In the already exaggerated world of kung fu cinema, few films can top the bizarre spectacle and cinematic train wreck that is 1979's 'The Crippled Masters,' the tale of two amputee fighters who unite to exact vengeance on the crime lord that disabled them.
The use of disabled fighters has been seen before -- 'Masters' was inspired by 'Crippled Avengers' aka 'Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms' -- but the roles in previous films were played by non-disabled actors. 'Masters' goes a step further, placing Frankie Shum, a thalidomide baby born with no arms, and Jackie Conn, whose complications during childbirth left him without the use of his legs, as the protagonists in this film that is part Bruce Lee, part 'Three Stooges.'
Watch the trailer to get the idea:
The opening scene is a harbinger of the absurdity to follow: We enter as Li Ho, a former escort for crime boss Ling Chang-kung, has already had one arm amputated with a sword. Why? No reason. That's apparently what feudal crime lords did for fun back in the day. "Cut his other arm off," says Kung Suh Ching, one of the boss's lackeys, as a ridiculously fake bloody arm drops to the ground. Like Brando in "The Godfather," the crime boss runs the town, and any default on protection payment or sign of disrespect may be answered with loss of limb. After the maiming, Li Ho becomes a pariah and flees to the countryside, where he has no other choice but to steal rice from a pig's trough and become an aimless vagabond.
Back in town, Kung is seen being held to the ground by more lackeys as the boss -- again, for some unknown reason -- pours acid on Kung's legs, rendering them shriveled and useless. "You wanted to be a success," says the boss. "Now I've destroyed your legs. See what you can do without them!" We shall soon.
When the two men stumble upon each other one day -- the legless tormentor versus the armless victim -- a fight naturally ensues. The clash is interrupted by an elderly man who advises them "I think the both of you are a really good couple. You can become two parts of a whole." Now's a good time to point out a hard and fast rule for kung fu film novices: When an elderly man appears, 100 percent of the time he is a wizened martial arts master who will train his protégés to vanquish their foe.
Thus begins the requisite training sequence, which finds Kung doing dips and trying to balance on two poles and Li Ho attempting to climb a rock-strewn hill with no arms. The goal is simple: exact revenge on Ling Chang-kung, who, again for reasons that require explanation, possesses an unknown hump on his back. Why is this important? Because during fight scenes, his signature move -- in kung fu cinema, this is denoted by slo-mo and a close-up of a frightened opponent -- is to attack his opponent with the hump, accompanied by an unexplained clanging, metallic sound. This is arguably the most comprehensible thing about 'The Crippled Masters.'
There is a plot somewhere about golden treasures and Jade Horses and using the latter's secrets to create "unbeatable kung fu," but that's probably not why you're reading this. Suffice to say, the two join forces to kill the bad guys, culminating with Kung on Li Ho's shoulders to "fight as one" against Ling Chung-kung. Apparently in towns like these, the government is based on a strict kung fuocracy, where the best martial artist earns the equivalent of president and the man who can't break balsa wood getting relegated to some menial position like Town Drunk.
Even for a genre skilled in producing "bad" movies, "Masters" has to win the Oscar equivalent -- The Fueys? -- in numerous categories. The acting, dialogue, editing, cinematography and even dubbing are all laughably sub par. But that's part of the reason why the genre as a whole has had such enduring appeal. Frankly, the only reason to watch this film is for Conn and Shum.
And that's where the conversation admittedly gets awkward. When I first saw Tod Browning's landmark film 'Freaks,' featuring a cavalcade of circus sideshow acts, I was equal parts repulsed and amazed. In one scene, the limbless Prince Randian, aka "The Human Worm," lights his own cigarette. The scene appears to convey a "Hey, we can do everything regular people can do" tone, but it's hard to ignore the exploitation inherent in the act. Watching 'The Crippled Masters' can be a similar uncomfortable experience. While the abilities of Conn and Shum are genuinely inspiring to watch, you never forget you're watching this film primarily to see limbless men kick ass. But it's this cinematic novelty, spectacle and singularity that, for a certain type of person, can be irresistible.
Since its release, the film has become a cult classic for obvious reasons. Years ago, while walking through a row of booths in New York's Coney Island, I came across an elderly man selling bootleg kung fu DVDs. After a few minutes of conversation, he asked me, "Do you want to see something weird?" (In Brooklyn, this could mean anything.) Against my better judgment, I agreed, to which he subsequently pulled out a copy of 'The Crippled Masters' and said "Five dollars." I suspect this is how many people, in some iteration or another, have found out about this film.
It's an understatement to say this film isn't for everyone. Despite the release of two sequels in 2011 -- both of which look to have been filmed soon after the original -- 'The Crippled Masters' stands alone as a testament to trash cinema and absolute B-movie weirdness. Or as one of the pair's friends puts it so succinctly in the film, "The worst possible thing is to be crippled in your mind."
Editor's note: Please bear in mind that any sarcasm or snark contained herein is directed toward the movie, and not, of course, amputees. (Except maybe the amputees in this particular movie.)