Opium and the Kung Fu Master (1984)
Director: Tang Chia
Writers: Ying Huang
Starring: Ti Lung, Chen Kuan Tai and Robert Mak

The Plot: Tang (Ti Lung) is a former-member of the famed Ten Tigers From Kwangtung, but he has settled in with his own school instead of seeking a life of danger and action. However, acting as the main form of law enforcement in this small town has lead him into some relatively dangerous situations. While trying to keep track of his rather silly students, he becomes a pawn in a rather treacherous plot being hatched by Brother Yung (Chen kuan Tai). Yung intends to move a opium den right into the center of town, and after bribing a official, this plan is put directly into action. Yun intends to hook all of the locals on his heavy drugs, and then he intends to assume power over all of the citizenry. Tang initially gives license to Yung in order to build his opium den, but not knowing the effects of the drug Tang soon becomes a addict himself. His star pupil, however, quickly realizes what is going on within the community. He tries to persuade Tang that the opium is evil, but it initially falls upon deaf ears. Unfortunately, great tragedy will befall the house of Tang, and only then will he quit the drugs and take on the evil do’ers who have ransacked his community.

The Review
There are a few things about Opium and the Kung Fu Master that should hopefully entice knowledgeable audience members before the credits even start to roll. The cast and crew for this title aren’t wholly unfamiliar to martial art movie fans, but they are a interesting enough assortment that audience members should find something to latch onto. Amidst the cast, we have Chen kuan Tai and the always classy Ti Lung who pair up with the young Robert Mak. Behind the lens we have Tang Chia, which is a name that might not be instantly familiar to audiences, but he served as Lau Ker Leung’s fight choreographer throughout much of his career. The context of the film also deserves a mention, because it seems as if this project was a last hurrah of sorts for the Shaw Bros. film studio. Made in the dusk of the Shaw studio peak era, 1984 saw the studio cutting back further and further from its one-time considerable output. That this film could look so impressive and feature such brilliant sets seems to show just how much the studios were banking on the film. Were they correct in their hopes? In many ways, yes. The legacy of the film, though, might come from its innate silliness rather than through the spectacle of its technical merits.

Although the movie seems to have been made in 1984, the project really looks like something that was made during the seventies. Although the camera isn’t as rigid as earlier Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung titles, this is certainly a movie that looks like it was made when the ShawStudio was at its peak. Similar films made from the studio during the eighties, such as Chinese Super Ninjas, had a considerable drop in quality in comparison to Opium and the Kung Fu Master. This is a film that features large numbers of extras, a plethora of extravagant costumes and even sets that are unfamiliar to myself as a Shaw Bros. film fan. The “rooftop” set that one of the earliest fights takes place upon, in particular, deserves a mention. Stunning in its decoration and vastness, this one scene is a early indicator for how big the budget must have been (comparatively speaking) with several other Shaw films from the decade. Made one year prior to the decision that the Shaw studio would cease to produce multiple films per year, Opium and the Kung Fu Master seems like a slight farewell for the studio. Featuring two of its biggest stars, pitted against one another in mortal combat, it seems like it may have had a nostalgic feel at the time it was produced. Although not a all-time classic, the film does prove to be universally entertaining. Surely with these talents being involved, audiences would expect nothing less.

The film deals with a rather taboo topic amidst the world of Kung Fu cinema. Although the word “Opium” is in the title, one doesn’t actually expect to see opium use displayed on the big screen. To see Ti Lung laying down and hitting the pipe, well, it is a slightly surreal experience. Although the film starts off with a slightly light, and dare I say humorous, look at the opium problem, things quickly start to escalate. Despite all the trials and turn of events that come about during the film, it still seem odd to me that the character of Su Ahn is used as the catalyst to portray the evils of opium. Introduced as a character whose central role is that of comedic relief, he simply doesn’t seem to be the best fit for any real cinematic drama. This character is the worst sort of comedic relief too, as he portrays the most base level and over-the-top type of Hong Kong comedy that one person could find. Featuring crossed eyes and nearly speaking with a stutter, the character isn’t completely unbearable despite his lowest-common-denominator appeal, but he certainly grinds on the nerves of any self respecting viewer. However, when Su Ahn’s story comes to a close, it becomes both surreal and highly disturbing. In one of the most bizarre and harrowing sequences within a Shaw Bros. film, we get to see the true anguish a person’s family is put through because of drug use. I won’t spoil it, but it is a scene that audiences won’t soon forget.

I think the most telling moment for Tang (Ti Lung), in regards to his drug abuse, comes early in the second act. Tang is shown smoking opium in his bedroom, high in a stupor, but he awakens when he hears a woman crying in the adjacent den. When he actually stumbles out to see what the problem is, he finds one of his student’s wives complaining to two of the other head-students about her husband having left for the opium dens. Knowing that his own students are filling in for him while he is getting high, Ti Lung’s face is riddled with guilt, but he still somehow remains stoic in the face of this. This stoicism doesn’t last very long, however, because Ti Lung is afforded the opportunity to go completely bonkers during the third act. After being defeated by Yung (Chen Kuen Tai), Tang decides that he must quit the opium. What follows is a series of scenes that should not be humorous, but they absolutely are. Watching the film with its American dub probably doesn’t help the silliness of the situation, but is there any other way to watch a Shaw Bros. film? The movie enters into some fairly ridiculous waters as we watch Ti Lung huddle in the corner, completely shaking, while we hear Robert Mak’s character annoyingly scream“OPIUM IS EVILLL!!!!!” While the first two acts seem to be building towards a dramatic crescendo, this third act almost makes the film into a comedy. This does not prove to be a bad thing, though, because it makes this film infinitely more entertaining than it might have been.

The Conclusion
A sometimes silly, but brilliantly choreographed, martial arts film, Opium and the Kung Fu Master may not be a title that immediately jumps out to audiences as legendary, but it is still quite entertaining. Featuring moments that are touching and rife with drama, as well as crazy moments of mass silliness, this is a title that may divide some audiences. I found myself enjoying it for what it is. I give it a four out of five. It is a weird film in many ways, but I think I like that about it. I highly recommend checking it out.