Thursday 4 March 2010

The Crippled Masters (1979)

Director: Kei Law
Stars: Chen Mu Chuan, Jackie Conn and Frankie Shum
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Any martial arts movie that begins with a horrific cry and a severed arm falling onto the ground can't be too bad, right? Well think again, this one is as bad as you could imagine, albeit bad in the most fun way possible. There are bad films that are endurance tests and there are bad films that are joys to behold: think Manos: The Hands of Fate and Plan 9 from Outer Space as the epitomes of the two. This certainly falls into the latter category because it's a real guilty pleasure. If you thought The Terror of Tiny Town was politically incorrect, how about this little gem from Taiwan, shot in Hong Kong, that features as its two stars an actor with no arms and an actor with shrivelled legs, who team up to become a killing machine. Well, why not? It's just like a version of Transformers with cripples instead of robots.

The severed arm belongs to a man named Lee Ho, who has apparently pissed off the powerful Lin Chang Kung, who runs the local organised crime syndicate even though he was apparently born with an iron hump on his back and a rather disfigured left cheek. I can't work out if it's a burn or a slice because it looks more like a butterfly wing, so maybe it's both, but he doesn't seem to care. Perhaps these disfigurements are why he has such an apparent fondness for causing disfigurements on others, beginning with Lee Ho, who doesn't just lose one arm but two. Talk about disarming a man! And you thought the yakuza were bad for demanding little fingers.

Apparently Lee is a marvel of medical science because having two limbs severed doesn't cause him to bleed to death and he can even roll around in the dirt with his fresh wounds and not get any infections at all. He must have magic healing powers that merely fall short of limb regeneration. We also learn that one single blow with a sword doesn't have to leave a clean slice, being apparently possible to leave a stump with malformed digits instead that looks somewhat like the mandrake roots that Harry Potter has so much fun with. Yet for all this craziness the filmmakers pay proper attention to little details like Lee falling down a staircase because without arms his sense of balance is utterly confused. This movie is nothing if not inconsistent.

Anyway after chopping off Lee's arms, Lin's henchman Tang kicks him out of the compound, even though he believes its too harsh. Quite why he thinks it's fine to chop off both a man's arms but it's harsh to throw him out of the compound, I really have no idea, but perhaps this is just inscrutable Oriental logic that I would never begin to be able to understand. So Lee finds his way to a restaurant where he's abused by the patrons and thrown out by the bodyguard, who's some sort of fat Chinese Elvis impersonator. 'That cripple! Get him out!' they cry, sensitive souls all, perhaps because they feel that giving him a hand may be misconstrued, and so Elvis obliges.

Lee is saved by a coffin maker called Chin because coffin makers are always good guys, but this one feels the need to point out that Lin Chang Kung is evil. Like Lee hasn't worked that out by now, having been rendered armless on Lin's orders already! But his troubles aren't over yet, as another of Lin's henchmen, Pao, promptly arrives to order some coffins, recognises Lee and orders his associates to kill him. These are recognisable thugs, one bald headed with thick eyebrows and the other with so much chalk on his face that he looks like a Chinese vampire out of costume and cutting down on the hopping action for Lent. They're subtly named Black and White respectively, Pao perhaps being Cantonese for 'Yellow'. He's a coward, give me a break!

Anyway Chin wins out in the end only because he points out that if they kill him, there won't be anyone left to build coffins for them. So off goes Lee to start a new life somewhere else, literally falling into the river and washing up at a farm. He'd give an arm and a leg for some food, but, well you get the picture, so he ends up up in the pig trough instead scavenging for scraps, to be discovered by the farmer who helps him learn to use his feet in place of hands. That's especially great for the art of hacky sack because it all started with Lee Ho apparently. It's all just in time too because soon Tang turns up, newly crippled himself because Lin Chang Kung burned away his legs to a shrivelled flaky mess with a bottle of acid and a sinister laugh. Such a nice guy, Lin. Remember, we had to be told he was evil because we'd never have worked it out for ourselves. It's not like the evil characters accompany everything they do with sinister laughs or anything.

The only good thing Lin Chang Kung ever did was to set up what can only be described as a handicap match, because now Lee can take on Tang in a cave, with every intention of torturing him to death slowly, precisely what we've been waiting to happen all along. It'll happen too as Lee obviously has the upper hand, well the upper stump anyway, but before we can cry fatality they're interrupted by an old kung fu master who's hiding in a tiny fruit basket with his legs wrapped around his head. This is Old Man, so old that he's presumably forgotten his own name because he never tells it to anyone, but he does get our two crippled heroes to forgive each other and begin training as his students.

They should be highly compatible, he thinks, being two halves to make a single whole, so he invents all sorts of bizarre tortures for them, I mean exercises to help them work together. Not a lot of wax on, wax off for Lee, of course, but these are more devious exercises anyway, there not being a lot of fences around that need painting. One memorable one has Tang trying to lift a huge rock above his head that's tied to one of Lee's feet. That one leaves Lee hanging upside down in a tree but it all works out in the end somehow because Lee can soon twirl a bo staff with his stump like a pro and Tang can climb up parallel bamboo poles like a monkey. He even learns how to attack people by sitting on them. Dangerous moves, these.
You can imagine the rest of the story I'm sure. Our heroes run through lots of cool training routines to become the Crippled Masters of the title. There are more plans for revenge than the ones we know about that gradually get explained. A mysterious martial artist called Ah Po hangs out in front of the local waterfront brothel so he can get hired by Lin and achieve his obviously surreptitious aims. Lee and Tang return to the restaurant where Lee was so humiliated to get their revenge on the owner and the Elvis lookalike in a long fight scene that highlights just how awesome Hong Kong fight choreographers are if they can conjure up what's needed for these characters. Nothing out of the ordinary but all good fun nonetheless.

There's also the most blatant plot convenience I think I've ever seen, given that Old Man discovered a massively valuable treasure called the Eight Jade Horses that Lin stole but which he's trained up Lee and Tang to steal back, because it cunningly conceals precisely the martial arts secret that they need given their particular crippled scenario to be able to beat Lin. Yeah! So obvious, huh? Anyway they need it because Lin has a fearsome move where he backs into the opposition with his hunchback out front, as if he's trying to hump them or something. Of course they need esoteric secrets to beat him, perhaps because even we don't know what that hump is made of. For some reason the filmmakers don't deem it worthy of mention in any way other than by using a different sound effect when someone hits it.

I know you don't believe any of this, because it's all so outlandish it seriously can't be true, but I'm not kidding. This is a real movie. In fact it's only one of a few such movies that came out in Hong Kong around this time. Presumably originating from the many one armed and blind swordsman movies Asian countries had been making since the sixties and specifically inspired by the 1978 movie Crippled Avengers, ostensibly a sequel to Five Deadly Venoms but really just a different film with the same actors, this one goes a step further than its predecessor by actually using real cripples instead of finding clever ways to make able bodied actors appear crippled. That certainly cut down on the budget, I'm sure, but it really adds a new meaning to the term 'exploitation movie'.

The stars of this film, Jackie Conn (aka Thomas Hong Chiu-Ming) and Frankie Shum (aka Sam Chung-Chuen), apparently returned for another three movies together, though Hong Kong movies tend to get reissued under so many different titles you can never be sure. Apparently this one was released in 1979, with Fighting Life two years later, Two Crippled Heroes a year after that and finally Raiders of the Shaolin Temple in 1984. There are plenty of reviews of this movie online but very little actual information about the actors or the other further films so I can't tell you what they actually suffer from or whether the films constitute a series.

All I can assume is that Conn and Shum are lifelong sufferers of whatever it is they suffer from, because there's just no way just they learned these moves in the month or two that they do in the movie. What Lee does with his bo staff is almost as impressive as what the Living Torso does with a cigarette in Freaks, so I'm fascinated to see what he and his compatriot do in the other films. In the meantime I guess I'll keep coming back to this one, one of the great guilty pleasures of cult cinema.

1 comment:

James R said...

I have the trailer for this on one of the 42nd Street Forever collections. It's... clearly something else.