EIGHT MASTERS (aka 18 BRONZEMEN 3) is something of a follow-up, rather than a sequel, to THE 18 BRONZEMEN (listed on IMDb as EIGHTEEN BRONZEMEN) and THE RETURN OF THE 18 BRONZEMEN (aka 18 BRONZEMEN 2), both of which were also directed by Joseph Kuo. It is a far better film than the first two, with a stronger story, more intense fight scenes, engaging characters, and a gripping emotional undertone.
Carter Wong returns in a starring role and stars as Chu Sao Chieh, the son of a now-dead fighter who had run afoul of the notorious Eight Masters. As a boy, Sao Chieh is rescued by his father's comrade and taken to Shaolin Temple where he learns all the skills of the Shaolin Masters and grows up to be Carter Wong, who then 'graduates' from Shaolin by fighting and beating the assembled Bronze Men.
Back in the outside world, Carter reunites with his mother and Ming Chu, the daughter of the comrade who rescued him. The Eight Masters come looking for him and challenge him to a battle, but he refuses, recalling the maxims of the Shaolin monks, 'keep the peace, have patience and forgive offense.' He flees to the country with his mom and Ming Chu and, after the masters track him down, the three flee again, this time to a cave. It turns out that not all of the main characters are exactly who they claim to be and there are enough twists and turns to keep viewers hooked until Sao Chieh finally relents and agrees to fight each of the Eight Masters in bouts that take up the last 20 minutes of the film.
The fighting is fast and furious and expertly photographed in a series of outdoor Taiwan locations and beautifully appointed sets. Carter is as good here as he's ever been and fights primarily with his hands, even when his opponents use exotic weapons. The action is balanced by an emphasis on family obligations, with Carter's attention to his mother and fiancé providing a poignant subtext that strengthens and deepens the story.
The acting is quite good and is matched by above-average voice dubbing. Lung Chun Erh is the beautiful actress who plays Ming Chu and has some moving dramatic scenes with Carter. The great fighting femme Chia Ling (Judy Lee) is on hand in a small but important role as one of the Eight Masters, with a surprising secret in her past, and she has one particularly ferocious fight with Carter. The ending is quite satisfying and provides a fitting, if bittersweet, resolution to the entire Bronzemen series.
Release dates for the film are alternately given as 1974, 1976, 1977, and 1982, with 1976 being the most likely year. The film features an original Chinese music score rather than the patchwork soundtrack of ripped-off music cues that most English-dubbed kung fu films are saddled with. This unsung kung fu masterpiece marks a real discovery that will delight and surprise the genre's many fans.
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