7 Grandmasters, (Jue Quan), is often referred to as writer/director Joseph Kuo’s (18 Bronze Men, The Blazing Temple) best film. And, when you consider his incredible output as a one-man independent martial arts film studio that’s saying quite a lot. Forty-four years from its original release, how well does it hold up?
With a proclamation from the emperor proclaiming him the Grandmaster of China, Shang-Kuan Cheng (Jack Long, Sakura Killers, The Oily Maniac) is about to retire from the practice of kung fu. However, the ceremony is interrupted by an anonymous note claiming that he can’t be the undisputed master until he defeats the other seven Grandmasters, each of whom practices a different style of kung fu.
Since this thought had already crossed his mind he sets out accompanied by his daughter Ming Chu (Nancy Yen, Deadly Angels, Death Duel) and his best students, to prove himself. Shao Ying (Yi-Min Li, The Seven Commandments of Kung Fu, 7 Man Army) also tags along, hoping Cheng will, despite his constant refusals so far, accept him as a student.
Not having the resources of studios like Shaw Brothers, Kuo frequently shot his films with a maximum of outdoor scenes to help keep the budget down. With a plot that involves journeying across China, 7 Grandmasters is perfectly suited to that formula, Cheng and his crew walk from place to place, meet their next adversary outside then fight them and move on. The one exception to this is a brawl at an inn with assassins sent by one of the other Grandmasters who knows he can’t beat Cheng.
The main plot being so basic means that 7 Grandmasters has plenty of time for both its fights and a subplot. And of course, that subplot is centred around Shao Ying who, once he is finally accepted, proves to be Cheng’s best student. It’s also no real surprise that he has ulterior motives for seeking Cheng out. By the end of the film, one could actually say this has become the main plot as it ends with a brilliantly staged duel between Ying and Alan Chung San Chui (Kung fu Commandos, Chinese Hercules).
But it’s the fights, not the plot that really matters and Kuo, along with fight coordinators Corey Yuen (Red Cliff, Transporter 3) and Cheung-Yan Yuen (Ip Man 4: The Finale, True Legend) stage plenty of them in a variety of martial arts styles, both empty-handed and with weapons. The fights are grounded and realistic, or as realistic as these films get, with a minimum of fancy, high-flying moves. That may limit the appeal of 7 Grandmasters to those used to more outrageous modern style action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Mortal Kombat.
Fans of classic-era martial arts films and those curious about the genre’s history should love 7 Grandmasters. It has plenty of energetic and well-staged fights. And just enough plot to make it a film rather than a collection of fights without it getting in the way of the action. It’s also a good introduction to not just Kou’s films but Hong Kong’s independent martial arts films of the time. If all you know of them are the badly dubbed films that played on Kung Fu Theater, this will be a revelation to you.
A newly restored print of 7 Grandmasters will screen as part of this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and Subway Cinema in association with Taipei Cultural Center in New York, Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan). Other films in the series and ticket information can be found here.