To Kill a Mastermind (1979)
Director: Sun Chung
Writers: Ni Kuang
Starring: Wang Lung Wei, Fei Ai, Tat-wah Cho, and Kin Ping Chow

The Plot: Our film begins by introducing us to a very special cabal of underground martial artists known as The Qisha Society. The leaders promoting this group of leather vested fighters are quite mad, and they lust after money most of all. In our introduction we see firsthand how horrifying this group can be, as they instantly decapitate some poor gent who was brought forth and basically used as fodder for a newly promoted group of psychopaths. Many members of this clan have special gimmicks that make them individually different from one another. One member has a circular saw blade that he wraps around his enemy’s head before yanking it clean off. Then there’s a second man who has giant brass rings up and down his arms. There is a master of blades in the group as well, but all of these individual “chiefs” pale in comparison to their hidden leader: The Mastermind. The Mastermind is the criminal genius who helps plan the Qisha society’s every move, but recently the locals have decided to rebel against them. In order to do this, the locals have united behind Lord Yang who has apparently instilled a double agent inside of the Qisha Society. As the clan comes to terms with the possibility that they have a rat within their core group, they find their loyalty quickly being tested. There is no honor amongst thieves, however, and there also appears to be very little loyalty.

The Review
Before ultimately deciding to go heavier into the work of director Sun Chung during this Kung Fu Christmas (for future reference: this review is being written in the midst of our annual martial arts review marathon held during the month of December), I was pretty certain that I wanted to cover To Kill a Mastermind on this site. A movie that hasn’t had a great deal of popularity in the past, it certainly has developed a cult audience amongst martial arts movie fans. Discovered likely because of Sun Chung’s excellent reputation, as well as the intriguing prospect of this being a late seventies Shaw Bros. production that features few big names, the movie has a lot of interesting question marks that surround it. However, with these question marks have also come a great deal of praise, certainly amongst my central friends. Although this is a movie that has not yet been digitally restored, the bootlegs that exist out there for the film are not awful to sit through. So, with a slightly obscure but highly touted martial arts movie readily available, I knew that now was the time to sit down and watch To Kill a Mastermind. So, does it really deserve the hype that it often receives? The answer is complicated, but I must ultimately say yes.

Unlike the previous Sun Chung films that have been reviewed here on Varied Celluloid, To Kill a Mastermind stands out as something a bit different. Long gone are the fables of honor, obedience, and the general decency shown between factions in Chung’s other work. While there are similarities, and To Kill a Mastermind certainly has its familiar plot elements, this is a movie that provides something a bit different. Indeed, there’s something much more fantastical about the world within To Kill a Mastermind. There’s a deviation from the simplistic moral fables that are attributed to Chung’s better-known films. Not only are there slight allusions toward the supernatural within this feature, it also features a more complex plot that takes much longer to develop. Sandwiched in between The Avenging Eagle and The Kung Fu Instructor, To Kill a Mastermind is ridiculously different from what Sun Chung was doing at this point in his career. However, it does ultimately reflect well on what his career would inevitably lead him to, with films such as Human Lanterns.

The narrative within To Kill a Mastermind is a pretty interesting subject. This isn’t your typical martial arts film, where our heroes are up front and center throughout the duration of the movie. Instead, this is a film where the villains seem to take up considerably more screentime during the majority of the movie. For nearly the entire first thirty minutes of the film, the audience deals exclusively with this rogue group of devils known as the Qisha society. We are not introduced to any strong heroes during this time, but are only given vague reminders that there are good guys somewhere alive in this world. This seems to be a film that takes place in a realm outside of the much more traditional depictions found in The Kung Fu Instructor. There are no well structured heroes who are out to do the right thing. Only bland and vanilla cops who will try to do the emperor’s bidding in the midst of all this danger. There is a point in the film, where the Qisha surround a young man who they intend to kill, and he questions, “where is the law around here?” This is a question that seems to resonate quite a bit throughout the film.

As with many of Sun Chungs work, there are often setpieces, angles, and visual motifs that are used in his films that were hardly commonplace for the Shaw studios. In one of the standout moments within the film, there is a brief but daring fight sequence that becomes memorable mostly for its setting. Taking place in the midst of a heavy rain, located somewhere on the outskirts of town, in an area where the combatants can jump from one side of a small bridge to the boat resting in the center of the canal. The setting makes the scene, and watching the choreography have to be manipulated around the crazy set makes this one of the more memorable moments within the movie. The cast features a couple of interesting names, but amongst them only Johnny Wang Lung Wei really stands out for me. Johnny Wang, who I will always picture in a leather vest or pointing his finger in someone’s face, shows up looking a lot like Ku Feng did in both The Avenging Eagle and The Kung Fu Instructor. Long white hair and a nasty demeanor, this is certainly a role that plays to Wang Lung Wei’s ability to show off a perfect grimace.

The Conclusion
To Kill a Mastermind does have some traditional kung fu elements, this can’t be denied. However, it becomes something entirely different due to its lack of a central hero. What makes this clan unravel isn’t the expedient actions of a centralized hero who is infinitely better in martial arts. It is the distrust that this clan has with one another that ultimately proves to be their downfall. They can’t trust one another and as the film progresses, with more and more members worrying about a stool pigeon, the number of fighters within this group starts to dwindle down. So, despite this being a relatively brutal film for Sun Chung, and one that features very few scenes with “good guys,” Chung manages to somehow craft a moral story out of this wild assembly of characters. It isn’t quite the perfect film that some of my friends had made it out to be, but this is an incredibly strong piece of martial arts cinema. I give it a solid four out of five!