HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still cannot forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word. So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore…. our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection. Here we have our second Jackie Chan film and one which contains one of the longest fight sequences ever filmed!
HCF REWIND NO.49. THE YOUNG MASTER AKA SHI DI CHU MA 
AVAILABLE ON DVD
DIRECTED BY: Jackie Chan
WRITTEN BY: Jackie Chan, Tin-Chi Lau, King Sang Tang, Lu Tung
STARRING: Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Shih Kien, Whang Inn-Sik
RUNNING TIME: 101 mins [Hong Kong version] / 86 mins [‘International’ version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Lung lives in a martial arts school run by the venerable Master Tien along with his brother Lo. Tien took them in as child orphans when they were living rough on the street. Things are going just fine until Lo, Tien’s star pupil, fakes an injury and secretly lion dances for the rival school during a competition. Lung deliberately loses the dance so as not to offend his brother. After Lo’s treachery is revealed (along with a prostitute he bought with his ill-gotten gains), Tien banishes the elder brother from the school. Grief-stricken, Lung vows to track his brother down and get him to make amends, but en route is mistaken for a criminal known as ‘The White Fang’ by local police chief Sang Kung . Meanwhile, Tiger collaborates with his employers (the rival school) by freeing a dangerous criminal known as Kam……..
The Young Master is rarely mentioned as one of Jackie Chan’s finest movies but for me is certainly one of the best of his ‘traditional’ martial arts movies, they being the countless Kung Fu pics set in old China usually involving revenge and amazing new styles of fighting. It looks rather better than many other similar movies, contains absolutely stunning fight sequences and plenty of good comedy too, though one could say that the ‘serious’ aspects jar with the ‘comic’ ones and the plot virtually disappears about half way through as the movie just concentrates on fighting. Despite this, it dispenses with both the expected ‘revenge’ and the expected ‘amazing styles of fighting’, things which had featured in many previous Chan films and things which he was tiring of and now had the power to change. The Young Master’s greatest ingredient though is its incredible final battle, which runs for sixteen minutes long and is one of the longest brawls ever filmed as well as being amongst the best, at least from Chan’s career.
Chan’s earlier films, made mostly for producer Lo Wei, had been mostly box office failures with the exception of Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, which had been made for another studio. Wei finally allowed him to direct and the result, Fearless Hyena, a variation on Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, was such a hit that it convinced Chan he had to have more control of his career and films. He moved to Golden Harvest and was given just that, though allegedly there were problems with the severing of his contract to Wei and the Triads were involved! Shooting before the script was actually finished, Chan threw himself into making The Young Master, keeping many of the features of earlier films but making positive ideas like loyalty and trust forefront in the story and choreographing all the fights his way, often incorporating comedy and moving away from ‘classical’ martial arts. It took 500 takes to get a bit right where he catches a fan he has kicked into the air, and his perfectionism and money spending was much criticised. The first cut of the film ran three hours long which may partially explain some unevenness in the structure of the finished film, which was further cut by fifteen minutes for export release, seriously weakening it by shortening all the fight scenes. Luckily the Hong Kong version is far easier to see now, which is what this review is of! Of course it was a huge hit.
The film opens with a lengthy lion dance [a common traditional Chinese dance which mimics the movements of lions] sequence, which I always begin to lose a bit of patience with but am kept interested by the odd astonishing bit such as the person at the back of Lung’s lion kicking a cabbage to Lung at the front, who catches it. For a while after this the film holds back on action and is surprisingly angst-filled. Lung’s loyalty to his stupid brother [though it is not clear whether he actually is Lung’s brother or just his close friend, the term ‘brother’ often meaning the latter in Chinese films] seems a bit wrongheaded to these eyes, considering Lo is such a sod who seems to have few scruples, and sometimes the melodrama is a bit laughable. There’s a lengthy scene where master Tien beats some of his students because of Lo’s treachery, even threatening a young boy, and it goes on for too long and becomes both cruel [are we still supposed to like Tien?] and laughable.
Intended comedy then takes over for a while and the film has a freewheeling feel about it. Especially fun is a section where Lung, mistaken for ‘The White Fang’, runs into police chief Sam Kung without knowing who he is, his weird son [Yuen Baio, like Sammo Hung a childhood friend who appeared in some other Chan films] who carries a training bench around with him everywhere but is amazingly dexterous with it, and his daughter, who actually bests Lung with her ‘skirt kung fu’, where all the leg movement are concealed by a huge skirt. You also get to see Chan climbing up two walls at the same time [but to no avail, one of his captors is the top waiting for him], dodge swords with millimetres to spare, and have an endlessly inventive comic battle with two evil henchmen in an audience-filled street which even involves a variation on bull fighting! The story just vanishes though and even the relationship between Lung and Lo is all-but-dispensed with, despite it seemingly being so important at the start of the film. Continuity errors abound, such as handcuffs which are miraculously off the next scene!
All this is forgiven, though, with the fantastic end battle, as Lung comes up against the main villain Kam ,played by Hapkido master Whang Inn-Sik. Throughout the film, the fight choreography has been very playful and inventive, but here, the camera just sits back and lets us watch what is basically a display of Hapkido as Whang beats the crap of Chan again….again….and again. Like Rocky and Godzilla, Chan keeps on getting up, but it’s obvious he is out of his league. Rather than suddenly remembering a new skill he had learned, Chan just goes berserk as, numb from the pain of being constantly beaten up, he runs at him like a lunatic and grabs, pinches and head butts him as well as punching and kicking madly. Never as Chan been so out of control and its great, though in a sobering realistic touch, Lung’s bones are all broken at the end and he is covered with bandages! Throughout the fight, Chan made sure he was covered with dust so that when he is hit, you can tell that it is often for real [often achieved by cables moving him so he absorbed the kick or punch but not all of its force]. Wow, what a scene, and not a fast edit or shaking camera in sight!
The acting is reasonable in the film; most of the characters are archetypical though Shih Kien and Biao are given some opportunity to display their comic timing and of course Chan is Chan. He is already the character who he would play in many of his other films; playful but loyal, skilful in martial arts but just as likely to run away or lose a fight as win one etc. One can easily criticise Chan for playing the same person over and over again but it was his screen persona that helped him become such a big star for so many years so he knew what he was doing, and in recent years he has began to stretch himself more. If you know your Classical music you will chuckle at The Young Master’s music score, which, along with a snatch of John Barry’s Game Of Death music, is bits and pieces taken from Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planets’ suite. Oddly, the seemingly random excerpts do often work quite well, such as the menacing ‘Mars’ march for the villainous Kam. If you’ve never seen The Young Master, mainly know Chan from his more recent American movies, or consider these types of films poorly made and boring [which some of them are], check it out to see one of the world’s greatest physical performers at his best.