The Master is a later kung-fu flick, made in 1980 by director Lu Chin-Ku. It stars a young actor named Yuen Tak in his first film and several Shaw Brothers veterans, notably Chen Kuan-tai and Johnny Wang Lung-wei. Though the focus is on the action scenes, particularly in the second half of the film, it’s obvious that the director has taken note of the introduction of comedy to the genre — wide-eyed slapstick and sproing-oing-oing noises are rather common until the action scenes start in earnest.
It’s not a bad movie, though. As the story begins, we see Jin Tianyun (played by Chen Kuan-tai) taking on three other martial artists in an inn. We quickly learn that he’s an upright, moral hero who’s decided to rid the world of these three, who we’re told are rapists and murderers. He’s obviously far more skilled than they are, and is winning the fight… until a waiter in the inn sticks in a knife in his side, colluding with the evildoers. He escapes, trailing blood, and finds his way to the home of Gao Jian, our lead character.
Gao (played by Yuen Tak) is the most junior student in a local martial arts school whose students don’t seem to be all that good at kung-fu. Two in particular, his second and third brothers, spend all their time bullying Gao, and he inevitably gets the blame and is punished by the master. Despite this, he’s a fun-loving, grinning guy with an amazingly girlish haircut who occasionally manages to get his own back and practices hard when he’s not performing horse stance over a well as punishment.
Gao takes Jin in and looks after him in secret, while his three adversaries are scouring the town for him. As he recovers, Jin questions Gao about where he is and his school and reveals that he had beaten Gao’s master in a fight three years previously — for although this school is a well-respected one, the master’s technique is flawed and inferior to Jin’s. No matter how long Gao trains, he’ll never learn more than some boxing and a few kicks, he says. Though it means betraying his school, Gao asks Jin to teach him and Jin agrees, teaching him martial arts in secret at night. Eventually, things fall apart when Gao reveals his new skills by accident during practice, and Jin appears to protect him. A fight breaks out and Jin’s would is opened again, forcing him to flee, running right into the arms of our three bad guys. There he’s unceremoniously killed by their leader, Yan Qingwang (played by an impressively eyebrowed Johnny Wang Lung-wei).
These three gangsters then move in on the school, which is (as Jin had said) lacking in the technique necessary to hold them off. Fortunately, Gao has been practicing and has become another Jin Tianyun, albeit one that grins a lot more.
Yuen Tak has done a lot of film work, including action direction on several mid- to late-90’s films, even big-ticket Jet Li movies. I’ve never seen him act before, but he has quite a bit of charm (despite the haircut!) and can definitely hold his own in the fight scenes. There’s a lot of acrobatics in this film, too, which makes him rather reminiscent of the characters played by Chiang Sheng in some of the Venoms films. You can see Jackie Chan’s/Lau Kar-leung’s comedic influence as well in much of the slapstick and well-timed fight choreography. Chen Kuan-tai plays the confident, heroic master well, too, and makes his fights seem almost effortless… it’s all the other combatants who are doing all the flailing about while he glides around dispensing justice. Until he meets a rather painful end, anyway.
The film’s directed well, with some good camerawork in some of the later action sequences as Gao disposes of the three evildoers, but there are occasional hamfisted comedic moments that jar a bit — the freeze frame and aforementioned sproing noise can get a little tiresome, but they don’t happen that often. There’s also some very gratuitous nudity when one of our evildoers visits a brothel and plays ‘the money game’, which involves him throwing heavy silver pieces at topless prostitutes, who try to catch them and bruise quite heavily, poor things — it rapidly unravels when Gao arrives, but it did take me slightly aback. I suspect that this was meant as an enticement to cinemagoers to see the film, much like Chang Cheh’s ever-increasing body count or the extra nudity in some of the other later Shaws releases.
All, in all another solid kung-fu film with some impressive action sequences and good performances from the two lead actors. A small warning: despite what the cover says, this DVD only has the Mandarin audio and decent English subtitles — no English dub track seems to be present. The video transfer’s excellent, like the other Siren Shaws films, and there’s a 50 minute documentary on wuxia films included as well as a documentary on Chang Cheh, Shaw Brothers’ most famous director.