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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To Kill A Mastermind (1979) review


Tang Wei Hao (Fan Tao), Lo Chun (Liang Chieh), Lo Sheng (Lu Yu-fei), Shek Kang (Liang Ying), Yuen Hua (Hsi Chao), Wang Lung-wei (Peng Shih-hao), Yuen Bun (Ho Ming-tien), Meng Ting Ke (Chuan Pao-pao), Liu Hui-ling (Ms. Ying), Ku Feng (Chou Tung-lou), Tsao Tao-hua (Yang Chen-yu), Dick Wei To Lung (Huang Chang), Ai Fei (Swordsman)

Directed by Sun Chung

The Short Version: Sun Chung, one of Hong Kong's most meticulous directors, follows up his award-winning classic AVENGING EAGLE (1978) with this similar production about a vicious gang and the group of covert government officials who are tasked with stopping them. Similar to Chang Cheh's THE FIVE VENOMS (1978)--which was already in production as this film began rolling--TO KILL A MASTERMIND is a fast-paced, kinetic, Wuxia/Kung Fu hybrid that delivers amazing fight sequences and mystery to keep viewers guessing. An unsung martial arts classic from one of Martial Arts Cinema's best filmmakers.

A powerful crime syndicate known as the Chi Sha clan is a vast network of deadly criminals proficient in martial arts. Growing in number at an alarming rate, the Imperial Court orders Yang Chen-yu and his followers to wipe them out at all costs. Doing this proves difficult as no one knows the identity of the organization in an effort to destroy them from within. But then, no one knows who the spies are. After a few ambushes and security breaches, the clan deputies begin suspecting one another of being traitors. With the Chi Sha dwindling in numbers, it's a matter of time before the mastermind must reveal himself.
Sun Chung, one of Shaw Brothers most brilliant and notable directors, had been helming movies for the studio since the early 1970's. He started with the quirky and grotesque Wuxia pseudo horror actioner THE DEVIL'S MIRROR in 1972. Chung was taking the film over from its original director, Shen Chiang (you can read our extensive review/making of piece HERE, or click the highlighted title above)

His next action film was one that started out as a Chang Cheh picture--THE BLOODY ESCAPE. For whatever reason, this soon became a joint effort between the two. Sun got sole directorial credit despite the movie looking far more like a Cheh picture. Comedies and dramas followed as well as several exploitation movies becoming part of Sun Chung's resume.
It wasn't until 1977 that he found his signature style (critical fight scene moments in slow motion, ingenuitive editing techniques) with the release of JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN starring David Chiang and Chen Hui Min.

1978 brought what is arguably his most famous movie, AVENGING EAGLE starring Ti Lung, Fu Sheng and Ku Feng. After that enthralling, award winning adventure, Sun Chung was working on THE DEADLY BREAKING SWORD, KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR and TO KILL A MASTERMIND (all 1979). The latter title is different from the first two titles. So many of Sun Chung's movies either accentuate, or balance out characterization with the action. MASTERMIND focuses far more attention on fast paced action set pieces with exposition taking second place.

Sun Chung took a big gamble with this production using predominantly unknowns for his cast. Teng Wei Hao (see insert) is the main lead here. An imposing performer, Teng skulks menacingly with his flowing Dracula cape and look of seriousness about his face. Like the bulk of the cast, he never connected with audiences and played bit parts the remainder of his career. He did have a small, but crucial role in the Wuxia novel adaptation, CLAN FEUDS (1982). Lo Chun and Lo Sheng (see below), the two brothers of famed Shaw star Lo Mang have lead roles also. Sadly, after a few bit roles afterward, both men terminated their contracts, feeling they had no prospects in film, and left the business forever. Lo Chun went abroad while Lo Sheng joined their father's construction business.

Sun Chung's gamble didn't pay off as TO KILL A MASTERMIND got lost in the shuffle amongst a slew of hit movies that included THE FEARLESS HYENA, THE PROUD TWINS, MAGNIFICENT BUTCHER, Chung's own DEADLY BREAKING SWORD and KUNG FU INSTRUCTOR. The most noticeable difference is that those movies all had big names in the lead roles. For MASTERMIND, there were a few big names in the cast like Ku Feng and perennial villain Wang Lung-wei; the latter of which is the main antagonist while prolific Shaw stuntman and go-to bad guy Yuen Wah (see insert) does likewise. Still, it was a valiant effort for director Sun to give the usual background players and some potential talent a chance to shine. It was something Chang Cheh had been doing his entire career with his uncanny knack for spotting superb talent.

While the plot in MASTERMIND is an interesting one, its narrative mimics that of AVENGING EAGLE in several ways. Script writer I Kuang seemingly refurbishes the vicious Iron Boat gang from EAGLE and transforms them into the flashier, more hip Chi Sha clan. Yuen Wah even uses one of Ku Feng's familiar metal clawed hands from EAGLE in this film as his primary weapon. Speaking of cameo appearances by weapons, the masks from Chang Cheh's FIVE VENOMS (1978) turn up here in slightly altered form. The ending is also similar to the one seen in AVENGING EAGLE and that creative editing style that won that film a Best Editing award crops up here, too.

The script is likewise a clone in numerous ways to Chang Cheh's FIVE VENOMS (1978); yet it also foreshadows Cheh's MASKED AVENGERS from 1981. In that film, a group of honorable martial artists band together to hunt down the trident brandishing syndicate of marauding masked killers. In MASTERMIND, it's much the same thing as the devout Yang tracks the Chi Sha and has them infiltrated by secret agents in an attempt to wipe them out and reveal their elusive leader. In the later MASKED AVENGERS, the three chiefs of the gang are all unknown until the last half. Also, the group of warriors trailing the gang are easily picked off one by one by the wicked masked murderers. 

In MASTERMIND, Yang and his men frequently have the upper hand as the Chi Sha ultimately turn on each other. Yang even constructs massive effigy's of the Chi Sha deputies--when one is killed, the effigy is destroyed. At any rate, both pictures borrow elements from Chang Cheh's 1978 comic book classic, FIVE VENOMS.

The action on display in MASTERMIND is amazing and undercranked unlike fights in other Sun Chung movies from this time period. However, the fights in JUDGEMENT OF AN ASSASSIN (1977) were also sped up. The choreography comes courtesy of both Tang Chia and his frequent collaborator Huang Pei-chi. The fighting sequences seen here are of a high caliber for this action packed Wuxia adventure. The costumes have that flashy, otherworldly look indigenous to the swordplay productions of this period. There's also some interesting weapons on display. The various Chi Sha members have their own signature look and weapon of death.

TO KILL A MASTERMIND never got an official DVD/VCD release during the five year time period that IVL had licensed the Shaw Brothers library from Celestial Pictures. For years, only a bad quality bootleg was available. When the ZiiEagle Movie Box was released in 2010 (only available in Singapore), it contained several dozen Shaw movies that were not part of the original five-year release schedule. TKAM was among those additional titles. The picture quality on those titles wasn't quite the restorative beauty of the IVL line, but better than bootleg quality.

Sun Chung was one of the Shaw Studio's finest filmmakers, and remains a cult director outside of Hong Kong. Derivative of Chang Cheh's works and even those of Chung himself, TKAM may be one of the director's lesser known pictures, but it delivers fast-paced action and an intriguing plot. For martial arts movie fans, it's time the MASTERMIND was revealed to the world.


R.A.M.'67 said...

To read the packaging of many IVL DVDs for Sun Chung's Shaw films, you'd think an effort would've been made to get out all his work with Shaw, the way he's built up in the copy! This is not the case; the "cult" for Chung's movies must be even smaller than the one for Chang Cheh!

On a related note, I can't understand why IVL added on music and foley on what Chung films they did.

Have you had the chance to compare the soundtrack for The Deadly Breaking Sword on the Image disc (original Mandarin mono) versus the IVL disc ("enhanced")? Why are any "quiet" parts in the picture filled in like they are? Don't these "malletheads" have a clue as to artistic vision, sonically as well as visually? Obviously not. Leave the sound AS IS: remastered, if you please!

The sound on the Image release is grand in its "less is more" presentation. The only thing I got out of the IVL disc was a better picture!

If Fortune Star got hold of the Shaw catalog, maybe they would've had out more releases than what IVL did, including TKaM!

venoms5 said...

They were trying to make these movies appealing to a larger audience as in the current generation in an effort to make them more "current". Chinese for the most part, don't like old movies. I was just glad to get the movies at all, but personally, I prefer them untouched, but this kind of tampering wasn't just done to HK movies. Other old movies had their soundtracks tampered with, too, to give an audience something to hear on their surround systems.

Directors like Sun Chung and others didn't have the cult appeal guys like Chang Cheh and Liu Chia Liang did, at least not in this country. They had signature movies, but they just didn't penetrate the film world outside of Asia as consistently as those two did.

TKAM is definitely one that needs to be available in a better version. I've seen far worse than this bootleg edition, though. The colors are stable and I can make out the actors. At one time, copies like this were all that fans could get. I think too many of us have become spoiled after all those beautiful restored prints.

R.A.M.'67 said...

Oh, how right you are, especially with your last sentence!

On the other hand, I'm pleased with the adequate pictures on those un-remastered, budget releases from the FS Legendary Collection like Lady Whirlwind and The Skyhawk! If a given movie can't be remastered for whatever reason, an "official bootleg" is better than the WORSE kind I can imagine!

venoms5 said...

Yeah, I got a bunch of those Fortune Star DVD's, too, although I am not much of a GH fan. I wouldn't mind the Shaw stuff looking like that, but do prefer them in that restored form considering the level of detail on the sets and all. I thought they had done some minor touch up work on those GH titles, though? Obviously not to the extent of the Shaw library. At least I recall reading there was some minor work done on those. If not, they were in extraordinary shape considering how Chinese felt about their cinematic heritage until a few years ago.

J.L. Carrozza said...

Oddly I can't say I'm the biggest fan of how Celestial handled the Shaw catalogue, including the remastering process. They remastered them so meticulously that they almost look digitally filmed at times though and the color schemes look kind of "pastel" and I dislike the computer colored credits. They spent so much money on cleaning up these films that they basically ran out of money and had to axe the whole thing with about a third of the titles still in the vaults that are now unlikely to be seen. Plus market-wise they overvalued these films that are quite niche, in Hong Kong even more so as the Chinese care even less about old movies than Western audiences do.

Fortune Star handled the Golden Harvest stuff better (I like GH's product in many ways more than Shaw's, it's "earthier" and more realistic and uses better talent), they just cleaned the films up a little, even the Bruce Lee stuff that they did the most through remasterings on still looks shot on film and all. I'd have much rather Celestial had done subtler, quicker remasters and released EVERYTHING, you know?

I'd like to see TO KILL A MASTERMIND. It has been remastered per the grapevine, so a release is possible. Maybe Media Blasters can pick it up.

venoms5 said...

Well some are saying it has and some are saying it hasn't been restored. Who knows. A Celestial rep told me in an email everything was done and that the remaining movies were going to be shown on the Celestial cable channel.

A friend of mine does have a Shaw movie screener for THE VILLAINS (1973), a Chu Yuan martial arts, drama, western style movie. I've seen it and it wasn't even announced at any time if I remember right. It was on VHS no less and transferred to disc. It has 'Property of Celestial Pictures' and 'Not to be Sold' at top and bottom inside the picture.

They were initially going to release 20 titles a month and when this proved impossible, they dropped it down to 5 and 10 a month. They got out what they could within the 5 year lease IVL had with Celestial. I suppose IVL could have gotten another deal if they'd wanted, but nearly all the best known titles were out. I'd like to see many of those other movies, but I am satisfied with the near 500 I got.

I prefer the Shaw's to GH movies. I think the restorations benefits the Shaw movies considering all the detail that went into the set design and costuming. It just seems the HK discs have too much contrast much of the time compared with the R1 releases of the same titles. Outside of Jackie Chan in the early 80's, Shaw's was famous for having the best talent in every aspect of production. As you may know, Chan, Hung and Biao all worked there as stuntmen and bit actors during the 1970's.

I agree with Lo Lieh and some others who specified that since the Shaw catalog had been out of the public eye for so long no one knew what their value really was. Still, considering how important that company is to Asia's cinematic heritage, I wouldn't say they overpaid, just the realization being that Asians, for the most part, don't like old movies. And forget about it if it's in B/W.

Piracy didn't help matters any, either. Still, they obviously made money in some capacity considering the DVD rights were sold all over the world in Spain, Italy, Germany, America and France released a number of the titles that didn't get released anywhere else. From those I saw it was mostly sex movies. Germany also released some that never came out in HK. VIRGINS OF THE 7 SEAS and MINI SKIRT GANG come to mind.

Judging by some of the bootleg tapes of some of the movies, it seems only credits for certain titles were doctored up. But this wasn't a new practice as all the Mei Ah discs of vintage indy kung fu movies had redone credits at least of the ones I was familiar with. The only problem I had was with the boosting, or altering of soundtracks in 5.1. And altering of movie soundtracks has been done in American movies, too, which is really distracting especially if you're familiar with a particular movie the way you remember it.

Wostry Ferenc said...

venoms5 said...

Yes, I saw this recently. I've seen it five times now (it's a great film, by the way), but I prefer to wait for the legal version if this bootleg hasn't damaged the films chances now. TKAM isn't like one of these obscure Taiwanese swordplay movies whose only audience will be a small circle of fans, it definitely has a potential for decent to good sales just for it being a Shaw Brothers picture.

It deserves better than a group of individuals profiting off of an uploaded version of the film from the Chinese youtube. A friend said they're charging, $12, too.

I'm not sure if they got their images from here, or not, but I wonder if I shouldn't watermark everything from here on out.

Have you seen the film, Wostry? What was your opinion of it?

Wostry Ferenc said...

No, I didn't buy it (I'm ashamed (well, not really) to say that I'm waiting for the subtitled version to surface somewhere on the net. I'm a big fan of Sun Chung's films, so it's a difficult wait.

venoms5 said...

I'm a huge Sun Chung fan as well. Wonderful director. It's a shame he and others like Kuei Chi Hung and Ho Meng Hua (most particularly his pre 1975 years) seldom ever get much mention for their work.

Hopefully, this movie will surface legitimately at some point. It really deserves to.

Wostry Ferenc said...

Brian, I think you are a bit hard on these guys. It's not like they are a huge bootleg operation - they take obscure films nobody gives a shit about, and translate the chinese text and sub the films in english. They don't charge much either (I'm not affiliated with them, I swear.) Among all the bootleg operations they are very-very small time, they just want their expenses covered.

I don't think we ever see a legit release of TO KILL A MASTERMIND. Celestial couldn't be bothered with releasing Shaws anymore.

venoms5 said...

Truthfully, Wostry, I think what really bothers me the most is that I worked on a fan made version of KAGE NO GUNDAN 2 (the whole series is reviewed here). I timed 20 out of the 26 episodes. It took upwards of 8 to 10 hours to do one 47 minute episode as some of them had 500 lines of dialog and up.

I asked for no payment, I simply wanted my own copy of the series once my friend finished with it. I DID IT FOR FREE. There was no chance this was coming out legit here as the first series never sold well. Some of these FuSubs guys made copies of it and sold it for a pittance, yet at the same time, they put up this disclaimer on their site asking no one to bootleg their stuff. I find that a bit brazen. And these kung fu movies are nowhere near the trouble to do when compared with Japanese movies, which are generally dialog heavy.

Yes, they are doing a good thing for the small few who care about such things, but they shouldn't state "Don't steal our stuff" when they're doing the exact same thing.

It's doubtful a legit version will surface, as you said, but the chances are better than it is for some of these totally obscure films that only 3 or 4 people care anything about.

Jack J said...

Brian, you mentioned MINI-SKIRT GANG being released by the Germans; Actually it was AWE in Denmark that bought it and put it out in Scandinavia. I spoke to the owner of AWE at the time and he told me one of things the owners were VERY clear about was that he didn't add English subtitles to any of the three SB title that AWE bought (i.e. the three Birte Tove films).

Btw, if FuSubs didn't want TO KILL A MASTERMIND to be widely spread around then they didn't quite succeed with their plea to their buyers: it's on YouTube now! Restored print and new subs and all.

venoms5 said...

Thanks for that clarification, Jack, I will amend it accordingly! A shame about the lack of subs on those. Me and a friend were discussing that movie last week.

Those FuSubs discs are fine for the half dozen people that are buying them, but they seriously shouldn't slag off on the actual companies that are releasing the movies, and especially making remarks on the "quality" of their own work. I mean, they're using French tapes for a lot of their sources for crying out loud. All the Shaw Brothers French tapes I've seen were drastically cut and not just for violence. And I suspect some of their sources are edited, too. One or two I skimmed through barely breached the 80 minute mark.

Also, those youku uploads they merely blew up to a DVD-R look HORRENDOUS on a bigger set.

And their two faced "pleas" to the fans are a joke. I spent hours doing the timing for 20 episodes on a particular Sonny Chiba television series for a friend of mine and asked for no payment; I just wanted to see the series. One of the main FuSubs guys then bootlegs the discs and sells them for around $5-$7.00; to name just one instance. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

venoms5 said...

Well, hell, it's in a comment I made and not the actual post! AWE is right cool company, though. I own a handful of their discs.

Cteve said...

Let's not forget that also a bunch of their subtitles comes from translating those French tapes, ex: Tigresses which they claimed to be the first Korean translation (and it is somehow) but look like it was translated from French rather than Korean.

I am not much into what FuSubs release, mainly because of the titles that do not really interest me but also because of the poor video quality most of the time. However, I must admit they have competitve prices. Well, you get what you paid for.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Cteve. It's also a safe bet those French tapes are cut, too. At least the Shaw French tapes I've seen were missing a lot of footage. Not necessarily violence, but dialog.

Jack J said...

I don't know those guys personally but I think the French speaking member is in Quebec. Would there be a chance French dubbed Quebec tapes are uncut versions compared to the French (from France) tapes? Cteve, can you elaborate on this?

Cteve said...

Yes Jack, many Quebec tapes were uncut at the time but they were all fullscreen. Also, I don't remember many kung-fu movies in French to be honnest. The only thing is that we had a lot of old Italian horror films in my store and many of them were uncut.

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