Review: The Young Master (1980)

Something adorable happens when an imaginative kid is asked to tell a story. The child’s eyes light up, lungs are audibly inflated, and then —

“Alice woke up and left home with her best hat which was blue to go to the vet because her cat hurt its paw and on the way she saw her friend riding a new bike but before she could catch him he turned a corner and then she decided to borrow her sister’s rollerskates so she could catch him and then it started raining so she hid in a tunnel under the train tracks and she had to block her ears because the trains were loud and then she noticed spiders crawling on the ground to get away from the water and then —

The Young Master marks a turning point in Jackie Chan’s career. Stuck in a suffocating contract under director Lo Wei, his breakout hits (Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master) came about when working with Yuen Woo Ping after being loaned to the Seasonal film studio. With star power now on Jackie’s side, Lo Wei granted him directorship for Fearless Hyena, but the two still didn’t get along. Jackie finally escaped permanently to join the Golden Harvest studio, where he had formerly worked as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, now as a director and star. Given unprecedented freedom, such as burning through several hundred takes of film for one shot, he immediately went hog wild and The Young Master is the result.

Filming began before scripting was complete, and it shows. Continuity is iffy and the film stumbles and trips and changes tone and style as it goes, typified by the early whiplash-inducing overuse of crash zooms that settles into much sparer and effective deployment in the second half. It’s like the film is morphing before our eyes into a hybrid traditional kung fu film and typical Jackie Chan slapstick action comedy.

Events kick off with a most traditional — and appropriate for a Chinese New Year release — scene, a lion dance. At the heart of this well executed set piece is a dramatic reveal that leads to orphan Ah Lung (Jackie Chan) leaving his kung fu school in disgrace to find his brother Tiger (Wai Pak, The Five Deadly Venoms). It’s a melodramatic first half hour culminating with Jackie a howling, slobbering mess. Then in the very next scene Ah Lung toys casually with Big Cannon Bill (Fan Mei Sheng), goading him into a show-stopping, meticulously choreographed fight with an eye-catching white fan — which is where the several hundred takes comes into the picture. From here on it’s action comedy hijinks all the way to the end, the emotional upheaval forgotten.

The fan is important, because Tiger has also been using one in his shady activities since fleeing home. Cue mistaken identity, lots of fighting, and sitcom style scenes that draw out for as long as possible the moment the penny drops. The story pings from set piece to set piece with the barest justification, everything existing for the next joke or stunt. Jackie makes funny faces, performs physical feats, and if he interacts with anyone — such as police marshal Sam Kung (Kien Shih) or his daughter (Lily Li) — for more than a few seconds, it’s a safe bet they will come to blows.

The action is a little inconsistent, not so much in quality as in style, bearing further witness to Jackie’s transformative preferences for action, from traditional kung fu execution to freewheeling fisticuffs. Much of it still has that stilted look, like the performers are executing martial arts forms in tandem. The moves are far from formulaic for the most part though, with only a bench and staff stoush between Jackie and school mate Yuen Biao feeling really retro. The artistry in the fan fight, or Jackie’s effortless disarming of five police officers with swords, are a joy to watch.

Sometimes though, the more modern style where the blows blur into each other appears, as in the introductory scene for the main villain (Whang Ing-Sik). Beginning captive on a wooden cart, once freed he’s a ferocious whirlwind, striking fast and hard. The editing is sometimes constructed to cut out movement from foe to foe, leaving a succession of finishing blows, complete with wire enhanced knockdowns. It’s a heck of an entrance.

For the final showdown with this big bad, Jackie brings no training-sequence-honed special style as in his hits of the few years prior, but pulls out the most brazen example of what became the defining characteristic of many of his screen characters, dogged determination, as he outlasts his enemy in a marathon one vs one battle nearly eighteen minutes long. It’s almost five minutes before Jackie even lands a hit and he spends a lot of the fight rolling around in the dirt. If you’ve ever struggled to concentrate as a kid regales you with a never-ending sequence of events, you may find yourself drifting off during this punishing brawl.

All the set piece action makes the film feel like a cartoon. There’s even a sped up section in one fight. The sound effects add to the feeling it’s a Daffy Duck misadventure, with lots of whistles, boi-oings, chimes, and even an ascending five note sequence on piano as Ah Lung counts his adversaries. The very last shot is cartoonish in the extreme — Ah Lung festooned with bandages after his final battle, only able to twitch his fingers goodbye. Then, as this shot freeze-frames, there’s a sort of prototype of the out-takes that would become a mainstay in Jackie’s later films, with highlights of various scenes splitting up the screen. That lion dance feels like a lifetime ago now.

The Young Master serves really well as a preview of Jackie’s antics for the next two decades, but it feels overstuffed, like he wasn’t sure if he would ever get to make another film and tried to cram everything he could think of into this one.

7.5 crash zooms out of 10.
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