Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Opium and the Kung Fu Master (aka Lightning Fist of Shaolin)

                                                    Director: Tang Chia
                          Starring: Ti Lung, Chen Kwan Tai, Kao Fei, Li Hoi Sang

Tang Chia spent his career as the Shaw Brothers premier action choreographer. Having worked under both Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang, he had developed into arguably the most reliable assisstant in the studio. Surprisingly he did not direct his first movie until the waning years of the company. He only helmed three features, 1982's Shaolin Prince (aka Death Mask of the Ninja), 1983's Shaolin Intruders and the one being reviewed, 1984's Opium and the Kung Fu Master. All three are standouts with Opium... being his finest.

Opium and the Kung Fu Master tells the tale of Tie Qiao San, one of the famous Ten Tigers of Kwantung. Here he is portrayed as the local town hero and guardian, respected and beloved by all. However, he is holding a dark secret (as the film's title makes abundantly clear); he spends much of his leisure time in an opium den, completely in denial of his addiction. His students try to get him to stop, but to no avail. The film cleverly starts off as light and humorous (even the scenes explicitly showing our hero's addiction are treated as no big deal) only to turn dark about mid way. Stories of his "handicap" reach the ears of a trio of nasties. They wish to control the opium den, get the town addicted and reap the money that will be made from it (at everyone else's expense of course). What has stopped them from doing so is Tie being such a supreme fighter (his ability seems almost super human). But his addiction has left him severely weakened. In short order, they defeat him and kill his main pupil (the one that kept begging his master to quit). Now a little more than a crumpled mess, Tie returns to his blind master who must first help him go cold turkey and then literally start his training from scratch as he attempts to regain his once invincible fighting form.

If this sounds different from your average kung fu flick, that's because it is. Rarely (if ever) has such a righteous folk hero been revealed to have such a fatal flaw, one that he himself perpetuates, no less. The results are eye opening.

Starring as Tie Qioa San is venerable veteran Ti Lung. By this point in his career, Ti had matured from matinee idol to one of the most powerful and charasmatic of all Shaw actors. He instantly brought a sense of strength, authority and respectability to any part he played. This is arguably the finest role ever afforded him at Shaw Brothers. The three villians are played by Chen Kwan Tai, Kao Fei and Lee Hoi Sang; three of the best and most reliable baddies you could ask for. Chen Kwan Tai in particular ha proven to be one of Shaws best actor/fighters, having played both heroes and villains with equal pannache. His last reel confrontation with the rejuvinated Tie (in which Tie uses his slain student's grave marker effectively and profoundly as a weapon) is one of the more memorable and emotionally charged one on one battles ever filmed. Director Tang Chia himself plays the blind master, showing that he is equally adept in front of the camera as he is behind it.

Opium and the Kung Fu Master is simply a martial arts masterpiece from a director who sadly graced us with too few pictures.

                                                             ***1/2 / ****


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