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  Duel of the Masters Kung Feud
Year: 1983
Director: Wilson Tong
Stars: Norman Tsui Siu-Keung, Emily Chu, Brandy Yuen, Cho Boon-Feng, Fung Hak-On, Wilson Tong, Kwan Chung, Danny Chow, Sonny Yue, Li Tai-Ling, Tang Keung-Mei, Tang Keung-Ying
Genre: Comedy, Martial Arts, Weirdo, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: Ah Fei (Norman Tsui Siu-Keung) and Dragon (Sonny Yue) are students of two mystical martial arts masters: Shorty (Brandy Yuen) and Uncle (Wilson Tong) engaged in a long-running feud over their mutual affection for Peony (Li Tai-Ling), a comely tavern owner. Which kind of cramps Ah Fei's hapless attempts to woo Uncle's beautiful daughter Gigi (Emily Chu). In the meantime both teams use their magical powers to protect townsfolk from supernatural menaces. On discovering an old abandoned house is haunted by a hopping vampire both Ah Fei and Dragon arrive to investigate. It turns out to be a scam orchestrated by a fake exorcist and his hunchbacked assistant. Then out of nowhere a real vampire appears and proves a formidable opponent.

Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and an easy way to make a few bucks, Duel of the Masters is a blatant rip-off of Miracle Fighters (1982), the surreal Yuen Woo-Ping kung fu fantasy-comedy that spawned four sequels and a big-budget remake he also directed. However Duel of the Masters was re-titled Godz of Wu Tang (later Gods of Wu Tang) for its DVD release under a video label hyping up the influence kung fu flicks of its ilk had on pioneering gangsta rap collective the Wu Tang Clan. Not for nothing did RZA write, direct and star in The Man with the Iron Fists (2012). At one point the label re-released so many fan-favourite martial arts films under crass faux hip-hop titles featuring repetitive, inappropriate use of the words 'Shaolin' or 'Wu Tang' critics speculated even the Academy Award-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) would be re-released as Shaolin Killa and Da Wu Tang Bitch.

Though some sources cite the Yuen Clan as having creative input the chief creative force here was actor-director Wilson Tong. A seasoned character actor and stuntman since the late Sixties, in films by both major studios Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest and independent productions, Tong made his directorial debut with Kung Fu Genius (1979). He directed the fan-favourite Snake Deadly Act (1980) but came to specialize in horror and horror-comedies like Ghost Nursing (1982), Invitation of a Ghost (1984) and Ghost Ballroom (1988), all of which starred Norman Tsui Siu-Keung (who back in 1983 was fresh-off his star-making role in Shaw Bros' fantasy Bastard Swordsman, hence something of a casting coup for this low-budget outing). Not to mention the genre-bending Ghostly Bus (1995), The Musical Vampire (1992) with genre regular Lam Ching-Ying and The Vampire Combat (2001). Which is likely why Ah Fei and Dragon's brief but compelling battle with the errant vampire (sporting an impressively icky makeup job) is the best sequence in the movie. That said if Duel of the Masters is remembered for anything it is Shorty's Magical Kung Fu Rocking Horse. Laden with ridiculous gadgets its every appearance is a show-stealing treat. Yet Tong fails to milk its potential and avoids the obvious scene of the rocking horse pitting its tricks against the hopping vampire.

Aping Woo-Ping's unique blend of elaborately choreographed slapstick fu and ingenious in-camera effects, the action in Duel of the Masters flows with balletic grace making good use of Norman Tsui Siu-Keung's athleticism along with that of his co-stars. Scenes where Wilson Tong and Brandy Yuen (who went on to direct two fan-favourite films: the Yuen Biao-Moon Lee action comedy The Champions (1983) and In the Line of Duty III (1988)) fight while climbing walls like Spider-Man or leap off a flagpole onto a rooftop are undeniably impressive. However the film lacks that colourful cartoon aesthetic that distinguished Miracle Fighters and its ramshackle, heavily episodic plot is nowhere near as compelling. Once the film decides it is done with the vampire a secondary subplot has Gigi almost mesmerized by an evil wizard into serving as a sleepwalking sex toy for his geeky student. Until Ah Fei intervenes. Then suddenly it moves on to a third plot wherein Shorty and Ah Fei trick the silver-maned Magic Doctor (Kwan Chung), whom it turns out is also infatuated with Peony, into laying his grudge aside to cure Uncle's asthma. Of course Hong Kong films have been known to make a virtue out of an unfocused narrative. In this instance however a conspicuous lack of likable characters proves the more substantial problem.

As evident in many of Jackie Chan's early kung fu comedies the genre typically milks humour from the traditional deference in Chinese culture towards elders. More often than not the wise old master is either greedy, lecherous, belligerent, abusive or a combination of all four, causing endless trouble for a poor downtrodden young hero. These characters are typically redeemed by an altruistic streak, sense of fair play or justice casting their crotchety antics in the form of life lessons. Which is what Wilson Tong fails to do with Shorty and Uncle who are uninterested in helping the townsfolk (they only tackle the haunting to improve their chances with Peony). At the same time Ah Fei is such a self-serving doofus he beats up an innocent man to steal his blood for a magic spell while even Gigi tries to fake her own rape to provoke Magic Doctor into helping her dad. This especially egregious scene devolves into an even more bizarre slapstick detour as the doctor bamboozles twin policemen played by genre fixtures Tang Keung-Mei and Tang Keung-Ming. In lieu of anything resembling a coherent narrative the film peters out with a series of pointless punch-ups before the vaguely redemptive coda and a freeze-frame gag that proves Ah Fei can't catch a break. Fans of this style of martial arts fantasy would be better off watching Miracle Fighters or its sequels Shaolin Drunkard (1983), Taoism Drunkard (1984) or Young Taoism Fighter (1986).



Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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