When I first saw this movie (the 104 minute version we have here) in the theatre I enjoyed it very much, but I left with the nagging feeling that something wasn't right about it. A minor quibble was that a good part of the film's main climactic scene took place right at the beginning, but more bothersome to me was the fact that the film didn't seem sure of itself-- like it couldn't decide if it wanted to be a run-of-the mill martial arts picture, or a telling of a historical tale with an underlying philosophical message. Structurally it came across primarily as the former, but watching this in the theatre I had the nagging feeling that something much deeper was inside longing to emerge. For one thing, the 104 minute version contains very choppy editing. Great spans of history pass along in a flash. For example, during the scene where Huo is living in the village, years are supposed to have passed for him there, however one gets the feeling watching this that it has only been a few weeks. Furthermore, one simply doesn't buy, in this version of the movie, that he has really learned the lessons he is supposed to have learned-- or even that the film itself has much awareness of what those lessons were. The narrative seems very rushed, as though the filmmakers simply couldn't be bothered to tell their own story and were eager for the next fight scene to come along. I remember leaving the theatre thinking that it was a good movie, but also that a better, more fulfilling story, was waiting to be told about this fascinating character. Little did I know!
Fast forward a few months to the release of this DVD. I bought it, as I said I enjoyed the movie, but when I watched it I noticed something different about the subtitles-- they seemed to lack the same penetrating subtlety of perception that were found within the best scenes of the theatrical version. The two most glaring examples were during the "Tea" scene, where a very profound exchange between Huo and Tanaka gets reduced to a bunch of gibberish, and at the end, when Tanaka's manager asks him how he could say that Huo won and (in the theatrical version) he says "I know it in my heart" whereas in this version he simply mutters a threat. Again, it's still a good movie on some level, but watching this version one can't help the feeling that there is something much better within it waiting to come out.
AND THERE MOST CERTAINLY IS.
Surfing around online one night I discovered that there exists a "Director's Cut" of this movie that was released early this year (only in China though) that contained a whopping /40 minutes/ of extra footage. 40 minutes? How do you add 40 minutes to a 100 minute movie without basically making a whole new movie? This I had to find out. Fortunately I had previously hacked my DVD player to play all regions so I didn't hesitate to order the movie (which is presently only available in a region 3 compatible format). When I eventually watched the film, I came to a number of realizations.
1) This was the movie that was originally intended. It is not one of those "Director's Cuts" where loads of extra unnecessary crap is tacked on. This was the movie that was made to be seen, and it was butchered for its North American release.
2) The movie is an absolute masterpiece and currently resides in my top 5 movies of all time. I do not say this lightly. All my uneasiness about the 104 minute version evaporated entirely with this one. For one thing the structure of the narrative is greatly improved-- the climactic fight scene takes place at the end (where it was always supposed to and where it feels much more natural). For another, the movie actually feels like a story now-- told completely and deliberately. The bulk of the footage that was reinserted was from the movie's middle (and most important) act, where Huo is on his self-imposed exile. This version actually takes the time to flesh out Huo's relationship with Moon, and to show us exactly how the cosmic forces conspired to show him the error in his previous mode of life. One really gets the feeling watching this version, that Li's character is evolving, and the transition is very believable-- we are right there beside him, taking notes. Compare this to the shorter version where everything seemed disjointed and rushed. Furthermore, the Director's Cut contains more footage of Huo as a precocious child, which does much to give us a full picture of his life and spiritual evolution. An added bonus is that the Director's Cut contains the original, vastly superior subtitles, which actually seem to have been translated by someone who understood the story, and the subtlety of the philosophy it was trying to convey.
3) Lastly, whoever edited this movie for American theatres wanted to do away with the philosophical soul of this wonderful film, and leave us with a stereotypical "Kung Fu" flick. The result was that one of the greatest movies ever made was almost totally lost. If you just want to see Jet Li dominate, watch Fist of Legend. If you want to see the spirit and essence of the martial arts captured on screen, a wonderfully told story of a very fascinating character, and a beautiful portrait of how the forces of Nature are constantly conspiring to push us ahead in our spiritual advancement-- watch the Director's Cut of this film. Anything less is a waste of time.