I love Martial Arts films, or better yet, Asian action cinema in general; Kung Fu, Ninjas, Samurai, Thai Boxing, Gun Fu, and my latest love: Silat. As escapist fun goes, nothing makes me happier than a good chop socky, hell, even a bad chop socky is not without its charm. A laughable plot, weird and esoteric fighting styles, and of course, terrible dubbing can be just as much fun as watching Shaolin Monks practice ancient techniques, that, if you were quick enough, and maybe had a knack, you could even learn a real move or two. “Old School” kung fu flicks always spoke to me because of the sense of respect and honor portrayed in the character of the hero, but more importantly, the idea that an individual could develop his body and mind and achieve feats of greatness.
Saturday afternoons in Philly only offered college sports, which I wasn’t into as a kid, old monster movies, and of course Black Belt Theatre. There was no host, no real cohesive programming, just two to three kung fu movies in a row, and cheesy title cards in between the breaks. Perfect. Movies like 36 Chambers of Shaolin, Chinese Super Ninjas, and Shaolin Handlock filled my young brain with concepts I had never imagined, and if you were lucky they’d throw the odd showing of Fist of Fury or Return of the Dragon. I was hooked. I watched it all, No Retreat No Surrender, Above The Law, Enter the Ninja…Gymkata. Where some people became avid movie collectors, I collected, but I wanted to be that. I took up martial arts, any martial art, Tang Soo Do, Karate, Boxing, Wrestling, anything to get one step closer to being The Kid With the Golden Arm. I finally took up Hung Gar in my teens and went on to learn Wing Chun, Northern Mantis, I even took a little Aikido for a bit. All of it because of Kung Fu movies.
In the late 80’s/early 90’s I was introduced to new wave kung fu movies like Meals on Wheels, Inspectors Wear Skirts, Fatty Tiger and Skinny Dragon and so on. At the same time I was seeing awesome Gun Fu films like The Killer and Hard Boiled and crazy action spectacles like Eastern Condors. Sammo Hung’s crisp, feverish style of action made me see action in ways I’d never thought of while John Woo made trench coats, slow motion, and two-fisted gun fighting awesome, glorious, dare I say borderline orgasmic?. I saw Once Upon A Time in China at a time when I was discovering that I wanted to also be a filmmaker, Tsui Hark’s innovative cinematography brought a whole new perspective to the art of the Humble Kung Fu movie, it had become art. True Love. I was ruined for western action from then on; except for westerns, I still love a good western.
It was somewhere around 1990 that this whole world would begin to have a personal connection to my actual life. It was around then that I recall seeing my friend and mentor Bobby Samuels hard at work, sitting at the kitchen table and copying Chinese characters and phrases into a ring bound notebook for hours at a time. He was teaching himself Cantonese because he was going to move to Hong Kong and make movies. He did it, he actually pulled it off. In fact he became the first and only African American to do a number of things in Asian cinema: star as a main villain, star in a non-action romantic lead, start an all Western stunt team of his own, and, oh yeah, become the student and protégé of HK great Sammo Hung Kam Bo. It’s kind of hard to put into words what that example has meant in my own life because, while I had spoken to him on the phone from HK, met him at Laguardia the last time he came back, watched his films, and even met Sammo on one occasion, it still doesn’t seem quite real. It is, however, part of the reason I am still here, fighting the good fight and trying to write and produce a better action film (#Beast).
In 1998 Jet Li and Jackie Chan respectively, broke the final barrier and starred in major roles in Hollywood productions. Jet Li in Lethal Weapon 4, which amazingly featured a final fight between Jet Li, Danny Glover, and Mel Gibson that was actually really well done, and Jackie Chan broke out with Rush Hour, which while slightly watered down for hardcore HK fans, was still pretty good and definitely entertaining. Surely this was the beginning of great things. Not. Jet Li followed up with 2000’s Romeo Must Die, which was a terrible movie, and most of his American work was pretty piss poor compared to what fans had been used to, after all Unleashed isn’t half the film that Bodyguard From Beijing was, and that was really only half a film anyway. Jackie came out with Shanghai Noon, Crouching Tiger won an Oscar, but it seemed that the fun, hard hitting actioners of the 90’s were all but gone. Where were the Iron Monkeys? Where were the Fong Sai Yuks? Hell, right about now, I’d love a quirky Blade of Fury or Hero Among Heroes. Will we ever get another flick with as much Kung Fu meat and potatoes as Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple again? Will the mainland let another Red (Cotton) Robe of Shaolin leak out?
For me, my era of Kung Fu movies lies roughly between 1988 and 2000, ironically a very similar time period for my preference in Hip Hop, but that’s a different article. It just seems that, like a lot of filmmaking in the modern era, Kung Fu movies nowadays depend too heavily on digital technology in general. There are of course exceptions to every rule (Flashpoint, Sha Po Lang, Hero, Fearless, The Grandmaster, True Legend), but I have seen a lot more crappy, overproduced Kung Fu disappointments than I ever recall having seen before (I’m looking at you Tai Chi Zero/Hero). By the same token, I also see a lot more Kung Fu movies with rich storylines and quality acting like Bodyguards and Assassins and Wu Xia. Donnie Yen can’t carry the whole genre, however, and even he has made a few dogs lately (Special ID, The Iceman…). Directors like Gareth Evans are helping to keep hope alive in the new millennium though, The Raid 1 and 2 prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Chinese don’t have the lock on the game like they used to. Ong Bak 1 and 2 prove that Thailand has remarkable action stars like Tony Jaa as well, and movies like City of Violence and Man from Nowhere are putting South Korea on the map to boot.
I love nothing more than to discover more new martial arts films that give me the kind of feeling that I got watching The Tai Chi Master (1 or 2, take your pick), for the first time, or the excitement I feel every time I see Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock slap each other five before kicking a whole room full of ass in Yes Madame. All in all, as weird as it seems, I have to say that Kung Fu Movies have made me the person I am today (for better or for worse).