Wednesday, October 20, 2010

To Kill A Mastermind (1979) review


Tang Wei Hao (Fan Tao), Lo Chun (Liang Chieh), Lo Sheng (Lu Yi-fei), Shek Kang (Liang Ying), Yuen Hua (Hsi Chao), Wang Lung-wei (Peng Shih-hao), Yuen Pin (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: The meticulous director, Sun Chung fires back with a similar follow up to his classic AVENGING EAGLE (1978) in this tale of a vicious gang and the group of covert government officials who try to annihilate them. Something of a clone of Chang Cheh's FIVE VENOMS (1978)--that was already in production as this picture began rolling--It's a fast paced, kinetic Wuxia/Kung Fu hybrid that delivers amazing fight sequences and mystery to keep you guessing. An unsung martial arts classic from one of Hong Kong's best directors.

For more info on TO KILL A MASTERMIND including more behind the scenes pictures and photos click here.

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 mastermind behind the Chi Sha, not even its own members. Spies infiltrate the organization in an effort to destroy them from within. But then, no one knows who the spies are and 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. 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 then later one, 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 most interesting. 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 is the main lead here and he's an imposing performer skulking around 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 important role in the Wuxia classic, CLAN FEUDS (1982). Lo Chun and Lo Sheng, 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 fathers construction business.

Lo Mang's brothers--Lo Chun and Lo Sheng

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, perennial villain, Wang Lung-wei is the main antagonist with prolific Shaw regular, Yuan Hua (or Yuen Wah) doing 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 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.

Behind the scenes cast photo; director Sun Chung to the far left sitting down

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.

Yuen Wah strikes a pose (above and below) behind the scenes on the set of TO KILL A MASTERMIND (1979)

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 to them indigenous to the swordplay productions. 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 release during the five year time period that IVL had licensed the Shaw library from Celestial Pictures. At this time, all that's available is a bad quality bootleg. Watchable, it nonetheless pales next to the restorations fans have become accustomed to since earlier in the decade. Hopefully, this film will see a legit release sometime in the near future. It certainly deserves to be seen as it's one of Sun Chung's lesser known, but rabidly fast paced swordplay pictures. Highly recommended.

ADDENDUM: The film has since showed up restored as part of the massive compilation hard drive system known as the ZiiEagle. Sadly, it's only available in Singapore.
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