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.
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