’t just about extras, it was about making the definitive release of a title. Jackie Chan’s mid-80s US collaboration The Protector, for instance, missed an obvious opportunity to include Jackie’s version of the film alongside the American original. And then, considering there wasn’t much in the way of extras, the cost still pushed the better part of £20.
Things have changed a lot since the turn of the decade, when most releases would cost the better part of £20 if not more. Now a new release can easily be obtained for little over a tenner, and if you want to wait a couple of months, well under. But then there was a very good reason for the price. By the end of HKL’s run, they were lucky to shift between 80 and 100 copies of a title.
Think about it. That’s less than one copy for every OTHER HMV store in the UK. Surely there are more fans of Asian films than that? Audiences may have waned since Crouching Tiger, but they are still there. Just where are they? It’s a catch 22 – in comparison with the rest of the DVD market the price precludes purchase, but, of course, can’t be lowered to stand any chance of making a profit.
HKL are not the only label to have come a cropper since interests have seemingly waned. Momentum Pictures, for instance, secured domestic releases of the Shaw Brothers films restored by Celestial Pictures and released in Hong Kong by IVL. Oddly, these removed all the extras to offer the titles at about £12.99, still about four or five pounds more than you could get the original HK DVD delivered, overloaded with extras.
Whether it’s lack of interest, the global market, or simply cost, it doesn’t bode well for future Asian film releases in the UK. About 18 months ago, I complained about the wealth of great films by well-known Asian directors that remain unavailable in the UK. Directors like Zhang Yimou, who directed Hero, Raise The Red Lantern, and House Of Flying Daggers, or even Ang Lee himself. Not to mention easternKicks faves like Citizen Dog and King Of Masks. It’s hard to believe that no audience exists for these movies, they just have to know about them first.
In the States, a new label has been born out of the sort of titles that HKL would have released in the past, Dragon Dynasty. Can they make a go of it? And can anyone fill the gap in the UK? Let’s hope so… Let’s keep fighting till they do.