Monday, 14 February 2022

The Seven Grandmasters

Grandmaster Bash And
The Fu-rious Strive

The Seven Grandmasters
aka Jue quan
Taiwan 1977 Directed by Joseph Kuo
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Blu Ray Zone B

Well this is an interesting movie, for sure. I was gifted, this Christmas, with the new Cinematic Vengeance - Joseph Kuo Blu Ray boxed set from Eureka Masters Of cinema, something I wanted because... apart from some brief dalliances with some nice Shaw Brothers movies (and their artistic descendents) over the years... martial arts is not a genre of cinema I’ve followed that closely or bothered to educate myself much in. I guess I need to change that and this is my first stab at taking a look at this rich legacy, now being tackled by some of the UK boutique labels and slowly resurfacing from out of the back of pirate VHS and DVD-Rs which you could pick up in certain areas of London over the last few decades.

The Seven Grandmasters is a curious film as there is no pre-amble into it and a decidedly hasty exit from the story at the end. I mean, I’m used to many films starting with important sequences while the credits are playing but this one really is hasty, offering up what amounts to a dialogue sequence with the odd opening credit almost infiltrating it by stealth in what, to my Western eyes, seems a decidedly rushed manner.

This is not, however, a sign of questionable quality of the movie. Yes, it’s a low budget exploitation actioner but this in no way hides the fact that it’s a well crafted film which, I have to say, rarely gets boring. This one tells the story of a Grandmaster of Kung Fu who runs a fighting school. He is anonymously questioned/challenged as to his fighting credentials one day before he is due to retire. So he takes a few of his best students and starts touring China to challenge and fight various other Grandmasters to a friendly duel, one after the other, to reinforce his position so he can retire undefeated. So, yeah, within 20 minutes we have four spectacular fight scenes already. I don’t think there are actually seven Grandmasters in this but... maybe I was having trouble with my adding (to paraphrase a character from a completely different genre).

Thrown into the mix, Seven Samurai style, is a young man in almost a comic relief role, who desperately wants the master to train him... shunned but following around the small group until his charm and usefulness during trying circumstances leads to him being accepted as another student by the Grandmaster. After the one interminable training montage where the young man eventually exceeds the abilities of the other students, we come to a point where he finds out the master is the very man who killed his father... and has to try and kill him in a duel. But, soon after the duel starts, the real villain (a dead spit for Pai Mei in various other films... culminating in his Western film appearances in the Kill Bill movies) tries to kill them both and, between them, the two good guys conquer the villain before the film, without giving any pause or epilogue, just suddenly finishes.

And it’s quite brilliant in places (apart from the drawn out training montage, it has to be said). The influence of the fighting styles used in the film is easily evident in the number of big budget Hollywood movies which now seem to emulate this same stuff (I believe the fight choreographer from this one was tapped, many years later, to perform the same duties on The Matrix movies and it certainly shows in a lot of those kind of movies contemporary to it, too). So lots of dodging arms, legs and heads and the constant ‘resetting’ of fighting stances as adversaries struggle spectacularly to find an opening weak spot in their opponent’s defences. It’s good stuff.

The only real problem I had with it is in one in particular of the fights, which you seem to see in a lot of Hollywood movies showcasing Eastern culture these days. Yep, it’s the old ‘if you can take this bowl of tea (or insert whatever beverage or concoction is the focus of the scene) from me without spilling a drop’ style combat and it follows the same patterns and looks spectacular enough... except there was at least one point in the fighting that the tea bowl was clearly tilted through a 90 degree angle and held there for a few seconds... the bowl magically still full of tea in one of the next shots when, really, it shouldn’t still be there at all.

But yeah... it was a pretty good film. At first I thought the music was an original score and, indeed, it’s credited to Fu-Liang Chou. But there seems to be an awful lot of needle-drop cues in this thing as well. I couldn’t identify one piece which was clearly tracked in from a 50s or 60s, sleepy time American Western but it was certainly a dead giveaway when one of the main characters is introduced to the Grandmaster using the melody of one of the more comical tracks from Ennio Morricone’s score to The Big Gundown. So, yeah, that was definitely a ‘pop you out of the action’, finger point moment, for sure.

And that’s all I have to say about this one. For the most part I really enjoyed the movie although, it has to be said, there are no extras accompanying Eureka’s wonderful transfer of the pretty good looking print. Also, I got bogged down at the start by having a choice between watching it in Mandarin or Cantonese and, honestly, I had no idea which was the best one to watch. I just wish people would stop giving me choices on these things but, at least I knew enough to not watch the English dub, I guess. Although saying that, the English subtitles translated a character saying he’d just received a message via carrier pigeon, with no trace of irony despite the fact that I saw the message delivered myself and it was definitely sent by ‘flying dagger’, which I personally wouldn’t translate as carrier pigeon by a long shot.

So, yeah, loved The Seven Grandmasters and would definitely recommend this one to people who like the genre. I’m really glad to have received this set and I’m looking forward to exploring the other seven films in it. So I guess there will be more kung fu film reviews on the blog sometime soon.

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