Although my initial response to The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter was more or less lukewarm, particularly in the wake of watching so many Lau Kar Leung-directed masterpieces, it’s a film whose massive effect on the kung fu cinema fanbase has always intrigued me. I know, I know. The fact that I don’t adore this film automatically makes kung fu fans want to defang me like a wolf. Still, it’s a film that often stretches itself thin with its ambitions in some small ways.
As a narrative, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is an epic. Its story around the Yang family, the performances of its characters - mainly the pronounced trauma of its initial two leads, Gordon Liu and Alexander Fu Sheng, and its incredibly agile and dynamic fight work make it the true classic Shaw picture. If anything, it's almost too ambitious at times and so many of its secondary plots and themes tend to fade out. A phenomenal one scene appearance by director Lau Kar Leung as a hermit adds so much intriguing back story to the main plot, but it’s brushed over. They make the best of it, particularly in how the performances mesh with the emotions that feed into the action, but there is always a sense that the limits of its budget and other factors prevent this one from freeing its soul in complete glory.
Not to mention, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter also had to deal with the horrific tragedy that one of its leads passed away during production. Despite this, it is a fairly effective and thought-provoking take on the aftermath of the Yang family massacre, a story that has seen a multitude of cinematic representations throughout the years. Had Alexander Fu Sheng, who died in a car accident during filming, been allowed to finish the film, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter would have been even more effective in its story. Rather than having to substitute in one of the Yang sisters, played with scene stealing finesse by Kara Hui, it could have completed his character arc.
Not that the final act is a mess because of it. On the contrary, Lau Kar Leung manages to pull it off with the littlest friction possible. The final battle is one of the most iconic ones for the studio with stacked coffins and enough dental trauma to make me schedule a cleaning this week, but it also manages to tie in a few key pieces around its main themes concerning violence, peace, and the role of good men who do nothing.
This is not the first time this film has seen a US release, previously being granted a fairly impressive Dragon Dynasty DVD release and for those of us with international tastes, 88 Films dropped a UK edition that was a solid step up. Yet, this latest Arrow Video version comes out swinging its own pole to vie for being the best release. It’s a brand new 2K restoration of the film’s negative (meaning we can see the true Shaw Brothers logo sequence from the time period!) and a slew of extras exclusive to this disc. The short film, A Tribute to Fu Sheng, is a nice touch on the features, but Rayns retrospective and commentary by Clements end up being the highlights of this release and fans of Shaw Brothers who may already have prior releases will want to add this one for those reasons.
While my own enjoyment of The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter has certainly warmed over the years, it’s nice to see this impressive standalone release from Arrow Video. It has already achieved its untouchable classic status over the years and seeing it in this new 2K restoration with all of the analysis makes it worth continuing to look at. With its incredible performances, impressive fight sequences, and thematic punch, it’s hard to knock The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter when it’s knocking your teeth out.