||Joseph Kuo Nan-hong (b. 1935) was a prolific director, and often writer and producer, of martial arts movies out of Taiwan throughout the nineteen-seventies and eighties. Taiwan is often regarded in second place to Hong Kong of this era when it came to the kung fu flicks, but Kuo was so adept and dedicated to the form that he was able to have the output of his country assessed as worthy of serious consideration by fans. Eureka have the rights to eight of his directorial efforts, and release them under the banner Cinematic Vengeance! on a Blu-ray set.
First up is The 7 Grandmasters from 1977, and it's typical of Kuo's technique of packing as much action into the storyline as possible, here with the excuse that its Grandmaster Sang (Joseph Long Shi-Chia) is out to prove himself before retirement after doubt is anonymously cast on his abilities. He does this by hitting the road and challenging seven other masters to a punch-up, which seems straightforward enough until rumour gets about that he has actually killed one of them in an unfair fight. Meanwhile, and perhaps not unconnected, Sang's not so merry band (they're quite grumpy) is joined by a hanger-on (Simon Yi Li-Min) who begs to be taught by the expert, but proves more of a hindrance than a help. With all the grandmasters sporting the same hairdo for ease of identification, it was clear Kuo was concentrating on the excellent combat to make up for his lack of budget.
Second is The 36 Deadly Styles from 1982, effectively one of Kuo's last in the traditional kung fu movie trappings of the vague Chinese past in the background and masses of beat 'em ups in the foreground, and the only film on this set from the eighties. The main concession to changing times was the casting of Nick Cheung Lik: one look at his boyish looks, shoulder-length hair and, er, drunken master style and you will perceive Kuo was trying to jump on the Jackie Chan bandwagon, something he was shameless about. But while the comedy was not going to give Jackie any sleepless nights, the Kuo trademark of all-out marmalising was consistent, though the story took some following as he barely seemed interested in explaining it. This one has reached a minor notoriety for the wigs on the villains, looking dreadful: check out Bolo Yeung's barnet, for instance.
The World of Drunken Master (1979) saw Kuo playing catch-up, as Jackie Chan had galvanised the martial arts scene with Drunken Master not long before, and so the rip-offs began. Simon Yuen had been a part of the Chan film's appeal, so he showed up here as well - for the first two minutes (!) before allowing some far less famous actors to take centre stage for the duration. Jack Long was the ostensible star, but really this was more an ensemble piece with flashbacks seeing different performers playing the same roles. The idea was that getting drunk could improve your kung fu, assuming you had the training, therefore we were treated to a collection of frankly alcoholic characters getting hammered and hammering their opponents. Kuo included comedy as well, but this was not his strong point here: better to appreciate the relentless battles in anonymous fields.
If the above was a cash-in, then what was The Old Master (1979), recruiting Jackie Chan...'s old tutor from his childhood Peking Opera days, Yu Jim-yuen, who was in his seventies at the time. Needless to say, this notorious tyrant had mellowed somewhat, and a stunt double was used any time he was required to bust some moves, and having retired to Los Angeles, Kuo was forced to film there as his character flew in from Hong Kong to help out his old pal, whose gym is threatened by gangsters. US Karate champ Bill Louie was actually the performer who was most impressive, delivering (eventually) some decent fight scenes, but too often this had a making it up as they go along tone, a gratuitous disco sequence featuring dancers grooving to Born to Be Alive (disco classic) and, er, Popeye the Sailor Man (WTF?). The Yellow Magic Orchestra was massively pilfered too, and Louie did the robot.
Far more grave was the heartstring-tugging Shaolin Kung Fu, from 1974, which starred Wen Chiang-Lung, a nearly man of martial arts cinema who Kuo, and others, gave plenty of chances to and he did make dozens of movies, but never caught on, perhaps because of his association with Taiwanese films. This one saw him as a rickshaw driver with a blind wife and prodigious skills in combat she forbids him to use: as we wish to see the baddies get their asses handed to them, this can be frustrating, especially when the villains are such a bunch of bullies, forever punching down on the other drivers whose custom they are stealing through intimidation. Our hero does fight back eventually, but the stakes are raised considerably with each successive encounter, to the extent they probably go too high and nobody emerges with much glory in a plot that aims for the anguish.
The Shaolin Kids (1975) sounds from the title that it will be a children's movie, like a seventies Taiwanese version of the 3 Ninjas series or something similar. In fact, there are no children in it, and no Shaolin either, but there is Polly Shang, the country's biggest star at the time, in one of her trademark wuxia flicks, wielding a sword like the professional she was as her character tries to rescue her father with the help of her brother, and when that doesn't work, do her best to stop the Emperor being assassinated. Standing in her way is a selection of rogues organised by the Prime Minister, making this something of a political intrigue story where the ins and outs of the court drama are not too difficult to follow, though do tend to get in the way of the martial arts. That said, watch for the two henchmen who get their rejuvenating power from taking gold pills, like Pac-Man.
A film of two halves, The 18 Bronzemen from 1976 saw Kuo pick up on a kung fu preoccupation, the Shaolin Temple, which was a real place (and technically still is) and the focus of many a training montage movie out of the Far East. The most famous of these remains The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, but Kuo beat them to the punch (so to speak) by getting in there two years before that classic with this effort, which sees orphaned nobleman's son Tien Peng spend his whole life training there until he is skilled enough in his twenties to take on the ruddy dastards in power who killed his father. There are Bronzemen in it, either men dressed up as noticeably cardboard robots or shirtless blokes painted gold, but despite being in the title, take up little of the screen time; once we are out in the world, Tien teams up with Polly Shang and Carter Wong to gain the upper hand for good - or...
Ah, there was an immediate sequel that same year, named Return of the 18 Bronzemen, suggesting Tien did not do a great job of vengeance. Except there were notable changes: the same cast largely reappeared, but they were in different roles, with Carter Wong taking the lead this time, and indeed this plot did not follow on from the previous film's at all, the main similarities being the setting Wong ends up in of the Shaolin Temple, where he trains hard to achieve the ultimate status. However, he is a baddie! He is introduced cheating his way into the Emperor's position with murder, so we are watching a villain trying to succeed instead of a hero. It shouldn't be enjoyable, but Wong is so good, and the choreography so accomplished, this was one of Kuo's best. It's fitting to end this set on a high, as while it can be a bumpy ride, there's a reason Kuo was well-regarded among many, and this is the perfect way to catch up with his canon for newcomers, or watch them remastered and looking their best for the old hands already familiar with this martial arts auteur.
[Eureka's Cinematic Vengeance Blu-ray set has these special features:
DISCS ONE & TWO: DEADLY MASTERS!
Includes The 7 Grandmasters, The 36 Deadly Styles, The World of Drunken Master, and The Old Master | Original Mandarin audio tracks | Optional English dubbed audio | Alternate Cantonese audio tracks for The 7 Grandmasters, The World of Drunken Master, and The Old Master | Newly translated English subtitles | Brand new audio commentaries on The 7 Grandmasters and The World of Drunken Master with Asian film expert Frank Djeng and martial artist / filmmaker Michael Worth | Brand new audio commentaries on The 36 Deadly Styles and The Old Master with action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
DISC THREE & FOUR: FEARLESS SHAOLIN!
Includes Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, 18 Bronzemen, and Return of the 18 Bronzemen | Original Mandarin audio tracks | Optional English dubbed audio for Shaolin Kung Fu, The Shaolin Kids, and Return of the 18 Bronzemen | Newly translated English subtitles | Brand new audio commentaries on Shaolin Kung Fu and The Shaolin Kids with action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema | Brand new audio commentaries on 18 Bronzemen and Return of the 18 Bronzemen with Asian film expert Frank Djeng and film writer John Charles (The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977–1997) | 18 Bronzemen: The Hong Kong Version - a reconstruction of the original theatrical release version of 18 Bronzemen.]