Review for The Old Master
The owner of the Huaqi Martial Arts Gym in Los Angeles has a gambling problem, and a Triad problem too, with some heavies calling in an extensive debt. He has a plan though, and has called on his master for help. Grandmaster Wan is flying in from Hong Kong, although he doesn’t know why. What he finds when he arrives is a dojo that is apparently being threatened and bullied by rival gyms. Naturally he’ll stand up for his disciple, and the old man still has the kung fu skills to take on all challengers. He doesn’t know that the gym owner is betting on the fights to make money. A lowly scholarship student at the gym named Bill eventually reveals the secret, and when Wan walks out in an indignant fury, Bill offers him a place to stay, in exchange for some one-on-one kung fu tuition...
The Old Master gets a 2.35:1 widescreen 1080p transfer with the choice of PCM 1.0 Mono Cantonese, Mandarin and English with English subtitles and I assume a signs only track. I tried living with the Cantonese audio, but had to give up after half an hour and switch to Mandarin. The subtitles are timed to fit with the Mandarin audio, and are out of sync with the Cantonese, to the degree that they are a distraction. Just like the other films in this collection, the mono audio is of its time, a little harsh and prone to distortion at louder volumes and higher frequencies. The image is clear and sharp, with great detail and consistent colour. The film has obviously seen restoration, nice and stable and free of damage or dirt. The only nit to pick is in the source, where focus might drift.
The audio commentary here features Mike Leeder & Arne Venema.
The Old Master is a bit of an odd one. You might be tempted to compare it to films like Rumble in the Bronx and Battle Creek Brawl, attempts to crack the US market with kung fu action, and recapture the popularity once held by Bruce Lee. It doesn’t feel like that though. It’s very much a movie made for the domestic market, and the US setting is really a travelogue, with familiar character archetypes and familiar story tropes set against an alien and colourful background. There are even whole vignettes where the characters just go on a tour of the various sights and sounds of late seventies Los Angeles.
There’s a bigger connection to Rumble in the Bronx and Battle Creek Brawl in the film’s titular Old Master, played by Jim-Yuen Yu. Jim-Yuen Yu was the teacher of the Seven Little Fortunes, the Beijing Opera group that included Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. However, if you’re expecting action and stunts of that calibre, you’ll probably be disappointed.
The Old Master is a fairly entertaining action comedy though, with Grandmaster Wan summoned to the US on false pretences. His wayward student wants to use his master’s kung fu skill to make enough money to pay off his gambling debts. The first half hour of the film follows this, with all manner of challengers coming up against the venerable master. The action is pretty good, if traditionally stylised, although Wan is only shot from behind, with a very obvious action double standing in.
The film gets interesting when he finds out that he’s been duped, and he leaves the dojo in a huff. He moves in with scholarship student Bill, gets a part time job in a hotel, and eventually agrees to teach Bill kung fu. He gets shown around the city, and partakes of the local entertainment as well; the travelogue portion of the film. Bill, played by Bill Louie is a more accomplished martial arts actor and makes for a more convincing presence on screen in action sequences. His action choreography is a lot more inventive, as he combines dancing with his fighting (he dances the robot), although in a lengthy, and eventually tedious interlude, he takes Master Wan to a discotheque. The score to the film is a little odd too, more reminiscent of 8-bit kung fu video games than something cinematic.
Things get more serious towards the end in terms of action as you would expect. The dojo owner's chickens come home to roost, and Bill has a hard time convincing Master Wan to come to the aid of his former disciple. The Old Master isn’t great. It’s piecemeal in the way it plays out, the narrative is broken up with a tourists’ guide to LA, and the comedy can get a little weary at times. But The Old Master has an energy and sense of fun to it that goes a long way in holding the attention. It also does something a little different from the usual period kung fu action movies from the late seventies/early eighties, which makes it a worthy addition to this collection.
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