Joseph Kuo’s ‘The 7 Grandmasters’ (1977) has a plot so simple it’s barely worth mentioning, but I’ll do so anyway.
Kung fu master Shang-Kuan Cheng (Jack Long) is in the middle of his retirement celebrations when a mysterious note, fixed to a flying dagger, arrives declaring that Cheng can’t retire as a kung fu master until he has defeated the 7 grandmasters of the various kung fu styles.
And so he sets out to fight all 7, and that’s your plot. Sure, there’s a subplot about a young lad, Hsiao-ying (Yi-Min Li) who follows the master on his ventures until he is accepted as his pupil but, apart from that, there’s no real drama, tension or conflict to speak of and it’s only at the very end that any sort of antagonist appears and even then he’s pretty quickly dispatched of.
Yet where ‘The 7 Grandmasters’ really succeeds is as a slice of unadulterated entertainment with its stripped down plot allowing the film to consist of almost nothing but wall to wall action, and that action is some of the best hand-to-hand and weapon based fighting you could wish for.
Kuo keeps everything grounded so there’s no fancy wire-work or supernatural abilities going on here and what we’re treated to instead is a huge variety of skilled choreography bolstered by some energetic editing. Each of the 7 grandmasters is master of a different and unique fighting style so that helps keep everything from becoming repetitive or stale although “stale” is the last thing you can accuse this film of ever coming close to as it’s so constantly fresh and dynamic. God, this film was fun.
This sense of energy is helped by the fact the large majority of the movie was shot against some gorgeous scenery (something possibly done to save money on sets as, apparently, the budget for this wasn’t big at all) and although it isn’t as stunning as the location work in the films of, say, King Hu what all the outdoor shooting does do is really bust the film wide open to the extent you can almost breath in the air and feel the sense of expansive space, so simply looking at this movie is an incredibly pleasurable experience in itself.
It’s also a great film to listen to with the fight scenes containing some of the best and most dynamic cloth foley you’ll hear, the sound of fabric whipping around bodies moving through the breeze selling not only the movement and energy but, again, also adding to that feeling of space.
If you’re a fan of the martial arts output of the Shaw Brothers but fancy something a little different then this is really worth checking out as ‘The 7 Grandmasters’ is fun, exciting, fast-paced, ridiculously entertaining and executed with some real cinematic flair.
It might also contain the best, and funniest, final kick there’s been in any movie. I won’t say what it entails but it’s gonad-shatteringly hilarious and I’m still laughing about it as I write this.