Recently, Paul Bramhall of City on Fire published an important article on the corrosive impact of piracy on martial arts and action cinema. In it, Bramhall explains how the decline in the budgets of today's independent action films is caused in part by piracy, which cuts the profitability of new productions. The article also discusses the apparently low demand for new (albeit sometimes dubious) Blu-Ray releases of older Asian action films. I broadly agree with Bramhall's points and they're worth a read.
I wanted to pick up some of the issues in the article and and to look at what I think is the other side of the problems action cinema is facing. In addition to a crisis of piracy, we also have what might be called a crisis of availability. What I mean by this is that in 2016, Asian action cinema is less visible and less widely available in the West than it has been for years - despite the advent of video on demand. These two crises are feeding into one another, creating a downward spiral: as fewer Asian action films see legitimate releases in the West, more consumers watch pirate releases. This in turn creates a sense that legitimate releases are not viable, and fewer occur. Clearly, this is not the only reason for piracy; there will always be those that choose not to pay. But like piracy itself, the crisis of availabilty is, for me, contributing to the existential threat to Asian action cinema fandom in the Western world.
Bramhall's article discusses the recent Warner Bros release of Pedicab Driver. a much-praised Sammo Hung vehicle which had been extremely difficult to obtain for decades. As flawed as that release apparently is, it's something to celebrate. However, there are precious few new releases of action films from Hong Kong and elsewhere these days, certainly in the UK. Distributors like Hong Kong Legends, Tartan Asia Extreme, and Optimum Asia have long since gone to the wall. Their releases are available now only as increasingly scarce second-hand copies and very few have been picked up by other distributors.
This is a great loss. For example, let's take John Woo - one of the most celebrated directors in the world and an icon of action cinema. His major Hong Kong films were last released in the UK over a decade ago, with no Blu-Ray releases in sight. Some of his films, including Heroes Shed No Tears (1986) and A Better Tomorrow II (1987), are very scarce indeed and to my knowledge Just Heroes (1989) has never been released in the UK. In another example, Bruce Lee's iconic Hong Kong efforts weren't available on UK BD at all until 2015. The situation is little better with online services; there are precious few Asian films on most of these, either on a subscription or one-off rental basis. One exception is that Celestial Pictures have made a selection of Shaw Brothers classics available on Google Play - but I'm not sure I know anyone who uses that.
While their efforts are admirable and certainly to be applauded, the present crop of DVD and BD distributors aren't really replacing those we have lost. Terracotta have released a number of "classic" martial arts films in recent years, but they are often ultra-low-budget obscurities for which there isn't much demand, like the last gasps of Chang Cheh. Arrow Video are a terrific outfit but they have released only a handful of Asian action films. It's clear that today's releases aren't selling well - but honestly, they're not the films that people want. It shouldn't be a surprise that a low-budget obscurity like Shanghai 13 isn't a hit (as grateful as I am for its release). When desirable films do emerge, some distributors are their own worst enemy. Mediumrare Entertainment, responsible for those Bruce Lee discs as well as others, have had their website "temporarily offline" for months - plus, the artwork for the discs was poor. It's frustrating when we really need their efforts to be successful.
Thankfully, there are bright spots. 88 Films launch their Asian collection this month, first with Hex (1980) and then a better-known Chang film, Five Element Ninjas (1982). A lack of demand can limit availability of the films we love, but if more distributors produce even a few quality releases, that can help build new demand. We've seen this with releases of Italian horror from both 88 Films and Arrow Video; but I can't say if there are additional rights or cost issues when it comes to Asian action films.
You would think it would be simpler with new Asian action films: but sadly, these are also rarely released in the West. While some of Jackie Chan's recent films like Dragon Blade and Police Story: Lockdown have seen the light of day in the UK, they are hardly top-tier efforts. By contrast, huge recent films like Rise of the Legend, SPL 2, and Veteran are all unavailable except as imports. In short - if it doesn't star Jackie or Donnie, it's hard to get hold of.
The Import Option
Where streaming, rental, or local release options aren't available, the last legal recourse is import. Sometimes this means importing from the US, where certain films are made available exclusively on Region 1 DVD or Region A BD. More often, it means bringing discs in from Asia. For me at least, this is rarely an option. While I've imported a couple of discs via eBay (Fortune Star's Hong Kong releases of A Better Tomorrow II and Yes, Madam), it's typically just too expensive to buy from the big sites. DVD and BD region coding can also be a real minefield, as can subtitle options. It's useful for films you must have, but importing is hardly the solution to availability issues for most fans.
A Way Forward?
I can only conclude that piracy, availability issues, and the general decline in popularity of the action genre all add up to a real threat to Asian action cinema in the West. There is only so much that fans and distributors can do to combat this - we can't untangle the complexities of film rights, for example. But there are actions we can take. First, as action fans we can commit to avoiding piracy. When the availability of films is such an issue, it can be difficult - but we have to appreciate the negative impact piracy has. Second, we have to support legitimate releases when they happen. This is particularly true now that margins are small, and the continuation of a label or a franchise depends on sales. It also goes for Western films: as Scott Adkins has made clear, his films have seen budgets shrink as a result of poor sales and high piracy. Thirdly and finally, we must show distributors that we want high quality releases of action cinema both new and old. When they produce sub-standard releases they should be told as much, however unresponsive a giant like Warners can be; and when they produce something really special, they deserve to be rewarded with our praise and our financial support.
For years now, collecting Asian action cinema has been a big part of my life - and while it's a niche and possibly shrinking interest, I'm not alone. Last year I was able to visit Hong Kong, and saw numerous film locations as well as the iconic statue of Bruce Lee on the Avenue of Stars at Tsim Sha Tsui. But one of the best aspects of the trip was bringing back Hong Kong DVDs and Blu-Rays of local films like Knockabout and The Magnificent Butcher. That simple pleasure of having hard-to-find films in my hand never gets old; and I hope it's something we can all continue to do for a long time yet.