With the start of the new year I’m finally digging into Eureka’s Joseph Kuo boxset. The only other Kuo film I’ve seen thus far is a dubbed version of The Mystery of Chess Boxing. Right away here the limitations of Kuo’s independent production in Taiwan, as opposed to the studio resources of Shaws and Golden Harvest in Hong Kong, is readily apparent: you can see the seams and glue attaching the wig to star Jack Long’s head. But just as apparent is the commitment to exciting, innovative action choreography.
Long plays a renowned kung fu master who is anonymously taunted (he gets a note that suggests he is not, in fact, the greatest) and so sets out on foot to travel the country and defeat the grandmaster from every province in China. This takes years of course, and along the way Long picks up a prospective student (Li Yi-min). The first half of the film follows this young man’s attempts to earn a place with the master, the second what happens after he does.
The fights provide a solid structure to the film, and ensure that no more than five minutes or so goes by without some kind of action. And that action, choreographed by a young Corey Yuen (of the Seven Little Fortunes and a future major director in his own right) and Yuen Cheung-yan (of the famed Yuen Clan, younger brother of Yuen Woo-ping) is as remarkable as any of the great kung fu films of the late 1970s, when Lau Kar-leung, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Woo-ping, and the Venoms brought new levels of acrobatic insanity to the genre.
The fights are lengthy yet coherent, with Long and Li sticking to the coherent style that is the ostensible subject of the film, deftly intertwining its various techniques against a variety of different opposing styles (Monkey, Mantis, Miscellaneous Weapons, etc). Maybe the best fight belongs to Corey Yuen himself, playing the weapon master, trying out a variety of devices against Long and ever so artfully losing. (Losing at screen fights such that your opponent looks good was something the Little Fortunes always excelled at. It’s why Yuen Wah is always such a great villain, and why Sammo Hung is the best partner in action movie history). The sequence looks ahead to both Lau’s Legendary Weapons of China, and the final Michelle Yeoh/Zhang Ziyi fight in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
7 Grandmasters nods to the master-student dynamics that were so important to Lau, and the revenge codes that gave life (or rather death) meaning for Chang Cheh. But it’s not much more than than a nod. The other students constantly bully young Li Yi-min, and in mastering his fighting skills he doesn’t so much earn their respect as learn to beat the hell out of them. There’s a somewhat shocking reversal in the final act, as Li is told who killed his father (a callback to an awkwardly inserted cutaway scene early in the film that made no sense at the time and seemed largely forgotten, another rough edge that quality control at Shaws would likely have smoothed out) and sets out for revenge. But he doesn’t seem to really want it, at least, until the real killer is unmasked. (Hint: in a story that repeatedly invokes the legendary betrayer of the Shaolin Temple, the evil kung fu master Pai Mei (the White-Eyebrowed Monk), it’s probably the guy with the white beard who always hides his eyes that is the true villain.)
The final sequence is a culmination of all the various techniques Yuen and Yuen and Long and Li have demonstrated over the film, as the plot requires their total integration to express its ultimate kung fu style. Every move connected to the next, every action and reaction part of a continuous line, master to student, punch to kick to flip. The idea is similar to something like Lau Kar-leung’s Executioners of Shaolin or 36th Chamber, but the emphasis is less on ideology or pedagogy. Kuo doesn’t seem interested in explaining martial arts to the masses, like Lau always does. The emphasis instead is on performance. This is a movie that wants very much to show you a bunch of great performers performing a bunch of great fights, and at that it succeeds.