Director: Lin Fu Ti
Cast: Yueh Hua, Man Kong Lung, Violet Pan Yingzi, Philip Ko Fei, Chan Sing, Weng Hsiao Hu, Ho Wai Hung, Shaw Luo Hui, Ngok Yeung, Hu Chin, Leung Kar Yan
Running Time: 91 min.
By Martin Sandison
Lone Wolf and Cub remains one of the most well-regarded comic books and film series to come from Japan. My own love for the first film in the series, Sword of Vengeance, is documented here on City on Fire. Something I didn’t know for a good while was that the series inspired a Taiwanese kung fu film from the classic era. As soon as I knew this I sought the movie out, not sure if justice would be done. Boy, was I not disappointed. Shaolin Master and the Kid has all of the elements of great Taiwanese fu, like strong visuals, a sense of the surreal and imaginatively staged action. There’s something a little different in there; some kind of magic that permeates the atmosphere, and allows the production to transcend being a mere homage.
Nan Kong Sao (Yueh Hua) is a Government law officer whose family is murdered when he brings a criminal to justice. He sets off to find the killers with his young nephew, encountering assassins each step of the way.
The opening of Shaolin Master and the Kid is clumsy, and throws information at the viewer until the relatively generic narrative of the film begins. It’s a far cry from the simple brilliance in story design of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, but then again Taiwanese kung fu movies are not known for their well-written stories.
Lone Wolf and Cub works a visual language that favours action and reaction, visual cues and jokes that elicit a chuckle amongst all the intensity and blood-letting. Shaolin Master and the Kid takes this lead, and manages to keep things fresh. For most of the film the kid follows his father around on foot, until a shot shows the kid growing too tired to walk. Cut to later on, and he is being transported in a babycart. It’s a knowing joke, that works on a referential and meta level, and had me in love with its style.
Shaolin Master and the Kid feels like a Babycart film. Its visual style is all intense close ups, intended to build tension, cutting to wide shots as the combatants stand off. The landscape the titular characters traverse showcases the Taiwanese countryside in a way few kung fu movies did at the time, with beautiful wide shots of mountains framing them and country lanes through wild forests which were a mainstay of the Japanese series.
When it comes to the action, this is where the two diverge. Lone Wolf and Cub is a real chambara, and elevated its approach to extreme mutilation and blood spraying everywhere in an exploitative style. Shaolin Master and the Kid stays true to its roots, and showcases mostly empty-hand action. At the time of its production hand to hand fight sequences had reached another level, and there were countless examples of fantastic choreography in Hong Kong and Taiwanese flicks.
Sometimes the marriage of a great director and action choreographer(s) pulls off something special. Wheels on Meals springs to mind. Whereas many Hong Kong directors would also action direct, in Taiwan usually they were separate. In Shaolin Master and the Kid we have a genre stalwart director in Lin Fu Ti (he also took the reins for other great flicks such as Tamo Monk, starring Chen Sing as Bodhidharma) and choreographer Leung Siu Chung, who cut his teeth with Shaw Brothers then moved on to bashers and Brucesploitation. His work on Dragon on Fire tickled my eyeballs, and being one of the old guard (he is father to Bruce Leung and Tony Leung Siu Hung), his approach may be what makes Shaolin Master and the Kid stand out from the pack.
Lin Fu Ti’s framing and composition when building up to the fights is very special, none more so than the first time Ko and Hua face off. Ko walks, in the distance and out of focus, with natural surroundings framing him while psychedelic stock music plays. Any fan of old school kung fu may have heard this tune countless times, but here its use is better than anywhere else. As Ko stops, there is a cut to a long shot as the two size each other up, which rings the tension. Then those exchanges begin. With intricacy, impact and utilizing a number of styles, it’s an orgasm for the senses. To be honest I can’t put my finger on why these fights seem a little different, they just do. One aspect that is explainable is Lin’s framing and cutting. Mid-fight, suddenly there is a shift to Hua’s POV as Ko throws some crazy shapes that cause Hua to leap backwards. I can tell you this, it kicked my ass and made me gasp.
The second time they go at it is just as good, if not as seemingly iconic. Leung Kar Yan gets a short cameo and a cool weapons fight, which sets up Chen Sing’s cameo with a great shapes fest at the films end, framed beautifully by Taiwanese mountains. One gripe I would have is Chen has only a few minutes screen time, and perhaps Ko should have been the end villain. Maybe Chen was too busy, HKMDB lists 27 movies he made in 1978! The final finishing move is one of my favourites in any kung fu flick.
Phillip Ko Fei is one of the masters of martial arts cinema. His presence graces and elevates countless old flicks, and here it is no different. In Shaolin Master and the Kid, his villain slots into the top level. Dressed all in black with a wide brimmed hat, MMA style gloves and chains holding the outfit together, it’s got a BDSM feel. Black Hat is a badass, bitch-ass muthafucka, who thinks nothing of raping and killing. It’s a great example of the baddie as an abstraction which the viewer projects onto; we gain no knowledge of his past or motivations, beyond money and testing his kung fu. Yueh Hua was a great choice for being the kung fu equivalent of Tomisaboru Wakayama’s Lone Wolf, and his intense, unflinching gaze pierces the edges of the screen.
Shaolin Master and the Kid’s only subplot features Weng Chiang Long (Shaolin Kung Fu) and Violet Pan Ying-zi (Magnificent Trio) as lovers who at first try and track down Nan Kung Sao to alter their lives by gaining the money for his head. This tragic romance plays out tear-jerkingly, with more emotion than your average martial arts flick, and is redolent of the Taiwanese style epitomised by fare such as Love and Sword. The surreal feel of the Taiwanese style is present, but not in an unadulterated fashion we can see in the films of Chang Peng-yi, such as Blade of Doom. However, Violet Pan swinging into frame on rope vines like Tarzan is pretty dream-like, and a bit silly.
Those who look down on the old school will find the elements they malign here, such as bad editing, poor use of sound cues and a threadbare narrative. If you love and have allowed those elements to inform your love of the old school, here is a movie that is not discussed much, and stands proudly alongside the best of Taiwanese martial arts cinema. Track down the Film Art blu ray, it’s easily one of the best looking independent kung fu remasters in HD.
Martin Sandison’s Rating: 8/10