A solid period piece based on a real martial arts master and his break with addiction…
Prolific action choreographer Tang Chia takes the director helm for a third and final time with Opium and the Kung Fu Master, a late Shaw Brothers martial arts period film starring popular leading man Ti Lung (The Blood Brothers, Vengeance!, Clans of Intrigue) as the titular protagonist. A morality tale against the perils of casual drug use, the film is a good example of Shaw’s declining star: a solidly made and good looking film, but one that feels somewhat dated for a 1984 production.
Ti Lung stars as Master Tie Qiao San or ‘Iron Bridge Three’ – real life 19th Century martial artist Leung Kwan – here cast as the leader of the Ten Tigers of Canton, the infamous group he was indeed a member of. Tit Kiu Sam has the respect of his community, but when an unscrupulous opium trader Rong Feng (Chen Kuan-Tai, The Tea House, Killer Constable, Shanghai 13) uses Tie’s own penchant for smoking opium against him (again based on fact to some extent), luring his disciples away and leaving the town in chaos, Tie must break his addiction to stand a chance of bringing Rong and his henchmen to justice.
It felt like the 80s where rife with warnings about drug abuse. When Grandmaster & Melle Mel weren’t bellowing ‘Don’t Don’t Do It’ at us on White Lines, BBC TV’s Children’s programme Grange Hill’s Zammo was descending into heroin abuse that would ultimately result in another singalong chant, Just Say No, from the cast. (I am conflating the entire decade, of course.) To be fair, this was hardly the first time the Shaw Brothers had touched on such matters; Chang Cheh’s The Drug Addict or The Delinquent had gone far to show the perils, yet the setting in period drama/martial arts does give the film perhaps it’s one and only unique selling point. Perhaps even more so in that it is a respected master who falls for the temptation of opium abuse, not his youthful prodigies. One of whom, Lu Gua Si (Robert Mak Tak-Law, The Holy Virgin Versus the Evil Dead, City War) desperately trying to make his master reconsider the use of opium while Tie refuses to listen (until it’s too late, of course).
The recreational use of opium may have given the Shaw Brothers an excuse to put a very modern problem into a historical context, but it’s hard not to read a little more into the choice of the subject matter considering the year of release, 1984. The Opium Wars of the 19th century were largely the reason the British Empire took hold of Hong Kong in the first place. Though the filmmakers could not have known, the ongoing discussions that had been going on for years between the People’s Republic of China and the United Kingdom would finally result in the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in December of that year, agreeing that the Hong Kong territory would be returned to Mainland China administration (and laying the groundwork for what would become the Handover of 1997).
Opium and the Kung Fu Master stands as a swansong for the heydays of Shaw Brothers martial art films. It’s easy to overlook its release date, but it would have felt quite dated in comparison to the productions of rival studios like Golden Harvest and Cinema City, entirely studio-bound and undoubtedly feeling like it could have been made a decade earlier, even down to the orchestral flourishes. It’s only the age of Ti Lung, just two years away from his appearance in the game-changing A Better Tomorrrow, which gives it away. Compared to the comedies of Jackie Chan, the deconstruction of wuxia troupes from New Wave directors like Patrick Tam, or even the off-the-wall battiness that took stunts and effects to new levels in the films of Ching Siu-tung and Tsui Hark, it just feels completely out of step.
It was hardly as if the Shaw Brothers hadn’t tried to keep up. The Hollywood push towards special effects in the wake of Star Wars had seen the studio attempt the same, often making direct reference to things like lightsabers, but somehow they couldn’t detach themselves from the increasingly overstuffed wuxia and martial arts films of the 70s, overloaded with characters. Films like Buddha’s Palm and Five Element Ninjas serve as good examples of this overblown style; they’re fun, but don’t reach the artistic level of what was going on outside of the studio, and by this time was beginning to tell in the diminishing returns of the box office.
Indeed Tang Chia’s (Tong Kai) only other films as director, Shaolin Intruders and Shaolin Prince, followed this style, but for Opium – no doubt inspired by the real life source material – Tang took a more respectful approach that avoids their excesses. How successful that is may depend very much on your view on those other films, it’s less fun, leaning more towards melodrama. But there’s plenty of decent action to be found – with Tang sharing choreographing duties with five other directors: Yuen Wah, Yuen Bun, Lee Hoi-Sang, Huang Pei-Chih and Kong Chuen. Fights are inventive, if fairly ‘straight’ in term of weapons and abilities. Any excuse is taken for a bust up between different schools, which plays out as more comical, while Tie uses the funeral plaques of his deceased pupil and pupil’s fiancé to swing a three-way duel into his advantage.
Even by this point Tang had a long and prolific career dating back to the 1950s as an actor, becoming an action director from the early 60s. Teaming up with Lau Kar-Leung (Liu Chia-Liang), the pair became a powerhouse of action choreography on mainly Cantonese wuxia productions, before transitioning to the Shaw Brothers where their output can, without doubt, only be referred to as legendary. Becoming Chang Cheh’s action directing team of choice, it includes One-Armed Swordsman, Have Sword, Will Travel, The Assassin, The Heroic Ones, Duel Of Fists, Boxer from Shantung… pretty much all of Chang’s output from his most prolific and successful period. (As well as working separately on many other Shaw Bothers films.) And yet one can but wonder why it took Tang so much longer than his frequent collaborator Lar to transition to directing, and why he stopped after three films?
On the basis of those films, Tang seems less proficient with his actors (though arguably it wasn’t of much importance by this time). Ti Lung’s performance is solid, though the handling of his addiction feels somewhat naïve by modern standards; every cursory dismissal of he gives to using opium is given an ominous musical backing. Undoubtedly it’s Chen Kuan-Tai, Phillip Ko (Tiger on the Beat, Eastern Condors, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter) and Lee Hoi-Sang (The Pilferer’s Progress, The Prodigal Son, Project A) who have the most fun as the villains of the piece. The wealth of talent at Shaw’s disposal rounds out a strong supporting cast, including Robert Mak, Alan Chan Kwok-Kuen (Royal Warriors, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre), Yue Tau-Wan (The Young Master, Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind) and Leanne Lau Suet-Wah (The Lady Assassin, Bastard Swordsman) – many of whom get larger roles than we’d see them in elsewhere. The eagled-eyed may also spot Elvis Tsui (Sex And Zen, The Seventh Curse) in one of his earlier roles, with director Tang himself appearing as the blind Shaolin monk who helps Tie break his addiction.
Artistically, Opium is deserving of praise, following his colleague Lau’s direction on films like The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin with subject matter that underlines the virtues of martial arts and those that perform them. It’s just that artistically – despite being a quality production with fine sets, cast and action – it doesn’t match those earlier examples. And the fairly pedestrian approach to the story and directing does nothing to really lift the film.
Just remember kids: don’t do drugs!
Opium and the Kung-Fu Master is available to download or rent on iTunes, Google Play and YouTube. Shaw Brothers films are also now available on Netflix.
The iTunes file has the original Cantonese soundtrack and an English dub option, together with English, Simplified and Traditional Chinese subtitle options.