Review: ‘The Grandmaster of Kung Fu,’ starring Dennis To

March 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dennis To in “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu”

Directed by Cheng Si-Yu

Mandarin and Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tianjin, China, in 1894 or 1895, the action film “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: As Japan begins to take over parts of China, the martial arts city of Tianjin resists this invasion, and a Chinese porter becomes an unlikely kung fu hero against the Japanese invaders. 

Culture Audience: “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Dennis To and no-frills kung-fu movies.

A scene from “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” does nothing groundbreaking, but it delivers what it’s supposed to deliver: an action-filled, uncomplicated story with interesting characters. Kung fu fans should at least be moderately entertained by this briskly paced movie. “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” has a total running time of 74minutes, which is just the right amount of time, because the plot didn’t need to be stretched out to an overly long run time.

Directed by Cheng Si-Yu, “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” takes place in Tianjin, China, in 1894 or 1895, when Japan invaded China. Tianjin is considered one of the top martial-arts cities in China. The movie begins by showing a martial-arts contest where the winner will be named the leader of the Wushu Association, which oversees the martial-arts activities in Tianjin.

The elderly Master Yu (played by Zhou Pengcheng) is retiring as the leader of the Wushu Association. The arrogant Master Zhao (played by Yin Jian) is expected to be easily named as Master Yu’s successor. But an unlikely contender steps forward to enter this contest: a humble porter named Huo Yuanjian (played by Dennis To, also known as Dennis To Yu-hang), who is laughed at by many people in the crowd, because Yuanjian is much smaller than Master Zhao.

Master Zhao doesn’t take Yuanjian seriously as an opponent. However, a colleague named Master Feng (played by Yin Zhiwei) taunts Master Zhao, by saying: “Are you afraid to fight a porter? He’s challenging you right now. Don’t be a coward!”

Yuanjian says he is from Mi Zong Chinese boxing, but this experience doesn’t help him in his fight against Master Zhao, who quickly defeats him. Yuanjian is embarrassed, but he graciously accepts the defeat. Yuanjian doesn’t know it yet, but he and Master Zhao will cross paths again

The Japanese want to open their own martial-arts school called Hong Hua in Tianjin, but the residents of Tianjin are suspicious of this idea. The Japanese officials who have arrived in Tianjin—including an imperious military leader named Yoshida Masaichi and the would-be Hong Hua school leader Mr. Takeda—try to make the school sound like a friendly cultural exchange of Japanese and Chinese cultures. However, the presence of Japanese in this area represents acceptance of Western culture that the Chinese think will denigrate Chinese culture.

The Japanese have a champion martial artist named Anbei, who wants to do things the Japanese way. Anbei is very prejudiced against the Chinese way of martial arts, because he thinks it’s inferior to the Japanese way. (Curiously, the actors who portray the Japanese actors are not listed in the movie’s end credits.) Anbei is obviously presented as the villain of the story, especially since he has a bullying personality. It’s already revealed in the trailer for “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” that Yuanjian will get involved in some kind of showdown with Anbei to defend the honor of the Chinese people.

“The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” has some supporting characters who don’t add much depth to the story, but are worth mentioning. Chen Zhen (played by Deng Wei), a handyman for the Wushu Association, asks Yuanjian to mentor him. Yuanjian has a wife (played by Gao Xuemei) and and son named Dongge, who’s about 6 or 7 years. Yuanjian’s wife doesn’t have much to do in the movie, except to play a stereotypical “worried wife at home” role.

Of course, part of the story is about Yuanjian overcoming his self-doubt and people’s perceptions of him, in order to become a hero on his own terms. Alliances shift, as national pride take precedence over individual grudges. You know how this movie is going to end. Lo (who is best known for the “Ip Man” movie series) lives up to his reputation for doing some memorable fight scenes. Ultimately, “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” is like a quicky and tasty snack for people who have an appetite for kung fu movies.

Hi-YAH! premiered “The Grandmaster of Kung Fu” on November 4, 2022. Well Go USA released the movie on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on January 31, 2023.

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