The 7 Grandmasters (1978)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-02-18
“Seven Grandmasters” has a very simple story—the hero is on a journey and must confront obstacles and tests along the way. It worked for Homer in the “Odyssey” and for Virgil in the “Aeneid”, Dante used Virgil to guide us through Hell and Swift created Gulliver to lead us on a satirical voyage through human foibles. Samuel Clemens brought us along with Huck and Jim on the Mississippi and Gene Rodenberry guided us on a Star Trek. Those taking the trip can be subjected to unusual, exotic or outlandishly dangerous trials since they are moving into unknown territory. The education and moral formation of a neophyte can be grafted onto this structure, as it is in “Seven Grandmasters.” A lot of movie genres have adapted it to their use—in westerns the stagecoach has to get through to Tombstone and in musicals the show has to go on no matter what.

In classic American movie musicals the plot existed largely to get the protagonists from one musical number to the next—we may not recall exactly how Harold Hill fell for Marian the Librarian in “The Music Man” but can easily remember Robert Preston singing “Till there was You” to Shirley Jackson. It is much the same with classic martial arts films—there is a plot but it is there so that different forms of combat, often increasingly difficult, can be introduced. While this movie may not be a classic of the genre—its cinematography is dull, editing quite clumsy and (as mentioned by Mr. Booth) the postproduction sound is rudimentary at best, it shares the narrow focus and spare outline of the best of them. We do get from one action scene to the next, having to deal with not rivers that don’t rage, illness that doesn’t really incapacitate and attacks by bad guys who aren’t really that bad.

During the last few scenes a character who had appeared earlier resurfaced to explain several plot twists that were so obvious that he underlined their simpleminded nature. Since this character was discussing actions that had taken place either in real movie time or in flashbacks it may have been that the filmmaker lost track of things himself and put in a cinematic checklist that he forgot to cut out.

The fights depicted between Sang Kuan Chun and his grandmaster opponents the characters, with a couple of very notable exceptions, show respect for each other and for the martial arts traditions they represent. The actors, most especially, of course, Jack Lung Sai-Ga, are extremely skilled and fit—the fights are terrific. More than occasionally they look dangerous—the actors must have had a lot of confidence in each other and in the action directors. Just about every character fought every other character with a lot of hard falls and very close near misses with weapons.

Given what one assumes was a typical (i.e. too small) budget Corey Yuen Kwai, Yuen Cheung-Yan and the actors they directed did a great job with the fights. At several points Jack Lung Sai-Ga’ costume was wet with sweat. As the grandmaster challenging everyone else he had most of the fights and was excellent throughout. All of the challenges took occurred outdoors, almost in isolation. The lack of witnesses could be a nod to the personal honor that ruled the martial arts world—if a challenger wins a contest he is acknowledged as the new champion of that form with no need to record it formally or even to have a neutral party watch it. Or it could have been that there was no budget for transportation to get the extras to the sites.

One problem created by the inadequate script is that the audience is unprepared for—and ultimately uninterested in—the sudden and complete change in allegiance of a key character. While the motivation for the switch is stated we haven’t been involved in that part of the character’s life at all until the very end so that the key turning point simply happens with no emotional resonance.

True to its roots “The Seven Grandmasters” ends within a couple of seconds—it seems within a couple of frames—of the death rattle of the chief villain.

Recommended only for the action sequences.
Reviewer Score: 6