7. Crippled Masters
Director: Kei Law
Cast: Jackie Conn, Frankie Shum
On the face of it, The Crippled Masters should be an insult to any civilized person. It takes two disabled actors and uses their disabilities to power a sloppy narrative about revenge on an evil kung fu warlord. These two disabled actors (Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum) play Lee Ho and Tang. They work for Ling Chang Cao, the evil warlord who rules with an iron fist (and seemingly an iron hump as well). The film opens with Tang chopping off Lee Ho’s arms as punishment for some unnamed betrayal. He’s thrown out of their dojo and then beaten up by a teahouse bouncer and left for dead. He eventually finds his way to a small farm where the farmer takes pity on him and Lee Ho learns to survive without his arms. Or at least without one arm, the other doesn’t resemble the stump of a severed limb as much as it does the obvious birth defect that it is.
We then find out Tang is also punished by Lin Chang Cao. He has acid poured on his legs until they wither away before also being left for dead. Lee Ho discovers Tang, finds a way to drag him to a nearby cave (Yes, I know he has no arms) and tries to beat him to death. He’s interrupted by a mysterious old sifu who tells Lee Ho to forgive Tang and he trains both men to get revenge on Lin Chang Cao. Their new master, known only as Old Man, instructs Lee Ho and Tang to steal a rare artefact from Lin Chang Cao called The Eight Jade Horses. The Old Man had previously owned the horses but Lin Chang Cao stole them from him. In their quest they meet an undercover government agent who is also trying to retrieve the horses. The horses depict special martial arts techniques that Lee Ho and Tang use to defeat Lin Chang Cao.
Anyone familiar with Category III movies knows that Hong Kong film-makers have a good line in demented cinema, but Crippled Masters is out there even by those standards. There’s a tradition of blind and one-armed warriors in Asian cinema so pushing that a step further does make some kind of sense, and in 1978 there was an attempt to exploit the ‘crippled kung-fu’ genre with a bit more respectability in the Five Deadly Venoms outing, Crippled Avengers. Crippled Masters is in many ways the freakshow exhibit that its critics claim. You can’t deny that it exploits the birth defects of the lead actors, but then the same can be said about Browning’s Freaks or even any film where a large plot point depends on the casting of a midget or dwarf actor. There’s also the argument that the film actually shows that being disabled doesn’t mean you’re in any way inferior. Tang and Lee Ho kick some serious ass, they are our hero figures and you end up feeling nothing but admiration for their abilities, even if you don’t admire their acting skills. But even taking that into account you have to acknowledge that some of the plot contrivances are ridiculous and that without the more bizarre aspects the film just wouldn’t hold together.