Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he stumbles across the Jackie Chan movie Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow on a late-night channel surf in China:
The day is fast approaching when–come 6 a.m. Chinese Standard Time–fans of both experimental architecture and government-controlled television will come together over Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture-erected China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing. Dubbed “the twisted doughnut” by adherents and detractors alike, the 575,000-square-meter cantilevered structure, still being built, will have its steel joints from two separate towers sutured together in that magic-hour light.
Having recently visited Beijing with a few friends, I missed out on a chance to witness such history being made, though there is solace to be taken in that with Beijing’s steel-colored (and similarly opaque) smog, I couldn’t have glimpsed the damned CCTV structure anyway. As a consolation prize, our group instead whiled away many jetlagged hours in our Beijing hotel room watching CCTV 6 at ungodly times. Not that we could translate the pictographic language, but we deemed this channel “The Kung Fu Channel” because at almost any time, one could tune in to see ridiculous wire work, flurries of hand chops, a young Jet Li and/or Gordon Liu dispensing fleet feet of justice, and animal-based fighting styles of infinite varieties.
One particular Tsingtao-sodden night, our group caught a Jackie Chan flick at 3 a.m. It is here that I give thanks to the archetypal Hong Kong Kung-Fu framework: baleful kung-fu master (in this case portrayed by Hwong Jang Lee); elderly teacher who still opens cans of whip-ass (Yuen Siu Tien); Jackie Chan as a doofus who nevertheless haphazardly learns how to issue a beatdown; vengeance gained via arduous training and the deployment of ancient fighting styles. Were it not for such tropes, I might’ve never figured out this movie. There were subtitles, but a good 2/5ths of them were clipped on either side, and judging from the transfer, which was so distorted that it verged on the psychedelic, it seems that we watched a sixth-generation VHS dub from the early ’80s. It was only via the Internet that I even gleaned the film’s title: Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow, bashed out in 1978 by action choreographer-turned-director Yuen Woo-ping, who would gain renown in the West for choreographing the martial arts sequences for little films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and Kill Bill.
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow remains the craziest Jackie Chan movie I’ve witnessed–even moreso than Rush Hour 3 (that’s not just the Tsingtao and plum wine talking). Audacious fight scenes aside, what pushes Eagle’s Shadow over the top is its soundtrack. While the credits list Chou Fu-liang as composer, the film liberally rips off its incidental music from elsewhere. My drunken first encounter made me think of Italian maestros like Goblin and Ennio Morricone–for the better part of the flick, the soundtrack toggles between Moogy arpeggios and more poignant strings, earmarks of those two artists. A bit more research though makes me realize that rather than emulate Goblin (which may have been too much work for the HK industry), the “composer” simply bit Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene Pt.2″ unabashedly. In this training sequence (embedding disabled, sorry), the Morricone choirs give way to Jarre.
The choicest bit of the soundtrack isn’t music, but a cheap sound effect. It’s brought into the movie soon after Jackie Chan’s ne’er-do-well character, Chien, has had his Snake Fist technique falter against the malefic Eagle’s Claw fighting style. Sullen, he returns home to see his housecat locked in mortal combat with a hooded cobra. My friends and I figured that the production went through three stunt cats in shooting this sequence, though a non-venomous snake may have been the cheaper option. Surely Garfield is getting it, but it turns out that kitty’s got claws. As an astounded Chan looks on, this mere housecat slays the deadly cobra and in the process teaches Jackie Chan a new fighting style: Cat’s Claw.
Awkwardly–yet inexplicably awesomely montaged–this fight scene between snake and kitty isn’t scored by Jarre, but rather the sound of a cat. It’s no simple “meow,” but instead the cougar-screech that a cat makes when, say, you hold it by the tail over a full bathtub and shake–only layered, heavily compressed, and flanged to devastating effect. On any occasion when Chan clenches his fist into the Cat’s Claw position, that sick-ass sound rings out. Chan mows down the practitioners of the Eagle’s Claw.
Jackie Chan unveils his new style about 3:20 into the climactic final fight (a sequence so intense that Hwong Jang Lee actually kicked out Chan’s front tooth during filming). And when that cat screech gets juxtaposed with the galloping Jarre track, it’s the perfect meeting between East and West.