The Old Master
aka Shi fu chu ma
Hong Kong 1979
Directed by Joseph Kuo
Eureka Masters Of Cinema
Blu Ray Zone B
The Old Master is the fourth of the kung fu films presented in Eureka Masters Of cinema’s splendid Cinematic Vengeance - Joseph Kuo Blu Ray boxed set and it’s also a lesson learned to me for the saying, “Be careful what you wish for.” While I really enjoyed the first three of the eight films in this collection, one of my biggest complaints was that they lacked story and character development. Well, here we have story and character development in spades... and as a result the film seems a lot poorer and way less spectacular for it.
As evident from Kuo’s The World Of The Drunken Master (reviewed here), Kuo had no qualms about riding Jackie Chan’s new found success and The Old Master beat Chan’s upcoming movie, The Young Master, to the big screen by a good four months. Although the films bear no resemblance to each other (I’m told... I’ve seen hardly any of Chan’s movies, to be honest), the exploitation machine was very much grinding away in the background with the casting of Jim-Yuen Yu as the title character, Grandmaster Wan. Jim-Yuen Yu was apparently the man who trained Jackie Chan in martial arts when he was a kid so... yeah, there’s that. Yu didn’t agree to do the film at first because he now lived in Los Angeles and didn’t want to return to Hong Kong and so, the production moved to a Los Angeles setting to accommodate him and to secure him in the main cast. Joining him is the younger Bill Louie as... Bill... to provide both comic relief and some fairly watchable and dynamic kung fu sequences.
Okay, so the plot is that the old master has been called over to Los Angeles to help a former pupil, who now owns a martial arts training school. He is in over his head with gambling debts but he uses the old master by setting up fights with other schools and, without the older guy knowing, gambling on the results (knowing the old master will beat anyone sent his way). Wan thinks he’s defending his former student from trouble and, when he finds out he’s been used to win high stakes fights, he gets angry and goes to stay with a former student of the school... that’d be Bill. The two get into so many ‘comedy’ hijinks, developing their characters at the cost of turning the film into a somewhat dull and plodding affair, that you kind of wish they’d all get back to kung fu fighting. Well, after a truly unmemorable disco scene, the fighting starts to return to the film until it takes over everything again, saving the movie in the last twenty minutes or so.
It does get fast and furious again and the actors are all pretty good. Yu makes for a pretty nice, comical old Asian guy who also is an unstoppable but effortless fighting machine when he needs to be. That being said, he would have been 74 years old when he starred in this (after being in only one other film 11 years earlier) and certainly didn’t have the energy to keep up with all the younger bad guys he’s fighting here. Alas, it’s pretty obvious they’re using a stunt double for the fighting here, as you only see him looking down or against the light with his face hidden in all his fight scenes. That being said, Bill Louie is both charming and with enough personality to help carry the film and, for the most part, he does just that.
Bill’s character has everything you’d expect from a young lad living in Los Angeles at the time... a small sized accommodation filled with posters of Saturday Night Fever and Superman The Movie... but with a strong work ethic. You know he has embraced the American culture because, when he takes Yu out for a meal, the two of them end up in McDonalds (which I’m assuming must have been a piece of product placement... at least I hope the production got some money in for having their burgers and logo prominently featured).
Unlike the other films I’ve seen by Kuo, this one is paced fairly slowly with an early fight inserted, presumably just to break up the ‘travelogue’ element of the photography of the first quarter of an hour, as Yu tries to find his way to Chinatown while appreciating the sights and sounds of the city.
And... yeah, I’ve not got much else to say about this one. The Old Master is entertaining up to a point but it takes a long time to arrive at any halfway decent fighting scenes and it’s only after the plot has gone off at a tangent before drifting back to it for the last half an hour or so that things get a little more interesting. Certainly not the best in the set but far from unwatchable. Well, okay, ‘far’ may be the wrong word and I wouldn’t recommend this one to my friends but, yeah, I’m still really enjoying this set, I have to say.