A twist on the master-student narrative, where the student, a petty thief and scoundrel (‘Dirty’ Ho Jen, played by Wang Yue) has to be tricked into following the master (Gordon Liu), who himself turns out to be a Manchurian prince. The Manchus are almost always the villains in these stories, standing in for all kinds of enemies of China, from the Japanese to European colonists to Mao’s Communists. So here we have a hero who isn’t very heroic and a master from a reviled class.
Liu’s character grows more complicated still. His brothers are all competing to succeed their father, the Emperor, but he doesn’t want the job. All he enjoys are antiques, art, good wine, and practicing kung fu. He seems to have a moral sense, and this is why he tricks Ho into becoming his student (because he wants to set him on the right path and sees the potential for good in him), but issues of social justice, of pursuing the best interests of the Empire, are alien to him. He spends the entire film hiding his identity and power, preferring the decadence of the artistic life and the withdrawal of epic kung fu training sessions to political engagement.
The final moments of the film thus prove a stunning display of the power of class and the resilience of the social order. After finally making it to the imperial palace in Beijing, Ho twice asks the general sent to assassinate Liu who is behind him, which of the other princes ordered the hit job. Both times Liu angrily tells Ho to shut up, that that question is between Liu and the other princes and that ‘slaves’ are not allowed to ask such things. There is an unbridgeable gulf between Liu and Ho–despite the closeness of the master-student relationship, the dynamic is truly a master-slave one. The film ends with Ho, after helping Liu quickly get properly dressed to meet his father in the reception hall, being flung out of the palace doors, a freeze frame holding indefinitely his Falstaffian expulsion and exclusion from the inner circle of power.
This being a Lau Kar-leung film, the fight scenes are spectacular. The opening credit sequence provides a neat twist on Lau’s traditional ‘Gordon Liu performs kung fu before a blank screen’ opening by opening with a Busby Berkeley-style overhead shot of some thieves gathered around treasure, with first Wang Yue stealing it and then Gordon Liu coming along and fighting and then joining him, a musical kung fu sequence that wordlessly establishes the basic premise of the film we’re about to see, with a black and white color scheme (white backdrop, black outfits and credits) further emphasizing the old Hollywood influence.
Several other fights scenes are tremendous, some of Lau and Liu’s best work, and Wang gets a couple of group fights, the first a parody of Chang Cheh’s masterpiece Crippled Avengers which is pretty funny, the second one in which he gets hypnotized by a gang of creepy losers which is not. While Liu’s solo fights are nifty, always performed while trying to hide the fact that he’s fighting, which makes them hilariously passive-aggressive in their small movements, the film’s best sequences are a trio of group fights. The first comes fairly early in the film where Liu uses Kara Hui as a puppet to fight Ho, without letting on that’s he’s behind it, the three actors moving beautifully together. The second an ambush when Ho and a wheelchair-bound Liu are attacked by a horde of assassins in an apocalyptic ghost town, a rush of mass movement in a wild, abstract space. The third is the film’s final battle, where Wang and Liu take on the general (played by the always great Lo Lieh) and two of his minions. The coordination of these sequences is impeccable, multiple actors moving as one, finishing each other's movements and extending into the next series of motions fluidly, transcending the staccato rhythm of many a Shaw Brothers kung fu sequence. It’s a testament to Lau’s skill and attention to detail as a choreographer, which allows the camera to run for long takes capturing dozens of synchronized movements and interactions between stars and extras alike without editing. The effect is mesmerizing, the frame always filled with more motion than the brain can process, not because of its speed (or the blur of rapid cutting) but because of so much captured intricacy. The takes aren’t nearly as long, or as distant, as in the modernist art film, but there’s something positively Tati-esque in Lau’s approach to filming his action scenes. There’s always something new to see.