God, that’s a silly title isn’t it? It sounds like the single greatest buddy cop show ever: “Veteran detective Craig “The Kung Fu Master” Kavorsky teams up with hot young cop Andre “Opium” Andorhal, and together, they solve the cases no one else can” *cue Isaac Hayes-style opening theme* Then again, the title it was known by upon arrival in the U.S. back in the day, “Lightning Fists of Shaolin”, isn’t much more dignified.
Nah, but great title aside, “Opium and the Kung Fu Master” is a shockingly dark, well made film from the twilight years of Shaw Bros. Studios, and shows that, even if it is corny, a Kung Fu film can deliver a good story alongside its kick-ass fights. Starring several all-time greats at the top of their game, including legendary leading man Ti Lung and future Gallants star Chen Kuan-tai (who I wish so hard played a character named “Opium”), and featuring immensely satisfying fight scenes choreographed by six (yes, SIX) fight directors, O.A.T.K.F.M. (I am not typing that whole thing again) is a worthy send off for Shaw and an amazing film in its own right.
Building The Habit
First, a little context is in order. It was 1984, and the Golden Age of Kung Fu flicks was soon to come to an end. Nothing had officially been stated, but like dogs sensing a coming storm, many of the directors and actors felt it coming. As such, production generally slowed down, and what few movies were made were generally more unusual in nature as people tried to get their ideas to the screen as quickly as possible.
It was in this time that Chang Tiah had an idea. What about a movie with all the standard trappings of a Kung Fu movie, and then using the well known issues China has had with opium to rip them apart? And it was through this subversive idea that OATKFM came to be.
This is Your Brain on Kung Fu
The movie stars Ti Lung as Tieh Chiao-san, a man of virtue and supreme skill living in the town of “wherever-the-hell-they-are”. He is known and loved by the people of the town and the students he teaches, most notably pupil Lu Hu-sze (Robert Mak), and always stands up to the machinations of the other, less scrupulous martial artists in town.
But there is a subtle menace in town, the spread of the drug opium. And when Kung Fu master and opium peddler Yung Feng (Chen Kuan-tai) comes to town, things go downhill quickly with the establishment of an opium den, and the subsequent addiction of many of Tieh’s students, and most horrifyingly, Tieh himself. Tieh finds himself wrapped up in a plot that even his substantial skills might be worthless against, for the enemy is not only without…but within (dun dun dun!).
The story itself is surprisingly dark. At first, it seems all the normal trappings of some good-old kung fu cinema are here: A cool and confident master, an enthusiastic but brash young student, and some moustache twirling thugs for them all to fight. But then the effects of characters’ addiction really start setting in, and it is in the portrayal of addiction that the movie finds its greatest strength. Poverty, desperation, self-loathing, moral dissonance and the harm it does to others are all consequences touched upon, and there are some outright tragic moments in the film. Granted, it sometimes slips into some goofy territory (Tieh apparently combats addiction with pained acrobatics), but the film regularly treats the topic as the grave danger it is.
This is bolstered by fine performances by all involved. Ti Lung was, in my opinion, one of the best leading men in Shaw-era kung fu, with his statuesqe figure and dignified appearence. Not even mentioning his talent for quick, precise movement that always made him a joy to watch. He always seemed like he really could be a great master of Kung Fu. Plus, unlike many of his time, he could actually act his way out of a paper bag. He gives a great performance here that, while not entirely free of the fromage (see my comment on tumbling above) really sells the struggle of a man whose sense of honor is clashing with some very biological problems.
Meanwhile, Chen Kuan-tai plays his manipulative villain very well, said character being more cerebral than most villains, but still not above sneering and pulling out some ass-kickery to get his points across, and employing his dual halberds to great effect. Robert Mak turns in a very strong performance as well. His character idolizes Tieh as the pinnacle of strength and wisdom, and so is troubled by his lack of action against the opium dealers who are so clearly crippling their town, a problem he seems to be the only one aware of.
All the other minor players, including Lee Hoi-san as one of the main enemy thugs and Tang Chia himself as Tieh’s blind mentor, turn in performances about as well as you would expect.
The War on Drugs
Of course, all my talk about meaning and depth would be pointless without strong action backing it up, and this is yet another front on which the movie delivers. Choreography is fast and elaborate, with occasional camera tricks used to speed up the combatants. It’s mostly straight fighting, with the occasional “punch that makes someone fly way too far” thrown in for spice. Although mostly fist to fist, there are occasional weapon conflicts, such as the climactic battle in which Tieh wields a staff against Feng’s halberds.
All the main actors get a chance to shine, with biggest props going to Robert Mak’s assault on the opium den, and the above mentioned final battle. The most interesting fight, though, takes place toward the midpoint of the movie, when Tieh (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) takes on Feng outside the den. It had been hinted earlier by his mentor that Tieh was sort of losing his edge, and although Tieh refused to accept it, we all knew it was from the opium. But during his fight against an equal opponent, Tieh begins to succumb to his addiction, shivering uncontrollably and appearing tragically frail. It’s a good fight otherwise, but it also deserves attention for being one of the few times I’ve seen major plot progression DURING a fight.
Just Say Yes
OATKFM functions on two levels. As a movie, it works well thanks to strong performances, good action, and a dark storyline. Everyone seems to be giving their all for the film, and it is alternately enthralling, entertaining, and tragic.
In the greater picture of history, however, the movie acts as a farewell to the golden age of these kinds of films. Less than a year later, Shaw Brothers would cease production of kung fu movies for almost 20 years, and many of the other studios weren’t doing too hot either. The genre would stagnate until the early 90’s, where the “wire-fu” revolution and movies by directors like Tsui Hark and Yuen Woo-ping would breathe life back into the industry, allowing actors like Jet Li and Jackie Chan to step up to the international stage.
This movie is a swan song for the age of experimentation and entertainment that had gone since the 60’s. Never again would we see the borderline orange blood. The painfully obvious prosthetics that looked like they were stapled on. The classic set with its painted skies and same exact building/street/lake/forest that you could pick out in hundreds of films. The unshakable drive that led to dozens of movies being made a year. The bubbling energy that permeated every movie as actors and directors constantly asked the question “Hmmm, I wonder if this would work” and just went for it.
But it was one hell of a send off.
A Drug Worth Scoring: 9/10