Opium doesn't turn Judge Steve Power into any Kung-Fu master. It just makes him sleepy.
Get ready to experience the Lightning fists of Shaolin!
Trendy Hollywood hipsters, or at least Quentin Tarantino anyway, have been name dropping the Shaw Brothers for what seems like an eternity. As a film geek who "came of age" just prior to Generation Quentin, I knew the name, but up 'til now, I hadn't witnessed the kung-fu of these Hong Kong chop-sockey exploitation wizards. I'm not entirely sure where Opium and the Kung-Fu Master lies in the overall oeuvre, but if this is indicative of the quality of other Shaw Brothers material…well, I could have remained blissfully ignorant of their existence and died a happy man.
The setting is olden day China. Which period? Not important. All you need to know is that bad ass Kung-Fu master Tie Qiao-San (Ti Lung, A Better Tomorrow) rules the streets with his law-keeping gang, the Ten Guang Dong Tigers. His A-number one student launches a one man war against the local opium den, until he bites off more than he can chew and tragedy strikes. Tie Qiao-San rises to avenge his truly righteous pupil, only to face a demon more powerful than any mere man, his crippling addiction to Opium. Can Master Tie kick the habit? Can he convince the populace that he's still the righteous bad-ass thief-killer they once thought him to be? Can he rise to the occasion and defeat the kung-fu villain with the meanest moustache you've ever seen?
If nothing else, it's great to know that even in Dynasty China drug addiction was an ABC After School Special style problem. Perhaps if they showed this craziness in high schools they could keep kids off the pipe for life. Opium and the Kung-Fu Master hits every single tired cliche you've ever seen in a drug movie, and scenes that are supposed to pack some kind of emotional whallop (like when the cross-eyed dunce comes home to find his wife and child have committed suicide over his addiction) just fall like a hammer about the head and shoulders. The whole affair is almost hilariously bad. The unintentional humor takes its sweet time though, as the first act of the film feels like a 7-part miniseries being played back at half speed. Performances are theatrical and over the top, and the fight scenes, while brilliantly fast and choreographed with ballet precision, never quite hit like they should. All of the kung-fu posturing stops short of full contact, and punches and kicks are flashy and show-y, but seldom look like they're connecting. Director Tang Chia (who also plays the bad-ass Blind Master who nurses our hero back to sobriety) has often been considered one of the greats of fight choreography, and it's not a title I would want to take away from him, but in the age of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix, it doesn't amount to much more than a laughable distraction.
Funimation strikes hard with the first in their "Hong Kong Connection" line, and the disc's technical merits are certainly laudable. The soundtrack is available either in the original Chinese mono, complete with hilarious over-acting, or the Stereo English dub, which is full of even more hilarity. Even the subtitles are hilarious, as full of '70s verbiage and streetspeak as they are. I laughed riotously when a character pleads with our hero to "kick the habit" on his deathbed. The real star of this one is the picture, which is clean, popping with color, and much nicer looking than i'd have expected an exploitation flick from 1984 to look; the restoration effort must have been a painstaking and monumental process. Fans of the genre who aren't in jail after murdering me for this review, will no doubt be pleased with the vibrancy of the visuals. I know I was.
There are no extras included save for a collection of trailers, which is a bit of a drag, as there's a Blu-ray version out there that's barely a year old and loaded to the gills with interviews and such. Still, the film is here, and it looks great.
I'm not sure if this is indicative of other Shaw Brothers material or not, but this certainly ain't my cup of tea, excellent technical presentation notwithstanding.
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