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Since serving in several of the martial arts movies produced by the legendary Golden Harvest studio throughout the 1970’s, Jackie Chan, towards the end of the decade, was looking to expand his horizons. Courtesy of producers Leonard Ho and Raymond Chow came his opportunity to debut as both writer and director with more creative control than he had ever previously enjoyed. The result, with Jackie in the lead role of course, was The Young Master which broke box-office records upon its theatrical release in Hong Kong and which is fondly held as a Chan fan favourite to this day.

Young Master, The
On the occasion of the annual lion dance contest, two rival martial arts schools go literally head to head, each stiffening every sinew in an effort to prove their prowess and win honour for their respective Master. Drafted in due to his Dai Gore, literally ‘Big Brother’, Tiger (Wei Pei) having been seemingly incapacitated, Dragon (Jackie) remains favourite to succeed.

However, during the ornate artistic endeavour, Dragon realises that Tiger, his school’s star pupil, has betrayed his classmates for the lure of a lot of lucre by competing for the opposing side. In his surprise Dragon loses his concentration at a key moment and the match is lost prompting shame to fall on himself and his cohort.

However, as his loyalty to Tiger knows few (if any) bounds, Dragon refuses to reveal his brother’s secret. Once the truth becomes known, the Master expels Tiger for his despicable actions but Dragon, in a fit of pseudo-sibling piety, vows to reform Tiger’s ruined reputation and restore his place at the school.

Yet, unknown to Dragon, Tiger has taken up with a nefarious cabal of criminals who spring the deadly kicking expert Master Kim (Wong In-sik) from his custodial chains. Out on the road Dragon’s troubles multiply when he is mistaken for Tiger and has to contend with the chief of the local constabulary (Shih Kien) combined with his energetic offspring (a very fresh-faced Yuen Biao), the assorted gang members and an ultimate mano e mano confrontation with Master Kim...

The Young Master is Jackie Chan’s first real attempt to cut loose in directing the signature sequences that have, by now, become his trademark. In this way, what is the film’s greatest strength is simultaneously its’ greatest flaw; there is just too much going on here. Apparently Jackie’s initial cut ran to some 3 hours which the actor/writer/director was loathe to trim and so the print was re-cut as a more manageable, not to mention cinema friendly, movie. At 102 minutes (allowing for the PAL timing variation) this is the longest surviving print in common circulation but even here some haphazard editing threatens to scupper the entire enterprise, leaving the impression that as a director Jackie was throwing everything into the mix hoping that it would hang together.

That said, for all its lack of cohesiveness in terms of narrative, tone and performance, The Young Master is an irrepressibly charming film in which Jackie manages to exercise his grey matter behind the camera just as much as his muscles in front of it. The Kung Fu choreography is consistently inventive, at times awe-inspiring, and the sight gag set-pieces are little gems, even for those who fail to find Hong Kong concepts of physical comedy funny.

Young Master, The
Interestingly, the plot, simple though it undoubtedly may be, evolves rather differently to other ‘innocent on the run’ examples of the genre in that Dragon’s skills are almost fully formed from the outset and long laborious training sessions with an unconventional Master are not necessary. Indeed, it is down to Dragon’s indomitable spirit and almost child-like enthusiasm, not some hitherto undiscovered secret fighting style, that paves his path to righting wrongs and the conclusive combat with Kim.

In this regard Jackie’s naturally enchanting screen presence is essential to Young Master’s success. Shih Kien chews up the screen in a piece of canny casting, Yuen Biao matches Jackie punch for punch and Wong In-sik illuminates his ‘baddest of bad dudes’ persona with some outstanding Hapkido skills.

Thus it’s difficult to dislike this movie, even for the failings of its unfocused plot; it may not quite scale the tight-knit heights of Operation Condor: Armour Of God 2, or Project A but it is mightily more entertaining than most other martial arts movies and serves as a starting point for what many consider to be Jackie’s ‘Golden Period’ in the early and mid 1980s.

Digitally remastering and restoring the original materials, Hong Kong Legends must once again be applauded, as on so many other occasions, for making this film look as good on DVD as it does. Given the age of the material, the nature of Hong Kong celluloid storage and the shooting schedule’s budgetary constraints, HKL have done a remarkable job.

Colours are strong if not overly vibrant and contrast levels are very good, particularly in the interior scenes that take place at night, while the general sharpness of the image is a pleasure to behold. There is light grain in many of the exterior sequences and a couple of ‘jaggies’ are noticeable (probably due to the editing of the print master) along with the odd speck of print damage but, given the aforementioned factors, these imperfections should neither detract from nor interrupt the audience’s enjoyment of the feature to any great extent.

Player generated subtitles are provided in a chunky legible font with no pauses in the translation of the dialogue. Another sterling job from HKL who manage to capture Jackie’s few verbal gags in English and still make them funny.

Young Master, The
Like most HKL DVD offerings of films lensed in this period, The Young Master sports a Dolby Digital 5.1 track remixed from a mono source. As such it’s not the most involving of surround efforts with little (if anything) sparking the rear speakers into life apart the brief snatches of non-diegetic music and barely any perceptible subwoofer action at all.

That said, there are some decent stabs at front channel separation in the lion dance sequence and while the lack of sync sound in the production is perfectly obvious the overdubbed dialogue is always high and clear from the centre speaker.

An alternative dubbed English language track is also available. It’s certainly not terrible in the pantheon of dubbing jobs but in a film so reliant on the charisma of its main attraction it really does pay to watch Jackie with his own voice in his native tongue.

Where would a HKL DVD release be without an audio commentary from Bey Logan? The man with access to just about every Hong Kong film fact, trivia titbit or anecdote is in his element. For viewers who don’t know much of Jackie beyond his appearances in American productions from the last 5 years Logan is invaluable in illustrating the political nature of movie making in relation to Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest, Jackie’s association with Yuen Biao from their days at the Chinese Opera School and how Young Master shaped the little Dragon’s career.

Such is Logan’s encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject that he can offer rich histories of all the main players and how each is interconnected with other various projects. Of particular note, apart from the time devoted to Won In-sik, is Logan’s focus on Shih Kien detailing how he was much more than simply the ubervillain to come “right out of a comic book” in Robert Clouse’s Enter The Dragon to include the tragically debilitating illness which forced his retirement from movies and the martial arts altogether.

Bey Logan always provides a rattling good listen but the commentary here, including his references to the fan sequence which has now entered the Guinness Book of World Records for the greatest number of takes, is among his very best and is highly recommended for those viewers who may be new to the genre or who just want to learn a whole lot more about Hong Kong movies in a single sitting!

Next up comes a 6 minute Director’s Workshop with Jackie. In clear English, while at the controls of a small editing suite, he runs through some of the key points in the making of Young Master and embellishes some aspects of Logan’s contribution. In the absence of a commentary from Jackie himself this is an informative extra, especially with regard to some of the ingenious methods employed to obscure the cabling involved in wirework before the gravy days of post-production digital removal.

Young Master, The
To follow this is an interview with Wong In-sik, lasting 28 minutes, in which the philosophical Korean Hapkido grand master waxes lyrical about the value of martial arts on both personal and societal levels. You’ll find no promotional fluff here as there’s plenty of demonstration footage from Won In-sik’s Canadian school to demonstrate in physical terms his, at times, abstract concepts. The piece is comprehensive in scope beginning from his time in Hong Kong through working with Jackie on Young Master (plenty on that mammoth final sequence!) and Dragon Lord to disillusionment with movie making and his subsequent relocation to Canada.

Again, like the above feature, there is some overlap with elements of the commentary but this is a sobering look at the dedication martial arts demand of expert exponents as well as a fascinating history of the widely unheralded impact of Korean forms and style on Hong Kong cinematic Kung Fu.

From the cutting room floor comes 3 minutes of deleted scenes. Sourced from various international versions of the print yet mystifyingly missing from this longest Cantonese version. It may be that no Cantonese dub remains for these scenes for they are of highly variable visual quality (some are even in black and white) and sport perhaps the dodgiest array of effeminate, oop north, Cockernee and American twangs ever assembled in the same place. That said there is some more physical comedy from Jackie and a very brief glimpse of Wei Pei’s dexterity with the pole fighting style which would have enlivened the film had they been integrated.

The penultimate extras is a Theatrical and International trailer section. The former is a 4 minute piece that has subtitled dialogue and gives a great flavour for each of the set-pieces. The latter is a cringeworthy 2 minute American effort replete with gravely-voiced guff like “In a land of adventure…” and “In a time when the waryer was king…” which actually shies away the fighting to fill its runtime with heroic slow-motion shots of Jackie.

The final instalment is the obligatory HKL promotional sections which presents release information and trailers for Project A, Project A: Part 2[/i], Police Story 2, Dragon From Russia, Iron Fisted Monk and Premier Asia first offering Bichunmoo.

All the above can be accessed by some neatly detailed menus that integrate clips from the movie and some sweeping excerpts from the score.

Young Master, The
Overflowing with ideas, at times to its detriment, The Young Master is nevertheless an unabashed 102 minute romp. Lacking a little of the restraint that would see subsequent attempts at directing more cohesively (if not financially) successful, this is the perfect place to start an appreciation of all things Jackie Chan. Presented on an HKL disc that once again makes full use of all available materials, even if martial arts movies aren’t quite your thing it’s a cracking addition to any DVD collection.