The masters of Kung Fu cinema

Posted by David Konow

God knows how many ridiculous kung fu movies were made back in the 70's that were badly dubbed to the point of hilarity. 



If anyone tried to count, forget it, they'd probably pile up to the moon. But when you see a really amazing martial arts movie, it definitely stands out among the interchangeable chop socky films that flooded Saturday afternoon TV.

Kung fu films are in a way like porno, there's seemingly millions of movies in the genre, but only a small handful that really deliver. As for my personal favorites, kung fu movies that is, they are as follows:

The first martial arts film that reached the U.S. was Five Fingers of Death in 1972. Enter the Dragon, released a year later, took the "chop socky" film to a higher level than its badly dubbed, interchangeable brethren. Dragon made Bruce Lee a top box office star, yet he would not live to reap the rewards of a long career. He died the year Dragon was released, 1973, under mysterious circumstances at the age of 32.

Enter the Dragon blew up the martial arts craze not just on the screen, but also in karate classes all over the U.S. Who didn't want to learn kung fu after watching Bruce Lee? A shirtless, ready to strike Bruce Lee was an iconic poster on many teenage walls throughout the seventies. He was a bad-ass mofo onscreen, but at the same time appealing and likeable.
 
Lee called his style "street-fighting," and his trademark battle cry, which has been infinitely imitated and parodied, was called the kiai. Some of his moves were so fast, the cinematographer of Enter the Dragon reportedly couldn't film them at the camera's regular speed.

As Danny Peary reported in the book Cult Movies, Lee rejected several devices that were commonly used in kung-fu films like pulleys and trampolines, preferring do to all his action without any trickery. (Yet as we've seen in recent Asian, and Asian influenced films, wire work has become a popular style of its own).
 
When you look back on the legend of Bruce Lee, he's like two other iconic, legendary figures: James Dean, because he died young and left behind a small body of work that's still well remembered, and Muhammad Ali, because you can argue there have been better fighters, but only Lee, like Ali, had the complete package of skill, grace, class and charisma.
 
Back in the day, the name John Woo was an urban legend among film geeks, who rabidly traded copies of his movies on video (there weren't DVDs yet, but if you were a true die-hard, you'd have a VHS dupe off a Japanese laserdisc). A Better Tomorrow and The Killer were the titles you'd hear underground fans rave about, but the first Woo movie I ever saw was Hard Boiled, and his work lived up to the word of mouth.

Hard Boiled felt like Die Hard on steroids, but it wasn't all explosions and bombast. Woo could do great action on a big scale, yet he also had a great eye for little details and nuances. His multiple camera / multiple speed action scenes were like wonderful, violent mosaic pieces that were clearly created by a master of his craft. It was only a matter of time before the American studios came calling, and like they do with many brilliant foreign directors, the big film companies tried to neuter and American-ize Woo.

Where the American studios didn't get him, his style influenced a number of American directors, and their interpretations of his style were finally what made Woo's signature filmmaking acceptable to Western audiences. Clearly, John Woo opened up a whole new era for action films and Asian cinema as well. With Woo's films, Eastern action films finally shed the schlocky "chop socky" tag, and his influence in American cinema still looms large today.
 
As previously mentioned, there were tons of ridiculously bad kung  fu films that played on TV,  but Master of the Flying Guillotine is one of the few good movies you'd catch. After seeing it once, you'd look forward to it airing again, or it would be a great surprise when you'd stumble onto it channel surfing.

The film stars, and was written and directed by Jimmy Wang Yu, a legendary cult figure in the world of Asian cinema. The flying guillotine was one of the craziest weapons in martial arts history. Some have compared it to a hat on a leash, with a buzzsaw blade around the inside edges. You hurl it through the air, and it lands on your enemy's shoulders. Once the leash is yanked, your enemy's head is ripped off.
 
Guillotine was restored and re-released to theaters for a brief run, and I regret not catching it on the big screen. Several reviewers have complained that even restored the print is still not in great shape, like many movies that played the grind houses over and over, but as the site Combustible Celluloid writes, "After the first five minutes, you won't mind the print quality. You'll feel blessed that you've had an opportunity to see this unbelievable film."
 
They also liked the film's incredible soundtrack (which at times has a pre-modern metal / industrial feel) as well as the fight noises. "The sound effects alone make this film a must-see," writer Jeffrey M. Anderson continues. "When a fighter connects with his target the screen rings out with 'biff,' 'pow' and 'bam' noises that will make you feel 10 years old again. If you don't walk out of the theater kung fu-ing your pals and making slamming, oof-ing sounds with your mouth, you should immediately demand your money back."
 
Not to mention the impressive fight scenes. "Wang Yu mostly follows the Fred Astaire rule," Anderson concludes. "Show the head and feet in the same shot, and hold the shot for as long as possible without cutting. This way we can see the poetry of the fight, and we know that the fighters are actually fighting. Most American action directors continue to blatantly ignore these rules, and Master of the Flying Guillotine not only shows them up, but also proves how behind the times they are."
 
If you like your kung-fu violent and bloody, Shogun Assassin's for you. In fact, Shogun Assassin is probably one of the most violent Asian films I've seen along with Sonny Chiba's The Street Fighter, which his a great low budget chop socky classic also worth checking out.

As I'm sure you've noticed, even if you've only seen a few of them, martial arts movies usually aren't that big on plot, it's just a thin string to hold the fight sequences together. Shogun Assassin has a classic kung-fu framework of a traveling assassin wandering from place to place, killing for a price. With him is his young son in a baby cart, which also has a built in, pop out blade the child activates in one scene when he's being attacked.
 
Before doing a little research, I didn't realize that Shogun Assassin was based on a comic by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. The comic, Lone Wolf and Cub, appeared every week in Manga Action magazine, and was compiled into a number of paperback books. "The saga of Lone Wolf and Cub is one of the most influential stories to ever come out of Japan," wrote Brian Thomas for mania.com. Thomas also pointed out that the fight scenes in the film were adapted directly from the comics.
 
There were a series of successful Lone Wolf and Cub films in Japan. Roger Corman's New World Pictures bought the rights to several of the films, then writer / director Robert Houston combined ten minutes from the first Lone Wolf movie, and 75 minutes from the second one, and turned them into Shogun Assassin. Houston also wrote a whole new script for the story, and added a clever twist of adding a voice over narration from the child's point of view (also providing her voice talents for Shogun was then-unknown comedienne Sandra Bernhard).
 
In their review of the Shogun DVD, the website kfccinema.com wrote that it "stands out as a movie in its own right" from the acclaimed Lone Wolf and Cub series, "but also as a film which played an important role in carrying Asian cinema from its home territories to the global audience it reaches today."