Released in 1984, this widescreen actionfest/drug-addiction drama was the final film of only three directed by longtime action choreographer Tang Chia — and one of the last films ever released by the legendary Shaw Brothers movie studio, which in its heyday made dozens of movies every year but by this time was struggling to keep up with the popular trends ushered in by Bruce Lee and expanded upon by Jackie Chan and friends.
It’s good stuff, if a bit of a challenge to nail down tonally. The first section is a fairly straightforward martial-arts action comedy set in a village populated by rival groups of serious kung-fu masters and students who seem to get into elaborate brawls at the drop of a hat. (A dinnertime slugfest that has the participants dangling from the colorful ribbons adorning the ceiling of the dining hall feels like a delicious cross between a Jackie Chan film and a pirate movie.) The story thread involving a local opium den seems at first like an exotic tangent, but it eventually becomes clear Opium and the Kung Fu Master would qualify as an anti-drug propaganda piece, showing how opium addiction becomes the financial and physical ruin of many a martial artist.
One of the film’s minor characters comes to a shockingly unhappy end, and its second half is dominated by the story of how Tieh Chiao-san (Ti Lung, later seen in A Better Tomorrow and Drunken Master 2), one of the 10 legendary Kwangtung Tigers, gets laid low by the monkey on his back — and how he kicks the habit cold turkey and struggles back from the abyss to rid his village of its exploitative opium dealer, who’s a fearsome opponent in his own right.
I don’t know enough about martial arts to critique this on grounds of innovation or authenticity, but I can tell you that the fight scenes are certainly rousing stuff, executed with a modicum of wirework, some sparing use of reverse and undercranked cinematography, and a whole lot of balletic physical exertion. There’s an exciting sequence set, with great dramatic relish, inside a burning building. And if the whole thing flags a little bit in between action set pieces, there’s still a lot of colorful costuming and ornate set design to take in.
It’s all rendered nicely on the new Blu-ray Disc from BCI, which is certainly bright and colorful, but probably a little bit too clean (film grain is visible, but it doesn’t dance the way it should, and the image seems to have been scrubbed clean of both minor imperfections and fine detail). In fact, it may be a little too good for the production values here — at least one painted backdrop is clearly revealed to be painfully phony! The image has been letterboxed to a proper 2.35:1, and the mono Mandarin soundtrack (both this and the English dub, which I didn’t bother listening to, are encoded using Dolby Digital, not Dolby TrueHD) gets the job done. Depending on your set-up, you may be disappointed to read that the subtitles appear, to a large degree, inside the lower letterbox bar rather than on top of the image. Despite those cavils, it’s a treat to be able to add a high-definition example of old-school kung fu to the Blu-ray library — and I’m looking forward to Life Gamble, which shows up in a couple of weeks.