Rage of the Master (1971)
Hello! First review of 2008, whoop! Going to step away from the post-nuke wasteland series I have been doing this winter to review an old but seriously wicked kung-fu movie. Rage of the Master was made in Taiwan and released in 1971, and while it could easily be forgotten in the deluge of cheaply-made and correspondingly-crappy kung-fu movies of that era, to do so would be to miss one of the best enraged-man-on-a-rampage movies ever made.
On to the show...
Our setting is China, maybe 18th Century or so, in a coastal area. In some unnamed town there is a "martial institute", a school for aspiring karate students. It's run by a paunchy middle-aged man and his family, of which his wife and twenty-ish daughter live in the school with him. We get some setup shots of the master and his students, and we learn from these that this school also teaches honor and justice along with ass kicking.
The master teaches proper blocking technique.
Suddenly, in through the door comes a gang of men, eyes burning with hatred and muscles taut. Their leader is a shortish man in his 40s, and he's the teacher's brother, though clearly the bad seed of the family. He was recently exiled from the school by their father (never seen) for some unknown offense. Now he's come back to seek his revenge on both his brother and the school. Let's just call him "Evil-Guy", there are no named credits to this film and the dialogue is murky at best.
Evil-Guy introduces his main henchman, the "Thai Boxer", a hulking brute of a man who is supposed to be the "best boxer in all of Thailand". About four of the other men with him are also boxers from Thailand, the rest just generic local Chinese thugs, forming a platoon of flying-fisted killing machines.
Evil-Guy and the Thai boxers.
A huge battle-royale flares up now, as the boxers swarm the students, who fight back gamely. The students are clearly overmatched, however, and they are quickly pushed back, taking heavy losses. Some of the older kids put up more of an effort, but they can't handle the Thais' style of fighting. In the end, the students and the teachers are soundly and rather violently defeated. A body count is hard to determine, but we certainly see 4 students killed, along with 3 of the attacking bad guys. The master teacher and his wife are also both killed, the old woman dying especially hard in the arms of her daughter.
The daughter alone escapes from the carnage, though cut and bleeding. She goes to her younger brother's house out in the country and there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth over their father's loss.
The daughter will be our film's heroine and she's played by Chaio Chaio, a Taiwanese actress who I've never heard of and certainly never seen before. For some reason she looks like nearly-famous San Diego internet diva Mary Forrest, so I think I'll call her "Mary".
They discuss what to do, but clearly the only path is revenge. They need a plan, plus more muscle than they possess, so they go to see a guy named "Tiger Wan". This young man apparently is something of a legendary figure, a guy whose honor and sense of justice is matched only by his ferocious martial arts skill. Tiger Wan, oddly, lives in a Unabomber shack out in the woods with his elderly mother, and pretty much keeps to himself these days. Determined to bring him on board, Mary and her brother, plus her brother's Old Servant and the servant's young son, go to see him and his mom.
Tiger Wan, played by Jimmy Wang Yu, is one of those nice looking Asian kids who have clearly been training in martial arts since they were 3 years old. He reminds me of a young Sonny Chiba, especially in his fight scenes where he becomes an invincible machine, and his fighting skills are very impressive. He also seems to be a pretty good dramatic actor, and his English dub is fairly good, if a little too deep.
The problem is that Tiger's mom has him by the balls, so to speak. It seems that just before Tiger's father died recently, he made his son swear that he would "hide his martial skills and do only menial labor". Why he did this is never stated, but Tiger is honor-bound to follow this last order. He's helped in this by his mother constantly reminding him of it and protecting him from anyone who would try and take advantage of him. She does, however, lament the fact that he's still single (which isn't a surprise as she would be the worst mother-in-law ever!).
Two of the men leave back for home, while Mary and her younger brother stay behind. Mary wants to try one last time to convince Tiger to talk with her, even though the old woman won't even let her in the house, and definitely won't let Tiger come out and talk to her. That night, as they sleep outside in the yard, a big poisonous snake slithers up and bites Mary on the calf! Ouch!
Alerted by her cries, Tiger rushes out, quickly appraises the situation and carries her inside. Her gruffness put aside in a crisis, Mom grabs her first-aid kit and nurses Mary back to health. Whatever she used, the venom is neutralized. Mary needs her rest, however, and Mom insists that she stays here three days. Her younger brother is sent home to pass the word not to worry.
So three days pass. Tiger is near-constantly conflicted by this sexy girl in the house, and confused about why she came here in the first place. He's also quietly frustrated with his mother, but his own personal code of conduct and the culture dictates that he stoically take it in silence. "Yes, mother." is his standard reply, though usually accompanied with a slightly dejected look, whenever his mom tells him to do something he doesn't want to. No rebellious phase for this young man!
Tiger and his mother enjoy some noodles and rice.
Meanwhile, back at the town, the karate school has been turned into a pool hall/dance hall/gambling den/whorehouse. Evil-Guy and his Thai boxer henchman run the place with an iron fist. The games are rigged, loansharking is common and people who can't pay up are killed and their pretty daughters are taken to act as indentured sex slaves. To show this, we get some meaningless filler scenes to establish that they are indeed despicable and need to be destroyed. I don't know these peoples' names, I don't know what they are doing, and I don't care, but they are all bad.
Back at Tiger's farm, Mary has finally recovered enough to travel and Mom tells Tiger to take her home. Along the way home, they are ambushed by nine men with hatchets and knives, who are here for Mary on Evil-Guy's orders. Staying true to his accord, Tiger doesn't kill anyone while defending the girl, though he does rough them all up pretty bad and sends them skittering away. Tiger's fu is awesome.
Some days later we witness an attack on Mary's brother's house to get the brother. It seems that the Evil-Guy wants to kill the boy as only he can continue the family line or something, it's not really clear. Only Mary is home at the moment and it's her versus about 20 bad guys. Mary has world-class karate skills, however, and she uses everything from her hands and feet to a coil of rope, a wicker basket, and even this cool kicking knife trick to fend off the bad guys. Her biggest problem is her hair that keeps getting in her eyes, someone get that girl a barrette.
Mary fights like a demon.
Mary is eventually captured as Evil-Guy laughs heartily at her predicament. Just then, the guys return and hide and watch as Evil-Guy calls out for the brother to come out to save his sister. The Old Servant's son takes the clothes of the brother and takes on his identity. The young man is scared, but he knows that, "...to protect our master is our duty." The brother opposes this strongly, but even he knows this is the only way to get Mary back and save the family line. The young man goes out and is traded for Mary. Later we see that the Old Servant's son is killed by Evil-Guy when this switch is discovered, but by then it's too late and he has done his duty.
We then have a very emotional scene as Mary's brother later laments the Old Servant's son's sacrifice on his behalf. The horrible English dub butchers these kinds of dialogue-driven scenes, much to the movie's loss. This is why I always choose to watch a foreign film in its original language with subtitles when possible, you miss so much texture and inflection in their voices when you dub over.
Mary's brother and the Old Servant share a tear.
Mary then goes back to see Tiger and his mother and tells them what happened. Shaken by this loss, Mom seems to be wavering in her insistence that her son remain neutral in this fight. For his part, Tiger is firmly convinced that wrongs need to be righted here. He says, "Now they've gone too far."
That night, Tiger sneaks into town to look about. While poking around the empty casino he runs into four of the Thai boxers, who just happen to be stumbling around drunk. A tough fight flares up as the boxers think they see an easy target. Tiger can't yet unleash himself, so the fight is give and take with Tiger taking a lot of hits before he manages to escape.
Tiger and the Thais.
The next morning, Tiger talks to his mother about his pacifist oath and the new facts of the times. Having thought about it over the night, Mom releases him from his vow. "You can't be a coward," she insists, "I wish you to be a man with dignity and justice."
Tiger then goes into the woods to find some medicinal herbs for his sick Mom. While he's out, Mom and Mary talk about marriage and the future and all that. Mom thinks that Mary would be a good match due to their similar age (she 19 and he 25) and certainly because they can both break a concrete block with their faces. Mary blushes like she's in a 1971 movie, but you can tell she's interested.
Mary and Mom talk about wedding dates.
And now we cut away from our plotline for a pointless and needlessly long scene in town to pad out our kung-fu count. The ruling thugs stage a boxing contest for the locals, and the Thais give a little demonstration. They then open it up to the public, with a prize for anyone who can take out one of the Thais in the ring. This is yet another of those movies in which everyone of Asian descent knows kung fu, which I certainly hope is true. When I go to the Korean market in Fort Wayne I like to think that the 80-year old man behind the counter can kick my ass.
While Tiger is away, the bad guys attack his house, presumably after Mary (they are looking for the brother still). About 30 bad guys plus Evil-Guy storm the house. It's just Mom and Mary home, remember, but they give your typical stand-up stiff fight against the overwhelming odds. Canes are used as bats, tea cups are smashed over heads, scissors end up embedded in throats, firewood is tossed across the room, and even paving stones are used as chest-crushers. Despite being like 65, sick old Mom is a kung-fu master (of course) and between her and the whirling dervish Mary they kill six of the bad guys and injure nearly all the rest of them.
Mom is a killer.
Then Mary's brother and the Old Servant show up and start fighting, evening the odds somewhat. The Old Servant, who is also clearly well past the age of retirement, as considerable kung fu skills (of course) and holds his own against attackers a third his age. The tide shifts dramatically when Mom takes a throwing star in the back from Evil-Guy. She grimaces, looks over her shoulder at him, and delivers the awesome line, "You filthy dog, you'll pay for this!". Kung fu classic!
Our heroes flee outside and engage in a running battle in the wheat fields. Five more bad guys go to an early grave here, but it's a slaughter for the heroes. The Old Servant killed by Evil-Guy, Mary's brother is killed by many knives, Mom is finished off eventually, and lastly Mary is overwhelmed and falls off a cliff to her death. Wow. This movie just killed off nearly the entire cast of good guys in about three minutes. That takes balls.
Mary fights her last battle.
Tiger comes home to find carnage in his house, with everything broken and dead bodies everywhere. He runs out into the fields and finds Mom's lifeless form. With tears in his eyes, he brings her body back and puts her in her favorite chair. Tiger begins to shake with rage, his muscles flexing involuntarily and his fists balled up. If this movie has one very important lesson for us to learn, it is clearly, "Do not fuck with this man's mother."
Tiger comes into town for revenge. He heads straight for the gambling hall, which is crowded with locals at midday. He stabs and kills two guards at the door and then strolls into the hall, a bloody long-bladed knife in each hand and a look of absolute cold-blooded vengeance in his eyes. As the locals scatter like flies, the room quickly refills with bad guys, all brandishing knives or staves. It's hard to get a headcount, but 100 or 1,000, it doesn't matter to Tiger. He will show no mercy and give no quarter, everyone here must die by association. "You killed my mother," he addresses the room in general, "you'll pay with your blood."
Roomful of soon-to-be dead men.
And so begins about 10 minutes of frenetic one-on-hundred kung fu, maybe the best group fight I've seen in years. This is clearly where Tarantino pulled his idea for Uma Thurman's one-woman slaughter in Kill Bill, though without the cheating benefit of wires and cgi. Tiger takes them all on, slashing and pouncing on anyone within range, kicking, stabbing, slashing, punching, and leaving an ever-growing pile of bloody corpses behind him as he works through the room. Some of the shots are nearly minute-long takes of dozens of men flying every which way, an impressive feat of choreography if there ever was one.
Evil-Guy brings reinforcements at about the halfway mark, probably another two dozen knife-swinging lackeys. Even the Thai boxers show up at the end, adding to the maelstrom of flying feet and slashing blades. None of them have any luck. Exact numbers are hard to determine as there is so damn much going on in the shots but I count for certain 47 dead bad guys and certainly as many more gravely injured.
Evil-Guy tries his fu one-on-one, but ends up with his head chopped off with a hatchet. "Mother, you may now rest in peace." Tiger says as he takes the severed head off to his mother's funeral. As he leaves he turns to the only people standing, four of the Thai boxers, including the leader, and tells them to meet him tomorrow at "White Beach" and they will settle this there.
Tiger talks to Evil-Guy's head.
The next day at the beach we get our final showdown. The three junior boxers slip these metal bands on their hands (I'm sure that's not sanctioned by the Thai Boxing Commission) and the fight starts. They give Tiger a rough go of it, doing a lot of damage before Tiger manages to turn the tide against them. Once the first Thai goes down, Tiger finds his second wind and quickly dispatches the other two.
The final conflict.
And then it's the last winner-take-all battle between the Thai leader and Tiger. Taking place mostly in the knee-deep surf, this is indeed an awesome fight between two masters, each with radically different styles. The crashing surf and wet sand make for a unique setting and both men are fighting the elements as much as each other. The ending is preordained, however, and Tiger delivers the kill stroke with a high-flying kick. The movie ends abruptly there, even before the Thai's body can hit the ground.
Tiger versus the Thai leader.
Freakin' cool kung fu movie, go watch it!
Written in January 2008 by Nathan Decker.
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