25 May 2008 | BrianDanaCamp
THE MASTER - Enjoyable old-school kung fu with good performance by Yuen Tak
THE MASTER (1980) was made at Shaw Bros., but displays a look and feel much closer to the indie kung fu films of 1980 than it does to other Shaw martial arts films of the time such as Chang Cheh's Five Venoms spectacles. It has a few Shaw trademarks, including some large sets and several dependable Shaw character actors, but its story is simpler and less wide-ranging, with an emphasis on training, and the main cast is much smaller, with only five major characters participating in the important fight scenes. It packs a lot of fighting (staged by Hsu Hsia) into a concise structure that serves as a showcase for the considerable talents of young Yuen Tak (billed as Yuan Te), one of Jackie Chan's classmates at the Peking Opera school in Hong Kong that spawned so many kung fu movie greats.
Yuen plays Gao Jian, a hapless student being taught at a school run by a vain, not-so-skilled teacher (Lin Ho Nien). One night he encounters a wounded kung fu master, Jin Tianyun (Chen Kuan Tai), a legendary warrior fleeing from a fight in which he was stabbed in a sneak attack and now has to hide from his pursuers, the Three Devils. Gao tends to Master Jin and hides him in his shack and, in return, Master Jin teaches Gao some essential kung fu. After a tragic turn of events, Gao goes off for a year to practice and then comes back to find his teacher's school taken over by the Three Devils, who are seeking to create a haven for other outlaws. This leads to a series of exciting final bouts between Gao and each of the Devils, the leader of whom is played by the great Wang Lung Wei.
Yuen Tak was the ever-patient fiancé in the delightful AMBITIOUS KUNG FU GIRL (also reviewed on this site), the first film in which he fully registered with me. I found his performance here quite a revelation. He incorporates a lot of acrobatics into his moves and certainly compares well with all the other young stars playing eager, put-upon kung fu students at the same time in non-Shaw films (e.g. Meng Fei, Lee Yi Min, Meng Yuan Man, Cliff Lok, etc.). Yuen went on to become a prominent fight choreographer in Hong Kong and even in Hollywood, where he worked on "Martial Law" and Jet Li's THE ONE.
Kung fu great Chen Kuan Tai (THE BOXER FROM SHANTUNG) has a relatively small part. He's got a great fight scene at the beginning, but its impact is diminished by the decision to keep freezing the frame all through it in order to show the credits. Candy Wen Hsueh-erh, the only female in the film, plays the daughter of Gao's teacher, but she doesn't get much to do.
Overall, it was a pleasant surprise to find a Shaw Bros. kung fu film I hadn't seen before that was so direct, straightforward and free of the studio's usual frills.