Written by Patrick Hao
Joseph Kuo is the Roger Corman of kung fu cinema. He did not have the backing of a major studio like Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest. He was not even making movies in Hong Kong. Rather, Kuo made independent films for his own production company, Hong Hwa International Films, in his native Taiwan. Like Roger Corman, Kuo maximized the movies he made despite the limited budgets by making stripped-down action films and enhancing the positives of the resources he had access to.
The images of Kuo’s films may be recognizable to a lot of people. He delved into the trends of the time, recreating classic tales of heroism and virtue, which was an excuse for some hard-hitting acrobatic action. But the results are something quite beautiful that a lot of modern-day action films can take notes from. Like many of the Hong Kong cinema of the time, the action in Kuo’s film is much indebted to the acrobat of Peking Opera.
Kuo’s style is not particularly innovative by itself. What makes his films special is how much action there is. He knows why audiences came to see his films and he does not skimp on the meal. He is quantity above quality. That is not a knock on his action, which with action choreography from Corey Yeun Kwai and Yuen Woo-ping is wonderfully exhilarating. The action is so frequent and long, with the plots being so minimal, Kuo’s films can feel like a kung fu version of That’s Entertainment, where instead of dance clips from Classic Hollywood, it’s Carter Wong fighting bronzeman. His action is slick and hard-hitting, bolstered by foley sounds galore.
These ultra-low budget films are always in danger of being lost to decay with no proper care.
Thankfully, a slew of Kuo’s work is getting stunning remasters and a retrospective at the Old School Kung Fu Film Festival.
Along with Mystery of Chessboxing, 7 Grandmasters might be Kuo’s most famous film simply due to its enduring run in 1970s grindhouses in Manhattan. Kuo is never one to under-deliver on his promises. If he says there are 7 grandmasters, that means that there will be 7 grandmasters, all with different styles, for his main character to fight with. For a 90-minute run time, that is about two-thirds of the movie.
The film follows a Grandmaster of China (Jack Long) who is set on retiring before he receives a challenge that before he can truly go down as the best, he must defeat the other seven grandmasters of kung fu. There’s also a silly subplot involving students who want to join the Grandmaster on his journey including the bumbling Shao Ying (Yi Min-Li), whose presence is as annoying to the Grandmaster as he is to the audience.
The fight scenes by Corey Yuen Kwai – one of the Seven Little Fortunes along with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung – are crisp, fun, and humorous. He delights in styles he gets to create including one involving a fighter fighting like a monkey. Kuo sets most of his fights in flat outdoor land, using his scenery to hide his budgetary restraints like the way the Italians used the natural landscapes of Italy in Spaghetti Westerns.
It’s hard not to like 7 Grandmasters and embrace its utter delight in the action it presents. It’s the perfect introduction to Joseph Kuo’s work and sensibilities.
The 36 Deadly Styles
If 7 Grandmasters relished in its simplicity, The 36 Deadly Styles falters in its plot’s unnecessary complexity. The film is a truly strange one as it tells parallel stories set both in the present and in flashback. It involves Wah-Jee (Cheung Lik) who escapes into a Buddhist temple from some ruthless fighters for reasons I could not quite comprehend. Meanwhile, we see flashbacks to Wah-Jee’s family history and there is a revenge plot happening.
All the confusion leads to a big shrug as this film could not quite find the balance of action, goofiness, and coherence. Even the fight scenes do not feel as crisp as those of Kuo’s other films. That said, the final fight scene is the epitome of Grindhouse pleasure although maybe it is best to experience through Youtube rather than sit through the whole The 36 Deadly Styles.
I am simply a lover of Chinese cinema. Anytime the famous Ming Dynasty folk song “Under the General’s Orders” (maybe best known as the Once Upon a Time in China theme), I know that sh*t is about to go down and I am pumped. Kuo’s 18 Bronzeman opening title card starts with the famous folk song and it quickly became my favorite of Joseph Kuo’s films.
The film is basically Kuo’s take on the 36th Chamber of Shaolin (which would come out two years later) as it follows Shao-Lung (Tien Peng) who is hidden in a Shaolin Temple after his father was killed. In the temple, he goes through a series of trials which includes fighting off the 18 Bronzeman. While the more famous 36th Chamber of Shaolin focuses on the training and seriousness of it all, Kuo’s version is almost psychedelic. The editing and sound create a disorienting otherworldly effect that actually works quite well.
But the film really takes it up to high gear with the appearance of Polly Ling-Feng Shang, who is best known for her work with King Hu in Dragon Gate Inn. There is an inn fight in this film that seems directly referential to King Hu’s classic and exhibits Polly’s physicality. This film might also exhibit the best character work I have seen from Kuo’s film as there is intrigue between Shao-Lung and his training buddy Carter Wong. All this leads to a final fight sequence that is really exciting as the climax of the film.