Taiwanese filmmaker Joseph Kuo is somewhat of an unsung figure in the history of kung-fu movies, never making a household name of himself in Hong Kong (one of the major markets in which his films were sold) or the West. However, a number of the many martial arts films he made are well-loved among genre fans and they made perhaps the biggest impact in a surprisingly tangential field, that of the hip-hop community. The Wu-Tang Clan were a hugely influential group in the musical genre and took much inspiration for their song titles and stage names from the work of Kuo. Ghostface Killah, most notably, was named after a character from Kuo’s Mystery of Chessboxing.

Kuo was also an interesting figure in how he’s one of the rare filmmakers in the classic era of kung-fu cinema that could be called an ‘auteur’. He may not have had a distinct style like Wes Anderson or other critically adored ‘artistes’ but he was a man that wrote, directed and produced his films through his own company, Hong Hwa International Films, which he started up after deciding to move on from his short stint at Shaw Brothers.

So, Kuo had full control over his projects, truly independent films that may have simply been pandering to public tastes but had a single figure calling the shots, who crafted entertaining movies with considerable skill, despite their low budgets.

Eureka have made the bold and very welcome decision to focus on this lesser-known filmmaker for their latest boxset. Entitled Cinematic Vengeance! 8 Kung Fu Classics From Director Joseph Kuo, the collection includes the films The 7 Grandmasters, The 36 Deadly Styles, The World of Drunken Master, The Old Master, Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, 18 Bronzemen and Return of the 18 Bronzemen. I must admit, though I’m a big kung-fu movie fan, I’ve never seen any of Kuo’s films, so I was more than pleased to be offered a copy of the set to review.

My brief thoughts on the titles and set as a whole follow.

The 7 Grandmasters (a.k.a. Jue quan)

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Joseph Kuo, Ching Kang Yao
Based on a Story by: Da-Wei Kuo
Starring: Yi-Min Li, Jack Long, Kuan-Wu Lung, Nancy Yen, Chung-Hsing Chao
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 89 min
Year: 1977

The set doesn’t follow a chronological order, instead splitting the collection into two thematic groups, ‘Deadly Masters’ and ‘Fearless Shaolin’. The first disc of Deadly Masters begins with The 7 Grandmasters (a.k.a. Jue quan), a 1977 effort from Kuo that sees Jack Long play Sang Kuan Chun, a kung-fu master who is due to retire at the highest level of his profession, being declared the most skilled practitioner in the region.

However, after a mysterious message interrupts the ceremony, claiming he isn’t the best fighter in the land, Chun decides to embark on a quest to test whether he is worthy of the title by fighting all 7 Grandmasters across the region.

Along the way, he reluctantly takes on a new student, Shao Ying (Yi-Min Li), who has doggedly pursued Chun and his protégés for much of the journey. A fast-learning and soon highly skilled martial artist, Ying proves to be a valuable asset to Chun’s team, but some surprising twists cast a dark shadow over proceedings.

This was a fine introduction to Kuo’s work, showing his great strengths though also some of his weaknesses. Getting the latter out of the way first, I found the storytelling to be quite clumsy. Most of the plot points occur in the first and last few minutes of the film, with the mid-section taken up by action and training. In the early scenes, an important story beat is confusingly placed and not clearly explained. What transpires is ignored for the majority of the film, then suddenly it comes into play right at the end, when the story finally makes sense. As such, it seems clunky rather than surprising.

You don’t come into films like this with great expectations for the storytelling though. Cheap and cheerful kung-fu films live and die on their action and Kuo certainly doesn’t disappoint in this respect. The fights, choreographed by a young Corey Yuen and Yuen Cheung-yan, are highly influenced by Peking Opera, giving them an elaborate, acrobatic dance-like quality. It’s breathtaking stuff and the scenes take up the majority of the screen time, so martial-arts fans will be in high heaven, despite any shortcomings elsewhere in the film.

Film:

The 36 Deadly Styles

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Joseph Kuo
Starring: Jang-Lee Hwang, Jeanie Chang, Lik Cheung, Kuan-Wu Lung, Jack Long, Lau Chan, Tse Lin Yang, Mei-sheng Fan, Bolo Yeung
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1982

The 36 Deadly Styles opens with Wah-jee (Lik Cheung) and his uncle Wang (Chin-bo Sham) being doggedly pursued by a group led by Mien Tsu-mun (Lau Chan). They end up in a Buddhist temple, where monk Huang (Tse Lin Yang) helps fight off the pursuers, but not before Wang is killed. With his dying breaths, Wang asks Huang to look after Wah-jee, so the young man is allowed to live with the monks.

Wah-jee soon grows fed up with the tough chores he’s forced to do at the temple though and sneaks off one night. However, he soon learns of a plot to kill Huang and rushes back. He’s unable to save the monk but is dragged away from taking revenge by the father (Mei-sheng Fan) of a ladyfriend of his, who explains who Huang’s killer is and how powerful his kung-fu is. This saviour agrees to train Wah-jee in Huang’s special style of kung-fu, so he can bring the killer to justice.

Once again, The 36 Deadly Styles takes an unusual storytelling approach of hiding or confusing key information until late on in the film, making for a plot where you don’t fully understand the stakes until the final act. It perhaps works better here than in The 7 Grandmasters, as there is more story to speak of overall, whereas the previous film was pretty stripped back, but it still makes for a muddy film that only makes sense later on.

Also, though the low budget nature of the production means the basic costumes and bland locations can be forgiven, I’m not sure what on Earth Kuo was thinking with the wigs he gave the chief antagonists (including the great Bolo Yeung)!

Dodgy hair-pieces and storytelling aside, The 36 Deadly Styles once again remains a thrilling watch due to its exceptional action scenes. On top of some wonderfully crisp and well-conceived choreography, the fights are well shot and edited, flowing nicely with great energy.

So, despite any flaws and with breathtaking fight scenes filling up the majority of screen time, The 36 Deadly Styles remains another kung-fu classic.

Film:

The World of Drunken Master (a.k.a. Jiu xian shi ba die)

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Shan-Hsi Ting
Starring: Jack Long, Yi-Min Li, Jeanie Chang, Kuan-Wu Lung, Fei Lung, Sung Hsi Yu, Siu-Tin Yuen
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1979

The World of Drunken Master sees Kuo cash-in on the success of Yuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Master. I used the word ‘cash-in’ deliberately though, rather than ‘rip-off’, as Kuo wisely doesn’t try to copy the film that rocketed Jackie Chan to fame. Instead, he provides a sort of origin story to the titular character, rather than telling the tale of his famous student, Wong Fei-Hung.

Further expanding the story of Beggar So (played by Yi-Min Li as a youngster, Sung Hsi Yu when he’s older and Drunken Master’s own Siu-Tin Yuen in a cameo during the credits), Kuo adds a second drunken master, Fan Ta-Pei (Jack Long). After an introduction to the pair as elderly men, we flashback to them in their youth and discover what brought them together to train in drunken boxing then later split them apart, driving them to drink and despondency. Their relationship with Yu-Lu (Jeanie Chang) has something to do with it.

With this film, Kuo provides a clearer central plot, with less confusion over who’s who and why they’re fighting, though the final fight comes practically out of nowhere.

Tonally the film jumps between comedy and drama, with a few shocking twists here and there. The humour isn’t quite at the same standard as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung’s work of the era, but there are some amusing sequences. I particularly liked the scene where So and Fan are performing kung-fu moves in their sleep, much to the annoyance of the other poor folk they’re sharing a room with.

The action is the star as usual though, with more brilliantly choreographed scraps (courtesy of Cheung-Yan Yuen) that show off the acrobatic skills of the performers. There’s a nice mix of action too, so you never get tired of watching the many fights.

Film:

The Old Master

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: On Szeto
Starring: Jim-Yuen Yu, Bill Louie, Siu-nam Ng, Starr Hester, Hou-Chiang Chi
Country: Hong Kong
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1979

The Old Master is another cash-in from Kuo, though it’s a rather unusual one. With the great success of Jackie Chan at the time and the rising stardom of Sammo Hung, many independent producers were jumping on the bandwagon, trying to find the ‘next Jackie’ or at least attempting to copy the particular brand of kung-fu comedy Jackie and Sammo were famous for. Kuo, however, took a different approach, making a film that starred Jim-Yuen Yu, the Peking Opera master that trained Jackie, Sammo and the rest of the famous ‘Seven Little Fortunes’.

The Old Master sees Yu play a highly-skilled martial arts master, Wan, that travels from Hong Kong to Los Angeles to visit one of his pupils who is running a gym there. The student (sorry I missed his name) makes out that times are hard and their reputation is at stake, so Wan must fight several competing gym masters. However, the student is actually betting on the fights in order to pay some gambling debts.

When Wan discovers the truth, he disowns the student but hangs around in L.A. whilst earning enough money to go back home. Putting him up is Bill (Bill Louie), who’s keen to learn kung-fu from the master. The pair spend time together in the city, before they’re called up to fight at the end of the film.

This was somewhat of a disappointment for me. It starts off fairly well, with a few decent fights, though Yu is blatantly doubled in all the action scenes. However, once Wan and Bill head off on their own the film grinds to a halt. The film turns into a fish-out-of-water ‘comedy’ with the pair hanging around, going to work and heading to the disco one night. The latter scene lasts way too long and though there’s a daft, kitsch charm to it and a little bit of fighting at the end, it’s a pace-killer.

The film lacks drama too, with minimal stakes or goals for our characters, making for a dull experience, for the most part.

Thankfully, the final 20 minutes brings some decent action, with a particularly good fight featuring Bill and a skilled opponent on top of an L.A. hotel. This and the following finale end proceedings on a high note, though it doesn’t quite save the film as a whole from being easily the weakest in the set.

Film:

Shaolin Kung Fu

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Tse Hsiao
Starring: Chiang-Lung Wen, Hung Yi, Ping Lu, Shan-shan Yang, Yuan Yi
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1974

For the first disc in the ​​Fearless Shaolin section of the set, we jump back to 1974 with Kuo’s Shaolin Kung Fu. The film sees the Dong Yong rickshaw company, run by Mr Chu (Yuan Yi), cause problems for another local company, bullying their drivers and stealing their customers.

Rickshaw driver Ah Feng (Chiang-Lung Wen) is a kung-fu expert that has had enough of the antics of Mr Chu’s goons but can’t do anything about it as he’d promised his blind wife, Shiao-yuan (Yee Hung), that he wouldn’t fight. He can’t help himself though and beats up a few of the Dong Yong drivers. This prompts Chu’s son (Peng Cheng) to pay Ah Feng a visit. With the driver out, Chu Jr proceeds to assault Shiao-yuan. Luckily, Ah Feng arrives in the nick of time and beats the living daylights out of his wife’s assailant. Young Chu dies of his injuries though, sending his father on a blind rage of vengeance.

Everything came together nicely on this one, for me. Finally, we have a well-told (if fairly generic) story that holds our attention and provides suitable levels of drama to make us really care who wins each fight. It’s laid on a bit thick towards the end as Chu proceeds to kill practically everyone close to Ah Feng, but it makes for a tremendously powerful final standoff.

The characters are well-drawn too. Ah Feng, though fighting for justice and honour, is rightfully questioned as to why he didn’t contact the authorities before he started beating the crap out of everyone. Also, the villain is given good reason to want to kill our hero, simply wanting to avenge the death of his son (though he maybe didn’t have to go as far as he does).

The action is quite different here too. Likely due to when the film was made, shortly after the worldwide success of Enter the Dragon, the fights are less Peking Opera influenced, instead centring around tough, realistic, punch-heavy combat (other than some crazy jumping skills and a fingertip death strike later on). As such, the choreography is perhaps less outwardly impressive, but it’s effectively high-impact and brilliantly shot and edited, making for some exciting fights.

The production values are improved here too, likely helped by the worldwide kung-fu boom of the time. This, on top of the other reasons listed above, means Shaolin Kung Fu is a really solid, well-crafted kung-fu film that stands as one of the strongest in the set.

Film:

The Shaolin Kids (a.k.a. Shao Lin xiao zi or The Shaolin Death Squad)

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Joseph Kuo
Starring: Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan, Peng Tien, Carter Wong, Kang Chin, Yuan Yi, Nan Chiang
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 88 min
Year: 1975

Like the previous film, there’s little to justify the Shaolin in the title, as Shaolin Kids centres around a tale of revenge in the high courts of period China (it’s not clear what period, or at least I didn’t take note of it).

The respected Mr. Liu is poisoned by the evil Prime Minister, Hu Wei Yung (Yuan Yi), in his first move to overthrow the Emperor (Hsiang-Ting Ko) and take the throne himself.

Liu’s adopted daughter (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan) vows to take revenge and, whilst spying on Yung, discovers his plot to become emperor. She sees him basically confessing to the plot in writing on a scroll (I think it’s a message written to call for military support, but I missed that detail). So, she and her team of tough friends steal the document and embark on a mission to get it to the Emperor. Hu Wei Yung doesn’t make it easy for them though.

Shaolin Kids grabs your attention from the offset with much greater productions values than the rest of the films in the set. Colourful costumes, plenty of extras and some fairly lavish sets make you wish Kuo would have been given better budgets throughout his career.

The film rattles along too, with little downtime in its tale of revenge and treachery. You could say it’s a little rushed perhaps, with a lot of scenes crammed into its brief running time, unnecessarily so for what is essentially a very simple story.

The fights aren’t quite as neatly constructed either, with less of a natural flow to the cuts in places. They’re still decent though, using more of a wuxia style of action, rather than the tough strikes of Shaolin Kung Fu or elaborate choreography of Kuo’s later films. In this way, on top of the political deception-filled plot, the film has more of a feel of a King Hu or possibly Chang Cheh film, rather than the Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan influenced titles elsewhere in the set. In fact, our ass-kicking female protagonist here, played by Polly Shang-Kuan Ling-Feng, featured in Hu’s Dragon Inn.

So, Shaolin Kids stands out among the rest of the films here. It may be a little by-the-numbers and possibly too fast-paced for its own good, but it’s an exciting and nicely presented wuxia movie from Kuo.

Film:

18 Bronzemen

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Joseph Kuo, Hsin-Yi Chang, Chung Yen
Based on a Story by: Hung-Yan Kuo
Starring: Peng Tien, Carter Wong, Yi Chang, Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan, Nan Chiang, Yuan Yi
Country: Taiwan, Hong Kong
Running Time: 95 min (Japanese cut) 101 min (Hong Kong version)
Year: 1976

One of the more popular titles in the set, 18 Bronzemen (in the Japanese cut) opens with the murder of the Guan family by a Qing lord. A baby is saved from the massacre though and sent into hiding. As the child grows older, he is sent to live and train at the Shaolin temple, to become a kung-fu master.

We jump forward several years to see the boy now a young man. Named Shaolung (and now played by Peng Tien), he is nearing the end of his training and must face the tests of the 36 Chambers and then the infamous 18 Bronzemen, before he can leave the temple and enact revenge on those that killed his family. Helping Shaolung complete the training are his martial ‘brothers’ Wan (Carter Wong) and Ta Chi (Nan Chiang).

The most famous cut (in the West) of 18 Bronzemen and the one remastered here is actually the Japanese cut which is made up of a combination of the original footage and scenes from other Kuo films. The most notable difference is the opening 20 minutes. In the HK cut it jumps quickly to a grown-up Shaolung after a brief introduction whereas the Japanese cut has a lengthy portion following the training of the young boy as well as shots of him being saved from the Qing at the start. I watched this Japanese version for my review. Unfortunately, I’m too swamped with screeners to have time to watch the whole Hong Kong version (which is included in a reconstructed form here, from various, often quite ropey sources), though I had a little skim through it.

Given the cobbled-together nature of the Japanese cut, it works surprisingly well. Granted, there are a couple of unusual moments that bear little scrutiny but, on the whole, the story flows nicely. It helps that it’s a reasonably stripped back affair in general, focusing largely on training, other than the opening scenes and final act. The question of revenge and duty is less clear-cut here too, with Shaolung trained from birth to avenge the death of a father he barely knew and other characters revealed to be acting on behalf of parents rather than fighting for themselves. It may seem a generic tale on the surface but its construction makes for a thematically quite thought-provoking affair.

18 Bronzemen very much has the feel of a Chang Cheh Shaw Brothers movie. On top of the elaborate, punishing training, you’ve got themes of honour among brothers and families, mixed with bloody violence. Visually it has that feel too, with the generally cash-strapped Kuo laying everything out on screen, in an atypically sumptuous-looking film. The production design is a good step above most of the rest of the titles in this set and great use is made of depth, colour and movement.

There aren’t as many fights as such here, but there’s plenty of action in the form of the brutal Shaolin training and titular trials. It’s all well-executed as usual, making for a thrilling, full-blooded kung-fu classic in the Shaw Brothers vein.

Film:

Return of the 18 Bronzemen

Director: Joseph Kuo
Screenplay by: Chien Chin
Based on a Story by: Ting-Hung Kuo, Han Meng
Starring: Carter Wong, Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan, Peng Tien, Mei-Yi Chang, Pao-Shan Chang, Ting Chao
Country: Taiwan
Running Time: 92 min
Year: 1976

The final film in the set is the sequel to 18 Bronzemen, Return of the 18 Bronzemen. I say sequel but, in fact, it’s that in name only. Most of the sets are recycled and three of the lead actors are back but they’re playing completely different characters in a story that only shares the 18 Bronzemen training aspect and little else.

The film opens with the announcement that the Emperor is in a coma and Yong Zhen (Carter Wong), the 4th prince, waits with anticipation for his calling to become the nation’s ruler himself. However, he’s furious to discover his father’s will gives the 14th prince the title. His advisor swiftly fixes the problem by amending the characters on the will to read that Yong Zhen will take the crown. Yong further secures this by having the original will writer murdered and blaming the 14th prince on the incident.

Later, on his first day as Emperor, Yong is told that the Shaolin are siding with the rebels against his family. This prompts a flashback where we discover Yong trained in martial arts for several years at the temple prior to becoming Emperor, so that he could become a truly powerful ruler.

It’s a bold and unusual concept for a martial arts film, as our protagonist is shown to be evil at the start of the film and rather than relate a tale of redemption, we watch how he mastered kung-fu to be able to rule with an iron fist! It makes for a lead that’s harder to root for, but Wong is a good enough actor to still win over our sympathies.

Some elements are based on historical records too. The emperor portrayed here was indeed one of the few that learnt martial arts and was very suspicious of his brothers so had them locked up. He also invented the flying guillotine, as mentioned at the end of the film.

Like in its predecessor, the production values and cinematography are first-rate too, so it’s a fine piece of classic martial arts cinema. I’m not sure I liked it quite as much as the first film though. Perhaps it’s due to the fact our ‘hero’ has no respectable motives, so the stakes are low, or because the training concepts felt familiar after 18 Bronzemen, but it fell a fraction short for me. The ending is a little abrupt and dissatisfying too.

Regardless, it’s still another fine example of Kuo’s skill at crafting a thrilling martial arts adventure and ends the set on a high note.

Film:

Cinematic Vengeance! 8 Kung Fu Classics From Director Joseph Kuo is out on 15th November on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Classics series. All of the transfers (other than the reconstructed Hong Kong cut of 18 Bronzemen) look fantastic, with pleasingly rich colours and crisp details. The contrast is a touch heavy for my liking on some of the titles but, overall, the films look remarkably good, especially considering the nature of these low budget kung-fu movies. You get either two or three options for audio on each of the titles too, so all fans are catered for. These all sound as good as they can.

The 4-disc Blu-ray set includes:

DISCS ONE & TWO: DEADLY MASTERS!
Includes The 7 Grandmasters, The 36 Deadly Styles, The World of Drunken Master, and The Old Master

– Original Mandarin audio tracks
– Optional English dubbed audio
– Alternate Cantonese audio tracks for The 7 Grandmasters, The World of Drunken Master, and The Old Master
– Newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentaries on The 7 Grandmasters and The World of Drunken Master with Asian film expert Frank Djeng and martial artist / filmmaker Michael Worth
– Brand new audio commentaries on The 36 Deadly Styles and The Old Master with action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema

DISC THREE & FOUR: FEARLESS SHAOLIN!
Includes Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, 18 Bronzemen, and Return of the 18 Bronzemen

– Original Mandarin audio tracks
– Optional English dubbed audio for Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, and Return of the 18 Bronzemen
– Newly translated English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentaries on Shaolin Kung Fu and The Shaolin Kids with action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
– Brand new audio commentaries on 18 Bronzemen and Return of the 18 Bronzemen with Asian film expert Frank Djeng and film writer John Charles (The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977–1997)
– 18 Bronzemen: The Hong Kong Version – a reconstruction of the original theatrical release version of 18 Bronzemen

The 7 Grandmasters commentary is a lot of fun. Frank Djeng and Michael Worth have good chemistry together and are clearly fond of the film. As on other martial arts and HK titles, Djeng handily acts as a guide for any elements lost in translation due to language and cultural barriers. They do a similarly good job on World of Drunken Master too.

Mike Leeder and Arne Venema’s commentaries on 36 Deadly Styles and The Old Master are more jokey, with plenty of comments on the more ridiculous aspects of the films. There are a few facts about the cast and crew though too and plenty of related anecdotes about the commentators’ own experiences in the Hong Kong film industry.

On their tracks on Shaolin Kung Fu and Shaolin Kids, the pair are more complimentary of the films than in their earlier tracks. As usual, they go off on many tangents about Hong Kong film production and culture in general but they’re strong tracks nonetheless.

Frank Djeng and film John Charles provide a pair of excellent commentaries on the two 18 Bronzemen films. On the first, they spend a lot of time pointing out the differences between the two versions of the film, explaining where some of the scenes originally came from. On Return of the 18 Bronzemen, they provide some facts about the real-life history behind the story and characters portrayed. It’s another strong track, though I found myself frustrated by the fact the pair didn’t seem to realise most of the film is told in flashback. They comment on how it’s odd that the emperor disappears to learn kung fu for 3 years when in fact he is remembering the time that had passed, before he was emperor. Djeng does mention coming out of a flashback at the end to go some way to correct this minor issue though.

The reconstructed Hong-Kong cut of 18 Bronzemen is a much-welcome addition too, allowing you to see the original version of the film, albeit in a compromised form, made up from some lower quality sources.

The booklet is great too, offering informative and thoughtful essays on each of the titles in the set, as well as some background on Kuo himself.

Overall then, it’s a cracking release that’s easy to recommend to martial arts movie fans. A documentary or similar, looking at Kuo and his films, might have been nice to include, but a lot of ground is covered in the 8 commentaries, so it wouldn’t be necessary, so to speak.

The set is missing a few of Kuo’s best-known titles (such as Born Invicible and The Mystery of Chess Boxing) so hopefully Eureka have more releases up their sleeves as I’ll be first in the queue to check them out.

Disc/Package:

Cinematic Vengeance! 8 Kung Fu Classics From Director Joseph Kuo - Eureka
Films
Disc/Package
4.0Overall:
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.