After the one-two punch of SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER, the landscape of martial arts cinema changed dramatically. Not only was Jackie Chan launched into superstardom, but the Peking Opera influence, as well as the acrobatic and humor started taking center stage. Golden Harvest reaped the rewards with a series of financially successful pictures that would continue throughout the 80s with larger budgets and bigger production values, but the more traditional Shaw Brothers studio had difficulty keeping up with these new tastes.
It’s not that their films were getting worse. The Shaw Brothers studio was such a well oiled machine that they continued to pump out some of their most beloved films in the late 1970s, but their old-school, stage-bound mentality felt impossibly stodgy next to the energy present in the films from Golden Harvest. Not surprisingly, they attempted to introduce some of these comedic elements into their own films, with varying degrees of success. One of the best is 1980’s THE MASTER directed by veteran Shaw Brothers Lu Chin Ku which plays like a strange hybrid of the Shaw Brothers films of the time – filled with elaborate training sequences and high production values – and the comedy elements and loose, improvised-feeling plot of the Golden Harvest films.
And it’s amazing. Actually, to be more specific, the FIGHTS are amazing. The choreography by Hsu Hsia (who was the action director on DRUNKEN MASTER) is wonderful, appropriately showing off the talents of the performers in a variety of jaw-dropping combinations. While Lu Chin Ku sometimes leans on the undercranking a little heavily (to make the action appear faster), and there are some obvious doubles for some of the more acrobatic movements, it makes for consistently riveting viewing despite a plot that serves only as a skeleton to hang the fights upon. Not that that’s a bad thing when they are as good as this.
Perhaps the most obvious aping of the Golden Harvest formula comes from the casting of Yuen Tak in the lead as the bumbling orphan Gao Jian, who of course is trained to be a kung-fu master. Tak was a member of the Seven Little Fortunes opera troupe with Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Wah, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen and Yuen Mo, and had little film experience beyond doing stunt work in Golden Harvest productions before being cast in THE MASTER. The Shaws plucked him from obscurity to be their Jackie Chan surrogate, and his character seems like an amalgam of Chan’s recent characters at that time.
The film begins intensely, with three evil kung-fu experts (referred to as the Three Devils) entering a restaurant to confront hero martial arts master Jin Tianyun (Chen Kuan Tai, who starred in and directed the original IRON MONKEY (1981)). They all attack suddenly, leading to a great fight scene occasionally interrupted by credits. Despite being outnumbered, Jin gets the better of his opponents until the restaurant owner suddenly stabs him in the side, leading to a hasty escape out the window.
As with many Shaw Brothers films of the period, the baddies have distinctive looks and personality quirks. Fan San (Yuen Fai, also one of the action directors) is acrobatic and has a temper, Zhou San Chao (Yuen Fai) is a womanizer who uses darts and other sneaky devices, while the best of the bunch is Yan Qing-wang (Wang Lung Wei, a Chang Cheh regular) who practices leopard boxing and uses his ponytail as a weapon. The Three Devils begin terrorizing the countryside in search of Master Jin in the hopes of finishing him off before he finds a way to recover from his wound.
At a nearby martial arts school, Gao Jian (Yuen Tak) gets in trouble after trying to defend the instructor’s daughter against two asshole students. Unfortunately, as an orphan and someone with limited kung-fu skills he’s made an example of since the motto of the school is “troublemakers and treacherous fighters will be punished severely”. Ouch. He’s made to stay in a “horse stance” with a weight around his neck while the other students – Ying Chang (Lam Fai-Wong) & Wei Kun (Chan Lau) – mercilessly taunt him.
Afterwards, exhausted, he wanders to his room only to hear odd sounds outside. At first thinking it’s a ghost, he soon discovers it’s actually a badly wounded Jin Tianyun – Gao Jian’s hilarious response to being frightened is a highlight (“How dare you. You’re still alive.”). Gao Jian is afraid he’ll get in trouble if he tells his master, so instead he nurses Jin back to health. When he brings up Jin Tianyun’s name to his master Shi Chen-chung (Lau Hok Nin), the teacher admits that Jin is skilled, but states he didn’t come from a decent school and is therefore not as skilled as himself.
Over the next few weeks, Gao Jian sneaks food to Jin as he recovers – though his classmates steal any meat so he’s stuck giving him plain rice. Master Jin reveals that he had broken the ribs of Shi Chen-chung years previously, which explains why he’s a bit dickish when his name is mentioned. He also asks Gao to get him some medicine from the city, since his wound is still bothering him.
But the medicine shop is being guarded by Fan San, who figures – rightly – that eventually Jin will arrive (or send someone) to get medicine. Recognizing the medicine Gao requests is for a stab wound, he threatens him. Gao says the medicine is for his own teacher, and that while Jin did arrive at their school, he kicked the knife in further (“every word is so true”). Fan San is an idiot, so he believes the story and runs off to tell the rest of the Three Devils. What a maroon.
Returning with the medicine, Gao does a demonstration of some of what he’s learned at the school, much to Master Jin’s skepticism. The wounded Jin fends off Gao’s attacks easily, and Gao – finally – asks Jin to teach him kung-fu. Since he doesn’t want to betray his school, Jin agrees to teach him discreetly. And that leads to some TRAINING! These are some of my favorite parts of any old-school kung-fu movie, and we get a bit of Jin’s philosophy to go with it. It seems there are four types of Chinese boxing motions: Fist, Palm, Claw and Hook. These are founded on four bases: Kick, Strike, Wrestle and Hold. Proper technique relies on a combination of the eye, body and hand. We also get a list of don’ts: Don’t act on impulse, Don’t rush, and Don’t be vain. See! Now you got it!
We see Gao’s progress as he goes from being unable to break hanging roof tiles to smashing them with ease, before Jin moves on to teaching him about edged weapons. Alas, during practice the master’s wounds continue to degrade, and he’s out of money so Gao decides to ask his teacher for a loan to get more medicine. Instead he overhears the townspeople trying to hire the teacher to take care of the Three Devils, and discovers that Zhou San Chao has been spending all of his money at a local brothel. Gao decides – oddly – to try and get some money from him.
Who likes nudity? Well, at the brothel we get to watch Zhou San Chao pour wine all over a prostitute’s breasts before sucking it off of her, much to Gao’s confusion (“Such a big man and he’s still sucking breasts”). Zhou enjoys playing a game where he throws silver ingots at ladies, and if they are able to catch them they can keep them. Yeah. It’s weird. Gao Jian, of course, dresses as a woman and enters the game – where he is able to catch a number of silver pieces before Zhou discovers he’s actually a man and runs him off. Gao follows this with an attempt to buy medicine with the stolen money, but the shopkeeper refuses to open. He (stupidly) throws the silver at the shop-keep’s door, drawing the attention of some townspeople who mistake him for Zhou San Chao’s student. They beat him and stuff him in a sack, bringing him back to his school where he confesses about dressing as a prostitute. If you’re guessing he might be punished for being an idiot, you would be correct.
Thankfully, Master Jin teaches him the “Art of Utilizing the vital energy”, which helps him get through his punishments. Months go by and Gao continues to train, eventually leading to the predictable scene where Shi Chen-chung is showing off his abilities and sparring with his students. Daixiong (the school’s big brother) takes him on but quickly fails, as does Ying Chang, before a napping Gao Jian finally gets his chance to fight “Thunderstorm” Shi Chen-chung. After a shaky start, he shows his kung-fu to be far superior, and humiliates Shi in front of the other students. Shi is PISSED, and he’s about to beat on Gao Jian when Jin Tien-yun suddenly appears. Thunderstorm accuses Gao of betraying his school, before sending all of his students to attack Master Jin. He easily fends off the attacks, but eventually his wound starts acting up and he runs off.
Away from the city, Jin runs into the Three Devils (now THAT’S some bad luck) with Yan Qing-wang taking him on, profiting on his weakened state. He’s still nearly victorious before Zhou Sanzhao throws some darts into his back, setting up his getting kicked in the nuts and sliced up by Yan’s ponytail. The three murder him, and that’s the end of the movie.
Just kidding! Gao Jian is being punished horribly for training with Jin, and Shi Chen-chung is threatening to “drain him of his vital energy”, much to the chagrin of his daughter and Daixiong. Daixiong helps Gao Jian escape, which is unfortunate as the school is nearly immediately visited by the Three Devils – who immediately start kicking ass and taking over. Everyone jumps in to try and stop them, but Thunderstorm is sort of a shitty teacher and quickly gets his butt kicked. Daixiong gets killed and, after the Three Devils threaten his daughter, Shi Chen-chung tells everyone to just give up.
FLASH FORWARD ONE YEAR. Gao Jian has been working at a restaurant and developing his kung-fu skill. In fact, he’s now at the level of Master Jin, meaning that (wait for it) HE’S THE MASTER! Two criminals drop by the restaurant on their way to Gao’s former school, and he discovers – through violence – that Jin is dead and that his former teacher has been made subservient to the Three Devils. He returns to the school, but finds an icy reception from his former classmates who still see him as a bumbling troublemaker.
And this is where things get SUPERAWESOME. Seriously.. the final half hour of THE MASTER is simply a series of incredible fights. First Gao Jian vs Fan San. Then Gao Jian vs Zhou Sanzhao. Then Gao Jian vs ALL THE REMAINING CRIMINALS, which leads into the final fight between Gao Jian and Yan Qing-wang. They are some of the most impressive fights I’ve seen from this period, featuring incredibly complex sequences with few edits. Yuen Tak shows himself to be incredibly skilled, which makes his lack of later stardom rather confusing. His pedigree, charisma and ability certainly suggested he should have found greater success.
Gao Jian takes on all three of the Devils, before his epic confrontation with Yan Qing-wang. He gets proper revenge – I particularly enjoyed the horror movie overtones of his fight with Zhou Sanzhao – and things end IMMEDIATELY. No need for a messy post-script after that much awesome.
Alas THE MASTER wasn’t the cross-over hit that the Shaw Brothers were hoping for, and while Yuen Tak has had a respectable acting career (and continues to do choreography), he never became a major kung-fu star. That’s a bit surprising when you watch those final fights, and see just how much talent and charisma he possessed. He would continue to make films for the Shaws throughout the first half of the 1980s, right up until the end of their final year of major production in 1985. Some of these later films are quite good – and we’ll hopefully be covering them – but the audience had simply moved on by this point.
NEXT WEEK: FIST OF FURY PART II (1977)