The Master Review

This early Jet Li vehicle directed by Tsui Hark is now available on DVD through Hong Kong Legends, but is it any good? Read on to see what Dave Foster makes of it in his full review…

Arriving in Los Angeles to meet his Sifu and fulfil their dreams of establishing a martial arts school in America, Jet (Jet Li) finds himself stranded when he discovers his master’s herbal store is boarded up. Learning that he was defeated by an American martial arts master (Jerry Trimble) it becomes obvious that he must regain their honour and help the police out at the same time, as Trimble has been establishing his name via a series of illegal, brutal and unfair challenges. Along the way Jet must also combat both the ongoing frets of downtown Los Angeles life and the language barrier he finds himself presented with. Hooking up with May (Crystal Kwok), an American Chinese handling his master’s shop lease and a group of rather unconvincing Latino gang members looking for some guidance, Jet eventually locates his master before facing up to the challenge laid down by the American contender, Jerry Trimble.

Directed by Tsui Hark and made in 1989 The Master was initially shelved before finally seeing a release in 1993 to capitalise on Jet Li’s recent Once Upon A Time in China success. That classic of the genre was also helmed by Tsui Hark in which the two had moulded a new image for Jet, making it somewhat hard to believe the visionary director was involved in this mess pitching Jet as the country bumpkin Bruce Lee had already succeeded with. He’s by no means above making a terrible film but at the very least Tsui Hark injects some form of visual or technical flair to the proceedings, offering us something that hasn’t been seen before or at least has never been executed with such disregard for the basic needs of the audience. Be they effects laden projects completely lacking in a coherent story (Zu Warriors) or throwing your cameraman out a window following your actor (Time and Tide) there is always something to appreciate on a creative level, but The Master is distinctly lacking in this area featuring every sad stereotypical view the Chinese public might have had of American life in the early nineties, brought to the screen for their amusement.

And that really is one of the major flaws presented when attempting to market this film to a non-Chinese audience. Set entirely in Los Angeles many of the characters featured speak only English, or at least some disturbing form you only find in a Chinese dubbing studio as the American ethnic groups portrayed including Latino and Blacks feature vocals matching their truly contemptible casting, costume and makeup choices. That you can hardly call the actors cast in these roles even remotely adept at their art only makes things worse, while language such as ‘Chika’ and ‘Homes’ are thrown in for good measure to suit the stereotypes only furthering the embarrassment. This atrocity against the English language and art of acting extends to the ridiculous villainous figures, of which the central henchmen or random aggressors are either grotesque muscle-men or racial stereotypes, or some combination of the two immediately recognisable to any seasoned martial arts fan and sadly given more to do here than is ever necessary. Although there is the valid argument of how the Chinese are portrayed in American films of this era the fact remains neither are particularly acceptable, especially when there is little entertainment value to be had and worse still as the case is here, they prove to be a serious detriment to the film.

Fortunately the primary Chinese cast members are all extremely agreeable, with Jet Li playing on the innocent image he enjoyed throughout his early career in much the same visage Bruce Lee projected, that of an unsuspecting small-town boy with a meagre physique and modest view on himself. This immediately endears the audience to his plight – as contrived as it may be – though here on his travels across Los Angeles the image works a little too well. From Jet’s run in with the aforementioned Latino gang who initially steal from him only to swiftly kowtow to his abilities, to his arrest which leads to nursing the local police force with his ancient Chinese remedies, its all a little too idealistic and rapidly goes from being politely amusing to stupidly offensive. The stereotypes for example rage far and wide with every police officer shown to be an unhealthy mess, chowing down on fast food and clearly in desperate need of a shower and a shave. Though you could never consider this performance a breakthrough in acting terms for Li, as he does nothing else but go through the motions, it’s undeniable that he rises above the film’s grievances and performs in the entertaining fashion we have come to expect of him so you can hardly argue with a winning formula on his part.

Also on the central cast is the wonderful Yuen Wah, recently seen in Kung Fu Hustle and looking fantastic here as Jet’s master, a proud old gent set in his ways and too stubborn to accept his student’s help. Playing the Sifu role down to a tee Wah impresses mostly through his agility and fighting prowess, easily upstaging Jet throughout the proceedings as the quick and decisive style adopted for his role proves to be far more visually appealing than Jet’s more stunt-based antics. Crystal Kowk completes the Chinese cast and though relatively inexperienced at the time of filming acquits herself rather well as the romantic interest to the ignorant country boy, with an added layer of being the link to the threadbare plot as the only character to speak both English and Chinese. This in itself warrants additional praise in a film where the dubbing is such an issue of contention, with Crystal a natural in both and the only character on screen to speak in both languages with any form of proficiency.

Given the incoherent plot with many convenient and often sloppily edited encounters, a clear lack of motivation for the villainous figure who seems hell-bent on destruction for seemingly little reason, it’s the action which ultimately counts here and despite a karate kid call back on the American martial arts side of things what little is on offer generally suffices. Neither Jet Li or Yuen Wah are given the fighting screen time required to save this film from the pit of mediocrity it belongs in but they certainly have their moments, with a quick and dirty, fast and decisive approach which allows them to disable their assailants with simple well timed blows that immediately gain the audiences favour. Very much a contemporary style the only sore spot is the realisation that we never actually see Jet fight a worthy opponent until the films last third, while Wah is restricted to opening and closing action sequences, leaving only brief forays into action and stunt sequences for a lengthy stretch of time.


Picture and Sound

Presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen The Master hails from an era of Hong Kong cinema where this aspect ratio combined with low-cost filmmaking were rife, leading to transfers which look far worse than films much older. The same is true here, with The Master boasting one of the new Fortune Star masters that despite being relatively clean is something of a disappointment. Shot entirely on location in the Los Angeles area the transfer also suffers from the lack of a controlled environment, leading to an overall look which is relatively high in grain, low in detail and even worse off in shadow detail. It’s by no means terrible; looking not that unlike other HKL releases from this era but is merely adequate with generally good skin tones and colour reproduction throughout. Another problem is that of Edge Enhancement, leading to some noticeable halos on objects in front of the pale LA skyline and a minor outline on most objects over the course of the film.

Unlike most films from Hong Kong The Master is not one where I completely dismiss the English dub option, which combined with the inclusion of an untouched Cantonese Mono track for the first time on a HKL DVD makes the language options here quite interesting. The original language track which combines Cantonese and English dialogue can be found in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix and the original Mono. A much requested feature the Mono track will certainly please purists, appearing to be finely in sync and to my ears offering the better audio experience. That’s not to say it’s perfect, there is some minor distortion and harmonic effects to character voices while sound effects appear slightly subdued compared to the enhanced 5.1 track, but the immediacy and added clarity to the overall soundtrack bringing the music and dialogue to the very front of the soundstage makes this a far more appreciated track. The 5.1 by comparison feels somewhat distant, with music and dialogue notably lower in the mix. The benefit to this is that any distortion has been cleaned up, but there isn’t much in the first place so I see this as no real advantage. Elsewhere the big question will be the presence of altered sound effects, of which I believe there are none, but this aspect of the track does benefit from the remix giving them more prominence throughout action sequences.

The English language option proves to be an interesting alternative, for many of my complaints regarding the English dubbing on the original Cantonese version disappear thanks to a cast of genuine American actors who do their onscreen counterparts far greater justice. Even the Chinese characters are given decent representation, with American Chinese actors providing appropriate dialogue with believable accents. With much of the films comedy and plot progression revolving around misunderstanding via the language barrier this aspect of the dub proves to be well handled, completely altering many exchanges with considerable though not complete success, as the looks of confusion on characters faces can not be replaced by the new conversations taking place. On the whole though I found the English dub to be a more than viable option and one that makes certain aspects of the film more bearable.

English subtitles for the Cantonese language option are present, with additional English SDH subtitles which cover the entire feature for the deaf and hard of hearing. Dutch subtitles are also available.


Bey Logan brings up several points of contention that I had with the film, including the stereotypical viewpoint taken on the American people portrayed in the film. Suggesting its fair game when you consider how broadly American filmmakers often portray the Chinese is mostly accurate, especially given the time when the film was made, but it works so much against the film that in my opinion does not make it any more acceptable. Elsewhere his commentary is up to the usual high standards, covering the film’s contributors in considerable detail while making informed observations regarding Tsui Hark’s motivations.

Three interviews make up the bulk of the remaining extras, running for a total of approximately 45 minutes. An American stuntman on the project John Kreng relays several stories from the shoot with great enthusiasm, talking from Los Angeles where he takes us to one of the locations used in the film. He talks with great admiration for Jet Li, viewing the experience as a huge opportunity and learning process which has taken him onto bigger and better things. Speaking from Hong Kong in perfect English is the American Chinese Crystal Kwok, who gives an altogether more grounded and broader take on the production. Giving an honest (i.e. not completely favourable) appraisal of the major players on the set Crystal is obviously an intelligent woman with strong views on the filmmaking process, something that comes through on her discussion regarding the relationships developed on set, particularly that with Tsui Hark. Yuen Wah is the final interviewee, speaking in Cantonese the interview begins with Wah explaining his introduction to the movie world, his work with Bruce Lee and subsequently the likes of Sammo Hung as he relays stories on specific stunts performed and injuries sustained. As one of the fight choreographers on The Master Wah eventually begins to discuss the project in some detail, examining the different fight styles of the key actors and how they were adapted to the contemporary setting while he also discusses the tense relationship between Jet and Jerry Trimble as touched upon by Bey Logan in his commentary. As a whole these interviews provide some welcome insight to the production though as often seems to be the case a lack of contributions from the larger names continues to disappoint.

Trailers for The Master include the UK Promotional and Original Theatrical, which are joined by several UK Promotional trailers for other Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia releases.


Strictly for collector’s of either HKL or Jet Li films The Master is a dire effort that offers a few rays of sunshine through its fight set pieces pitched against the Los Angeles skyline.


Updated: Apr 16, 2005

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