A friend of mine picked up a DVD with three C-rate kung fu flicks on it. Y’know the ones: lousy picture quality, bad dubbing, absurd sound effects, minimal (if any) plot. One of these was called Crippled Masters.
The film opens up with some thugs chopping off a man’s arm; apparently he’s done something to anger this gang or crime syndicate or whatever they are. The underboss looks on from a desk, and he tells them to chop off the other arm, which they do. They then throw him out of the courtyard after a bit of humiliation, figuring that he’s learned his lesson. We get some very painful shots of him crawling in the dust, trying to get up and walk but finding balancing difficult without arms, and falling down some stairs. We laugh at what we think are poor special effects: a little bit of fake blood, and it looks like we can see one of the guy’s shoulders tucked under his shirt. The other arm has some sort of bloodied nub that I can only compare to a chickenwing extending from the shoulder joint, leaving us wondering, “What the hell? Did they chop it off or chew it off?”
This guy is Crippled Master #1. He gets another painful scene in which he tries to get some food at a restaurant, but has difficulty eating it without his arms. Someone in the restaurant complains about having to eat while watching that, and the restaurant owners try to throw him out. They get the hired muscle to do it, who beats on CM1 quite a bit, and grinds down on CM1’s recent injuries, which are still bloody. (How the guy didn’t bleed to death within seconds of the amputations I’ll never understand.)
Some time passes, and the underboss who commanded CM1’s arms cut off has fallen out of favor with his Evil Boss. His boss is an oily man with a mustache and a hunchback that varies in size throughout the movie. He is apparently a combination of the evil magistrate, the evil crime boss, and the evil kung fu master tropes – that’s right, he’s triple evil. It’s not clear what the offense was, but the boss doesn’t take too kindly to it. In fact, he takes the offender out to the forest, beats him up a little, and pours acid over his legs. There’s a disturbing and painful shot of the bloodied limbs, skeletally thin, visible through the corroded rags of his pants. The upshot of this is that the guy is left with useless, withered legs. This guy is Crippled Master #2.
Lemme come back to that hunchback. Apparently the Evil Boss is master of what could only be described as Iron Back Kung Fu. They never call it that in the movie, but it’s a perfect name. That hunchback is apparently invincible – he blocks blows with it many times over the course of the movie, and the sound it makes when struck is distinctly metallic. There’s also several points at which he tries to dive backward onto a prone foe. They always dodge just in time, but the way that this move is shot and accented, we get the idea that if it hit, it would be fatal. Now, on one level, this Iron Back thing is completely absurd, but it also has a crazy and disturbing logic to it that is completely consistent with the spirit of the whole movie.
Now we see a scene of CM1, who has clearly adapted to his predicament through admirable will. He is fishing and carrying water to his new home, a hut next to the river. Suddenly we realize that the bad special effects were actually only the fake blood.
We realize this because the guy has his shirt off, and we can clearly see that the actor was born without arms, and that the “chickenwing” is actually a bit of flesh that would be an arm if it had ever had bones. And we also realize that the other actor was also born with his condition – he never had any musculature in his legs, just bone (and we also realize that he had never been shown standing in the previous scenes).
CM2 crawls in from the forest where he was mutilated, and ends up at this selfsame river. CM1 recognizes him, and proceeds to get his revenge by torturing his old enemy. Several times he stomps on CM2’s (still bloody) legs and grinds his heel, which is disturbing and painful. This is broken up by a Crazy Old Kung Fu Master, who reconciles them to unite against a common enemy (Evil Boss, under whose orders the amputations occurred anyway). He trains them both to fight despite their handicaps, and they both turn out to be quite capable – especially CM1, who is quite astounding with a bamboo staff, using his neck, shoulders, and (for lack of a better word) “chickenwing” to control it, strike with it, even spin it at great speed. With their newfound skill, they return to the restaurant where CM1 was humiliated, and proceed to beat the tar out of all comers.
Finally, their great task has come: Crazy Old Kung Fu Master sends them on a mission to steal a set of jade horses from Evil Boss, explaining that he originally discovered them and Evil Boss stole them. COKFM also explains that this was the reason he decided to train them in the first place.
Meanwhile, a Secret Agent from the government goes undercover to try to take down Evil Boss. He is unable to defeat the Iron Back technique, however, and teams up with the Crippled Masters. Together, they manage to escape from the Evil Boss’s compound with the horses.
Evil Boss is none too happy about this turn of events. Secret Agent tells the Crippled Masters that if he could not defeat the Iron Back, than neither could they, unless they manage to decode the kung fu secrets hidden in the jade horses. This turns out to be pretty simple: Secret Agent takes a jade horse with crippled forelimbs, stands it on the table, and takes another with crippled rear limbs, turns it upside down, and places it on the first horse’s back, where it fits perfectly. “Of course!” says Secret Agent, while we say, “Wha’? Why would the makers of the horses anticipate this very situation?”
In the end, the Crippled Masters defeat the Evil Boss by combining their powers by means of a special harness that enables CM2 to ride on CM1’s back. The final shot is, as in so many of these kung fu flicks, a freeze frame of Evil Boss falling to the ground after an unspectactular final blow, with triumpant music blaring.
Now, what are we to make of all this? In this movie, two cripples played by people with real congenital defects are repeatedly humiliated and/or tortured, then come back from that to kick everyone’s ass. But keep in mind that they were only trained in the first place because old dude wanted to use them to steal something.
Is it a freakshow, exploiting these people’s handicaps? Well, we certainly don’t point and laugh at them. Although we laugh at the “chickenwing” at first, that stops as soon as we realize what it is, and then we feel bad for not being able to get the term “chickenwing” out of our heads. And I’m pretty sure that the guy with no arms could kick my ass.
Is it patronizing? How did the actors feel about it? How should I feel about it? As a revenge story, it had that revenge sort of satisfaction. Is the film saying that all manner of outcasts and freaks need only hone their will to overcome their predicaments and get their revenge on those who mocked them? Is that why the pretty-boy Secret Agent turns out to be so ineffectual? But then why is the villain a hunchback, who uses that condition to his advantage? The heroes only defeat him by combining their forces; is it about unity?
What about Crazy Old Kung Fu Master? Should we resent him for exploiting these men and their predicament like he did, or does the fact that he taught them so much and enabled them to achieve their goals redeem him for that?
Or am I thinking too hard about what was, after all, an industry flick, churned out on a minimal budget to make some cash in the grind houses?