7 Grandmasters – According to the wisdom of Shang-Kuan Cheng, master of the Pei Mei technique

| Matt Clark |

Jack Long as Shang-Kuan Cheng in 7 Grandmasters, wearing a blue outfit and practicing martial arts in a field.

7 Grandmasters plays at the Trylon Cinema from Friday, February 3 through Sunday, February 5. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.

“A title reflects a man’s honor. You have none.”

7 Grandmasters (1977), from Taiwanese director Joseph Kuo, was advertised in US markets with the tagline “IT NEVER STOPS!” There could not be a more accurate description of the film. It’s the period tale of a martial arts master—Jack Long as Shang-Kuan Cheng—whose legacy is questioned after the king has named him his champion. Shang-Kuan Cheng sets out with his daughter and students to challenge each of the seven grandmasters throughout China to both justify the honor bestowed upon him and so he can retire in peace. Along the way, Cheng acquires a new acolyte (played by the goofily charming Yi-Min Li), discovers a sinister stranger, and takes part in a convoluted revenge story. The narrative serves primarily as a platform for a series of furious fight sequences—three of these blisteringly paced showdowns occur within the first fifteen minutes of the film—which is what undoubtedly drew the grindhouse faithful to 7 Grandmasters in the first place.

“Each man needs his own style. One that suits him.”

Joseph Kuo initially established himself with sword fighting adventure films, finished his career with a series of largely forgotten ninja films, and even directed a film about a teacher who sacrificed himself to a hive of angry hornets to save his students. Kuo also cultivated a successful kung-fu film style in the ‘70s which is still very much admired by fans. Making films independently in Taiwan and unable to draw on the large budgets, elaborate sets, or star power of studios like the Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest, Kuo made a series of low budget films overflowing with combat and wild ideas and featuring performers who were both charismatic and physically gifted. Kuo’s creations The Mystery of Chessboxing (1979) and its antagonist Ghost Face Killer have maintained cultural currency largely thanks to the Wu-Tang Clan, but his films have continued to please audiences with revival screenings, physical media, and live streaming events.

Yi-Min Li as Hsa Haio-ying in "7 Grandmasters," wearing a white shirt and striking a martial arts pose with a surprised expression on his face.

“You’re a fool but you have guts.”

While the logic behind 7 Grandmasters’ plot is threadbare at best, it delivers most of the goods an eager kung-fu fanatic is seeking. Shang-Kuan Cheng’s pursuit of the other masters essentially functions as a martial arts tournament road trip. Each new master showcases a different style—hand shape enthusiasts will have plenty to look out for—and each pushes Shang-Kuan Cheng to demonstrate further aspects of his nearly invincible Pai Mei technique. Corey Yuen—actor, director, and Seven Little Fortunes alum alongside Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung—plays the 5th Grandmaster and serves as a stunt coordinator and choreographer on the film. The fights are notable for their sheer velocity. Kuo largely eschews more supernatural concepts from films like The 18 Bronzemen or Born Invincible for a series of hard-hitting, acrobatic performances. He employs some stylistic flourishes—hyperkinetic editing, crash zooms, and even flashbacks—but largely uses wider shots that showcase the virtuosic athleticism on display. The introduction of Yi-Min Li as the aspiring student allows for some broad comedy (nothing’s funny like feeding someone a chicken butt, right?) as well as a rousing training montage. While the majority of the grandmasters’ contests are friendly affairs, the final deathmatch ramps up the drama and the brutality.

Sun Hung (Corey Yuen) fights Shang-Kuan Cheng with a brick wall in the background in "7 Grandmasters."

“You always talk too much.”

Narratively and thematically, 7 Grandmasters doesn’t reinvent anything kung-fu fans aren’t already familiar with: style mastery, honor, and vengeance are well trod subjects. What makes it special is the visceral, physical experience the film offers: flying fists, feet, and flips against the backdrop of rolling green Taiwanese countryside. There is no better way to watch kung-fu movies than sharing the experience with an audience, and to do so on film is to partially rekindle the magic of when they first landed in the Times Square theaters in the 1970s. 7 Grandmasters is a legend of the grindhouse and retains every ounce of the ferocity that made it so.

The poster for "7 Grandmasters," which features fighters in action poses over a yellow background along with promotional text about the amazing action scenes.

Edited by Matt Levine

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