The Secret Rivals by James Nam, See-Yuen Ng (Review)

The movie became less a piece of entertainment, and more a tattered, browning, fading document from an alternate kung fu universe.
The Secret Rivals

I realize that this is going to sound somewhat Luddite-esque in this day and age of HDTV, Blu-Ray, and Dolby 23:1 surround sound systems, but there is something… refreshing about watching a movie where you can see the ravages of time in every single frame. A movie that hasn’t been remastered, double-dipped, or received any significant amount of studio spit and polish.

There many films out there that have received such treatment (or have received no treatment whatsoever), and deserve much, much better. But some films may actually benefit from being seen in such a tattered, worn-down state.

While my wife was out with the gals catching a performance of Cats, I decided to spend the evening with a semi-old-school kung fu movie that I hadn’t seen in years, The Secret Rivals. It’s a film that’s fairly interchangeable with all of the countless other kung fu movies from the same era. All of the shenanigans, plot twists, and cliches — every disagreement, no matter how small, must be solved by a duel of honor (preferably at the nearest temple); a person’s level of villainy can be instantly determined by the length, and whiteness, of their facial hair — are there in all of their glory.

It’s laughably bad through and through, with non-existent acting by actors whose screen presence is equally non-existent, camerawork that makes that home movie shot by your drunk uncle Albert at last year’s family Christmas party seem like the work of Kurosawa, editing that must have been done with a set of garden shears, and a soundtrack that can’t decide if it’s for a martial arts epic, a patriotic salute, or the evening news.

And let’s not get started on the subtitles, which on the Mei Ah release, are cut off by the cropped frame. Meaning you miss approximately 25% of the dialog, which makes figuring out the plot — paper-thin as it is — a wee bit trickier.

Even the martial arts is rather underwhelming, what with the presence of several major league martial artists involved, including the famous Jang Lee Hwang as the criminal leader Silver Fox (who just so happens to have the most facial hair, and the whitest.) You’d never guess that both Cory Yuen (who has worked on many of Jet Li’s finest movies) and Yuen Biao (who is, well, Yuen Biao) were assistant action choreographers.

There are a few interesting moments — the final duel between the two titular rivals and the evil Silver Fox has some nice acrobatic bits (and lots of impressive kicking), as do some of the requisite training session montages. But there are just a tad too many bits that owe an obvious debt to Bruce Lee (any scene with the nunchaku, characters’ various stances and facial tics).

(I suppose that isn’t all that surprising. The Secret Rivals came out in 1976, just a few years after Lee had exploded onto the scene with films including Enter The Dragon and The Chinese Connection and subsequently cast his long shadow over all of martial arts filmmaking.)

But as I watched the movie for the second time in years, I found myself caring less for the film’s obvious flaws, and hypnotized more by the film’s look. And by “look”, I’m not referring to the cinematography and scenery (which are simply butchered by the cropped frames), or the film’s mise en scène (was there any?).

Rather, I’m referring to the physical look of the movie: the obvious degradation of the film stock, all of its flaws rendered in exquisite detail on DVD; the way the film’s color levels jump all over the place (a scene may be bathed in red or blue, the next is back to normal); the awkward framing due to the cropping; and on and on.

Consider it the visual equivalent of analog tape hiss. Tape hiss can ruin a recording, rendering it indistinct, muddy, and unlistenable. But artists who know how to incorporate it into their overall sound can use it to cast an otherworldly shimmer over their music. Which removes the music from reality by one more level, and in the process, imbues it with a certain hyper-reality, as if it’s somehow coming more directly from that abstract, dream-like place that art is supposed to come from. The song becomes more ephemeral, more alien, more nostalgic, more haunting, more direct, more intense, more emotional.

And so it is with movies. Directors use all sorts of methods to mess up, saturate, corrupt, and even destroy their film stock to adjust the movie’s look and style. For example, the chemicals the stock is subjected to may make the film more washed out, or more lush and colorful.

In the case of The Secret Rivals, all, or most, of the degradation is due to the forces of time. I can imagine the originals sitting in some forgotten Chinese warehouse, buried under so much other detritus for a couple of decades before being discovered and sent off to the DVD facilities.

Even with digital technology, the result is still a film slathered over by the visual equivalent of tape hiss, and has the appearance of being ignored and unloved, having been deemed not worthy of any significant repairs and reconstruction. The film looks, and feels, less tied to clear, sharp, HD-quality reality — which actually has the curious effect of making it seem more real.

Folks like to joke around that martial arts movies, even the slickest and most well-made ones, could only exist in an alternate universe. A universe where everyday household items can become deadly weapons, a thirst for revenge can turn even the most mild-mannered weakling into a killing machine, a human being can easily survive a 5-story fall through fire and glass, and bad guys will only attack you one at a time (and never with guns).

But as I watched The Secret Rivals, its film stock ravaged and barely holding together, that idea seemed more realistic to my mind as I existed in that curious state that movies demand, suspended between belief and disbelief. The movie became less a piece of entertainment, and more a tattered, browning, fading document from an alternate kung fu universe. Which breathed more life and color into my crappy copy of The Secret Rivals than any great martial arts duel — or any amount of painstaking digital remastering or Dolby-ization — could have ever done.

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