The Old Master (1979) Review

The Old Master (1979) Review

“The Old Master” Theatrical Poster

Director: Joseph Kuo
Cast: Yu Jim-Yuen, Bill Louie, David Pedernera, Wang Yung-Sheng, Starr Hester, Ng Siu-Nam, Pau Ga-Chung, Hui Man-Yui, Chi Fu-Chiang, Yuen Hung
Running Time: 90 min.

By Paul Bramhall 

After the success of 1978’s double whammy of Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master, filmmakers were falling over themselves to find the next Jackie Chan and replicate the kung-fu comedy formula. In 1979 the onslaught was already in full flow, from Yuen Shun-Yi in Dance of the Drunken Mantis to Billy Chong in Crystal Fist, and countless others in-between. While each cash-in had varying levels of success, one man decided to think a little more outside the box than his peers, and that man was Taiwanese indie auteur Joseph Kuo. While others attempted to mould new talent based on replicating Jackie Chan’s comedic kung-fu shenanigans, Kuo came from left of field with the idea of casting Chan’s Peking Opera teacher, Yu Jim-Yuen, in his own movie.

Such minor issues like the fact Jim-Yuen was already 74, and that he’d retired to the U.S. where he was living in Los Angeles, were simply obstacles to be overcome. This was Jackie Chan’s teacher! Of course for those kung-fu aficionados out there, it’s a well-known fact that he was also the teacher of Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, and far too many others to list here (and for those wondering, in Perking Opera it was tradition for students to take on the family name of their teacher, hence so many Yuen’s!). In a slightly meta turn of events, less than 10 years later Sammo Hung himself would play Jim-Yuen in 1988’s Painted Faces, the story of their time as kids spent under his strict tutelage.

In a year that saw Kuo busier than any other in his entire filmography, cranking out 7 titles (plus one more as co-director!), somehow he also found the time to convince Jim-Yuen he could be a leading man, pack his bags for L.A. with a skeleton crew, and recruit everyone else once on American soil! The result is The Old Master, a title which surely proves there’s no such thing as ageism in the kung-fu genre (although Jackie Chan himself would feel the need to highlight his comparative youth just a year later with The Young Master). The 90 minutes that follow are every bit as bizarre as you’d expect, although also undeniably entertaining, if not necessarily for all the right reasons.

With an opening credits sequence that top bills “Grandmaster YU JIM-YUEN and his Seven Little Fortunes students”, anyone expecting to see the likes of Yuen Wah in action (or any of the kung-fu cinema legends that immediately spring to mind when hearing of the Seven Little Fortunes) should temper expectations accordingly. The “Little Fortunes” being referred to here consist of Yuen Hung, Yuen Nan, Yuan Qi, Yuan Xiao, Yuan Fi, Yuan Hsin, and Yuen Fa. After watching The Old Master I still have no idea who any of them are, or who they were playing. Thankfully we do get some semi-familiar faces in the form of “Champion of Karate (7 Dan)” Bill Louie (Death Promise, Bruce Vs Bill) and “U.S. Famous TV Star” Starr Hester. With such credits as ‘Laughing Lady’ in an episode of Madame’s Place and ‘Screaming Woman’ in an episode of The Fall Guy, there probably needs to be a clearer definition of what’s meant by “Famous TV Star”.

The plot is a straightforward affair. Jim-Yuen has been invited to L.A. from his home in Hong Kong by one of his old students, who’s now running a failing kung-fu school and is heavily in debt thanks to a gambling problem. Under the guise of bringing the school back on track, the friends real plan is to place bets on Jim-Yuen’s superior fighting skills, knowing that his elderly appearance makes him an unlikely winner for other prospective gamblers. Thankfully people who want to fight aren’t in short supply, with a seeming constant stream of hapless opponents going head-to-head against Jim-Yuen in a nondescript field somewhere in the Hollywood hills. Eventually “crazy youngster” Bill Louie, a student at the school who’s looked down upon for being poor, overhears the truth and breaks the news to Jim-Yuen, resulting in the narrative becoming a kind of buddy flick as they move in together and bond over posters of Muhammad Ali and Superman.

Of course the million-dollar question is – what kind of moves can a 74-year-old Peking Opera teacher break out? This question is answered in a disco scene which literally goes on forever (only rivalled by the opening drive from the airport to Chinatown, which goes on for so long it feels like it takes place in real time). Louie explains to Jim-Yuen that disco is “…what everyone’s doing right now, bopping and dancing!” After spending an eternity watching Louie dance with his girlfriend, famous TV star Starr Hester convinces Jim-Yuen to hit the dance floor for a disco rendition of ‘Popeye the Sailor Man’ (I’m deadly serious). In probably the most ill-advised decision of his career, Jim-Yuen proceeds to unleash some Donald Trump-esque shuffles, before launching onto the floor and spinning around on his chest in a sudden moment of disco inspiration. It’s absurd.

I realise though that most were probably wanting some insight into his fight scenes. The short answer is it depends on your ability to suspend belief. Every time a fight breaks out a blatant double takes over (signalled by him constantly shedding a few pounds!), which some cite as being Yuen Biao, but there seems to be no solid evidence (online at least) to support this claim. The fights are filmed with the camera framing from the neck down, overhead, far away, or with the doubles back facing to the camera, basically every angle except close up or face on. The occasional cut aways to Jim-Yuen’s staunch facial expression, filmed from the shoulders up against the blue sky, is strangely disconcerting, and predate similar cutaway techniques used for many of Steven Seagal’s doubled fight scenes by over 20 years!

Speaking of which, awkward doubling isn’t the only thing The Old Master would set a precedent for future filmmakers to follow. In one scene Bill Louie lets loose against a group of kung-fu hoodlums with a chainsaw, 9 years before Conan Lee and Gordon Liu’s legendary chainsaw fight in Tiger on the Beat (ok, so here just consists of Louie swinging it around in a field, but at least it’s switched on). Louie is also quite enamoured with the robot dance, so much so that when he first brings Jim-Yuen back to his apartment the first thing he does is start busting out the moves, which goes on just long enough to question what purpose it serves (which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is none). However he also incorporates it into his fighting style during a rooftop one-on-one against “Taekwondo Seventh Geup Master” (according to the credits) David Pedernera, which is actually the most impressive piece of action in the entire runtime. 

The pair trade kicks and fists in a series of exchanges that are sharp and fast, easily the highlight of fight choreographer Chan Siu-Pang’s work in The Old Master, a choreographer who’d been active since the early 60’s, and whose action credits include Duel of the 7 Tigers and Lackey and the Lady Tiger. The whole body popping combined with kung-fu concept predates the likes of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Mismatched Couples by 6 years, and is entertainingly executed, with the camera freed up to capture the falls and impacts without needing to worry about obscuring faces. Plus we get an overload of Bruce Lee battle cries from Louie just to top it off. To call The Old Master trailblazing though would be a blatant overestimation, as for the majority of its runtime it’s the equivalent of a celluloid car crash, you really want to stop watching but you just can’t.

Kuo’s bet on Jim-Yuen being a bankable lead was arguably as ill advised as most of the characters gambling choices in the movie itself, and he never did return to the screen after this outing. However the sheer ridiculousness of travelling to the U.S. to drag a famous star’s one-time teacher out of retirement and in front of the camera results in so many bizarre moments that The Old Master is rarely anything less than entertaining. Dodgy doubling, disco dancing, Elvis karaoke, and the contemporary 70’s setting all combines to create a one-off curiosity that’s guaranteed to deliver plenty of unintentional laughs, and an equal amount of cringe.

Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 5/10