[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a bi-weekly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Jackie Chan’s career is something I’ve surprisingly not talked about much in this column. I still haven’t covered his breakout hit, Drunken Master, or its legendary sequel, Drunken Master 2, and I’m not sure there is much more I can say about those two films. They are brought up all the time when even muttering Chan’s name, despite how most American audiences didn’t see them until after Rumble in the Bronx made Chan an international superstar. There are actually a ton of films from Chan’s past that most people wouldn’t know, which makes his career prior to launching into the stratosphere interesting to go back to.
That’s why I landed on The Young Master for this particular entry. While not Chan’s directorial debut, it was the first film of his that completely nailed the style and tone he would bank on for the rest of his career. Rarely has Chan deviated from what is established in this film to the point that you could even make parallels to Drunken Master 2 here. Once you’ve gotten over the spectacle of how ludicrous the finale is, which encompasses the entire third act, it becomes clear why Chan would launch into legendary status in the 40+ years since this film was released.
The Young Master begins similarly to other Hong Kong films of its era by launching right into a Lion Dance ritual. We have a small setup of Chan’s character, Leung, being an orphan taken in by Master Tien (Tien Feng) along with his brother, Keung (Wai Pei). Keung suffers an injury and can’t perform the ritual, so Leung takes his place. Little does anyone know; Keung is actually double-crossing everyone to work with a rival school and make some quick cash.
It’s fine and all and the Lion Dance is even quite good at times, but this was such a contrived staple at the time that the intro mostly drags in the present. If this is the first Hong Kong film you’re watching, you’ll likely get a kick out of the whole spectacle. Lion Dances are big in Cantonese culture and I understand the significance of two schools going at it, but the inciting incident for The Young Master’s main plot doesn’t happen until nearly 24 minutes into its runtime.
Leung obviously saw Keung in the dance but kept his mouth shut to protect his brother from Master Tien’s wrath. Once Keung is found out, he gets kicked out of the school and things keep going south. The rival school ridicules Leung and his pals in public and Master Tien is forced to retreat like a coward. It’s all decent enough, but once we’re past the school shenanigans, The Young Master goes on a tear for an hour straight in what can only be described as a perfect movie.
All those comparisons to Buster Keaton that Jackie Chan has been given over the years are clear here. We go from one sequence of incredible athleticism to wacky slapstick comedy and back again. The first real fight occurs when Leung heads over to the rival school and mistakenly gets in a brawl with one of the students. He whips out a white fan, something that becomes a crucial plot point, and proceeds to beat some ass while not even touching his opponent. This fight is basically a mission statement for Chan’s career, which would encompass roles where he hardly ever killed anyone and would do his best to avoid direct confrontation when possible.
From there, we cut to Keung getting mixed up with a gang that frees the notorious criminal Master Kam (Hwang In-Shik) from imprisonment. In-Shik is one of the most important figures in Hong Kong cinema as he helped introduce various kicking techniques from his hapkido training. Those are put to use in his first appearance here as he decimates the entire police squad in a showing of intense undercranking and practical stunts. It’s almost like a horror movie, especially the multiple smash cuts to his face as the cops look on in fear.
Remember the white fan I mentioned? Well, Keung also has one (it was an heirloom from their family) and that’s the only description one of the survivors from Master Kam’s escape can remember. This leads to Leung being mistaken for the culprit and the majority of the second act focuses on him getting out of crazy situations. He battles guys in a Buddhist temple while proceeding to play around with their swords, tangos with a mischievous kid (played by long-time friend Yuen Biao) who is an expert with a bench and even gets to indulge in some slapstick with Enter the Dragon’s Shih Kien.
It’s fair to say that a lot of the setups and punchlines are juvenile in nature, but that’s exactly the appeal of Chan’s filmography. You don’t need to have intense knowledge of Chinese history and Eastern philosophy to get why a man having his arm handcuffed to his leg is both a sticky situation and kind of funny. Also, the “duel” of sorts that Chan and Kin have while bathing themselves is exactly the type of situational silent era-style comedy that I love about these films.
The only thing really missing from The Young Master, if you can call it that, is spectacular stunts. Chan and crew definitely get into some inventive scenarios and perform some gravity-defying acrobatics, but the high-stakes stunts that would come to define his later films aren’t here. There is a bit where Chan climbs between two walls with his hands and feet and even one where he hoists himself up on a rope with his legs hanging out, but they don’t hold a candle to movies like Project A or Police Story.
Even without those skirts with death, The Young Master just completely nails the tone and pacing in its second act and caps things off with possibly the most ridiculous final fight imaginable. At around the hour and 26-minute point, Chan finds his brother and negotiates a deal with the local sheriff to let him capture Master Kam and clear their names. Then he goes to confront him for a 15-and-a-half-minute brawl that plays out like a comedic boxing match.
Hong Kong films have almost always relied on their closing fights to up the ante, but The Young Master is just on another level. It also mirrors the final duel in Drunken Master 2 where Chan got his ass handed to him for 3/4ths of the battle before turning things around. I’ve seen this referenced as the “Superhuman Everyman” by director Edgar Wright on a bonus feature for Police Story and that holds true. Chan thoroughly stacks the deck against his character to make that eventual triumph feel earned.
I can’t knock the duel for its sheer scale and ambition, but it does drag a bit in spots. Each round has Chan discovering a new technique that Master Kam is capable of and certain points just feel like they go on too long. I don’t need to see Chan being put into the same arm lock from six different angles to understand that he shouldn’t be attacking high.
There’s also the fact that Master Kam isn’t a particularly present force throughout The Young Master. His intro wonderfully sets up his power, but he’s absent from Leung’s escapades during the second act. An export cut of the film actually includes some extra footage of Kam throughout the movie, but it still doesn’t amount to much in the way of development or presence.
Even with those complaints, it’s not like they derail the brilliance that is The Young Master. Even after all these years of watching Chan’s back catalog and checking out other Hong Kong films, there is still something very special about this movie. That I can even draw similarities to later work shows how well Chan understood his own talents and how well he would expand upon them in the future.
But we’ll get to some of that next time when I take a look at this film’s semi-sequel, Dragon Lord.
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