3 Evil Masters (1980)
Director: Chin-Ku Lu
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Kuan Tai Chen, Tak Yuen and Wang Lung Wei

The Plot: Jin Tien-yun (Chen Kuan Tai) is a top martial artist who has grown sick and tired of an evil group of tyrants known as The Three Evils. When Jin takes on this group, he is stabbed by the keeper of the inn that this fight is taking place at. Although he is injured, he manages to escape and finds his way to a local martial arts school where he runs into Gao Jian (Tak Yuen). Gao is bullied by all of his classmates and even his teacher, to enough degree. They frame him for things that he didn’t do and more often than not poor Gao is stuck with ridiculous punishments. When Jin shows up on Gao’s doorstep, he is unsure what to make of the situation. He takes in the poor man and allows him to get better, but he soon discovers how powerful Jin is within the martial world. Jin had previously fought Gao’s master and left him with broken ribs, and being that Gao’s teacher would rather punish the young man than actually teach him anything, he soon starts to learn more Kung Fu from Jin. As Gao becomes a powerful martial artist himself, the looming threat of the Three Evil Masters seems all the more present. Will they find Jin Tien-Yun and if they do what will become of young Goa Jian as he has been so helpful to Jin? These two will have to combine forces and help destroy the Evils before they manage to cause more harm!

The Review
Chen Kuan Tai once again graces the pages of Varied Celluloid and all of the world rejoices! A martial arts actor who has never received his due in a broad way, he is an actor who helped define the Shaw Bros. studio and showed a remarkable amount of range in the roles that he would play. Equally at home playing the romantic hero as well as the despicable villain who knew nothing of good or decency, he could really do it all and the audience would believe it! With 3 Evil Masters, he plays a character who balances between being the ultimate good guy and a slightly more ambiguous character. Although the character is conflicted and quite different than the ordinary, it offers a chance for Chen Kuan Tai to really show off his charisma. Directed by Lu Chin-Ku, who is a filmmaker best known for some earlier Hwang Jang Lee starring vehicles, it may seem that the film may not have a massive amount of promise – I must confess that it lives up to its starring actors’ reputation.

Kung Fu comedy is a bit of a sore subject with me, to be honest. At this stage in my own personal fandom, and perhaps you feel the same way, I feel conflicted on the subject. Here in the old school of martial arts cinema, I always like to point out how juvenile some of the comedy tends to be. The height of hilarity, in most Kung Fu films from the seventies and eighties seems to be that one worm-like character, who often has a wart (sometimes with hair) growing out of his face, and who crosses his eyes whenever he is inevitably outwitted by our Kung Fu hero. This comedic “technique” seemed so thoroughly bred into the culture that this rather corny style of humor made up the dominant majority of films that featured any sort of lighter tone. As I have grown and seen so many of these films, I have started to have more leniency with this particular style of comedy. These days I almost view the hackneyed comedy as a point of nostalgia, and it is certainly entertaining for its cheesiness. While 3 Evil Masters isn’t entirely a comedy, it certainly borders on it.

Tak Yuen, who plays the young Gao who is taken under the wing of Chen Kuan Tai, gets to play off much of this Kung Fu comedy. While he doesn’t fall into crossing his eyes or making silly faces, as if he were attempting to entertain a child, he actually does fall into another hackneyed comedic staple: in one notable scene he dresses up in drag in order to fool one of the 3 Evil Masters. While it seems as if I’m probably about to go off on a further tangent about how terrible Hong Kong martial arts comedy tends to be, I will commend this sequence because it is surprisingly one of the funnier moments of the film. 3 Evil Masters is one of the few Shaw Bros. titles to actually feature female nudity, certainly one of the few that I have seen, and the moment in question comes as the second Evil has a line of women removing their tops for a chance at a prize. Tak Yuen’s character steps to the front of the line and begins to disrobe and show off his incredibly flat chest while acting like a meek and timid young girl. Watching him pinch his nipples while making goo-goo eyes is quite possibly the funniest thing I have seen in a Kung Fu film produced by the Shaw Bros.!

Chen Kuan Tai shows up as the big “star” within the production and he also delivers the much more serious side of things in contrast to Tak Yuen’s consistent mugging for the camera. As is usually the case with old school Kung Fu films, I watched the movie with its original English dubbing and this lead to a slightly more entertaining and campy atmosphere with Chen Kuan Tai’s character, moreso than even Tak Yuen’s silliness was able to evoke. There’s an ambiguous cloud around Chen Kuan Tai’s character, mostly because everything we seem to know about the man we have learned from his own mouth throughout the film. So, as a cautious viewer, I half expected him to turn into a morally bankrupt Evil himself. Especially when we see his character go around spitting out some rather unintentionally hilarious one-liners throughout the movie. This character seems to be confident to a fault, as he is continually cocky despite being outnumbered. I particularly like the introduction to the film where the 3 Evils surround him, as he sits at a table and he boldly proclaims, “I’m going to chop off your arms, so are you ready?”, before attempting to do just that and failing tremendously. Another funny moment for me comes as he makes his introduction to Tak Yuen’s teacher, who he had fought some years previously and broke his ribs due to a well aimed punch. When Yuen’s teacher begins to show hostility towards Kuan Tai, he cockily announces “You’re excited… do you want to lose some more ribs?”, to which the teacher feels no other course of action is appropriate other than a punch in the face. When dealing with someone as arrogant as Chen Kuan Tai apparently is here, I can’t say I blame him.

The fight choreography, by Hsia Hsu, is actually very well done and features some varied styles. Hsu never really did a tremendous amount of work as a choreographer, certainly not that I can find, with his best known behind-the-scenes credit coming as a stunt coordinator on the original Drunken Master. When you have Chen Kuan Tai and Wang Lung Wei leading your film however, I suppose it isn’t that hard to make a really well choreographed martial arts film! The choreography and the central gimmick, which pits our two leading men against the “Three Evils Brigade”, are really make the movie the memorable event that it is. The comedy can be hit and miss, with good performances by almost all involved. If there is any one issue the film has, it comes from it not being an overwhelming experience and the few really solid areas that it excels in aren’t so convincing that the audience will be left blown away.

The Conclusion
The film is strong for what it is, but select members of the audience may end up wondering “what was the big deal?” afterward. It is a solid and fun piece of Kung Fu cinema featuring a great performance by one of the true legends of this field, so if you require more than that this might not be the movie for you. For fans of Chen Kuan Tai, or martial arts movie buffs in general, this should prove to be a lot of fun. Although I don’t think it would be fair for me to give it a four out of five, which is reserved for movies that I highly recommend others seek out, I am giving it a high three. I still recommend it but I think fans of will eat this one up more than casual viewers.