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PostPosted: Fri Oct 11, 2013 12:29 pm 

Joined: Tue Apr 14, 2009 4:29 am
Cold Bishop wrote:
Perhaps that's true: also in 1972, there was a great brouhaha over Chang Cheh's All Men are Brothers, which would only eventually be released in 1975. I know the version released by Celestial and Sword Masters is actually derived from a German extended version (which is still not the original version).

That leads to another dilemma, which may skew one's consideration of the period: many versions of these films that come down to us are not necessarily what was seen by Hong Kong audiences. Multiple versions abounded for different markets, and the "uncut" version of a particular film remains as tantalizing for bootleg collectors of rare kung fu films as it does for Horror aficionados.

For example, the bloodiest scenes in Chang Cheh's swordplay films often appeased censors by switching to black-and-white (cleverly appropriated by Tarantino when Kill Bill was threathened with an NC-17). Of course, recent remasters have restored them to full color. It works the other way too: Chinatown Kid was notoriously released on DVD in a radically different and tamer edit from the International version (which might explain the contrasting opinions towards the film in the West and East).

Celestial's frame cutting also creates a disjointed clunkiness to some of the films.

I was wondering about All Men Are Brothers, as it's reviewed in a 1974 British book on kung fu films. Thanks for clearing that up!


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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:29 am 
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For readability, I'll be dividing this across several posts.

On the Kung-Fu Film: Brief Notes towards the Study of the Genre

And now for something slightly different… When considering Shaw Brothers in light of the greater Hong Kong industry, one inevitably arrives at something of a contradiction. To many, Shaw is the kung-fu studio, its opening drums and fanfare announcing the arrival of all sorts of chop-socky goodness. Yet, for all intents and purposes, the Kung-Fu genre seems to have always been kept at a distance. The reasons why I can only speculate: A prevailing sense of snobbery, like that which once considered the genre a Southern/Cantonese niche, and which continued to view it as a flash in the pan? A financial reluctance to rebuild their entire infrastructure, after years of turning Movietown into a wuxia playground? A side-effect of the studio’s “global” mindedness, where outside of Hong Kong other genres perhaps stayed strong in audience’s favor? Nonetheless, when viewing Shaw Brothers’ 30 year-history as a whole, it seems clear that the wuxia pian was always the studio’s prodigal son, the kung-fu film something of a black sheep, never unconditionally loved even in those moments when it became the breadwinner. Unlike the great sense of variety and abundance provided to the wuxia, the Shaw kung-fu film seems constrained to a much smaller palette: I’d wager that Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-Leung are easily responsible for at least two-third of the studios output in the genre. When you narrow that down to only the great ones, the fraction gets bigger. Make no mistake: Shaw played a fundamental role in the development of the genre, and the genre played a fundamental role in the history of the studio. But perhaps it played an even bigger role beyond the studio walls; in many respects, the kung-fu film provided the wedge that unearthed Shaw’s supremacy in the region. The indie studios, built out of the ruins of Shaw’s major Sixties competitors, used the contemporary (read: cheaper to produce) genre as their main tool against the giant. Is it any mistake that in regards to the genre’s golden age, it is not those of any Shaw superstar, but images of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan that prove most enduring? People think of Shaw as the kung-fu studio, but upstarts like Golden Harvest and Seasonal Films were the true houses kung-fu built. Any serious consideration of the genre focused only on Shaw will prove woefully inadequate.

And if the kung-fu genre can use anything, it’s serious consideration. The ‘70s saw the unlikeliest transformation of Hong Kong cinema from a relatively impoverished regional industry into one of the great world cinemas. And the 70s belonged to kung-fu. But of all the many marginalized “trash” genres, kung-fu has been largely unremarked upon and mostly unloved by film critics. The artistic credentials of chambara and jidaigeki have never been questioned. Spaghetti westerns have been noted for their bombastic style and political subversiveness, and rescued from a designation as Eurotrash. Even a once irredeemable genre like the slasher film has been the source of much feminist and psychoanalytical consideration. But kung-fu? Rarely. Hong Kong cinema, as a whole, gets plenty of discussion, but much of this focuses on the era after the genre’s popularity waned. Only perhaps the wuxia is more fundamentally ignored as a genre in the west, and even then, it’s because it’s seen as a sub-genre of the kung-fu film (when the reverse is closer to the truth). And that gets to the crux of the matter: while most people have a very broad understanding of what is designated by the term “kung-fu film”, their understanding lacks nuance and rigor, with little sense for the genre’s particulars or its history. Certainly, attempts to approach the genre with nuance and rigor have been far too few. So let us, for a moment, step partially out of the original areas of our inquiry, - the confines of Clearwater Bay and the 1970s - and lets us try to examine this genre as something of a whole.

An Introduction

Ultimately, I must admit I feel rather pessimistic about my abilities to do this genre justice. The great work on kung-fu cinema, if it is ever written, will be surely written by someone much more capable than I. This “ideal critic” will be someone with a greater experience with the deep pools of the genre’s output than I (I consider myself “intermediary”, at best). Someone who can read Chinese-language sources, if not someone who is part of the culture themselves. Someone with a degree of knowledge and understanding of the martial-arts disciplines being displayed (although there’s a trap here). And lastly, someone who’s a greater film critic than me, particularly in regards to formalism, as the genre’s main focus is that of the “spectacle”. This isn’t that great work. In final summation, it may not even be a very good one. If such a statement seems perhaps self-defeating, I nonetheless feel being brutally honest about what this isn’t will help underline the value of what it is. I could continue working on it, foolishly trying to research every dusty corner of the genre, but it seems to me the best course is to simply put it out there and open it to criticism, be it constructive or pejorative, which may provide a source for future consideration. And nonetheless, I feel there’s some value to be had here, even if it’s largely as a basic primer for the uninitiated than a great summation of the genre.

Ultimately, the for all my exposure to kung-fu films, it probably pales in comparison to your run-of-the-mill “collector”, those passionate hobbyists whose expertise reach into the most murkiest and obscure corners of the genre, and who have been responsible for keeping much of the genre alive and visible, often thanklessly excavating and restoring films that are for all intents and purposes “lost”. Yet, for all their undeniable zeal and knowledge of the genre, the “fan community” hasn’t necessarily made for the greatest critics or even ambassadors to the outside world. It seems that some “collectors” view film theory with suspicion, unable to account for the more visceral and immediate pleasures of the genre (just as that very visceral nature has made film theorists suspicious of the genre’s worth as a source of study). Most discussion, it if it rises beyond mere appreciation or historical background, usually focuses on the martial-arts themselves. This is clearly not in itself “wrong”; this is after all a martial-arts genre. But the kung-fu film was not made by martial-arts specialists for other specialists; it was a popular, commercial genre, and, even in China, it seems your average viewer had only a vague, passing familiarity with real-life martial-arts, most of that experience probably being culled from other earlier films. It seems too often these “fan” discussions devolve into questions of authenticity – how accurate or true the fight scenes are to their respective style. I find this not only uninteresting on a personal level (the fallacy of realism), but rather secondary to the point. The real focus should be how the kung-fu film translates martial-arts into purely cinematic technique, stagings and representations. And more importantly, how the film as a whole, of which the fight scenes are an integral but only partial piece, functions as narrative cinema.

It’s here that I admit in more precise terms the “failures” of this write-up. If I have failed at anything, it’s making a great case – really, any explicit case – for the actual worth and value of the genre. Nor have I really done much to explain the “Aesthetics” of the Kung-Fu Film on the precise level of mise-en-scene, shooting styles, editing strategies, etc. Ultimately, what value this write-up may be said to have (particularly as a primer) is as a work of compilation, taking the concepts and terminology often bandied about by the fan community, and attaching them to a linear history of the genre in a way that detail some of its fundamental structural principles. As such, I hope to move this beyond the more insular concerns of the fan community, and towards a broader understanding, one that can perhaps lead to a proper genre study. Hence my decision to refer to his essay as “brief notes”, and not as a “study” or “survey” or even “detailed notes”. I have no doubt that if I conducted deeper research and viewed a greater swath of films, many of the proclamation and generalizations I make would seem woefully inadequate. As such, I hope that my choice of films and filmmakers to discuss will reveal something of my biases and limitations. Nonetheless, I feel the general thrust of my argument is sound, if perhaps lacking in the complete amount of nuance and rigor that we hoped for. Notes ultimately are meant to fleshed out, qualified, made substantial. That work will have to be done elsewhere. Before we can truly reckon with something, we have to figure out what it is. This is merely an attempt to compile a working critical definition of the Kung-Fu Film genre.

Surprisingly, even that “one-stop” critical definition seems to be missing from most criticism of the genre. David Bordwell and Stephen Teo are perhaps the best living proponents of the genre, but both their assessments have been attached to larger, general studies of Hong Kong cinema (full disclosure: I have not read Teo’s Chinese Martial Arts: The Wuxia Tradition, which I understand touches on Kung-Fu). Bey Logan has done invaluable work for the genre, but his writing, as enthusiastic as it is, doesn’t usually rise beyond that of an appreciative historian (of which he’s more than qualified). Works like Leon Hunt’s Kung Fu Cult Masters, or the various works of the Hong Kong Film Archive and Hong Kong International Film Festival have serious critical value, but they often feel like essays riffing on a common subject matter rather than a comprehensive reckoning of the genre. The great majority of work, however, is mostly in the form of biographies, broad overviews or fan service (and let us not even discuss frauds like Ric Meyers and Thomas Weisser, whose misinformation is barely being straightened out). It is somewhat shocking to find that two of the most commonly recommended “definitive” works of the genre – Kung Fu: Cinema of Vengeance and Martial Arts Film – both date back to the ‘70s, in the midst of the original boom (note of interest: both were written by women). For all their worth, this underscores how poorly served the genre has been in the realm of film criticism in the English-speaking world.

Yet, even among the various fan communities, there seems to be bleakness about the genre’s future. China and Hong Kong, it seems, have long stopped making martial-arts film that focus on martial-arts instead of CGI effects. The DVD/Blu-ray bubble, which unearthed films many never dreamed of getting decent legit releases, has popped and slowed to a trickle, with no burn-on-demand or streaming system to take its place. The age of internet piracy, which has made the films more available than ever, have had the effect of eroding the trading-and-collecting culture which, like it or not, was responsible for keeping the genre alive during the decades after the “Golden Age” . With no vitality coming from the direction of industry, new people aren’t growing passionate for the genre, and some worry how things may look in a generation or two. This is especially troubling for a genre whose actual history largely lies in tatters, in the hands of unscrupulous or uncaring rights-holders, and where it has usually been the bootlegger keeping a film from very well eroding off the face of the earth, sometimes rescuing the surviving film elements themselves. Ultimately, this may very well be the main place where the genre’s lack of critical credentials may have done the most damage, and where any sort of new interest can only help. Perhaps we’re only one or two great monographs away from the day where kung-fu films can headline Il Cinema Ritrovato, and where lavish Criterion editions of once-obscure “indies” bring new fans and attention to the once-maligned genre. Well, a fella can dream.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:47 am, edited 3 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:29 am 
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Some Call It “Kung Fu”

Before we approach any further, perhaps it will do to state the obvious. First we should ask ourselves: what is exactly meant by “kung-fu”? As I mentioned, many people think they know what is meant by the term, but most laymen have never given it much thought. First, it should be outright stated that “kung-fu” shouldn’t be mistaken for any particular discipline, in the manner of Karate or Jiu Jitsu or Muy Thai or Krav Maga. At best, “kung-fu” functions as an umbrella, encompassing the entirety of Chinese martial-arts styles. With that said, as any martial-arts snob will tell you, “kung fu” fundamentally has nothing to do with martial-arts. A term meaning something between “hard work” and “tough achievement”, it was a Southern colloquialism that attached itself to martial-arts, further propagated by Western misinterpretation (replacing that colonial standby, “Chinese Boxing”). Chinese martial-arts history is almost as deep as that of Imperial China; “kung-fu” only receives such meaning in the last century or so. For many pedants, the term lacks legitimacy, further emphasized by the fact that a proper term does exist: “Wushu”, which literally translates into “martial arts” and which many have pushed to replace “kung-fu” as the preferred nomenclature (no doubt helped by state-recognition of the term). We’ll return to that, but first to the idea that “kung-fu” is wholly Western mischaracterization. It’s not true. While the term may have nuance for a Chinese-language speaker that it may not in the West, and while it certainly is dependent on all the vagaries of regional dialect, the term “kung-fu” has evolved to much of the same connotations and definition in China as it has in America or Europe. In an evolving language, “kung-fu” is just as valid, if not as etymologically correct.

As for a further definition of “kung-fu”, I think we can avoid that here. Chinese martial-arts is a many-headed hydra, and I couldn't dream of enumerating the numerous disciplines and styles here (to name a few: Hung Gar, Wing Chun, Tai Chi). Neither could I say anything substantial about the general distinctions within “kung-fu” as a whole (internal vs. external, Northern vs. Southern, Shaolin vs. Wudang). I see no reason, either, to go into the long history martial-arts, whether actual or folkloric, although some will reemerge as we continue on later (mostly the mythic significance of the Shaolin temple and its burning). While it may be a necessary for a more in-depth analysis, I don’t feel a deep grasp of “kung-fu” is necessary to create or understand the critical definition we’re attempting.

So let us broaden our subject and consider the term “kung-fu film”. One way to do this is to first consider alternatives. Some may try to be diplomatic and vague and simply use the term “martial-arts film”; this is far too broad. It would encompass much more than our subject of inquiry, everything from 80s Ninja films, to slick Hollywood co-options like The Matrix and Rush Hour. What we are trying to define as “kung-fu film” is ultimately a subclass of “martial-arts film”, which shouldn’t be understood as a genre itself but a loosely-connected group of like-minded, but utterly distinct, national genres. If we add an asterisk, and agree that, implicitly, we mean “[Chinese] martial-arts film”, we come across other problems, namely the wuxia pian. It too is concerned with the world of martial-arts, but it is a fundamentally different genre, beyond the mere difference between swordplay and hand-to-hand. So let us circle back around, and consider “wushu film”, which, like its source word, has seen a push in recent years for adoption. But here too is a rub: if “kung-fu” benefits from an evolving language, “wushu” suffers from an evolving style. I am talking of the sport of Modern Wushu, which has grown synonymous with the term. Essentially, an attempt to compile the Chinese martial-arts under one “nation-style”, and to bring that style in line with Maoist military principles, it evolved over the last half-century into something more performance art than self-defense. Nonetheless, with the “Back to the Mainland” mentality in cinema, “wushu film” could also accurately describe a cycle of recent like-choreographed films, personified by the works of Jet Li and Donnie Yen. This is inherently confusing and limiting to our working definition. Likewise, “wushu” seems to describe only specifically Chinese-created martial-arts. However, the would-be “kung-fu film” we’re describing has often cast its eye on foreign styles, such as the early ‘70s slew of karate-fixated films. Precisely due to its formal inexactitude, “kung-fu film” seems an all around better descriptor for what we’re after.

There still may be some use for the term “wushu film” beyond describing a group of recently popularized films. “Wushu”, as a term, is Northern in nature and its most ringing endorsement came courtesy of the Mandarin Mainland government; “Kung-Fu”, as we’ve said, is a very Southern term, and has been largely disseminated by Hong Kong. Perhaps then (and this is pure theory) we could use the two terms to describe two different strands of Chinese martial-arts cinema, one which emerged in Hong Kong in the three decades following WWII, and one which has emerged in the Mainland since the 80s. Ultimately, time will tell whether such a distinction has any value, just as it will tell whether the Mainland/Mandarin push to install “wushu film” as the all-around term of choice has any legs. Yet, it is worth consideration, especially if we (as I do) identify the “kung-fu film” with a particular time period.

Ultimately, the most ringing endorsement for “Kung-Fu Film” as the preferred designator comes courtesy of the multi-lingual A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film, published in 1980 for the Hong Kong International Film Festival. There, throughout the Chinese language section, the genre is referred to as “gung fu pian”. If the term is good enough for the native-speakers standing in the midst of the deluge, it’s good enough for me, and the burden lies on “wushu film” to make a solid case for supplanting it, which I have yet to hear.

Certain elements of the Kung-Fu Film

Alright, let’s cut the semantics. What is a Kung-Fu Film? While a truly thorough and absolutely undeniable definition may very well have to wait for that “ideal” critic mentioned in the introduction. I nonetheless feel able to identify a few defining characteristics, which stand as the parameters of the genre. For some of this, I’ll try to compare and contrast the genre with the Wuxia Pian. If you’ve been following the broader discussion and taking the recommended films, you should have a grasp of what this genre is. Some people even hold the kung-fu film to be a sub-genre of wuxia. I’ll admit that it is undoubtedly an “outgrowth” and leave it at that – further debate will stray us too far from the subject at hand. However, there are substantial differences, and they may illuminate the genre of kung-fu for us.

1) Cultural. While it would be too simplistic to use the term “Chinese martial arts” we can make two declarations. I) The kung-fu film are all Chinese-made films, and II) they are all about martial-arts. This is to reject other genres contemporaneous or similar to the kung-fu genre: be they the Japanese Karate films that often intersected with early entries of the genre; or the Korean “Kung-Fu” films that imitated them as the genre wore on, and even provided the occasional crossover star (Hwang Jang Lee, Casanova Wong, etc.) These genres ultimately deserve their own classification and discussion. The kung-fu film, then, is the product of Hong Kong, Taiwan and, much later on, the People’s Republic, and they reflect a Chinese sensibility, even when they have their eyes set on foreign settings or foreign martial-arts.

2) Choreographic. The genre is defined by its choreography, which is always discernible as an authentic and recognizable real-life fighting style. They certainly can take poetic license with their depiction of the style – trampoline and wire-fu prevail, choreographers invent routines, and the displays of skills are often more indebted to camera trickery than actual physics – or freely mix different schools, but actual martial-arts styles are the backbone of the genre. Unlike the wuxia, the genre focuses its choreography on hand-to-hand combat. We can expand that definition to include “short range” weaponry, as long as they’re a secondary element in the choreography, OR they’re still grounded in the principles of authentic hand-to-hand martial-art styles. Hence, the daggers and hatchets which dominate the first transitional years of the genre, or the long poles and nunchaku that are an iconic part of the genre. The significance of authentic choreography also leads to an emphasis on actual martial-art performers, which were something a rarity in the film industry when the genre begins. As the genre progresses, they hold such privilege that some action-directors and stunt men are able to move to the forefront of the process, becoming directors or leading actors (Lau Kar-Leung and Chen Kuan-Tai, respectively, are two famous examples), managing to bypass the traditional star- and apprentice-system of the studios.

3) Structural. Several things demarcate kung-fu from wuxia. One is a matter of setting: the wuxia tradition goes back to the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.) giving the genre a wide-breadth of subjects and situations, even mythological ones in some of the more blatant fantasy-wuxias. It is rarer, however, to find a kung-fu film set before the 17th century, and you can commonly find them placed up to the modern day. Therefore, the kung-fu film is a decidedly modern genre in its settings. The wuxia is also much more nebulous and varied in its subject matter, in different contexts seeming analogous to the Western, Fantasy, Historical Dramas, Court Intrigue, Swashbucklers, etc. of the West. The kung-fu film, however, is nearly always structured as a “Revenge Film” of some sort, albeit in sometimes varied and wayward ways. (Look, for example, at the comedies of Yuen Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan. Their films tip-toe around the revenge conflict, often putting it off until the last possible moment. They seem to treat it pretty much as an unsavory aspect of the kung-fu film, even as their films’ inevitable compliance is an admission of its necessity as a structural element of the genre.) But most importantly, the kung-fu film is distinguished as a “Cinema of Spectacle”, with narrative subservient to the all important set-pieces of martial-arts choreography. The obvious comparison is the musical film, which uses formulaic romantic comedy plots to bolster song and dance numbers of originality and skill. This is change from the wuxia, where dodgy choreography could be overlooked in view of the dramatic weight of the narrative. In the kung-fu film, the set-piece is paramount, and I’m hard pressed to think of a good kung-fu film with poor choreography.

4) Historical. If the term “genre” can be broadly applied to a combination of distinct narrative forms and aesthetic principles, it can be more narrowly applied to a specific cycle of films at a specific place of time, i.e. film noir, which exists in a vacuum of the 40s and 50s. Things outside that cycle can be called noirish or proto-noir or neo-noir, but they’re not film noir proper. Likewise, when we speak of the kung-fu film proper, we’re speaking of the output of a specific era. The kung-fu film cycle describes the emergence of the Chinese-made martial-arts film to the dominance of the mainstream (then Mandarin) Chinese film industry, a period of roughly 15 years, spanning between 1970 and 1985 (during this period, the mainstream dialect changed back to Cantonese, with the genre following and leading the way). For the sake of classification, we can call this the “Old-School” era. The cycle is commonly held to have started with February 1970’s From the Highway, a wuxia-esque film with hand-to-hand choreography, and followed for the next two years by a series of trendsetting films, culminating with Bruce Lee’s massive (but short-lived) popularity. The final old-school film is commonly held to be Disciples of the 36th Chamber in 1985, although by then the mainstream had long left the genre behind, leaving it to the scrawniest of indie studios. So while the kung-fu film had definite precedents, the original Cantonese martial-arts film, defined by the Huang Fei-Hong series, was largely seen as a “niche” genre, and followed certain thematic and aesthetic principles different from what the genre would transform into. And while kung-fu exists after ’85, it’s in a constant cycle of waning interest and reinvention, suggesting a genre that’s lost its moorings. More than simply because it’s the decade the concerns us, the Old-School Kung-Fu Film of the 1970s is what we think of when we consider the genre, and established the rules and elements essential to it.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Wed Nov 06, 2013 2:08 pm, edited 7 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:30 am 
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As a forum allows for no margins, let us stop here for two sidebar discussions which nonetheless may prove important going forward.

SIDEBAR #1: A brief consideration of the Huang Fei-Hong legacy

There is no question that the common history of martial-arts cinema has been unjustly skewed. The adoption and innovations of the Mandarin studios have been treated as a beginning, as opposed to a continuum from the Cantonese industry. Just as the Cantonese fantastic wuxia has been downplayed in favor of Shaw’s new wuxia, so has the same distortion befallen kung-fu cinema. While this once may have been a question of culture or language, it now has become a problem of availability: the films of the Cantonese Golden Age, the roughly twenty-year period following WWII, have fallen into obscurity. Nonetheless, no account of the kung-fu genre can be made without at least a sidelong glance at the Huang Fei-Hong series. Initiated in 1949, the series produced at least 75 films within the next twenty years (and that’s excluding potential imitators). Based off the real-life master of the Hung Gar style (also called Wong Fei-Hung), his folk-reputation obscures the fact that very little is known about the historical person. As such, the films didn’t simply feed off the folk-legend, they helped create and perpetuate it. To many a generation, actor Kwan Tak-Hing was Huang Fei-Hong, and his personage is still perhaps the most enduring symbol of the lost Cantonese Golden Age.

There can be no dispute that the series was the beginning of the kung-fu film. While it began as part of the wuxia pian, the Huang Fei-Hong films clearly distinguished themselves by a sense of realism never before seen in the genre. This isn’t just in the use of hand-to-hand fighting styles, but also in its recognizably modern setting and its immersion in Cantonese culture. The common narrative is that the kung-fu boom began in 1970… but that boom was simply a re-appropriation of Cantonese culture, of which Huang Fei-Hong was the most visible exponent. Nonetheless, beyond language and time, there are clear differences between the Huang Fei-Hong and Old-School cycles of the genre. Here, I am undoubtedly at the mercy of second-hand sources, but one can identify a few major points where the Huang Fei-Hong series differs from its descendant.

One is the series’ philosophy and approach to conflict: the Huang Fei-Hong series is dominated by a Confucian Humanism. The cinematic Huang Fei-Hong eschews violence until it is unavoidable. His character constantly turns the other cheek, patiently and stoically enduring the indignities presented by his would-be enemies. Even once violence becomes inevitable, the cinematic Huang Fei-Hong seeks to reform his opponents, not destroy them. Sometimes this is impossible, but many a film in the series ends with the villain adopting the path of “the moral and the orthodox”. (Compare this with the kill-happy atmosphere of old-school revenge films.) Furthermore, Southern Chinese folk-culture and tradition is privileged in the series. In fact, second to the performance of martial-arts is the series’ reliance on displays of Lion-Dancing, which the historical Huang was a master of (and from the looks of it, so was Kwan Tak-Hing). As a result, the cinematic Huang Fei-Hong is as iconic for his lion-dancing as for his fighting. Interestingly, as many of the customs and rituals filmed throughout the series have since been lost, the series has since acquired a strong ethnographic value, a glimpse of a turn-of-the-century Cantonese culture which now no longer exists.

One of the common pieces of misinformation about the Huang Fei-Hong series is that its fight choreography was sloppy, primitive, improvised by its actors moments before shooting began. While this may have been true for many of the Cantonese wuxia, the films of Huang Fei-Hong were crucial to introducing the idea of fight choreography to Hong Kong cinema. The series eschewed artifice; like its promotion of actual Cantonese folk-culture, its goal was to display Southern kung-fu as it was historically practiced. It may lack the dramatically-heightened stylization of post-Mandarin kung-fu, but there is an argument to be made that this early series was actually more authentic: this is kung-fu as it may have been practiced in the streets or in a sanctioned bout. Many of the actors and personnel of the films were indeed practitioners of the styles being filmed. The entire notion of an “action-director” was crystallized thanks to the choreography of Simon Yuen (future character actor and father of Yuen Woo-Ping). Another regular performer was Lau Cham, another famous father (Kar-Leung and Kar-Wing). In fact, even Huang Fei-Hong’s real-life widow, Mok Kwai-Lan, made at least one appearance in the series, herself an acclaimed martial-artist. If fights were improvised, it’s simply that star Kwan Tak-Hing and perennial villain Shek Kin (“Mr. Han Man”) were experts at what they did. In fact many of the stuntmen and extras in the series would become the top choreographers of the New Wuxia and Old-School era: Lau Kar-Leung, Yuen Woo-Ping, Tong Gai, Han Ying-Chieh… all got their start in the series.

While Kwan Tak-Hing may have since been replaced in the public consciousness by images of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, there is no doubt many of filmmakers of the Old-School era revered these films, and more crucially, Kwan’s iconic image. It’s interesting to note the final cycle of the classic Huang Fei-Hung series occurred right at the tail-end of the Sixties, right before the Mandarin kung-fu film began. One wonders what direct influence this final resurrection may have had in convincing Mandarin filmmakers to approach the genre (there’s even one late film where Huang takes on a Japanese Samurai… a motif adopted by old-school films just a year or two later). While the second half of the Seventies found directors willing to completely reinvent the character (Challenge of the Masters, Drunken Master), the first half saw several studios attempt (unsuccessfully) to relocate the peculiarly Cantonese franchise into Mandarin cinema. Golden Harvest went as far as to hire Kwan Tak-Hing for Cheng Chang-Ho’s The Skyhawk (1974). However the most loving tributes come from Yuen Woo-Ping’s The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and Dreadnaught (1981), where Kwan was given two glorious last chances to reprise his character. Until someone remasters and subtitles the classic series, these provide the most tantalizing glimpses of what the legendary Huang Fei-Hong was all about.

SIDEBAR #2: On “Majors” and “Independents”

One reoccurring concept you’ll see is that of “Indie Studios” and “Indie Kung-Fu”. It may seem like a simple enough concept, but it’s not quite always simple to distinguish between “Major” and “Independent” studios in Hong Kong. The sort of decades-long hegemony which defined the Hollywood cinema never existed in Hong Kong, and the entire history of the region seems to be defined by the rapid ascension and decline of competing production houses. For example, during the 1960s, you could distinguish at least 6 major Hong Kong film studios: the two Mandarin-language giants – Shaw Brothers and Cathay/MP&GI – supported by massive theatrical chains and catering to a widespread “diasporic” audience. (As these two operated on a scale of their own, they’re often treated as the sole two “majors”). The Kong Ngee Film Studio, the defining Cantonese-language studio of the era, distinguished by its deliberate modernity and cosmopolitan spirit. Then there were the three “left-wing” studios, which flourished in the era prior to the Cultural Revolution and ’67 Riots, and whose films were often and mysteriously distributed in the Mainland: the Mandarin-language Feng Huang Motion Picture Co. and Great Wall Movie Enterprises Ltd., as well as the Cantonese-language Sun Luen Films. Yet, by decades end, all but one had either folded or been reduced to only a fraction of their former glory. By the beginning of the 1970s, Shaw Brothers was the only “major” left.

Yet, the ’70s and ‘80s were defined by a shift away from centralized production houses and towards independent companies. By the time we get to the 1980s, the whole distinction between “Major” and “Indie” is pretty much null. Yet, at the outset of the 1970s, thanks to Shaw’s near-monopoly on the industry, the distinction still has some value. In a broad sense, with their control from production to projection, Shaw Brothers is the last and sole major studio. As such, you could define any independent as being any production company that isn’t Shaw. However, that’s complicated by Golden Harvest. Technically an independent outfit, largely using the United Artist model of contracting with independent producers, they rode the kung-fu wave to massive success. By the time you reach 1976, there’s really no doubt that Golden Harvest is a “major”, rivaling Shaw in importance and market-share (if not quite sheer volume). For the sake of this essay, I will include Golden Harvest under the “indie” rubric: 1) Despite their eventual success, they spent much of this period in an underdog position against Shaw. 2) Even after their emergence as a big name, they still occasionally distributed films by smaller, independent producers (e.g. Lo Wei Motion Picture Co.)… But traditionally, many people consider them strictly a “major”.

Therefore, a more fitting definition of Indie Kung-Fu are those films of the genre produced by companies other than Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. Characterized mostly by low budgets, impoverished production values and formulaic narratives, they also have a rawer sensibility and a heavier reliance on pure fight choreography. Perhaps the two most emblematic Indie studios were Goldig Films and Seasonal Films. The former studio’s The Bloody Fists (1972) is generally considered with opening the door for smaller studios to tackle the Kung-Fu genre, birthing the notion of “indie kung-fu”. The latter, brainchild of director/screenwriter/producer Ng See-Yuen, was one of the big success stories of the decade. With the success of their Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-Ping films, they closed the decade as the “third” major. Other reoccurring names in the history of indie kung-fu: First Films, Hong Hwa International Films and The Eternal Film Co. However, the period is mostly dominated by many fly-by-night production houses of nebulous origins and abbreviated life-spans. It’s worth nothing that pretty much any Taiwanese film distributed in Hong Kong is usually lumped under the “Indie” label, regardless of which kind of Taiwanese studio it originated from. In fact, considering the crucial resources and box-office Taiwan provided for freelance producers, the distinction between smaller H.K. studios and Taiwanese productions is often vague.

The late ‘70s shift towards comedy saw the Indies overtake Shaw. We’ll return to that period and their significant directors later. But prior to that, the consummate “indie” directors were probably Joseph Kuo (at Hong Hwa), Ng See-Yuen (at Goldig/Seasonal), Lee Tso-Nam (freelancer), Jimmy Wang-Yu (at Golden Harvest/First Films) and Huang Feng (at Golden Harvest). Not every film of the above is perfect – hell, some are downright embarrassing – but when they work, they explain why collectors search through the most obscure recesses of the genre for that next unknown and unsung classic that’s fallen through the cracks. While these name directors provide a suitable guide, the truth is that every hardcore kung-fu collector has their own personal canon, filled with films of an unknown quantity and dubious appearance. Until these dark corners are illuminated, their films excavated and some consensus forms, an appropriate history of indie kung-fu will remain unwritten.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Wed Nov 06, 2013 2:15 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:30 am 
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The three phases of the Kung-Fu Film

I’d be doing the genre a disservice by describing it as a static unchanging thing. The “five years” rule applies to kung-fu as much as any other Hong Kong genre, and the genre was forced to evolve over its brief period of popularity. As it starts right at the beginning of the decade, you could divide the ‘70s almost exactly in half by the two different types of kung-fu film that dominated it. While less relevant to our subjects of discussion (the ’70s, Shaw Bros.), a third sub-genre also appears at the tail-end of the decade, and oversees the culmination of the old-school cycle during the ‘80s. These three sub-genres are the Basher Film, the Shapes Film, and the Kung-Fu Comedy.

1. The Basher Film: Alternately referred to as the “brawler film”, “boxer film” or simply as “punch-and-block”, the basher film quickly crystallized as the dominant form of the kung-fu film, and stayed as such for the first half of the decade. As its last alternate title alludes to, some people could dismiss the genre as primitive or rudimentary, and there is no doubting that the choreographic style is messy and chaotic. But this isn’t a flaw but function of the sub-genre; the basher film is, above all, typified by its brutality and intensity, and its fight scenes often take the form of street fights and gang melees. While it wouldn’t be wholly accurate to call the basher film a “realistic” genre, the pretenses of realism are certainly significant to its form. Here, the “authenticity” of the martial-arts manifests itself so far as the fights represent how martial-arts may play out in a real-life life-or-death situation (while nonetheless bolstered by cinematic magic), where questions of technique and form fall to the wayside in the face of pure survival. Despite the rudimentary nature of its choreography (or perhaps due to it), basher choreography takes mixed forms: Chinese kung-fu is mixed with Japanese, Thai and Korean styles, hybridized or pit against each other, as may be. In essence, the basher film represents the attempt to meld the choreographic possibilities of martial-arts with the narrative elements of the gangster film and crime melodrama. (Some may reject the “rival schools” model (below) in this respect, but the conflicts in those films rarely remain one of competing disciplines, and almost always take a violent turn.) With their excessive violence and often downbeat narratives, they can be linked to the trend towards contemporary, revenge-driven action films that were apparent in the genre cinema of the U.S., Europe and Japan. It’s a rather abrupt break from the wuxia pian: the basher film is nearly always set within the 20th century, many if not most are wholly modern, and the few that are set pre-Republican (ca. 1912) tend to fall under the hybrid-wuxia banner (Jimmy Wang Yu’s Beach of the War Gods being a particularly excellent example). The genre is also exemplary of the Hong Kong’s industry penchant for mimicry: one lone blockbuster can inspire years of imitators. In general, the basher film tends to follow four narrative models, each with their own defining film:

  • The Chinese Boxer Model. Some may also refer to it as the Fist of Fury model, but the Wang Yu film was patently first. A more descriptive name could be the Rival Schools model, and its one of the more recognizable and cliché. Essentially, you have two martial-arts schools, one good, one bad. The bad school uses treachery and violence against its rival (the murder of a sifu is an obvious example). A protagonist emerges from the good school and swears revenge. Often, the drama will be heightened by the fact that the schools have ties to criminal organizations or activities. Rival Schools is something of an old-chestnut, dating back to at least the old-fashioned Wong Fei Hung series. What the basher film does is ramp up the violence and double-down on emphasizing the difference in schools, not just in ethics, but especially in martial-art styles and particularly nationality. As such, here, the Rival Schools model is tied up inextricably with the “Evil Jap” motif, common to the genre. Here, the antagonists become agents of the Occupation, either Japanese or collaborators. Often, they’ll bring in ringers to aid them, representative of other nations and their respective martial-arts. Often, these films will culminate in a tournament, where the protagonist has to overcome several successive nation/styles. As such, the hero here becomes not just an emblem of martial-arts virtue or skill, but also a symbol of Chinese patriotism and self-determination. The xenophobic qualities of this motif are troubling, but their popularity is undeniable, making the “Evil Jap” something of a commonplace fixture of the basher film. It has also proved distressingly enduring, as the recent spate of Nationalist martial-art films attest (Donnie Yen’s Ip Man films being a major offender).

  • The Big Boss Model. Alternatively, you could label this the Vigilante model. It essentially follows a protagonist – usually a lone hero with select-few accomplices – as he attempts to single-handedly eradicate a criminal organization or conspiracy. The conflict is usually preceded by the murder or disappearance of a loved one. As such, many of these films will begin with a period of investigation, as the hero uncovers the conspiracy. Other films aren’t so tactful: the hero knows the culprit nearly from the outset, and the film becomes entirely about the machinations of revenge. More than any model, this is the most likely to be set in the modern-day: the model can certainly be adapted to other eras, but by and large, most examples I’ve seen are wholly contemporary. This makes the Vigilante model crucial in the transformation of the basher film into the Hong Kong Crime Film as its own distinct genre. With its focus on crime genre elements and its contemporary, often-urban settings, it’s likewise one of the bridges between the Old-School era and the period of the New Wave that eradicated it. In fact, 1976’s Jumping Ash is often credited with kickstarting the Hong Kong New Wave, this despite being in many respects just another basher film, right down to its two leads, Chen Sing and Chan Wai-Man, both former stars of countless low-budget indie-bashers. Beyond further demonstrating the box-office potential of the Cantonese market, Jumping Ash’s major innovation was emphasizing a sense of realism and authentic local character that was often only latent in the basher film (and Vigilante model). As such, many of the crime classics and late-period martial-art films of the New and Second Wave could be appropriately summed up as “neo-bashers”. (See below).

  • The Vengeance! Model. Alternatively, you could label this the Revolutionary model. This follow much of the same pattern as the above, except here, the criminal group is linked or parcel with a militaristic political faction. Unlike the above, these films are usually set in The Republic/Warlord Era, that period of political chaos sandwiched between the fall of the Qing Dynasty and Japanese Occupation. This was undoubtedly Shaw Brothers’ favored basher model, especially as Chang Cheh himself was its chief engineer. There is an interesting North/South dichotomy to the films at Shaw – the setting is usually a Northern military stronghold, the hero is a stranger or exile from the “free” South – which has the broad outline of political allegory. There’s also a fascinating sense of “political awakening”: the hero is usually motivated initially by personal revenge, but comes to realize the revolutionary significance of his actions. With that said, it’s not hard to see how the model could rub shoulder with the “Evil Jap” film, and it was certainly a forerunner to the Han vs. Manchu films that would dominate the second half of the decade.

  • The Boxer from Shantung Model. Alternatively, you could label this the Gangland model. In short, this was the attempt to meld the basher film with the classic structure of the Warner gangster film, typified by Little Caesar, Scarface and The Public Enemy. In the above model film, a country bumpkin uses his martial-arts prowess to rise through the ranks of the Shanghai underworld. After reaching the top, he is violently undone by ambition and gangland rivalries. A similar pattern prevails in its imitators. It’s not quite the Warner model, as in these films, the protagonist is rarely a true anti-hero: he’s not so much undone by reckless hubris so much as for trying to be an honorable criminal in a dishonorable world. However, many of these films will similarly borrow the “parallel narrative” motif, inherent in such Warner films as Angels with Dirty Faces and Dead End. The hero’s narrative trajectory will be paralleled with that of another character – commonly a friend-turned-rival – as he develops into his opposite: immoral, greedy, and dangerous. This leads to an inevitable conflict between the two. Also keeping with its “classical” structure, many of these are period pieces, taking place in Republic-era Shanghai, roughly analogous with the Prohibition-era heyday of the Classical Gangster film. This is probably the least common of the four models, but its imitators are frequent and visible enough to warrant mention. Perhaps because it wasn’t as common, it also had a longevity that its contemporary models lacked: as most bashers became low-budget affairs, there were still the occasional high-profile Gangland film produced right up until the end of the decade, spurring on the cinematic interest in Triads that would be co-opted and developed by the New Wave.

I should perhaps say something here about two “elements” listed as above, as some may feel they deserve to be turned into their own models: the “Evil Jap” motif and the “Tournament” structure. I briefly considered breaking these off, but ultimately I feel both are subservient to the other models, which can encompass them. As such, both can exist through several models. Nonetheless, both elements seem to have some inherent limits. The “Evil Jap” motif (and to be less inflammatory, we can call it the “Occupational” motif) was popular in the Rival Schools model due to its correspondence with respective nation-styles, but it also occasionally pops up in Revolutionary films, with the antagonist-cabal being of a Japanese character. Due to its inherently political overtone, it seems less likely to work in a strictly Vigilante model, but one can make an argument for something like The Bloody Fists, where Chen Kuan-Tai’s Japanese villain doesn’t appear to be particularly politically connected. There’s no reason a Gangland film couldn’t include a Japanese underworld figure as villain, but I frankly don’t know of any (The Angry Guest may apply, but that's its own weird thing). The “Tournament” structure seems much more directly tied to Rival Schools, due to its focus on martial-arts styles. However, it could occasionally be repositioned into other models, if most likely as an “informal” tournament – such as the series of floors in Game of Death, which would seem much more aligned with the Vigilante film. I don’t doubt there are other elements I’m ignoring that are worth just as much consideration as these two. Consider them an example for future arguments.

Not every basher is a slavish imitation; you can occasionally stumble on a film that includes sui generi elements (The Prodigal Boxer’s proto-shape take on the Fong Sai Yuk legend; The Himalayan’s indigenous setting and villain-protagonist; The Drug Addict’s social-problem theme; the fish-out-of-water comedy of Way of the Dragon). More common is to find a film that borrows and melds elements from different models. Chang Cheh’s The Duel [a.k.a. “Duel of the Iron Fist”] is an excellent example. It starts off as a Rival Schools film (two houses settle a bloody gang feud); it then shifts gears into a Vigilante film (the hero and his master are betrayed by their own gang, leading to revenge); and in its final reel, it makes a detour into a Revolutionary film (the two main characters attempt to redeem their wickedness through revolutionary violence). It’s also worth emphasizing that, while Shaw Brothers trickled, it was Golden Harvest and the indie studios that flooded. Therefore, any proper assessment of the sub-genre will have to look beyond the recommendations given in my eventual Shaw write-up. With its more rudimentary choreography and (outside of Shaw) low-budget resource, the basher film is a strongly star-driven genre; i.e. people will often discuss “Bruce Lee films”, not Lo Wei. As such, the major stars are great starting points for anyone looking beyond the Shaw studio system. While Bruce Lee is the big name, his output is brief. The next step – after the major Shaw titles, of course – may be the films of Jimmy Wang Yu (particularly those directed by himself) and Angela Mao (particularly those directed by Huang Feng). Their major works are an appropriate primer for those looking beyond Shaw productions. Beyond them, encompassing both the high and low-budget ends of the spectrum, several fan favorites include: Chen Sing, Carter Wong, Roc Tien, Charles Heung, Chan Wai-Man, Yasuaki Kurata, Chang Yi, Kam Kong. Although one should try to be discriminating when dipping their toes in this last bunch: Bashers can be pretty grungy and unadorned, to use diplomatic terms; if I don’t want to be so amicable, I could call them outright cheap and schlocky. Yet, for many fans of the genre this only enhances their appeal; when indie bashers are good, their poverty just adds to their grim intensity.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Tue Feb 18, 2014 10:01 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:30 am 
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2. The Shapes Film: A recently disseminated term, the layman is likely to react with puzzlement at the term “shapes”. Even so, even someone with only a basic knowledge of kung-fu is familiar with the concept, even if they don’t recognize the name: Tiger and Crane, Praying Mantis, Monkey Fist, Drunken Boxing, etc., these are what inferred by the term “shapes”. An alternative name could be (somewhat reductively) “Fighting Styles” or (somewhat erroneously) “Animal Forms”. To an outsider, it may seem like a silly thing to build a sub-genre out of... but it may help to think of “shapes” less as the governing principle of the sub-genre than the clearest expression of its defining fidelity to authentic martial-arts and the cultivation of their choreographic possibilities. In many respects, the shapes film is the complete opposite of the basher: here, “authenticity” is expressed precisely in its adherence to the principles and techniques of the martial-arts being performed. “Realism” is eschewed in favor of precision and showmanship. Which is not to say that the shapes film indulges in the flights of fancy common to the wuxia pian: certain special-effects survive – trampolines, wires, “glimpses” and other in-camera tricks – but the emphasis always remains on physically accomplishable, if highly specialized, feats of agility and movement. Pared-down and intimate fights are preferred. 1-on-1, 2-on-1, 3-on-1… anything more and they start to resemble the mass-brawls of the wuxia and basher. The results are action scenes that are clearly delineated and spatially coherent beyond the norm. Detailed motions, intricate footwork, stylized postures and gestures… these are as important as the decisive blows that settle the bouts, placing the shifting patterns and rhythms of human movement on equal footing with the drama-satiating violence. The shapes film marks the Kung-Fu genre’s ultimate emergence as a “Cinema of Spectacle”, kung-fu for kung-fu’s sake, narrative increasingly streamlined as a pretext to string-along and support the performance of martial-arts choreography. Detractors claim that shapes “dumbed-down” the genre, turning it into sheer esoterica for real-life martial-arts specialists. But you don’t need to be a kung-fu master to appreciate the craft and inventiveness on display anymore than you need to be a professional dancer to appreciate Fred Astaire. I dare say that, at its best, the shapes film achieves the same awe-inspiring sense of balletic grace.

Like any genre, the shapes film didn’t arrive fully formed, but was marked by several transitional works. One may point to Ulysses Au Yeung-Jun’s The Prodigal Boxer (1972), a basher that nonetheless deals with the story of Fong Sai-Yuk, a shapes subject. The Lau Brothers choreographed Breakout from Oppression was shelved for several years and is largely disregarded, but its main value is its experimentation with the future brand of choreography before its time. Likewise, some people have remarked on the work of choreographer Chan Siu-Pang, who supposedly brought shapes principles to his basher assignments. With that said, I don’t think it would be controversial to say the sub-genre was developed and popularized through the course of Shaw Brothers’ famed “Shaolin Cycle”. Headed by director Chang Cheh and choreographer Lau Kar-Leung, the series of roughly 7 films (there are almost as many “strays”) detail the events surrounding and following the mythic burning of the Shaolin Temple. It’s an appropriate choice of subject: Chinese folklore has (perhaps apocryphally) held it responsible for the dissemination of Shaolin martial-arts throughout China, as the exiles scattered across the country. Therefore, the logical beginning comes with Heroes Two (1974), which famously begins with a 10 minute prologue, as the film’s two folk-heroes demonstrate the techniques of Hung Gar martial-arts. It’s almost as if Lau is challenging viewers to recognize the style in the course of later fights. (An alternate starting point would be the pairs’ Five Shaolin Masters later that year, which marks the point the genre had unambiguously arrived).

“Carbon-dating” the genre catches me at something of a disadvantage: certain contextual markers which may be obvious to a Chinese viewer are completely lost on me. However, I think it’s fair to say the vast majority of these films were set in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, with the “sweet spot” being the tumultuous period when the Ming Dynasty fell and the Qing arose. The history of martial-arts certainly allows for earlier-set films (some early Mainland kung-fu films are set as far back as the Tang and Song), but it seems the further back you go into the Ming Dynasty or beyond, the more likely the film is to be a wuxia pian (for comparison’s sake, King Hu favored the early Ming for his films). Likewise, although their brand of martial-arts survive to the present, it is rare to see a true shapes film that takes place after the Boxer Rebellion (ca. 1900), most of the period after being favored by the basher film. If the “Shaolin Cycle” established the period, it did so by also establishing the sub-genre’s favored type of conflict: many shapes films concern themselves with the conflict between the Han and Manchu people. The Manchus, they of the Qing dynasty, are usually depicted as foreign oppressors and illegitimate rulers. The Han, they of the Ming, are seen as the rightful Chinese people and the films commonly link Shaolin and Wu-Tang martial-arts with revolutionary/partisan activity (or, often for the latter, reactionary). The truth is a little more complex, but the shapes film takes its cue less from verifiable history than Chinese folklore. The treatment of the Shaolin Temple massacre is a prime example, and other common subjects for the shapes genre are the various “Five Elders” myths (a shifting group of five survivors of the burning) or the “Ten Tigers of Canton” (the students-turned-masters under the “elders”). Such historical and oft-filmed personages as Fong Sai-Yuk and the younger Wong Fei-Hung appear as protagonists throughout the sub-genre. Furthermore, the shapes film will often borrow elements from earlier martial-arts genres: rivalries between different martial-arts schools; the hunt for historical artifacts or weapons (usually kung-fu manuals); despotic towns in need of liberation.

Ultimately, regardless of what kind of thematic or historical element it uses, shapes film follow a common narrative trajectory. Like any “cinema of spectacle”, shapes quickly struck on its own interchangeable narrative formula, the better for which to develop and support its signature set-pieces. This narrative arc I’ll call the “Kung-Fu cycle” and can be summarized by the following 4 steps: Each film begins with what I call (1) the losing fight: the film begins with an initial fight which ends disastrously for the protagonist. This could be a fight involving the protagonist, in which he is humiliated or maimed. It could also simply involve a group that the protagonist is allied towards, i.e. the massacre of his family, school or ethnic group. This crushing defeat invariably leads to (2) the revenge-vow, which is invariably the source of the ensuing narrative conflict. Yet the hero recognizes he is not equipped for the task. To get there, he must first go through (3) the training-period, where he prepares for the inevitable final bout: While this may simply involve a period of solitude and intense contemplation, it usually involves the protagonist seeking out a martial-arts master or temple to take him in. Therein follows a series of trials and exercises through which he develops his kung-fu. The protagonist finally seeks out the antagonist, and uses his newly acquired knowledge to defeat him, (4) the winning fight, which closes the cycle and ends the film (in fact, one peculiarity of the kung-fu film is that they very often have no dénoument or epilogue; they can end right at the moment the final fight ends, often seconds after the “death blow” is struck). It may at first seem like a fairly prosaic and repetitive narrative model, but it’s not hard to see how easily it aligns with various Hero Myths. There also a certain amount of variation allowed. The obvious is in simply deciding which thematic, narrative and historical elements one uses to fill out the above cycle. But a film may choose to emphasize and prolong one step over others (e.g. the abundance of “training” films). It may choose to mix up the order a bit or repeat certain steps (the “training-period” often precedes the “revenge-vow” in the Kung-Fu Comedy). It may simply break up the steps with “incongruities” or diversionary story elements (the introduction of slapstick relief which would develop into a sub-genre in itself). As with any framework, the decision to make a film “complex” or “barebones”, the extent to which it favors spectacle over narrative or drama, these are all determined by the director or screenwriter.

To best demonstrate this, I will compare two films, one which slavishly adheres to the basic arc of the “kung-fu cycle”, and another that fragments it:

Example A: The first is a film that hardly needs elaboration, Lau Kar-Leung’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). Perhaps the most famous kung-fu film not starring Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, chances are if you’re interested in the genre, you’ve already seen it. Gordon Liu plays a Han student who is compelled to join the revolutionary activities against the Qing. Not long after his school is violently attacked by the Manchu, and he himself is injured. Vowing revenge, he seeks admittance into the Shaolin Temple. Despite being an outsider, he soon gains acceptance, and proceeds to master the 35 chambers within. After being expelled from the temple for his revolutionary ideals, Liu attempts to train and arm the oppressed populace. This brings him back into conflict with the Manchus and sets the stage for his inevitable fight with the Qing General (Lo Lieh). As you can see, the cycle is followed in a clear and linear fashion. You could almost call it slavish, but in many respects, this was one of the films the solidified the structure. Which isn’t to say the film lacks its own idiosyncrasies… the great bulk of the film concerns itself with the “training” portion of the narrative: the rare kung-fu film that clocks in at nearly two-hours, nearly an hour of the film is devoted to this portion of the film (each bookend receives about a half hour each). There’s also the fact the Liu’s character doesn’t leave the temple and immediately seek revenge on a sole character. Rather, his revenge is to create a “36th chamber”, wherein he’ll train Han civilians for self-defense and an inevitable revolt, a decision which leads to his expulsion. Here, Lau purposely breaches the question of the way notions of “self-defense” and “revenge” relate to the loftier ideals of Shaolin martial-arts (a question that concerns many of his films). Even the final fight, which in most films takes up the whole last reel, is oddly truncated here: it lasts only about four minutes, and Lau makes the curious decision to cut away from the “death-blow”. It’s a narrative ellipsis that reminds me, off all things, the ending to North by Northwest, and serves to underline Lau’s devotion to martial-arts principle over simple bloodshed.

Example B: On first glance, Joseph Kuo’s The 7 Grandmasters is simply another “indie”. Shot in Taiwan, with a low-to-no budget, the costumes are cheap, the story almost an afterthought, and the decision to shoot the film in forest clearings and empty fields has less to do with mise-en-scene than simply avoiding building sets. Unable to afford brilliant screenwriters or lavish settings, these “indies” rely on the one thing they could afford: martial-arts talent. The film is simply a collection of increasingly startling fights made with the most basic elements – human bodies moving through empty space, captured by cameras and piece together by editing – all dazzlingly choreographed by future director Corey Yuen. Yet, for such a simplistic and barebones films, it’s incredibly intriguing to find it messing about with the “kung-fu cycle” in surprisingly innovative ways. The film’s narrative concerns a kung-fu teacher (Jack Lung) honored by the Emperor as a “grandmaster” on the day of his retirement. Challenged by an anonymous letter, he sets out to prove his legitimacy by defeating the 7 champions of the neighboring provinces. This “tournament” narrative could be enough for an entire film, but Kuo curiously runs through the first three fights within the first reel alone. Even as the pace slows down, Lung inevitably defeats all his rivals, and never with any motives other than sportsmanship. Kuo soon introduces a second “narrative”, involving a young bumpkin (Li Yi Min) eager to become a kung-fu master and be taken in as Lung’s student. While he inevitably is accepted and becomes his prized pupil, Li’s arc is likewise uncomplicated by any revenge motive or even any foreseeable goal other than mastery of kung-fu. As such, for much of the running-time, we’re subjected to two incomplete cycles: Lung’s cycle is simply “the winning fight”, Li’s is pretty much just “the training-period”. Yet, early in the film, Kuo haphazardly includes several “dangling” pieces of narrative information which end up simply disappearing: Lung’s first opponent inexplicably ends up dead, Lung somehow responsible for the unseen killing, and the dead man’s students are dissuaded from taking revenge; a white-bearded stranger accompanies Li’s character throughout the first reel, and offers to train him if master Lung declines (which he doesn’t); Lung relays a story about the “13 Strikes of Pai Mei”, a prized manual given to him by his poisoned teacher, but whose final page (and final 3 strikes) were stolen by a masked stranger before he could learn them. When these events first happen, they are so awkwardly edited into the film you might literally think you’re watching a truncated print, wherein back-story was cut-out to speed up the fights. But in the last reel, these “dangling” threads are reintroduced, and this awkwardness proves to be a deliberate form of ellipses to conceal a final plot-twist: the dead fighter was Li’s father, and Li’s been secretly harboring designs of revenge for the unknown culprit. The bearded stranger was also the masked thief (Alan Chui), and the whole affair was his plot to gain knowledge of the 9 non-stolen strikes (from a now-trained Li) and kill his rival (grandmaster Lung), by framing Lung for the initial murder and pitting Li against his master. Therefore, in the last reel, each cycle becomes complete: we learn that Li was seeking revenge for his fathers death (the “losing fight/revenge-vow”), and after nearly killing Lung, he takes on the rightful killer (“the winning fight”). Likewise, Lung’s character gets to live out a cycle vicariously through his student: although he is completely incapacitated and nearly dies, he finally uncovers the man who poisoned his own teacher (“losing fight/revenge-vow”), and through his student, he is able to recover the missing “3 strikes” and defeat the man (“training-period/winning fight”). If you’ve never seen the film, the above must sound terribly convoluted. Even once you’ve watched it, it may very well take serious reconsideration before you accept its narrative gaps are not simply sloppy storytelling but intriguingly ambitious. As such, The 7 Grandmasters provides an extreme example on how the fairly clean-cut “kung-fu cycle” can be fractured and rearranged for novel effect.

The Shapes Film also provides a clear example of the way Shaw Brothers could go from innovators to irrelevance in very short steps. Their “Shaolin Cycle” kicked off the entire sub-genre, and their prowess was only extended by Lau Kar-Leung’s leap to the director’s chair in a series of critical and commercial successes. Yet, fortuned changed even by the time Chang Cheh started his Venom Mob cycle: while beloved in the West, they were seen by critics as a once-promising director scraping the bottom of the barrel, and they were never huge hits. Ultimately, the late 70s saw Shaw increasingly outgunned by the indie studios, who had the ability to saturate the market, scoop Shaw on subject matter, and in doing so, diminish the perceived “prestige” that was so important to Shaw’s dominance. Almost immediately, rival studios jumped on the trend, with Joseph Kuo’s popular 18 Bronzemen series (focused around the mythic gatebearers of the temple) being a particularly early challenger. Very quickly, “Shaolin” became a buzzword, attached to numerous films, some with only the slightest relationship to the titular location or style. (Of course, one shouldn’t pretend that the sub-genre is chained to the Shaolin myth; many a shapes film has nothing to do with it) The indies were also more freely able to adapt themselves to new trends: the increasingly dominance of Comedy and the reemergence of Cantonese cinema. As such, the indie shapes film is inextricably tied up with the indie kung-fu comedy. Many of the most beloved and acclaimed examples of “shapes” choreography is to be found in the latter sub-genre. The often amorphous parameters between the two – and unlike the basher, which mostly came to an end mid-decade, these two largely overlap – is worth remembering continuing forward. Something must be said about the way easy classification can so unnecessarily short shrift this relationship.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Thu Nov 07, 2013 3:26 am, edited 4 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:31 am 
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3. The Kung-Fu Comedy: When any genre reaches the end of its natural life cycle, it is usually struck by a period of “parody”. It’s thematic and narrative elements having been firmly entrenched, widely disseminated enough that even the least-analytical viewer can recognize them, all that follows is for filmmakers to pick apart their inner-workings and ridicules their pretensions. Some genres are able to continue evolving alongside this moment of “parody”, providing a stay of execution. Others aren’t so lucky: then, the parody stage becomes a mocking epitaph to genre, a final vivisection from which it can’t recover. Such was true of the kung-fu genre as it reached the end of its decade. It was then that the Kung-Fu Comedy emerged, bringing the genre to unprecedented heights of popularity while also fastening its demise. You could call it the “Slapstick Kung-Fu” or “Kung-Fu Parody”, but neither title does justice to its relationship with the brooding, macho genre from which it sprung. As always, it’s difficult to set up hard-and-fast parameters for its beginning: even bashers could feature heavy comic elements (Wits of the Brats, Way of the Dragon), and shapes film would often feature plenty of comic interludes. Lau Kar-Leung’s The Spiritual Boxer (1976) is generally considered the first true kung-fu comedy, even as its immediate influence was minimal. The early films of American-trained Karl Maka were crucial in introducing outright parody into the genre, as well as re-adopting the long-abandoned Cantonese dialect. As such, The Good, the Bad and the Loser (1976) could be called the proper beginning of the sub-genre as we know it. However, the genre truly takes off with the massive success of Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), which overnight turned Jackie Chan from a failed Bruce-clone into a megastar, and transformed Yuen Woo-Ping from a respected choreographer into a major director. The formula was sound enough that when the two mined it again 8 months later, Drunk Monkey in the Tiger’s Eye [a.k.a Drunken Master] became an even bigger blockbuster. Into the fray was also Sammo Hung’s Enter the Fat Dragon, but that film was peculiar for a) spoofing the basher, which was deep in decline, and b) taking on the Brucesploitation genre, which Chinese audiences already rightly disliked. While successful, it wasn’t nearly as big a hit.

The peculiarity of Hung’s film underscores a point: as the basher didn’t engender a wave of spoofs, tiredness of conventions alone can’t account for the kung-fu comedy. Rather, the innovations of the shapes film set the stage for the kung-fu comedy. In certain respects, shapes’s heavier emphasis on martial-arts choreography helped contain the more unpleasant excesses of the basher. Make no mistake, shapes could be bloody and downbeat when they needed to; however, these outbursts were more measured compared to the gore-‘n’-grime that quickly became the basher’s stock-in-trade. The introduction of humorous elements was the next logical step to this “lightening” of tone. Yes, kung-fu’s stultifying atmosphere of machismo rage was begging to be taken down a peg… but just as crucial was shapes’s increasingly “hermetic” focus on martial-arts minutiae. As films struggled to top one another, the increasingly exaggerated animal forms and outlandish training techniques became perfect fodder for lampooning. With its emphasis on displays of movement, speed and acrobatics, it’s easy to link the genre with the musical. In fact, the kung-fu comedy was distinctly influenced by Chinese Opera perhaps in a way not seen since the late-‘60s. Yet, the kung-fu comedy brings to mind another source of influence. It’s easy to forget that the classical slapstick comedy of Hollywood was also a “cinema of spectacle”: narrative subordinated to a string of gags and routines. The kung-fu comedy marks the point where physical action transforms into physical comedy.

The kung-fu comedy was also governed by outside influences. The sudden arrival of the Cantonese Comedy transformed the Hong Kong industry overnight. The films of the Hui Brothers – whether as a group or solo – continually broke box-office records, breaking the hegemony of the Mandarin dialect, Shaw Brothers, and the martial-arts genre. The kung-fu comedy was made in the wake of this mandate; not just a mandate for silliness, but also to be unabashedly Cantonese. The kung-fu comedy was therefore a homecoming for the kung-fu genre back to the dialect which originally supported it. It was an important wedge in upending Shaw Brothers: for the first time since Bruce Lee, the studio was continually trounced at its pet-genre. No fatal accident would it save it this time (although if you believe rumors, Jackie Chan got pretty close in splitting with Lo Wei). By decades end, Golden Harvest was the big studio. In this atmosphere, the entire notion of “indie studios” changed. Once a catch-all for any studio that wasn’t Shaw, it soon become applicable mostly to young non-established upstarts, or unapologetically poverty-row studios (and as always, the Taiwanese and Mainland productions that chose to emulate HK). In this atmosphere, the kung-fu comedy was a key transitional genre, separating the wheat from the chaff in the new industry, and following innovations beyond the strict parameters of kung-fu (compare the flourishing of Seasonal Films with the rather quick demise of Goldig Films as an example of adapting or perishing during this period).

The reason for this, perhaps: martial-arts are hard, but comedy is harder. “Indie Shapes” flourished thanks to an abundance of martial-arts talent, but matching those skills with comic talent was harder to achieve. While the smaller studios continued to have their “flukes”, the major works of the kung-fu comedy is largely concentrated around a central group of talent. From this, you can designate a core group of six or so directors who truly carry the sub-genre: YUEN WOO-PING, JACKIE CHAN, SAMMO HUNG, LAU KAR-WING, KARL MAKA and, at Shaw Brothers, LAU KAR-LEUNG. Beyond their directorial careers, most of this group also had solid experience in martial-arts choreography, and were often dynamic presences in front of the camera. This led to constant collaboration within the group: this director choosing to co-star in that director’s film… that director choreographing this director’s film, etc. It’s also worth noting that, except for the Lau brothers and the untrained Maka, many of these performers were trained in the Peking Opera. As such, the kung-fu comedy is often credited with reintroducing “operatic” Northern Kung-Fu into the genre, after a period of “functional” Southern influence, with sheer showmanship overtaking the accuracy-of-style that grounded Shapes choreography. Alongside this talent, this circle included its own rotating company of choreographers and actors. Common faces include Yuen Biao, Leung Kar-Yan, Lam Ching-Ying, Fung Hak-On, Dean Shek and Simon Yuen…

It’s with trepidation that I choose to divide the kung-fu comedy into four sub-groups. Full disclosure: here I’m venturing beyond the realm of critical consensus and into that of purely personal interpretation. Likewise, the distinction between these groups – and the shapes film – is nebulous enough to make these definitions suspect. Nonetheless, these divisions may help us get to the bottom of the kung-fu comedy.

  • The main group could be appropriately called “slapstick kung-fu”. Here, the structure and elements of the shapes film are adopted, but ran through a prism of comic exaggeration. The revenge-motive is downplayed, the transformative aspects of “training” played up. Bloodshed is minimized; in its stead the film emphasizes slapstick violence, and the fights are often categorized by flamboyant and ridiculous fighting “shapes” (although you may be surprised how authentic some are). The films nearly always take on the character of the “buddy film”, and you could further divide it into two prevailing narrative modes: 1) The “Sifu-Student” films, popularized in the wake of the twin ’78 blockbusters of Yuen Woo-Ping/Jackie Chain. An arrogant, lazy brat is trained in kung-fu by a comically hard-ass master. Together, they often develop something resembling a surrogate father-son relationship. 2) The “Odd Couple” film, introduced by Karl Maka. It deals with two reluctant partners (usually a combination of martial artist and con man) as they’re begrudgingly forced together. Their relationship is comically hostile, revolving around constant trickery, double-crossing and one-upmanship. This differs from the “Sifu-Student” films – in which the student constantly attempts to cheat his obstinate master – as the “Odd Couple” pairing are often closer to equals.

  • Another group could be described as “shapes with humor”. These are kung-fu comedies which retain a large amount of the serious shapes atmosphere of brooding and violence. Vice-versa, you could simply categorize them as straightforward shapes films with heavy comedic interludes. As such, you could brush off many of the pre-’78 entries as simply shapes films, the comic relief being negligible. However, after ’78, it becomes clear some films are deliberately trying to mix the two competing strands of kung-fu cinema. This becomes especially common in the lower ranks of the “indies”, where the copying of hit films lead them to imitate both serious and comedic successes simultaneously. A perfect example is Joseph Kuo’s The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979). For all intents and purposes, it’s a Jackie Chan-clone: Li Yi-Min is the comically inept student, Jack Long his hardened master. Simon Yuen even makes a guest appearance, teasing to become Li’s master. Yet, those Jackie Chan/Yuen Woo-Ping films carefully tread around the revenge aspect, so as not to disrupt their films’ frivolous surface. Here, however, once the Ghostface Killer shows up and the revenge drama kicks in, the film grows increasingly grim and violent. A perhaps more impressive balancing act comes with Sammo Hung’s critically acclaimed Warriors Two (1978), which won much of its admiration precisely for its ability to balance slapstick, pathos and violence, often within the same scene. Hung would mix similarly volatile ingredients in such follow-ups as The Victim and The Prodigal Son. In many ways, the whiplash between the silly and the somber in certain kung-fu comedies very much anticipates the signature mixing of genres and tone that would designate much of Hong Kong cinema during the 1980s.

  • The third group is harder to pin down, but is squarely the domain of Lau Kar-Leung at Shaw Brothers. Before we define the group, perhaps we should distinguish what separates Lau from many of the other “core” directors (somewhat excepting his brother, Kar-Wing). a) housed at the Mandarin Shaw Bros., he’s insulated from some of the more broad aspects of the Cantonese Comedy. b) even given the storied pre-directorial careers of those other “core” directors, Lau is peerless in his influence on the kung-fu genre, which may suggest a stronger attachment to its earlier incarnations c) as mentioned prior, Lau was a true master of the Southern Hung Gar style of kung-fu. This separates him from many of his peers in the sub-genre, who were all-purpose entertainers trained in the “theatrical” Opera-style. As such, you could call this strand “light kung-fu” or even “alternative shapes”, although neither does it complete justice. While Lau uses many of the narrative models above, his films stand apart from his Indie/Cantonese peers. While they’ll play with genre conventions, it’s more gentle ribbing than outright spoofing. While they have broad comic elements, they never lean as heavily on the vulgar. More importantly, the films never stop taking martial-arts seriously. Lau Kar-Leung’s dramas often deal with incompatibility of kung-fu ethic with violence; often, the pursuit of revenge is seen as “despoiling” the martial-arts. His comedies, therefore, are the flipside, depicting martial-arts as a force of spiritual and cultural enrichment. The main objective: to supplant the kung-fu’s usual preoccupation with revenge and violence, by adopting an atmosphere that is light, breezy, even charming. The cycle was initiated by his brilliant Heroes of the East (1978), the rare kung-fu film in which: no one dies; national and ethnic differences are not only honored, but valued; and the film is supported by a narrative that owes less to the revenge drama than the comedy of manners and romantic comedy. Many slapstick entries use the “odd-couple” pairing as a surrogate father-son relationship, pointing towards some sense of the family as dysfunctional or broken. Lau’s films, instead, attaches a highly positive value to the extended family, of which the martial-arts school is treated as an extension. Also the kung-fu comedy continued the earlier genre’s poor attitude towards woman: they’re either absent, marginalized to the decorative, or the brunt of misogynistic humor or panic. Not in Lau’s films: his films are important in maintaining a strong presence for female martial-artists, no more apparent than in the star-making turns by Kara Hui.

  • The fourth group takes on a rather different character. This is what could be called “supernatural kung-fu”, kung-fu comedies with heavy horror and fantasy elements, almost always Taoist in nature. Lau Kar-Leung’s Spiritual Boxer films laid some of the ground work, but the true beginning comes with Sammo Hung’s Encounter of the Spooky Kind (1980). This was followed by Wu Ma’s acclaimed The Dead and the Deadly (1982), which went as far as winning Best Picture at the HK Film Awards. Then there was the series of ridiculous, raunchy carnivalesque Yuen Clan fantasies: Yuen Woo Ping’s The Miracle Fighters (1982) and Shaolin Drunkard (1983), Yuen Cheung-Yan’s Taoism Drunkard (1984), Chen Chi-Hwa’s late The Young Taoism Fighter (1986), as well as the unofficial “homage”, Chiu Chung-Hing’s Exciting Dragon (1985). Actor Billy Chong also made a series of horror kung-fu films for Eternal Films, which walk a line between New Wave inventiveness and Z-movie schlock. Ultimately, the main problem with assessing this strand here is that it is very much a transitional one, pointing outwards beyond the old-school era and towards the Second Wave. As the strand progresses, the horror elements begin to take predominance over the kung-fu ones, and the Hong Kong supernatural film should perhaps be treated as its own genre. By the time we get to something like the Mr. Vampire films, we are squarely outside our original subject of inquiry. Nevertheless, it is a distinct sub-class of the Kung-Fu Comedy worth further consideration, if one that can’t quite fit within the parameters we’ve established.

Ultimately, the Kung-Fu Comedy, like the Hong Kong Crime Film, was the bridge linking the Old-School with the New and Second Wave. Not everyone made it across… scattered around it were the ruins and debris of Taiwanese ninja films and Shaw Bros. slapstick films. Ultimately, the kung-fu comedy was the victim of its own success. More than just a change in dialect, the transformation initiated by the Cantonese Comedy was one of subject matter: after an era of mostly period films, the late 70s saw Hong Kong grow more confident in exploring its own local, modern identity. Helping them were rapid modernizations of film techniques and technology and sharply increasing budgets. Kung-fu filmmakers who were able to retain relevance and popularity followed these trends, and ended up essentially outside the kung-fu genre. Someone like Karl Maka quickly grows confident enough to make comedies not reliant on kung-fu. The “supernatural” wave of the early ‘80s similarly sheds the vestiges of the martial-arts, and ghost stories remain a favored subject matter even after the kung-fu film declines. More importantly, directors like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung update their films in the face of new audience tastes for modern settings, subject matter and technology. The result is that the kung-fu recedes and is replaced by the straightforward action film. Films like Dragon Lord and The Progidal Son are clearly kung-fu; films like Project A and Pedicab Driver, however, are something else entirely. By the time Shaw Brothers folds in ’84, even the most die-hard devotee of the genre can see the writing on the wall. The era of the kung-fu film is over.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Tue Feb 18, 2014 9:46 pm, edited 9 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 3:31 am 
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Notes Towards the “New School”

Of course, martial-arts has never left Hong Kong cinema. Its principles still serve as the foundation of its action choreography; in an industry built on action, it retains a privileged place. What kung-fu cinema loses after the Old School era ends is simply its internal continuity, its ability to sustain itself largely by its own merits, to progress and evolve chiefly through the innovation of films and filmmakers within the genre. Since ’85, it has had to increasingly compete against – and modify itself in the face of – a myriad of genres and movements: bloody Triad films, insane horror pictures, gritty cop dramas, wire-wuxia fantasies, Nonsense comedies… the list goes on. Yet, despite this, kung-fu has occasionally managed to regain a place of prominence in public taste in the 25 years since Shaw Brothers closed its doors. The New School Kung-Fu (if such a thing even exists) as such takes many forms. A thorough examination of the New School will not happen here. Not only does it move us far beyond this overview’s main era of inquiry (the Seventies), but any proper assessment would have to be made alongside a broader study of all commercial Hong Kong genres since the New Wave. Yet, of the many mutant variations that the kung-fu film has taken, you can identify a few different “cycles” as particularly worthy of study when further examining the genre:

1) Perhaps we should preface this section with a discussion of a term whose definition is shaky, but which will serve until a better term comes forward: wu da pian. It’s a term not commonly used in English writing on the subject, and even among the sources I’ve found, there are definite contradictions in its various definitions. However, most definitions seem to allude to certain common factors, and it is here that I’ll (tentatively) attempt a consensus definition. “Wu da pian” literally translates into “martial strike film”, but its connotations are more along the lines of “fighting film”. A definition could be as follows: wu da pian is a Hong Kong action film that features martial-arts choreography, but is not predominately a martial-arts film. While that gets to the bottom of the change in emphasis represented by its name, I think it’s too severe. A better definition: wu da pian is a type of martial-arts film which fails to follow the structural and thematic archetypes of the old-school-defined Kung Fu Film; furthermore, it does this by adopting the elements of external genres. Wu da pian is in essence the kung-fu film’s response to the innovations of the New Wave. By attaching those innovations to a highly commercial framework, it announced the beginning of the more populist Second Wave.

The early ‘80s saw the region make huge leaps forward in filming techniques, special effects and production budgets. Certainly impressed by Hollywood’s blockbuster concept, the era saw studios attempt much slicker, higher-concept films. Wu da pian is kung-fu’s attempt to step into this paradigm shift. Wu da pian brought martial-arts back to contemporary settings and subject; even when they adopted period settings, they were rather unusual and novel, far from the reclusive temples and Han rebellions that had been dominating kung-fu for years. Wu da pian also announced a move away from strictly martial-arts towards a more general “action film”: shoot-outs, chases, dangerous stunts, and FX trickery were all integrated alongside martial-arts in the HK filmmaker’s toolbox. Even the martial-arts take on a different character than the style-based authenticity of Shapes cinema: if there’s a stereotypical characteristic for wu da fight scenes, it’s the action’s placement within novel and individualized settings, showing the fighters responding to the peculiarities and limitations of their environs and re-appropriating its “props” and features into weaponry. Perhaps even more characteristic are not the fight themselves, but the death-defying stunts that punctuate them. Wu da pian’s main architects were also those of the kung-fu comedy: Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung. Winner and Sinners (1983) made the kung-fu comedy’s link to the Cantonese Comedy explicit with contemporary Three Stooges-like slapstick; Project A (1983) reimagined the genre as both big-budget high seas swashbuckler and silent comedy tribute. Wheels on Meals (1984) lets the pair (and Yuen Biao) loose in modern Barcelona, and trapezes through a dozen genres in the process. Police Story (1985) saw Chan take on the crime thriller, Armour of God (1987), an Indian Jones-style adventure romp. Sammo Hung made a brutal Vietnam-set “men-on-a-mission” film with Eastern Condors (1988), and, as mentioned before, brought legitimacy to the supernatural comedy with The Dead and the Deadly (1982). Of course, the wu da pian hardly ends with this pair: the Taoist mysticism of Ricky Lau’s Mr. Vampire (1985), the revolutionary political intrigue of Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues (1985); the all-girls Police Academy hijinks of Welson Chin’s The Inspector Wears Skirts (1988); the showbusiness melodrama of Wu Ma’s Stage Door Johnny (1990); the time traveling fantasy of Clarence Ford’s The Iceman Cometh (1989); the wire-based insanity of Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio (1993), the superior Die Hard imitation of Wong Jing’s High Risk (1995), the comic-book superhero of Daniel Lee’s Black Mask (1996)… this is a random grab-bag of films that could full under the wu da pian banner.

The list underscores another point: I’m not sure wu da pian ever ended, and as such, I’m not sure that it is correct to refer to it as a “cycle”, as those below. If anything, wu da pian isn’t a genre or sub-genre, but a huge umbrella term encompassing the entire Hong Kong martial-arts cinema since the culmination of the Old-School era…. Perhaps even up to the modern day. I’ve already discussed the supernatural kung-fu film in this regards, and I don’t think there’s any question that the neo-basher (below) is part and parcel with this movement. Same with wire-fu, which owes more to wu da finesse than the shapes films they may superficially resemble. And if the post-millennial slate of CGI heavy actioners have any antecedents, it is certainly in the ‘80s wu da pian blockbusters. Ultimately, a more succinct definition for wu da pian may simply be “post-kung fu cinema”, using our definition for the genre relayed above. If the genre proper ended with the Old-School era, then wu da pian (beyond a few trailblazing film in the early ‘80s) shows the many mongrel forms the genre took to stay relevant.

[If anything, for all its problems, wu da pian is still more applicable than the common term used for post-Old School cinema: "New Wave". While it's true you could call them a "new wave" of martial-arts film, the Hong Kong New Wave itself describes only a brief period (roughly '79-'83) which largely precedes the so-called "New Wave" Kung-Fu film, and which was characterized largely by a shift away from Kung-Fu cinema. When New Wave filmmakers tackled martial-arts films, they tended to side with the wuxia pian. Outside of the inaugural Jumping Ash, only the New Wave entries of Kirk Wong (The Club, Health Warning) seem to overlap at all with the genre, and even then rather precariously. All in all, I find the use of the term "New Wave" in this context to be very symptomatic of the general confusion between New Wave and Second Wave which Western critics have tended to engender.]

2) The emergence of a Mainland Kung-Fu Film during the 1980s. After the end of the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic slowly began resuming production of fiction films, which had trickled nearly to nothing during the preceding period. It also began slowly opening itself up to outside influence. The left-leaning Mandarin Hong Kong studios – Feng Huang, Great Wall, Sun Luen - were once major players, propped up by the Communist government across the border. By this point, after years of an isolationist Mainland, they were largely in disarray and impoverished. As the PRC began reopening its borders, they returned to these studios, merging them into Sil-Metropole, a true anomaly: a Hong Kong body that had all the privileges of a state-sanctioned studio in the Mainland. Considering this reinvigoration, it was no surprise that these studios brought back the highly popular kung-fu film to the Mainland. This differs from Taiwanese kung-fu in a major way: the relationship between Taiwanese and Hong Kong box office was interconnected enough that the former often seemed to be outright imitating and competing with the latter. The Mainland audience, however, was closed off pretty much entirely during the emergence of the new wuxia and kung-fu genres. Even during the ‘80s, outside of state sanctioned co-productions, the large body of Hong Kong film was still officially banned (however, bootleg tapes would become highly popular during this period). This led the Mainland Kung-Fu Film to develop its own unique identity, clearly indebted to what had gone on in Hong Kong, but partly autonomous from where it was evolving. Heavy nationalist themes often celebrating collective effort and patriotic vigilance; crude production methods coupled with lavish resources; heavy location shooting with impressive landscapes, copious extras and authentic (as in real) temples and villages; predominately wushu choreography, with casts populated by highly athletic non-actors culled from the sport’s ranks; choices of subject and setting which seem to emphasize the cultural longevity of Chinese martial-arts. Unlike the Shapes film, Mainland Kung-Fu can occasionally reach back further than the Qing Dynasty, and there’s often an “ethnographic” quality to these films, not the artifice of Shaw. The most significant films were also the trailblazers, the “Shaolin Trilogy” which made Jet Li a star: the historical revenge thriller Shaolin Temple (1982); the lighthearted all-ages comedy Kids from Shaolin (1984); and the Mainland/HK hybrid Martial Arts of Shaolin (1986), which crucially brought in Hong Kong talent, including Lau Kar-Leung as director. Among other popular entries: Wong Sing-Liu’s Arhats in Fury, Siao Lung’s The South Shaolin Master, Tsui Siu-Ming’s Holy Robe of the Shaolin Temple, Cheung Yam-Yim’s Yellow River Fighter, Sun Sha’s The Undaunted Wudang, Hua Shan's Disciples of Shaolin Temple, Zhang Huaxun’s Pride’s Deadly Fury, Chik Ngai-Hung’s Secret of Tai Chi, Wang Zhi Yu’s Yao’s Young Warriors, Li Qimin's King of Darts, and Leung Wing-Tai & Hui Sin’s Cut-Throat Struggle for an Invaluable Treasure [aka. Shaolin Assassin]. Of course, along with the usual availability problems, the trouble in assessing this period is the lack of subtitles: these films often weren’t imported outside the region, and the Mainland obviously didn’t have the “English subs mandatory” policy of Hong Kong. Who knows? Perhaps the Mainland’s greatest contribution was simply giving Hong Kong Jet Li. But as a little seen and less often discussed piece of martial-arts history, Mainland kung-fu is ripe for investigation.

3) The “neo-basher” cycle of the Hong Kong Second Wave (roughly ’85-’92). As the New Wave largely favored contemporary and urban topics, the kung-fu film quickly fell out of favor. Perhaps the main genre to replace it at the box-office was the New Wave Crime Film, bleak and sordid – although still action-orientated – studies of poverty, corruption and organized crime. As such, the “neo-basher” is the attempt to meld martial-arts choreography with the narrative elements of contemporary crime cinema (something already flirted with by the original basher sub-genre), as well as the all-around polish and spectacle of the wu da pian. Not only did this serve to revive the kung-fu film, it also fulfilled the chief goal of the Second Wave: to codify the occasionally raw subject matter and narratives of the New Wave into thoroughly commercial genres. As the “neo-basher” appeared simultaneously as another “remolding” of the New Wave Crime Film – the gun-centric Heroic Bloodshed genre, popularized by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow – it was not at all uncommon to see these two genres cross-pollinate one another. This is especially true of the endless flood of low-budget “Girls with Guns” films, which, despite their title, usually split the balance pretty evenly between shootouts and fight scenes. Some major examples of the “neo-basher”: Jackie Chan’s Police Story series, the Michelle Yeoh/Cynthia Khan starring In the Line of Duty series, Yuen Woo-Ping’s Tiger Cage trilogy, Johnny Wang’s Hong Kong Godfather and Angry Ranger, Corey Yuen’s Righting Wrongs and She Shoots Straight, Sammo Hung’s Pedicab Driver, Lau Kar-Leung’s Tiger on the Beat, Lau Kar-Wing’s The Dragon Family, Teresa Woo’s Iron Angels, Frankie Chan’s The Outlaw Brothers, Mang Hoi’s The Blonde Fury, Stanley Tong’s Project S, Tony Liu’s Killing Angels, and Sam Daat-Wai’s Kickboxer’s Tears. A special mention should go to Kirk Wong’s savagely violent The Club, which precedes the “neo-basher” by quite a few years. One of the major classics of the New Wave, its subtle acknowledgement of HK’s basher past makes it something of a premature beginning to the “neo-basher”.

4) The “wire-fu” craze of the early-to-mid ‘90s. This period is marked by a return to period settings, and a renewed focus on actual martial-artist protagonists (as opposed to cops and criminals who just happen to be kung-fu experts). No mere throwbacks, the cycle takes full advantage of all the innovations of the New and Second Wave: the fast-clipped shooting style and editing rhythms, coupled with increasingly sophisticated stuntwork and special effects… most obviously in the namesake wire-work. Undoubtedly, the most crucial impetus was the arrival of Jet Li in Hong Kong. Already a star thanks to his series of Mainland-produced “Shaolin” films, Li floundered through a handful of duds before finally exerting a certain level of control over his films. Namely: instead of trying to fit into the established Hong Kong genres, he makes Hong Kong fit films around his established image, one that is stoic, athletic, historical and unambiguously heroic. The entire “wire-fu” cycle was practically kicked off and driven by the Once Upon a Time in China series (although Li was absent for two of the six films), which initiated yet another revival of the Wong Fei-Hung character. Other Li films like Fong Sai-Yuk I and II, Tai Chi Master, Fist of Legend, and Last Hero in China are also among the highlights of the cycle. Alongside Li (and Tsui Hark, the mastermind behind the OUATIC series), two other crucial figures were Corey Yuen and Yuen Woo-Ping, two veterans who reached new artistic highs during the period. Whether collaborating with Li or not, whether as choreographers or directors, their films helped define the style of the period. Woo-Ping’s films include Iron Monkey, Heroes Among Heroes, Wing Chun and the Li-less Tai Chi II; Corey mostly sticks around as perhaps Li’s favored director, but he does venture outside for the late entry Hero, a remake of Boxer from Shantung. Other noteworthy examples: Lau Kar-Leung’s Drunken Master II and III (the former largely ghost-directed by Jackie Chan), Sammo Hung’s Blade of Fury, Wu Ma’s Kickboxer, Johnnie To’s The Bare-Footed Kid, David Lai’s Operation Scorpio, Ringo Lam’s Burning Paradise; the Sam the Iron Bridge trilogy of Cheng Siu-Keung's White Lotus Cult, Fung Pak-Yuen's Sam the Iron Bridge and Wei Han-Tao's One Arm Hero; Chong Yan-Gin's Revanchist and 21 Red List; Cheung Siu-Wai’s Deadend of Besiegers, Cheung Yam-Yim’s Fists of Shaolin, and Hoi Wa’s The South Shaolin Master II (the last eight titles representing, at least partially, Mainland responses to the genre). The “wire-fu” boom comes pretty much parallel to a “wire-wuxia” boom, driven by the popular and eccentric Swordsman series (one of which stars Jet Li). As such, it can often be difficult to keep the two “strands” apart. A likewise problem occurs with the various “wire-fantasies” of the period, many of which are reliant largely on martial arts: The Iceman Cometh, The Heroic Trio, The Bride with White Hair, etc. All this underscores how muddled the web of cross-influence can be in the Hong Kong genres of this period, lending further support to the wu da pian label.

5) The nationalist mode that has dominated Chinese cinema since shortly after the turn of the millennium. It’s probably unlikely for me to say anything substantial here: such a thing probably requires some distance. But a few things can be said, even if I admit my attitude is rather glum. It’s certainly representative of Hong Kong’s precarious position as a “Special Administrative Zone” in the PRC. This whole cycle is initiated by the crucial change in HK’s film quota system, giving Mainland co-productions the same privileges as wholly local films. The late ‘90s trend in Hong Kong towards FX-driven spectacle, epitomized by the likes of The Storm Riders and The Legend of Zu, is an important impetus, as is also the re-emergence of wuxia pian, famously carried by the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. As such, this era is defined by the absorption of Hong Kong into the Mainland industry, the hybridization of their respective styles and choice of subject matter. The distinction between wuxia pian and gung fu pian largely evaporates, choreographic details becoming simply a matter of period and subject matter: a Qing dynasty battlefield fiction will be more conducive to swordplay and weaponry, just as a film of 20th century Shanghai will logically emphasize hand-to-hand. This is perhaps driven by the wholesale adoption of wushu action-choreography, the nationally recognized, and above all else, standardized form of martial-arts, replacing the more varied forms of the ‘70s. More crucially, however, is the widespread reliance on CGI, receiving such fundamental use as a basic tool that even a simple hand-to-hand street brawl can have the same unreality as a warfield battle scene. There’s a prevailing feeling that Chinese martial-arts film have long ceased relying on actual martial-arts

You can identify two major strands: one is the wave of “folk-biographies”, in post-Republican settings, often lead by unofficial “actor laureate” Donnie Yen (it is interesting to note that the equally privileged Jet Li and Jackie Chan have largely spent this period playing against type). This is epitomized by the wave of Ip Man films, but more curious perhaps is the resurrection of Chen Zhen, a wholly cinematic creation (created by Bruce Lee in 1972), but treated with the same respect and fidelity as other folk-hero films of the period (which depending on how you look at things, is either a lot or little). There is also the endless glut of post-wuxia (which is to say, post-Zhang Yimou) nationalist war epics, many of which muddle the waters of classification. Some of the better, or at the very least, emblematic films of this period: Wilson Yip’s Ip Man I and II, Ronny Yu’s Fearless, Yuen Woo-Ping’s True Legend, Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins, Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Patrick Leung’s Wu Dang, Peter Chan’s Wu Xia, Herman Yau’s The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake, Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Hero and Tai Chi Zero, and Andrew Lau’s Legend of the Fist. This is, perhaps foolishly, to distinguish “kung-fu” from the endless deluge of historical epics and CGI swordplay films, such as Peter Chan’s The Warlords or Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee, but try we must. Many of the most interesting films, however, have fallen outside the trends above. Wilson Yip’s SPL and Flash Point are both worth a mention, even if their modern “neo-basher” sensibility is rather unusual, just as with Johnnie To’s oddly-personal Throw Down. Then you have Lau Kar-Leung’s final film, Drunken Monkey, an anachronistic attempt at the old school in the midst of an era of CGI overkill. Similarly outside the norm is Stephen Chow’s Kung-Fu Hustle, which is as much loving pastiche as parody, and whose CGI excesses seem more commonplace and straight-faced with every passing blockbuster. This becomes manifest with Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng’s lighthearted but masterful Gallants, a loving throwback to the kung-fu films of the Old-School golden age and a surprise sleeper hit at home (It won Best Film at the HK Film Awards), one which often plays like a grounded, realistic version of Stephen Chow’s film. Of course, Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmaster is something of a culmination to the “folk-biography”, even if it’s likely to go down more as a sui generic detour than a lasting influence on the genre.


Last edited by Cold Bishop on Sat Mar 01, 2014 10:25 pm, edited 4 times in total.

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 05, 2013 11:05 pm 
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Nice work, I hadn't realized Karl Maka was making films in the 70s, definitely need to give those a look.

In response to your opening paragraph about what an ideal kung fu history would entail. I think if the research and interviews done by Linn Haynes ever get published, they will shed lots of light on the production methods and trends of many of the more obscure kung fu filmmakers. Judging from the short notes of his on various DVD releases it seems like he was the only one with really serious and informative research behind many obscure releases.

Either that or hopefully HKIFF and HKFA will venture into more obscure areas with their publications after they've exhausted lots of the major aspects.


On the matter of Wong Fei Hung films, I don't believe these are the earliest examples of the Kung Fu genre, though likely they will be one of the richest resources for future research on Pre-1960s kung fu films. But I believe the Fong Sai Yuk series, which began in 1938 is supposed to be an example of earlier HK Cantonese martial arts, though none of the films survive to fully verify. And there are of course hand to hand action scenes in early Shanghai films like Greedy Neighbors, from 1933.


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PostPosted: Wed Nov 06, 2013 8:10 am 

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Just one correction: Lau Kar-Leung's first feature was The Spiritual Boxer, not The Shadow Boxer.

Fantastic stuff, articulated brilliantly!


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2013 5:54 am 
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YnEoS wrote:
Nice work, I hadn't realized Karl Maka was making films in the 70s, definitely need to give those a look.
It's really bizarre, although perhaps wholly inevitable given their slapstick nature, how little cachet those films seem to have nowadays, although they were arguably the beginning of that cycle. Honestly, I would have probably completely overlooked them if not for the 1980 written A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Films, which continuously singles them out, if not always in flattering ways (one article seems to blast them for their cynicism, fully symptomatic of the encroaching greed/materialism in HK society).
Quote:
On the matter of Wong Fei Hung films, I don't believe these are the earliest examples of the Kung Fu genre
Well, we shouldn't confuse "first" with "beginning", as playing the first game is usually foolish, while the latter is much more easier to pin down an argument for. I guess my question would be 1) How much a genre or sub-genre did those films represent? and 2) How much causality was their between them and the later Huang Fei Hong cycle? There may very well have been a lot, so I'll plead ignorance on the matter.
Orlac wrote:
Just one correction: Lau Kar-Leung's first feature was The Spiritual Boxer, not The Shadow Boxer.
Fixed. Must have been confusing it with the sequel. Also slightly touched up the "wu da pian" section.


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PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2013 6:06 pm 
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Cold Bishop wrote:
Well, we shouldn't confuse "first" with "beginning", as playing the first game is usually foolish, while the latter is much more easier to pin down an argument for. I guess my question would be 1) How much a genre or sub-genre did those films represent? and 2) How much causality was their between them and the later Huang Fei Hong cycle? There may very well have been a lot, so I'll plead ignorance on the matter.

Its a bit tricky to answer without being able to watch most of these films. Here's what I know about pre-Wong Fei Hung action cinema.

In 1930s Shanghai cinema, it seems that in addition to wuxia films, there were a number of films made with more realistic hand to hand to combat. Though I'm not aware of any 100% kung fu films from this period, it does seem that these fight scenes weren't just random incidents that show up from time to time. But rather there were certain directors and actors who would repeatedly have 1 or 2 action scenes in their films, sometimes as the climax of the film. And many of these people would continue making action films in Hong Kong in the late 1940s and 50s, alongside the Wong Fei Hung films. Also Simon Yuen supposedly worked on several of these 1930s Shanghai films. Here's one existing example of a fight scene from this period.

Then in 1938 and 1939, Hung Chung-ho (Grandfather of Sammo Hung) made two Fong Sai Yuk films in Hong Kong The Adventures of Fong Sai Yuk and Burning of the Shaolin Temple. There doesn't seem to be much information about what these films were like except that they were probably the first films to be made about a local Cantonese hero. Then after the war in 1948, Hung Chung-ho made 4 more Fong Sai Yuk films with choreography from Simon Yuen, prior to the Wong Fei Hung series. The Fong Sai Yuk series then continued for 14 more films alongside the Wong Fei Hung films.

So best as I can tell, it's really hard to answer question 1 without having the Fong Sai Yuk films available for viewing, but the genre probably hadn't established itself fully before 1948. Though, I think it could be argued that something of a "proto-kung fu film" existed in the 1930s. The answer to question 2 seems to be that there was quite a bit of causality between the 1930s Shanghai action films, the Fong Sai Yuk series, and the Wong Fei Hung films.

Most of my information on this era comes from Jean Luktisch's excellent blog, Electric Shadows (and Stephen Teo very briefly discusses the Fong Sai Yuk films in his book The Wuxia Tradition). Below are some of the main articles I got information from, but there's tons of other relevant stuff on the blog.

The Origins of Kung Fu Cinema, Part 5: Exodus
The Origins of Kung Fu Cinema, Part 6: A New Beginning
The man who was Fong Sai-yuk: Early kung fu actor Sek Yin-tsi (1920-1986)
The Story of Drunken Master: Yuen Siu-tin
Kung Fu Movies in 1948


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PostPosted: Sun Jan 05, 2014 9:58 pm 

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I have to ask Cold Bishop and anyone else who may be knowledgeable of Shaw Brothers movies about a movie I cannot seem to find. The story of the movie was that the Emperor was being attacked by the Tartars from the North. A group of 108 monks helped the Emperor fight them back but the adviser to the Emperor whispered that if these 108 monks could beat back all of the Tartars, then the Emperor should beware them and kill them. The Emperor threw a feast in the monks' honor and when they fell asleep from the wine, they burned the monastery down and trapped them in it. Only 5 monks escaped and eventually formed rebellions against the Emperor.
If anyone knows the name of this Shaw Brothers movie, could you please let me know. I'm stuck and can't find it.


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 06, 2014 7:02 am 

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I'm not sure if its a Shaw film, but is Burning of Red Lotus Monastery?


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 06, 2014 8:06 am 
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I haven't seen the Hsu Tseng-Hung series, but from what I understand, the Red Lotus story (which is part of a much larger novel) is about a pair of lovers being trapped within and trying to escape a fortress. Lau Kar-Leung would later loosely adapt it into Shaolin Mantis (1978) (which I have seen).

Honestly, what you described sounds like the basic Burning of the Shaolin Temple myth, especially the five survivors part (the various "Five Elders" myths). I don't know that there's one specific film that deals with the whole event, at least in any comprehensive way. Chang Cheh's Shaolin Temple (1976) is probably the closest to one (and possibly the still unseen-by-me Ho Meng-Hua films), and even then, you'd need to watch Five Shaolin Masters (1974) to get the rebellion part of the story. But there are several films dealing with individual episodes surrounding it (particularly Chang Cheh's Shaolin Cycle, which is a mixed bag).

Although the films often treat it as one event, historically, the folk tale contends there were two Burnings, several generations apart (but both during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century). The first happened after the Shaolin Monks single-handedly defeated the "Xilu" invaders, a mysterious people which most scholars believe were probably Tibetan, maybe even Russian, not Tartars. After that, after plenty of court manipulation, the Northern Temple was burned for fear of their prowess. There were five survivors here who were responsible for carrying forward their knowledge and establishing a Southern Temple. Most films ignore this one and just merge elements of into the second folktale below.

A generation or so later, the Southern Temple was burned after it became seen as a stronghold for Ming sympathizers and rebels. This Burning was often said to be assisted by both Shaolin traitors and Wudang mercenaries, making it the perfect fodder for kung-fu films. Of this burning, only 18 people are told to have escaped the Temple, and only 5 evaded capture. These five exiled across the country (particularly the South) joining with Shaolin "graduates" and began training the populace. As such, the second burning is often said to be responsible for the dissemination of martial-arts across China.

There's another Five Elders myth belonging to the Triads (The Red Flower Pavilion), who say their society were started by a different group of survivors who started secret rebel societies, which evolved into the organized crime families we know today.

With that said, there is a film that loosely fits your description, although with many details different: Chang Cheh's The Heroic Ones (1970). Here, the heroes are the Tartars, soldiers not monks. They're betrayed not for their prowess, but because, being barbarians, they insulted a high official who refuses to let it go. There's no monastery, but they are trapped eventually within a fortified city, essentially after getting drunk, and have to fight their way out. I have to say, I'm not a fan of the film (I wrote about it briefly on the last page), but it might be what you're after.

EDIT: There's also the various Outlaws of the Marsh adaptation, which are about a group of 108 bandits, although none that fit that description. In fact, being one of the foundational classics of Chinese literature, I wouldn't be surprised if this is where the number "108" was stolen from for the Shaolin folklore.


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PostPosted: Sun Jan 12, 2014 10:32 am 

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RIP Run Run Shaw


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 31, 2014 3:47 pm 

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He had a good run, Orlac. 106 O_O

Has there been any chatter about releasing any Shaws under the Criterion or Eclipse imprints? An Eclipse set of "Venoms" films, or a comparative set of early vs late Chang Cheh...I'd buy two of each.


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PostPosted: Fri Jan 31, 2014 9:20 pm 
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Not happening anytime this decade. I can't see Criterion being interested, and Celestial only sells rights in bundles.


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 01, 2014 12:11 pm 
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It's the "rights in bundles" aspect that has put off British distributors - the market's too small and the risks too great.


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PostPosted: Sat Feb 01, 2014 12:58 pm 

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At first, Celestial would only sell rights to the whole catalogue, so if you wanted King Boxer or 36th Chamber, you'd have to take all the comedies, all the dramas, all the junk. 400+films

I feel that this selling in bundles limited the success of the films being sold. By the time, the official US dvds came out in 2007, Kill Bill (the main source of re-interest in old school kung fu and chambara in the mainstream) was 3, 4 years in the past, and bootleggers had filled that void.

In the UK, Momentum Asia bought up 2 dozen Shaws, released six of them (in non-anamorphic AND with the subtitles so low, you couldn't see them on a 16:9 TV zoom), then did nothing.

At this point, there have been no Shaw US releases for 2 years. It's frustrating that Media Blasters were obliged to release utter junk like Lion Vs. Lion, but didn't get around to their proposed releases of Masked Avengers and Chinatown Kid.

But still ;) there are German Blu-rays, with Mandarin and English audio, but they are VERRRRRYYYYY expensive.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 02, 2014 1:06 am 
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Lion vs Lion is great, and at the very minimum it should be of interest for being the directorial debut of Chin Yuet Sang and Hsu Hsia.


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 02, 2014 1:08 am 
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And there's certainly bigger problems attached to Chinatown Kid...


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PostPosted: Sun Feb 02, 2014 7:45 am 

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Cold Bishop wrote:
And there's certainly bigger problems attached to Chinatown Kid...

I wonder if the longer cut exists in Chinese? I've read what's on the HK DVD is a tamer version for territories like Singapore, but someone once told me that's what they got in Hong Kong too.


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 05, 2014 1:08 pm 

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Orlac wrote:
At this point, there have been no Shaw US releases for 2 years.


Legend of the Bat and Death Duel were just this month released by Well Go, so that's some good news.

Orlac wrote:
It's frustrating that Media Blasters were obliged to release utter junk like Lion Vs. Lion, but didn't get around to their proposed releases of Masked Avengers and Chinatown Kid.
Ugh, Lion v. Lion drove me nuts. It could have been pretty great it had made up its mind what movie it was. Masked Avengers is almost perfect - I'd kill for a better transfer than the IVL...

I've been holding off on Chinatown Kid mainly because of all the different cuts that exist and the seeming lack of a quorum on what the original looked like, theatrically. Maybe someday before I grow old and die. :D

Sigh...so Celestial is STILL pulling that crap with the rights, huh?


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 05, 2014 8:37 pm 

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FungShengWuChi wrote:
Orlac wrote:
At this point, there have been no Shaw US releases for 2 years.


Legend of the Bat and Death Duel were just this month released by Well Go, so that's some good news.

Orlac wrote:
It's frustrating that Media Blasters were obliged to release utter junk like Lion Vs. Lion, but didn't get around to their proposed releases of Masked Avengers and Chinatown Kid.
Ugh, Lion v. Lion drove me nuts. It could have been pretty great it had made up its mind what movie it was. Masked Avengers is almost perfect - I'd kill for a better transfer than the IVL...

I've been holding off on Chinatown Kid mainly because of all the different cuts that exist and the seeming lack of a quorum on what the original looked like, theatrically. Maybe someday before I grow old and die. :D

Sigh...so Celestial is STILL pulling that crap with the rights, huh?

Ah I forgot about Well Go. Since they were pulling the old PAL-NTSC routine, I didn't see any point in getting those to replace the IVLs.


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