The Master (1980)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-05-11
“The Master” works on three different levels and succeeds in two of them. First it is a story of failure and redemption, of how a mediocre man can overcome his limitations through perseverance and the help of others and also how the actions of a moral man can outlive him and affect those beyond his immediate circle. While flawed “The Master” is still a very powerful statement for the ultimate goodness of humanity.

Another level is as an exciting martial arts film and here it is superb. It seems that everyone onscreen is a skilled martial artist and they carry out Hsu Hsia’s action direction with extraordinary skill, speed and with a good bit of flair. The fights look brutal, are staged credibly and emerge seamlessly from the flow of the movie. Even the casual violence such as an apprentice being tossed aside by a master is well done. It is obvious that everyone paid very close attention to detail during the action scenes.

Unfortunately the movie flops miserably during the extended kung fu comedy sequences. Yuen Tak, Chan Lau and Lam Fai-Wong might be hilarious if given something funny to do but Chan and Lam, playing two bullies, are simply annoying. Yuen, who had a good comic turn in “My Young Auntie” and was hilarious in his brief scenes in drag in “A Fishy Story” was simply not funny when called on for comedy here. The scenes that were supposed to be humorous ranged from dreadful to boring with “Is it over yet?” a typical reaction.

A standard plot device has a callow neophyte journeying to a monastery in order to learn kung fu from the monks. The journey is physical—he crosses the mountains and fords the rivers that lie between his town and the monastery and also metaphorical—he not only learns kung fu but also gains the wisdom needed to free his town from the bandits/warlords/rebels occupying it. “The Master” turns the journey on its head. The young man, Kao Chien is already in a kung fu school when a wounded master shows up. The master, Chin Tien Yun played by the very gifted Chen Kuan-Tai needs to conceal himself while he recovers from his injury and he agrees to teach Kao a form of kung fu far more advanced than what his current master is teaching. Kao’s current master is Sifu Shi Chen Chung, played by Lau Hok-Nin and his character is something of a revelation—he is neither bad nor good, evil nor sublime. He is simply mediocre, a teacher with flawed technique who does his best to teach his students. While no match for true martial artists he is still the best thing in this backwater town, a person who is revered by his students and respected by the townspeople.

But for those outside of his immediate circle Master Shi “isn’t good enough” according to both the three evil masters and Chin Tien Yun. Like Lepidus in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” he is “a slight unmeritable man, meet to be sent on errands...either led or driven as we point the way...do not talk of him but as a property.” Shi has one shining virtue that in the end is greater than his defects—he simply refuses to give up even when it seems as if his entire world has been destroyed. It is this redemption of an ordinary man that is the theme that runs throughout “The Master” and ties it disparate parts together.

The first two sequences contain all the exposition we need. Chin Tien Yun is in a restaurant when the Three Evil Masters arrive to kill him. He is able to keep all three of them at bay until he is attacked by an unexpected enemy. Even grievously wounded he manages to kill his attacker and escape, leaping from a second story window.. When the killers rush outside to capture him they find bloody footprints leading to a sheer wall and bloody marks on the wall showing he has gone straight up and over it with the knife still stuck between his ribs. He is one extremely tough character but the killers expected no less and they begin searching the surrounding towns for him.

The next scene takes place in Master Shi’s kung fu school which seems to be typical of its kind. Twenty or so students work out in the courtyard of a building. They spar, lift weights, flip through acrobatics, everything we expect to see in such a setting. The individual students include Kao Chien, the class clown who enjoys playing practical jokes on his classmates, Master Shi's daughter, an attractive young woman who spars with the guys and two brothers who are insufferable bullies and who dislike Kao Chien. We find later that Kao is different from the rest of the students who apparently are drawn from the immediate area. He was found abandoned on the road and taken in by Master Shi who negates any good karma he would get for such kindness by constantly reminding Kao how lucky he is to be there.

We see some of Master Shi’s shortcomings very quickly. He is more interested in maintaining a surface order and discipline in the school than in teaching the spiritual tenets of kung fu. He doesn’t or can’t impart the spiritual exercises necessary if someone is to become a true master and spends too much time handing out punishments to Kao and his two tormentors.

No explanation is given for the malevolence of the evil masters nor is any needed; they are simply malicious and filled with hate, which means that they aren’t really great villains. They are missing tragic insanity of Elektra, the choking ambition of Macbeth or the twisted psychopathology of Hans Beckert. They enjoy killing and do so with casual efficiency but their real target is Chin Tien Yun. Chin himself fares a bit better if only because we tend to identify more with good guys than bad guys. We know nothing of his background, why the three evil masters are so obsessed with killing him or anything that would explain why he is both so noble and so skilled a fighter. Like a mirror image of the evil masters Chin is good because he is good with no further explanation.

Chin wanders into Shi’s school where he is discovered and given sanctuary by Kao, who has large and secluded living quarters which are never inspected or even visited by Shi or anyone else. Chin and Shi have a history—Chin once broke Shi’s wrist in a fight and has contempt for him and his kung fu. Inevitably Chin is discovered and Kao is expelled for treason against the school. Kao wants to accompany Chin but, just as inevitably, Chin tells him that he has taught Kao everything he can and now he must practice for a year to perfect his technique. This also is the end of Chin Tien Yun in the movie—he is ambushed and killed by the three evil masters who then descend on Master Shi’s school and take it over after killing almost all the students. Kao returns to the school to avenge his old teacher even though his kung fu is much more advanced than anything Shi could teach and, in a thrilling and prolonged battle, kills the three of them.

As we saw in “My Young Auntie” Yuen Tak is a very accomplished martial artist. He is slender as the blade of a rapier, very agile and athletic and a tremendous kicker. Given the right role, such as in MYA he is also a decent actor but the baggage of unfunny comedy he is saddled with here defeats him. Chen Kuan-Tai is a handsome and charismatic actor who commands the screen. His extraordinary martial arts ability may add to his quiet confidence. Lau Hok-Nin was very well cast as the troubled and nearly overwhelmed Sifu Shi. He gave a terrific performance as a man trying, not always successfully, to hold himself together.

Tony Liu Jun-Guk made good use of very wide screen “ShawScope” not only with sweeping outdoor shots but also with mise-en-scene, particularly set design and static character placement.

One example is the meeting between Sifu Shi and some of the local masters. They are arranged in an inverted V shape with Shi at the apex of the V centered and farthest away from the camera. Those at the meeting create the arms of the V in a geometric perspective arrangement not that different from that used in Italian Renaissance painting. Even if this was standard operation procedure for filling the screen when shooting in wide angle it still created some very striking images.

“The Master” is highly recommended for its brilliant action choreography and the total commitment to carrying it out on the part of the actors but it loses points for the egregious and unsuccessful attempts at comedy
Reviewer Score: 6