Many people don’t know of the world of Kung Fu outside of superstars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. During the 70s and 80s, there were so many films coming out of the Hong Kong film industry that you’d need multiple lifetimes to watch them all. Small studios were shooting things on the cheap and with barely any overhead, leading to a deluge of shoddy films that don’t truly represent the heights that Kung Fu cinema can achieve.
Thankfully, there was one independent filmmaker doing better. That would be Joseph Kuo, a sort of auteur that didn’t want to make films for Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest. I actually cannot find much information on the man (his Wikipedia entry is practically bare and even Google doesn’t seem to know much about him), but I do know that he was the most prolific of indie directors during the Kung Fu boom. He also has a range of classic films that any fan of Kung Fu cinema must watch.
His greatest cinematic feat would have to be 7 Grandmasters, a fast-paced brawl-a-thon that cuts out most of the BS and gets straight to the fighting. In the first 15 minutes alone, you’ll witness three battles that are so epic in momentum, you would swear these people were in a legitimate fight. I wouldn’t bat an eye if you told me Joseph Kuo was actually a documentarian.
Really, though, his work on 7 Grandmasters stands as some of the best that this genre has to offer. Shaw Brothers always had production values and Golden Harvest was flush with talent, but Joseph Kuo’s productions were the rawest type of film you could watch. Battles were fierce, bloody, brutal, and lighting fast. Most of Kuo’s work is severely lacking in the narrative department, but there’s a reason people say Kung Fu films aren’t about the story.
At least with 7 Grandmasters, the plot is serviceable. The gist is that our main character, Sang Kuan Chun (Jack Long), is set to retire from martial arts after a long career of being a champion. At his retirement ceremony, he receives a message stating that his Kung Fu is a sham, which sparks him to postpone the celebration and prove he is the best. There are seven champions in the land -hence the title-, so Chun sets off to defeat them all.
Within minutes, you’re given the brief setup and are treated to a knockout fight. It’s truly a sight to behold, featuring some ridiculously impressive acrobatics and flashy editing. There aren’t really a whole lot of stunts in 7 Grandmasters, so most of what you see is people flipping around like Chinese opera stars. It just keeps going and doesn’t let you catch your breath.
After a few more battles, we’re introduced to Siu Ying (Yi Li Min), a vagabond of sorts that keeps begging Chun to train him. He has been witnessing some of Chun’s fights and is heavily impressed with his skill. There’s an ulterior motive here, though, in that Ying wishes to get better to avenge the death of his father. During a supposedly friendly duel, Ying’s father was struck down by the “Pai Mei Strikes” and killed. You can probably already tell where this is going.
Every cliché you’ve ever heard about from Kung Fu films exists in 7 Grandmasters. Again, the plot is more a vehicle to get you to and from impressive fights, but it really is basic as all hell. One of the grandmasters actually betrays Chun, Ying grows to become the greatest student Chun has ever seen, and Chun allegedly killed Ying’s father. I’d say spoiler warning, but I really don’t think that’s necessary.
It truly is all about the fighting with this film. I’m going to keep stressing that point, but I really cannot overstate how excellent these fight scenes. There’s a brawl approximately halfway through the movie that might just be the greatest duel ever committed to film. The first time I saw this film back in 2004, I swear to god it was 15 minutes of straight majesty. In reality, it’s four and a half minutes of the most intense thing you’ll ever see.
It shows the extreme attention to detail that Kuo embeds his films with. Fighters test out their different skills, get to show off like total bosses, and aren’t immune to being attacked in return. 7 Grandmasters was choreographed by Corey Yuen, a man that trained with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao at the Peking Opera School during the 50s. He would later go on to not only star in a tremendous amount of films but direct a ton too. You’ve likely heard his name from The Transporter, the Jason Statham film that isn’t exactly good but has pretty decent fight scenes.
Anyway, his penchant for fight choreography would later land him as a regular contributor to Sammo Hung’s work. 7 Grandmasters might be one of his earliest projects, but he showcases the same kind of ferocity and style that would carry him to international fame. There are very few moments where movements look stiff and stilted, a quality that would follow Kuo throughout most of his career.
The setups for specific fights are intense, too. You’re kind of mislead into thinking this will be a fairly straightforward movie until we get assassins storming a hotel and some wannabe Pai Mei reject revealing his “twist” at the final moments. The movie peaks in the middle, but it’s hard to say that any action segment is outright bad.
What does kind of stink is that after roughly 20 minutes, the film almost slows to a crawl for the next 15. This could be because the acting isn’t necessarily great, or possibly because the general interactions between characters are so brief and basic. Kuo films have never shown much care for establishing characters, but 7 Grandmasters is almost too laser-focused on getting to the fights that it forgets to invest the viewer beyond combat.
Still, you can’t fault what is a relatively short movie for having a crappy story. If there weren’t around 12 fights in the picture, I’d kind of be pissed at how boring the interstitial scenes are. Right when 7 Grandmasters gets to its lowest point, you’re treated to that midway fight and the back half continues at an insane click. There’s still lame comedy and hokey acting, but then someone begins throwing hands, and your eyes glue to the screen in anticipation.
It would certainly be a better film with a more thought out plotline, but 7 Grandmasters is proof that a movie doesn’t require an insane budget to make something truly special. Kung Fu films, in general, were always somewhat cheaply made, but we’re talking shoestrings here. With what was likely $20 to his name, Joseph Kuo directed one of the best films this genre has ever seen.
You owe it to yourself to watch 7 Grandmasters at least once during your life. The version available on Amazon Prime is presented with only the English dub, but a rather decent looking DVD from 2004 exists that contains the original Mandarin audio. It really is the preferred way to watch this as 70s dubs were exceptionally poor. Still, if I had to choose between dub and not seeing the film, I’d go with the dub.