The Master – Random Thoughts

Starring Jet Li and Yuen Wah, directed by Tsui Hark, choreography by Yuen Wah

And with a blast of nasty canto pop we are into The Master, directed by Tsui Hark, starring Jet Li and Yuen Wah, and choreographed by Yuen Wah. Below is a list of random thoughts that occurred to me as I watched the film.

 Hair: I tend to think of the 1980s as the decade God forgot (having spent my adolescence in them I am entitled to make this claim). And is there any greater evidence of a Godless universe than Sifu Johnny’s hairdo in this film. In martial arts films there is always a lot of business devoted to proving what a bastard the main villain is and making the audience long for him to die. In this movie Sifu Johnny does many nasty and brutal things that does not endear him to us, but for me his mullet is enough to make me want him to be obliterated. The film abounds in little 80s touches – the mobile phones, for instance, are the size of bricks. But it’s the hairdos that, unfortunately, transported me back there.

 Worst dubbing in any film I’ve seen: A student of master Johnny has a conversation in English and  Chinese. When he speaks in English he is dubbed by 2 completely different voices for different parts of the dialogue.

 This is a very unsophisticated, pretty average movie. However the plot does give us some nice scenes that explore issues surrounding cultural differences and confusion.

 The American actors are appalling. The characters of the 3 Latinos and the wannabe gymnast who befriend Li’s character (and the actors who play them) are particularly irritating. I suppose that they are needed to pad out the film or something but they are grate on my nerves. Where do they find them? This movie was filmed somewhere in North America, and the USA and Canada must be jam packed with acting talent eager for some income and screen exposure but none of it seems to make its way into kung fu movies. I guess you could make the assumption that any American fighters (as opposed to mere thespians) who appear in these movies are martial artists first and actors second, and therefore can’t be expected to be great actors. But this doesn’t seem to apply to many Asian martial artists (Jet Li, Yuen Wah, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Gordon Liu, Chin Siu Ho, Yam Sai Kwun, Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, and many lesser known folks in supporting parts) who are terrific actors as well as being top notch physical performers.

 This film represented the first teaming up of Tsui Hark and Jet Li. They went on to make oodles of films together with Tsui functioning variously in the roles of writer, director and / or producer. Most notably he was to give Li one of his most important roles (Wong Fei Hung) in the justifiably famous and seminal Once Upon A Time in China (OUTIC) series which made Li a star. Li isn’t bad in this film – his movement is, of course, wonderful and his acting technique is most adequate. I am going to quote from the blog I wrote about Li’s previous film Dragon Fight:

In terms of Li’s acting style, I group Born to Defence, Dragon Fight and The Master together and see them as being a link between the broader, fruitier style of acting that was appropriate to his first 3 films set in Shaolin Temple, and the more authoritative, mature and nuanced approach to interpretation he was to start displaying from Once Upon A Time In China onwards. His acting in Dragon Fight and these other 2 films isn’t displaying quite the same sense of gravitas and subtlety that we see in his depiction of Wong Fei Hung, but his performance style is still showing far more subtlety and range than in the Shaolin Temple films. Of course, this has a lot to do with the parts he has been given, as well as being due to the gaining of experience. Wong Fei Hung is the first part with any depth that he gets a chance to play, and Once Upon A Time In China is a far more sophisticated film than any of the earlier films, in which he is only called upon to portray earnest and likeable youths in one dimensional stories. I find it interesting to map a course of his acting style through his films and to see where the beautifully modulated and focused performance ability that we see in his later films comes from. In Born to Defence, Dragon Fight and The Master we see this approach to performance slowly being cobbled together.”

 But… I look at his cute, earnest little face peeking out from underneath his baseball cap in this film and wonder  how on earth did Tsui Hark look at this pretty young man and see an iconic martial arts patriarch like Wong Fei Hung. What did Jet do during the filming of this superficial movie, while he was portraying a one dimensional character, to suggest that he could turn in a performance of such authority, intensity and depth in the OUTIC series? Whatever it was, thank god Tsui did see it. OUTIC was one of the films that made me into the kung fu movie fanatic that I am today, as well as being a rabid Jet Li fan. It remains one of my very favourite films.

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5 Responses to The Master – Random Thoughts

  1. Norbert says:

    ‘but for me his mullet is enough to make me want him to be obliterated’ – unfortunately mullets haven’t died out just yet 🙂

    Your witty and thorough reviews are great. I love reading them, even though I haven’t seen most of the movies. Just a little suggestion, how about adding some pictures (e.g. the mullet)? There’re many to find on the web.

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    • thanks for the feedback, Norbert. I actually don’t expect anyone except me to like these films in the same way that I do so it’s amazing and delightful when my stats show that there are a few people out there reading them. Pictures are a good idea and I would love to do that. Also, maybe some clips from youtube. Right now I don’t have the internet on at home, and I just snatch a few minutes of internet time at the library when I can (I write the blogs at home and then cut and paste into the blog at the library). I just don’t get enough time right now to track down and post images. But hopefully I will soon be able to afford the net at home and then I can gussy up my blogs a bit. Thanks for the suggestion!

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      • Norbert says:

        I see. It’s kind of similar with me, I write my longer texts on my laptop after work and when I have (take) the time at the weekends I upload them on the blog and add some pictures or videos.

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  2. Great reviews, Meredith. It’s great to find kindred spirits out there that love martial arts films like myself and Norbert here. I haven’t see this particular one, but I have it listed to review down the road. I like the random thoughts!

    I’m adding you as a cool link for folks to check out!

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    • Jeez thanks Michael! I essentially write these blogs for myself – I didn’t know if anyone out there was interested in looking at these films in the same way that I do. So it is a very delightful surprise to me when folks like yourself and Norbert are kind enough to drop by and comment. I am relatively new to wordpress but when I figure out how to add links I’ll put a link to your blog on my page as well. I have dropped by your blog a couple of times and like what I see. (I can recommend Norbert’s blog as well)

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