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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Kung Fu Cult Master (1993)

(aka: Lord of the Wu Tang)



Reviews and Comments

What the uninitiated don't know about martial arts films is that they are not one genre but many. While some are gritty action movies and others are epic romances, still others are superhero fantasies like this one. In what is intended to be a realistic film, I tire of the wire work that asks us to believe someone could really leap three stories into the air and throw opponents across the room with slaps that originate at the base of the fingers. But The Kung Fu Cult Master is a fantasy film in which the term "kung fu" is used instead of "magic." Accepting physical impossibility is part of the game. I'm not talking simple defiance of gravity here, either: there are brands of kung fu here that provide immunity to poison or the power to shoot explosive beams of light from one's fists. As I say, it's a superhero fantasy.

I'm not sure I understood the plot to the movie. There are several allied and rival kung fu factions, a lot of treachery, and something about a pair of magic swords that grant their wielders ultimate kung fu power. But the overall plot doesn't matter so much as the circumstances of each scene. Once you've identified the role of the characters in each scene, that will be sufficient until the next one. I'm not sure I ever understood all the powers of the various kung fu styles either: when the movie told me that the Great Solar Stance is the only antidote to the Jinx's Palm, which makes one eternally cold and unable to use kung fu, that was enough for me. There are a lot more rules than that, too, and the movie fills us in as we need to know. It works. While I'm normally insistent that fantasy movies that throw out the rules of reality establish consistent rules of their own and abide by them, The Kung Fu Cult Master gets away with being as arbitrary as it pleases, because it's not the rules of the game that are important so much as what the characters do with them. It allows interesting quandaries to develop. So a badguy sets a trap to set mortal enemies fighting; this falls right in line with the hero's plans for revenge, but does he really want to further the agenda of a greater villain? So the kung fu masters allied with the hero are poisoned and will lose their kung fu if they are not cured in four hours, but the one who has the antidote won't part with it without promises that leave room open for the hero's honor to lead to his own destruction, so what does he do?

Of course it's the battle scenes between superheroes and supervillains and armies of henchmen that are the main attraction of the film, and it's fun to see the hero evolve into an unstoppable being as he finds opportunity to learn powerful kungs fu, but the elegance that ties it all together are the matters of honor and dignity constantly at hand.

The ending may disappoint some. It ends perplexingly in what is surely the middle of the story: there has been a climactic showdown, but numerous plot threads are left hanging. It feels like it was intended to have a sequel or two, but none were ever made. But, while surprising to see the credits roll when they do, it's not unsatisfying. As I said earlier, the overall plot doesn't matter so much as the course of individual scenes and what links them together.