Incredible Kung Fu Master, The (1979) Review

"The Kung Fu Master" Chinese Theatrical Poster

“The Kung Fu Master” Chinese Theatrical Poster

AKA: The Kung Fu Master
Director: Joe Cheung Tung Cho
Cast: Stephen Tung Wei, Sammo Hung, Philip Ko, Lee Hoi San, Peter Chan, Chung Fat, Dai Sai Aan, Huang Ha, Cecilia Wong, Meng Hoi, Austin Wai, Billy Chan, Lam Ching Ying, Mars, To Wai Wo, Ho Pak Kwong, Wu Ma
Running Time: 92 min. 

By Martin Sandison

In 1979, Sammo Hung was at the peak of his powers as an onscreen fighter, choreographer and director. He was dividing his time between numerous projects, not least classics like Magnificent Butcher and Odd Couple. One of his lesser known movies from this year was The Kung Fu Master (aka The Incredible Kung Fu Master), a gem of “kung fu comedy” notable for many things including a starring role for Stephen Tung Wai, better known as the kid Bruce Lee teaches at the beginning of Enter the Dragon. Tung Wai actually carved out a great career subsequently as a choreographer, with credits such as Donnie Yen’s Bodyguards and Assassins, Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin and the upcoming Max Zhang-starrer Invincible Dragon.

The plot of The Kung Fu Master is formulaic, and just a platform for the “shapes” action (Note: The use of the word “shapes,” in the context of kung fu cinema, relates to the highly intricate choreography style that reached its peak in the early 80s. Before “shapes”, the choreography style was referred to as a “basher”, i.e. more straight forward, simple punch and block).

Tung Wai stars as Kung Fu Ching, a lowly servant at a kung fu school run by one of two brothers (played by Billy Chan and Huang Hua) who are involved in challenges with other schools. Ching isn’t allowed to learn from them, so he encounters Fei Jai (Hung), a master of various styles, whom he learns from. Soon the situations escalate into many martial encounters.

Never ending “shapes” of the highest order are delivered with such ferocity, intricacy and impact that it blows you away. While a hair’s breadth away from the top Sammo “shapes,” it’s still ridonculous. The credits are a few for action: Sammo Hung’s Stuntman Association, Yuen Baio, Leung Kar Yan, Lam Ching Ying and Billy Chan – with these guys in control, you’re never far away from a fight that hits the sweet spot.

Tung Wai’s versatility as a martial artist is given a great showcase, especially his acrobatics and handwork. We also get a rematch between Sammo and Lee Hoi San (The Magnificent Butcher’s end fight barely topping this one). Lee was one of the go-to guys for villainous “shapes” and here we are treated to another: The late, great Phillip Ko*, who has a cameo, but again proves his skills during a fight with Billy Chan and Huang Hua.

*I was so sad to hear of Phillip Ko’s recent passing; this guy was featured in so many of my favourites from the 70s to the 90s. His film credits rival even Sammo’s. Two little known films of his I would recommend are: for old-school, Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu (not the dreadful Sammy Hung/Kane Kosugi movie from 2011) and Killer’s Romance, a self-directed movie adaptation of the Manga Crying Freeman, starring Simon Yam. Ko also directed a film that has one of the funniest titles ever: Royal Sperm. His memory shall live on through his undoubted presence and mastery of screen fighting.

There is a veritable smorgasbord of martial arts and comedic talent that appear in The Kung Fu Master. Chung Fat has a role as an affluent student whose ineptitude betrays how good a fighter he is (check him out at the end of Yes Madam! fighting Michelle Yeoh). Meng Hoi has a small part as a student (amongst his many film credits, he also dated/doubled for blonde fury herself, Cynthia Rothrock).

The funny elements of The Kung Fu Master are at times a little grating, but mostly on point. There’s the usual Three Stooges-style we are accustomed to in films of this type, with exaggerated sound effects and plenty of undercranking. A novel use of an oiled up patch of concrete for training and fight scenes is refreshing, and reflects Sammo and the team’s creativity.

The Kung Fu Master just misses out absolute classic status due to the simplicity and silliness of the plotline, not to mention the pedestrian direction by Joe Cheung, who also was responsible for the disappointing Chow Yun Fat heroic bloodshed movie, Flaming Brothers. If you’re looking for a “shapes” fest outside the box, look no further.

Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10

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