DirectorClarence Fok, Yuen Biao
Release Date(s)1989 (October 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Golden Harvest/Johnny Mak Productions (Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B+
The Iceman Cometh (aka Gap tung kei hap, also The Time Warriors) is a delightfully loopy genre-bending wuxia film, mixing action, comedy, science fiction, and martial arts into an eccentric but satisfying whole. It ends up feeling like a Shaw Brothers remake of Time After Time, since it borrows two key elements from the Nicholas Meyer classic: one man’s pursuit of an evil nemesis across time itself, and the fish-out-of-water story of how two very different people handle being thrust into a wildly unfamiliar era. In terms of the broadly comic approach to the latter element, it has almost as much in common with Crocodile Dundee as it does with Meyer’s film, yet it still doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of the story, either. Hong Kong films have never had an issue mixing comedy with tragedy, and The Iceman Cometh is no exception.
The story begins in 16th century China during the Ming Dynasty, and ends up in modern-day Hong Kong. After Princess Nan Chang is raped and murdered by Fung San (Yuen Wah), the Emperor gives the disgraced captain of the royal guard Fong Sau-Ching (Yuen Biao) just twenty days to bring the renegade killer to justice. Unfortunately, time isn’t on Fong’s side, and thanks to the intervention of the mystical Buddha’s Wheel, both Fong and Fung San end up frozen in ice for hundreds of years. When both of them are finally thawed out, the chase begins anew. Fung San finds himself comfortably fitting into the criminal underworld of present-day Hong Kong, but Fong struggles to understand modern life, so he ends up being taken under the wing of a local sex worker named Polly (Maggie Cheung). The two slowly develop a grudging affection for each other, but the threat posed by Fung San inevitably comes between them.
The Iceman Cometh is a perfect showcase for the acrobatic martial arts gifts of Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah, as well as the comedic talents of Maggie Cheung. Everything plays to their respective strengths. Biao and Wah both served as action choreographers (along with Yuen Tak and Car Lok Chin), and they dreamed up some interesting showcases for their talents. There’s a wild fight scene that takes place on top of a jeep that’s suspended by a crane, followed by not one, but two different epic leaps to safety. There’s also plenty of acrobatic wire work and martial arts finesse on display, and editor Hung Poon freely overlaps the action to make sure that none of the camera angles go to waste. The potential chaos is kept under control—barely—by director Clarence Fok, who was more than capable of handling this kind of material. All that, plus an improbable title borrowed from Eugene O’Neill, for no particularly good reason. Who could ask for anything more?
The Iceman Cometh is offered here in both the 115-minute Hong Kong cut, and a 122-minute expanded Mandarin cut. Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t appear to be the complete extended version. According to movie-censorship.com, there was a Taiwanese cut available on VHS that clocks in at roughly 125 minutes (although that version is missing about a minute of the opening credits, so the full running time would be a bit longer). 88 Films in the UK is releasing their own set with the extended cut listed at 127 minutes, so that will be the most complete version available. In any event, the editing is tighter and more polished in the Hong Kong cut, so the extended versions are primarily curios—more of a bonus feature than a viable alternative. Still, it’s a shame that the longest version wasn’t included here.
Cinematographer Poon Hang Sang (with some assistance from an uncredited Peter Pau) shot The Iceman Cometh on 35 mm film with spherical lenses, framed at 1.85:1 for its theatrical release. Both versions of the Hong Kong cut and the Mandarin cut utilize studio masters that were supplied by Fortune Star, with some additional restoration and grading work performed on the Hong Kong cut by Vinegar Syndrome, while the Mandarin cut is presented un-retouched. The differences between the two are minor, with the overall color grade appearing perhaps just a touch more balanced on the Hong Kong cut. Either way, everything is clean, with no signs of damage, and the grain is managed well by the encoding (both discs run at a high bit rate). The image is detailed and reasonably well-refined, though obviously the optical work for the title sequences and the special effects means that those shots look a bit softer. The stylized color scheme of the film is reproduced well, with the Hong Kong version again looking perhaps just a touch more balanced—although the differences would be difficult to spot without a side-by-side comparison.
Audio for the Hong Kong cut is offered in Cantonese 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English or English SDH subtitles; the original English dub in 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles; and an alternate late-period English dub in 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. (The audio menu provides the option to select the appropriate subtitles for each version.) Audio for the extended cut is offered in Mandarin 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English SDH subtitles. Regardless of language choice, the overall fidelity is fairly limited, without much extension for either the low or high frequencies. It’s otherwise reasonably clean, with little noise or hiss, but perhaps just a bit of distortion on some of the peaks.
Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of The Iceman Cometh is a two-disc set that includes the Hong Kong cut and all of the extras on disc one, with the extended Mandarin cut on disc two. It also includes a reversible insert and a 12-page booklet featuring an essay by John Charles, as well as an explanation about the different versions. There’s an embossed and spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 6,000 units, that was designed by Robert Sammelin. The extras include a combination of new and archival features:
- Audio Commentary with Samm Deighan
- Frame by Frame, Frame by Frame (HD – 19:36)
- Warrior Prince (Upscaled SD – 11:04)
- Nemesis (Upscaled SD – 14:56)
- Hong Kong Trailer (HD – 3:53)
- English Language Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:09)
- Alternate English Title Sequence & End Credits (HD – 2:42)
The new commentary is by author and film historian Samm Deighan, who happily admits that she’s excited to be doing a commentary for The Iceman Cometh. She puts it into context with other wuxia films, describing the way that the genre developed throughout the Eighties, and also discusses some of the inadvertent connections that The Iceman Cometh has with the notorious Category III films in Hong Kong. She provides background information for all of the actors, including a brief history of the Seven Little Fortunes at the Chinese Drama Academy, a group that counted Yuen Biao, Yuen Wah, Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung among its members. She also spends some time on Clarence Fok and the rest of the production crew. While her pronunciation of a few of the names is a bit dubious at times (hardly uncommon for commentary tracks), it’s a nice appreciation of a film that has always deserved a bit more love than it tends to get.
Frame by Frame, Frame by Frame is a fun and informative new interview with cinematographer Poon Hang Sang, who freely admits that he considers The Iceman Cometh to be a less mature work on his part. He covers a variety of subjects, including the nature of shooting actions scenes, as well as how he handled the special effects. He describes things like the unique needs of filming the full contact Sammo Hung school of action choreography, and picking lenses and angles to exaggerate the sense of height for the high falls. He also gives his recollections of shooting specific set pieces, including an interesting story about shooting the horse chase through the streets of Kowloon City without a permit.
Warrior Prince is an archival interview with Yuen Biao, who shares his memories of making The Iceman Cometh. He describes it as a difficult shoot due to the weather, as well as other conditions. He praises Clarence Fok for the way that the director gave films like this a modern feel, and also has some kind words for Maggie Cheung. He openly acknowledges that he hasn’t always appreciated the film’s sense of humor. Nemesis is an interview with Yuen Wah, who also discusses the difficulties shooting in the cold weather, and provides some greater detail about what happened while shooting the horse chase without a permit. He also talks about his relationship with Yuen Biao, and modestly describes their Kung Fu skills as “okay.” Finally, the Alternate English Title Sequence & End Credits is from the original English dubbed version of the film that was rechristened The Time Warriors. That’s the first of the two dub tracks on the feature film, and since the alternate titles couldn’t be included via seamless branching, they’re offered here as an extra.
The only thing that appears to be missing for this edition of The Iceman Cometh is the commentary with Bey Logan that was included on the UK and Australian DVD releases from Hong Kong Legends. Fortunately, the new Samm Deighan commentary is a fine substitute, and the interview with Poon Hang Sang is also a great new addition. It’s a lovely set for fans of the film, and hopefully it picks up a few new ones along the way.
- Stephen Bjork