Director: Jackie Chan
Screenplay: Jackie Chan, Tin-Chi Lau, King Sang Tang, Lu Tung
Starring: Jackie Chan, Pai Wei, Biao Yuen, Lily Li, Kien Shih, Ing-Sik Whang, Feng Tien, Fung Fung, Mei Sheng Fan
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 106/90/99 mins
BBFC Certificate: 15
Jackie Chan’s first major breakthrough was Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow in 1978, after years of minor roles, stunt work and flops. However, it could be argued The Young Master, which came two years later, was an even more important milestone for the international megastar.
One major reason for this claim is that it marked the beginning of Jackie’s relationship with Golden Harvest (after a messy breakup with Lo Wei, which is too complicated to get into here). The company would go on to produce a great number of Jackie’s most beloved and popular work that followed, such as the Police Story, Armour of God and Project A films.
Golden Harvest also gave Jackie much more creative control than he’d ever had before over a film. It wasn’t his directorial debut (that honour went to The Fearless Hyena) but, for this sophomore effort, he was let off the leash by his producers and allowed to take as long as he wanted and spend (almost) as much as he wanted too.
This indulgence meant Jackie ended up with a three-hour cut of the film originally, though the distributors put a stop to that, making him cut it down dramatically to 106 mins (in Hong Kong, at least) before release. The hard work paid off though, as The Young Master became the highest-grossing domestic film in Hong Kong history, making HK$11,026,283, further cementing Jackie’s place in the region as its most bankable star.
These days The Young Master is not quite as worshipped as some of Jackie’s later work, or his first two hits, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, but it’s a very important film in his oeuvre and one I’ve always enjoyed. Also championing the film with a lavish new limited edition boxset are 88 Films. Containing three different cuts of the film, the Hong Kong Theatrical Cut, the International Export Cut and the Extended Export Cut, it’s a fabulous release and I eagerly got my hands on a copy to see how it held up.
The Young Master sees Jackie play ‘Dragon’, one of two orphans taken in by Master Tien (Feng Tien). The film begins with the preparation for a special lion dance competition in which Dragon’s brother Tiger (Pai Wei) feigns injury so that he can secretly man the lion competing against his family’s. He’s the star lion dancer in the region so wins, earning a lot of money and respect for the conniving Ah Suk (Fung Fung) and his family, whilst getting Dragon shamed for losing the competition and dropping the lion’s head (due to Tiger kicking it off).
When the truth comes out, Tiger is banished and gets caught up in more trouble with Ah Suk, who talks him into helping them free a dangerous prisoner, Kam (Ing-Sik Whang), and rob a bank. As Dragon tries to find his brother, he gets mistaken for him by the police (headed by a constable played by Kien Shih, who’s best known in the West as the villain in Enter the Dragon) and gets arrested. Eventually, Dragon proves his innocence but must catch both Ah Suk and Kam to clear his brother’s name, leading to an epic final battle against the deadly escaped convict.
Many Jackie Chan fans tend to prefer his later work, like Police Story, Project A and Armour of God, where stunts and harder-hitting action took prevalence. However, I’ve got a real soft spot for the earlier age of kung-fu movies, where fights are less realistic but more technically complex and almost dance-like. The Young Master sits close to the end of this era before it largely died away. As such, and with Jackie’s great experience as a stuntman and child Peking Opera artist, it shows the style at its peak.
As is often the case with these older kung-fu films, the first half an hour or so focusses more on the story, with only the opening lion dance sequence and some brief teases of action, but, after that, hits high gear and never lets up. There are some wonderfully choreographed scenes, such as an incredible fan fight which includes a shot that reportedly broke records for the number of takes it took to get it right. One of my personal favourite kung-fu movie stars, Yuen Biao, also gets a lengthy and elaborately planned fight with Jackie, using stools as weapons.
Most impressive, however, are the fights with Ing-Sik Whang. His introduction, which doesn’t feature Jackie at all, is a real eye-opener with some incredibly hard-hitting attacks. Then his final showdown with Jackie bristles with sheer primal ferocity. I will say though, I found this perhaps went on a little too long, running somewhere around 15 minutes (in two of the cuts – I’ll get to that) without any change of location or fighters.
Also letting the film down a touch is the handling of the story. I don’t go into an old-school kung-fu film worrying about the plot too much. However, this is strange in that the story starts quite clearly and effectively, building to a powerfully emotional scene between Jackie and his master, but then loses the thread somewhat and the final fight has little personal connection for Jackie’s character.
The change of direction in the plot does lead to the injection of more comedy in the latter two-thirds of the film though. Hong Kong comedies of the era were rather broad and daft, so won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but I enjoy them and it’s hard not to fall for Jackie’s charms and skill for physical humour. A fight when he dresses up like Beggar So (from Drunken Master) and pretends not to be able to fight whilst beating up two criminals is particularly funny.
Before I tie up my review of the film, I’ll discuss the various versions available here.
The theatrical cut is the longest available version (the three-hour cut was only ever shown to a few producers and distributors, so is likely lost forever). The Japanese extended export cut trims bits off all the fight scenes except the final one and adds a couple of brief dramatic sequences that help flesh out the plot and characters a touch. The international export cut is the same as this but also trims the final fight by a whopping 8 minutes. Both export cuts have a funky 70s soundtrack too, instead of ripping cues from Holst’s ‘The Planets’. I think the extra scenes in these two versions do help strengthen the story and, to be honest, as mentioned, I think the final fight could do with a trim (if not that much).
So, I actually think the international cut has a few things going for it. Trimming so much out of the fights is a shame though, and even if it keeps the film nice and lean, it’s the action I want to see, so it’s always preferable to keep as much of that in as possible. Plus, I’m not a fan of dubbed martial arts films I’m afraid. I didn’t grow up with them in the VHS age (other than Enter the Dragon). I came into the genre late with the release of the Hong Kong Legends DVD range, so I’m more familiar with the original language subtitled cuts. As such, the theatrical cut is still my preferred version in this set, despite the others addressing a couple of issues I had.
Any version you choose to watch, however, is well worth your time. The Young Master may suffer from overkill occasionally (I didn’t even mention Jackie’s over-use of the crash-zoom) and the flimsy plot is sidelined for much of the second half but, with a film like this, you come for the action and, in this respect, it does not disappoint. Chan was in full control for the first time here and made sure the film showed off his skills to the utmost. The fights are truly breathtaking at times and among the best of Jackie’s work of the era, so it comes highly recommended.
The Young Master is out now on Deluxe Limited Edition Region B Blu-Ray in the UK, released by 88 Films. Order it here. As mentioned in my review, you get three versions of the film to choose from, the Hong Kong Theatrical Cut (106 minutes), the International Export Cut (90 minutes) and the Extended Export Cut (99 minutes). They all look great, with bold, rich colours and impressive detail, though the theatrical cut appears to have a slight edge on the others, looking a touch sharper to my eyes. All versions suffer ever so slightly with heavy grain in dark patches, but this is a very minor issue. Overall the film looks fantastic. I’ve used screengrabs from the HK theatrical cut in this review to give you an idea of what it looks like.
You also get an exhaustive number of audio options on the theatrical cut. The other cuts only have English dubs, as is the nature of these versions. I watched the theatrical cut with the original Cantonese mono theatrical mix and it sounded decent. These old HK films are hardly master classes in sound design and mixing, but 88 Films have polished the tracks up as best they can, so everything is clean and clear at least.
You also get an impressive array of special features and limited edition physical goodies. Here’s the list:
– RIGID Slipcase with brand-new artwork from R.P. “Kung Fu Bob” O’Brien
– Reversible sleeve with alternative Hong Kong poster artwork
– Double-sided foldout Poster
– 6 Replica Lobby Cards
– 80-page perfect-bound book featuring 3 new essays + selected archive materials: Jackie Chan – The Early Years: From Stuntman to Superstar by William Blaik (Fighting Spirit Film Festival), The History of Martial Arts on Video by Tim Murray & Fan-Tastic! Jackie Chan Begins Again by James Oliver
– New 2K Remaster of the Hong Kong Theatrical Cut [106 minutes]
– Restored from the original 35mm camera negative in 2.35:1 Aspect Ratio
– Cantonese Mono Theatrical Mix
– Cantonese Mono Home Video Mix
– Cantonese Hybrid Mix
– English 5.1 Dub
– Newly remastered English subtitles
– Audio Commentary with HK Cinema Expert Brandon ‘OldPangYau’ Bentley
– Rick Baker on The Young Master
– The Art of the Cut: Editing of The Young Master [21 mins]
– Extended Fight Scenes: reconstructed and previously unavailable [6 mins]
– “The Cut Master” A collection of rare deleted, extended, and alternate footage [13 mins]
– [archive] Jackie Chan Interview [8 mins]
– [archive] The Master: An Interview with Master Whang In Sik [28 mins]
– NG (no good) shots [10 mins]
– Alternate Audio Clip
– Hong Kong trailer
– Extended Hong Kong trailer
– Japanese trailer
– US Home Video Trailer
– English trailer
– Hong Kong Trailer Park
– International Export Cut [90 minutes] – Restored especially for the 40th Anniversary of the film, this version was commissioned by Golden Harvest for audiences outside Asia Contains the Classic English Dub and an alternate soundtrack featuring the song ‘Kung Fu Fighting Man’ performed in English by Jackie Chan
– Audio Commentary with HK cinema aficionados & game producers Audi Sorlie & Chris Ling
– Extended Export Cut [99 minutes] – Released exclusively in Japan on 21st March 1981 by Toho-Towa, this version is broadly similar to the export cut. Although shorter than the Hong Kong cut, this composite cut features the uncut final fight and ending from said Hong Kong cut; alternate scenes, also included in the 90 minute export cut and the full-length export English Dub with alternate soundtrack
– English SDH
Brandon Bentley’s commentary on the theatrical cut has a phenomenal amount of background information on practically everyone involved in the film. It’s a dense and fascinating track that comes very highly recommended.
The Audi Sorlie and Chris Ling commentary on the international cut covers some similar ground but has a different feel overall. With having two commentators it’s more conversational and less dry, though the back and forth nature means a little less ground is covered. It has more of a personal feel at times too as the pair talk about their histories with Jackie Chan and martial arts films in general. It’s maybe not quite as essential as the other track but is still great.
The ‘Art of the Cut’ featurette is a must-see too, as it discusses the various cuts of the film, as well as the editing process in general. It also includes clips from the only surviving version not included in full in the set, the workprint, which was released in Taiwan and only exists on a VHS copy. All of this footage is also handily included in another feature, “The Cut Master”.
The extended fight scenes are also a great find, offering a few minutes of action cut from the original 3-hour version either for time or Jackie’s exacting standards.
The ‘NG shots’ aren’t the sort of outtakes I expected but do give a nice glimpse at how the action scenes were shot through giving that little extra footage at the start and end of takes. It also helps you appreciate how much of a perfectionist Jackie was as I could rarely spot anything wrong in the various sequences, so who knows why they were deemed ‘no good’.
Rick Baker’s interview is a fun, affectionate piece, though it’s not as deeply informative as the two commentaries.
Jackie Chan and Ing-Sik Whang’s interviews are taken from the old Hong Kong Legends DVD but are still welcome additions, even if the latter gets a little rambling.
To earn full ‘no stone left unturned’ credentials you also get some alternate export dub audio cues. Quite who would be desperate to hear these I’ll never know but it shows how far 88 Films have gone to make this package as comprehensive as humanly possible.
The book (it’s too long to be called a booklet) is superb. There’s an engrossing essay on Jackie Chan’s early years, building up to his breakthrough and the release of The Young Master. I also loved the piece on kung-fu movies’ place in the VHS boom. There’s a load of archive promotional material too and, finally, you get a piece purely on The Young Master itself.
And let’s not forget the packaging. Housed in a sturdy box with some beautifully rendered and boldly colourful new artwork, it looks great and you get a double-sided poster and several art-cards on top of this.
It really is a stunning package that every self-respecting Jackie Chan or martial arts movie fan needs to own. Pick it up quickly before the limited edition version sells out because it really is worth the extra cash. Single-title release of the year material, without a doubt, and it’s only February!