Running time: 90 mins
Director: Kei Law
Starring: Frankie Shum, Jackie Conn, Mu Chuan Chen
Genre: Action, Martial Arts, Drama, Exploitation
The name and synopsis alone are all too often enough to polarise an audience as The Crippled Masters has been cleverly dubbed Cripsploitation by some fans of Exploitation cinema but putting hyperbole aside long enough to view the film just how outrageous and distasteful can it be?
Lee Ho (Shum) has been cast out by his employer Lin who’s making a move to take over the entire region and turn all rival martial arts schools into casinos. Having his arms severed by a sword he is beaten and left for dead by Tang (
) only for Tang to become the next victim of Lin’s strategy when he has acid poured on his legs and dumped in the neighbouring forest. Now disabled the two men team up with an old Kung Fu master to take on Lin and discover the secrets of unbeatable Kung Fu. Conn
If The Crippled Masters feels like a film you have seen before it’s probably due to a few reasons. The first is that narratively it adheres pretty faithfully to a tradition of Martial Arts story telling, Master is corrupt and unworthy – Apprentice trains to combat former Master – the men fight. Most Kung Fu features, and Westerns for that matter, deal with greed and combat to restore order in much the same way. The second reason is because it’s 1979 and though not at it’s peak the Martial Arts genre it still has a few years of worth left in it and the cinematic conventions of elaborate sound effects, big gesturality and long stares into close up cameras. The Crippled Masters did not invent these devices but it is as skilled as any other film that came out of
Asia at delivering them. It’s the aesthetic that Quentin Tarantino mimicked so well in Kill Bill Vol. I (and to a lesser extent Vol. II) to great financial and critical reward. It’s this familiarity that makes the film even more compelling as an audience member. Like all genres there are audience expectations of what should be contained within and deviation, though original, all too often jars with the audience. The Crippled Masters contains such a high level of what’s expected that it’s impossible not to be swept away in the euphoria that comes with a thrill ride you’re somewhat familiar with. Not even the fact that the soundtrack seemingly has a mind of it’s own, starting and stopping whenever it pleases at whatever volume it desires can detract from the pleasure of the film…I have no idea how it doesn’t detract it just feels right. I also don't know how there wasn't even a consideration to dealing with why Lee Ho didn't bleed out. He doesn't even attempt to seek medical treatment, this is the biggest issue with the film if you can believe that. It's a silly oversight but do we even care? Kinda.
As performances go the Martial Arts film demands the most physical of performances from those involved. The fact that Shum and Conn are physically disabled doesn’t lessen the demands of the film but merely highlights just how powerful and hard working both men were throughout their lives, not just when the camera was on them. Shum’s flexibility and precision with his feet and legs are awe inspiring as he twirls bamboo sticks and throws rocks with his feet, his skill with what little arm he has on his left side is phenomenal and his speed and skill set is remarkable. His stunt work is also hugely impressive as he is seemingly game for anything including tumbling head first down a flight of stairs. For an able bodied actor to do that is considerable as it only takes one bad knock to do serious damage but for a man who’s unable to protect his face from the repeatedly oncoming concrete highlights a degree of self assurance or bravery that’s beyond refreshing. Conn’s performance is less flashy but equally worthy of awe as his upper body strength is sensational. The way in which he throws himself around, especially in the fight sequences and in particular the fight with Lin, would lead you to believe that he weighs nothing at all. His muscle definition and strength in his arms are what makes it so easy for him sell the combat scenes so well as even though they are cleverly well choreographed with him in mind his speed and precision allow you to forget this and focus on just how skilled the man is. You almost feel sorry for Mu Chuan Chen (Lin). As the films chief baddie it was never going to be his film and in the sequences with fighters like Pao (played brilliantly by Hsiang Mei Lung) you see how knowledgeable and talented he is as a practitioner but all eyes are on Shum and Conn, more so as main stream cinema has lead us to believe that people with physical disabilities are incapable of doing many things, and as such Chen’s screen presence suffers though admittedly his fight with “the Crippled Masters” and Conn in particular is an amazing example of how Martial Arts can be as beautiful and graceful as dance.
Praise needs to be lavished on director Kei Law also. Taiwan’s disability policy was ahead of it’s time but that doesn’t mean that the director wouldn’t have been either under pressure or tempted to make a ‘freak show’ piece which was heavier on close ups on the actors disabilities than on narrative content or showcasing the Kung Fu abilities. To Law’s credit he created a film that was beautifully balanced and blind to disability. The Crippled Masters is perhaps one of the most uplifting pieces of cinema you will see as these two men will put our physical exertions to shame without breaking a sweat and is a hugely rewarding, if narratively conventional, a Kung Fu classic.