AKA: Lightning Fists of Shaolin
Director: Tong Gai (Tang Chia)
Producer: Mona Fong
Cast: Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Robert Mak, Philip Ko Fei, Lee Hoi San, Tang Chia, Lau Leanne, Ku Kuan Chung, Alan Chan, Ma Chao, Yuen Wah, Yuen Bun, Wong Wai Tong
Running Time: 86 min.
By Chris Hatcher
Knowing one could be blacklisted in many kung fu cinema circles for making the following statement, here goes nothing: I have always been somewhat underwhelmed by the great Ti Lung.
Now before you reach for the torches and pitchforks, hear me out: I’m aware of Lung’s prowess for dramatic acting… he won the 1986 Golden Horse Best Actor Award for John Woo’s exceptional A Better Tomorrow and the 1999 Hong Kong Film Best Supporting Actor Award for The Kid; I know about his roles as a street-tough brawler in blood baths like Vengeance and The Duel, both of which have merit for fans of director Chang Cheh’s early hack-n-stab formula; and I know his leads in The Delightful Forest and The Blood Brothers exemplify his commanding on-screen presence. So what exactly is my issue with Ti Lung, you might ask?
Let me answer that question with a follow-up question: Where is Ti Lung’s signature film that showcases the best fight choreography of his career while also delivering on the other qualities that made Lung great in the eyes of his fans?
Whether it’s mundane action in an otherwise high-quality film like Avenging Eagle or all-around misfire like Cheh’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, many of Ti Lung’s films failed to hone in on his technical skill as a martial arts superstar. The Heroes (aka Story of Chivalry) had some decent action and highlighted Lung’s skill fairly well, but the fights fell a bit on the slow side; The Kung Fu Instructor practically put me to sleep with its humdrum stick fighting scenes; and Shaolin Prince, though outrageously entertaining, focused more on Lung pulling off wire work feats than impressing with his fighting style. In short, Lung has been involved in WAY too many generic battles for a star of his stature.
Well, I’m happy to say I finally found the answer to my question with a recent first-time viewing of Opium and the Kung Fu Master, an excellent film by Tang Chia that highlights all of Lung’s best traits – dramatic thespian, rugged fighter, good screen presence – and tops them off with a truck load of the technically-driven fight choreography I’ve always wanted for him. Opium gives us more of the brilliance of Lung’s brief but fantastic hand-to-hand fighting in Shaolin Temple (aka Death Chamber); more of the speed he demonstrated in the fierce weapons play of The Deadly Breaking Sword; and more of a reason to become a Ti Lung fan some 33 years after his heyday. Better late than never I always say.
My initial thought while viewing Opium was, “How did I miss this one after all these years?!” The likely reason spawns from once hearing it was a sequel to Ten Tigers of Kwangtung and immediately dismissing it without further research. That was my mistake because Opium is not a sequel to that snoozer, but merely a telling of how the leader of the Ten Tigers overcame an opium addiction to rescue the town he had sworn to protect. Lung portrays the Ten Tigers leader in both films (though differently named in each).
In this particular story, Lung’s Tieh Chiao San is a kung fu master and militia adviser who garners the utmost respect from his students and local townspeople. His presence strikes fear in the hearts of criminals as witnessed in an opening skirmish with Golden Cat (played by the excellent Philip Ko). The brief encounter puts Lung in a light I’ve rarely seen as every strike and block is delivered with a ferocity that signals greater things to come in the fight department. (Finally… signs of the Ti Lung the old school kung fu world needs AND deserves!)
Of course, Golden Cat escapes and reports the trouble with Tieh to his master, Yung Feng (Chen Kuan Tai). Cat wants to deal with Tieh, but Yung quickly reminds him why they’re here… for opium. More specially, to open a local opium den and earn bank while ruining the lives of people they hook on the drug. Throw in a couple of business partners played by Ku Kuan Chung and Lee Hoi San and the foursome make for a pretty damn good troop of villains.
Screenwriter Ying Wong could have kept his story as simple as local hero takes on drug gang, but instead throws in the interesting twist of depicting Tieh as one of the town’s opium addicts. Tieh tries to convince his blind instructor (played by choreographer/director Chia) and head student (Robert Mak) that he only hits the pipe every now and then, but it eventually becomes clear that his skills are eroding. A brief pole fighting sequence with Master Yi (Chia) and a lesson with Gua Su (Mak) lead to questions of whether Tieh’s habit is slowing him down (which is somewhat amusing considering Lung looks fantastic in both encounters!).
The big reveal, however, comes when Yung challenges Tieh to a public showdown after Su sets fire to the opium den in an act of retribution. Yung’s dual spears versus Tieh’s Tie Sin Fist is lightning fast and extraordinary to watch. But as the fight wears on, with Yung goading Tieh as his skills begin to wane, we see the full effects of opium abuse in a weak man who’s unable to steady his sword due to the shakes. And those shakes bring tragic consequences, delivering one of Opium’s best all-around scenes and giving the film a quasi-Rocky complex in the sense of portraying a fallen hero who must find a way to climb back to the mountain top (because we all know redemption is coming).
All in all, Opium and the Kung Fu Master is a powerhouse of action with strong contributions from everyone starting with Lung. I can’t stress enough how exceptional he looks, especially in the frenetic rice house scene where he swoops in to take on Philip Ko and a band of thugs. It’s one of my favorite bits of action complete with Robert Mak challenging Ko’s cool tiger claw in an acrobatically rousing clash. From speed to timing to power, Lung’s every move looks sharp and deliberate and I couldn’t have been more pleased. The legendary Chen Kuan Tai is also very much on point each time he takes up his spears.
Speaking of Mak, he really gets to show off his talents in this one via some great encounters with Ko and Lee Hoi San. And, he demos another nifty lion dance to boot (just like in Martial Club). I liked Mak in Martial Club, but I really loved his overall performance in Opium.
Hands down, Lung’s weapons and hand-to-hand technique are faster and more dynamic in Opium than in any other film of his career. But as powerful as his fight scenes are to the action, it’s Lung’s immensely intense portrayal of a man coming to grips with his addiction that proves equally powerful. From sacrificial deaths to woeful suicides, characters die unexpectedly at every turn with opium the root cause, and Lung takes these occurrences to heart in wonderfully dramatic fashion. You can see the conviction in his eyes each time a cautionary warning about Tieh’s opium habit leads to tragedy; it’s truly heartbreaking.
By the time Tieh begins the long journey to kicking his habit, regaining his superior kung fu (there’s an excellent pole training sequence with Master Yi), and restoring his stature, Lung is in full-on drama mode. There are some familiar episodes of melodrama that come with the old school territory, but most of the dramatic moments are genuine and effective. And though Lung has played high-stature characters many times over, I would go as far as to say none come close to resonating as strongly as Tieh Chiao San due to the levels of tragedy and high drama taking place throughout the story. It’s part of what admirably separates Opium from other kung fu tales.
I suppose the man to thank for the wonderful balance of action and drama is Chia, whose credits as a director include the aforementioned Shaolin Prince and the magnificent Shaolin Intruders. Opium was his third and final film in the director’s seat, and it was fitting (though unexpected) for Chia to choose a historical subject like opium abuse in China as his directorial swan song. Watch all three of his films back-to-back-to-back and you’ll quickly understand why Opium is considered the tame one; the action scenes in his other two films are insanely death-defying! It’s truly a shame Chia didn’t helm more projects over the course of his long choreography career.
My only real complaint about Opium and the Kung Fu Master (and it’s somewhat of a big one considering I was ready to give this film a 9.5 rating out of 10) is that the film’s finale felt rushed and serves as little more than an exercise in proficiency. And that’s really all I can say about it; it’s proficient.
For some, this might be good enough. But after Chia spends an hour and twenty minutes establishing Lung’s character as larger-than-life, breaking him down in dramatic fashion, building him up better than ever for the final showdown, and delivering some really excellent kung fu along the way, I expected a balls to the wall finale! I expected a drawn out confrontation considering Lung had to contend with Ko, San, and Chen! I even got giddy imagining what was to come as Lung made his walk to the center of town.
And then it was over in what felt like the blink of an eye. Proficiently executed and skillfully crafted, but short and workmanlike, nonetheless. All weapons, no hand-to-hand, and not everything I was hoping for in light of all the great fights leading up to this point. My minor issues with Mak and Lau Leanne’s throw-away love story and the continuous hints at Lung’s decline only manifesting in one fight scene were long forgotten. I found myself wishing I could turn back time, reshoot the finale, and set Opium back on its path to near-perfection.
Then I was snapped out of my fantasy stupor by my wife’s calls to take out the trash and quickly found myself back in the real world. After all, we’re talking about old school kung fu cinema here, not ending world hunger. And as far as finding the ultimate Ti Lung showcase was concerned… mission accomplished. So add Opium and the Kung Fu Master to your must-watch list and know you’ll be seeing Lung at his absolute finest!
Chris Hatcher’s Rating: 8.5/10