Part of the Shaw Brothers’ last batch of films before it ceased big screen productions at the end of 1985, The Master Strikes Back was directed by Sun Chung, who gave the legendary studio some of its most memorable and/or masterful films, like The Drug Connection (1976) and its transposition of Blaxploitation tropes to Hong Kong cinema, The Kung Fu Instructor (1979) and its then-unprecedented use of steadycam to film fights, the unhinged cult horror film Human Lanterns (1982) and more importantly The Avenging Eagle (1978), one of the jewels in the Shaw Brothers crown. Here Ti Lung plays Tong Tie-Cheng, a military instructor (closely resembling his Kung Fu Instructor character) who arrives in a town with his son (Fan Siu Wong) to help an old friend (Ku Feng) whip the soldiers of his garrison back into shape. The town’s main source of business is its brothel, where the soldiers have taken the habit of spending their nights. Tong starts submitting them to a harsh training and forbids them to indulge in whoring. But while it earns him their respect, at first begrudging then undivided, it also threatens to put the brothel out of business, and thus makes him a nightmare for the town’s corrupt chief constable (Michael Chan Wai Man), who co-owns it. Soon Tong becomes the target of increasingly brutal machinations, including a insidious plot to have his son castrated to become a eunuch. At first reluctant to start a fight, the master is inexorably pushed to the edge.
This is a frustrating film. Despite an obviously limited budget, Sun Chung obviously has great material here, be it a worthy cast of Shaw stalwarts, a talented martial arts choreographer in the person of Yuen Tak, or a superb mountainside garrison set. But not unlike Journey of the Doomed, another of the final Shaw Brothers films, The Master Strikes Back can’t quite decide what it wants to be and constantly curtails interesting subplots by aiming for short-term shock value rather than long-term narrative and emotional payoff. The relationship between the master and his son – quite beautifully played by a young and promising Fan Siu Wong who never annoys like so many kid actors in such films – shows glimpses of being interesting, a single affecting scene showing the tenderness hidden under a constant stream of tough love, but the rest of the time Fan’s character is reduced to a piece of bait in the confrontation between Ti Lung and Michael Chan. Said confrontation has some enjoyably tense moments, but is never made to be more than just a scummy constable and a righteous instructor butting heads. Sibelle Hu plays a kind-hearted prostitute who seemingly has requited feelings for the master, but she’s inconsequential to the plot, and their nascent bond isn’t developed further. Instead, we’re treated to barrack-room humour from the soldiers headed by an unhinged Wong Yu, a few enjoyable training montages, a fair helping of naked flesh, and a startlingly unpleasant abortion scene that doesn’t serve any purpose other than the aforementioned shock value.
Still, the titular master is an interestingly conflicted character : a man of such stiff righteousness that he’ll mortify himself and let harm and humiliation come to his loved-ones rather than start a fight he could easily win. Its one of Ti Lung’s best performances (which says a lot), as the actor displays his usual resplendent charisma while undermining it with poignant frailty and gnawing regret. There are some inspired moments, too. When an imperial eunuch visits the town, and the master’s son is framed to be castrated, Sun Chung goes wild with strikingly hellish visions as boys are led to the slaughter of their manhood. And while the film disappointingly has very little fighting, the final face-off between Ti Lung and Michael Chan is a superbly, unrelentingly ferocious fight, as the two opponents tear each other into pieces, bringing an often frustrating hour and a half to a powerful, gutsy close.
Long Story Short : The Master Strikes Back frustratingly often chooses immediate shock value over narrative and emotional development, but it nevertheless benefits from a superb performance by Ti Lung, and a few scenes of inspired violence. ***