From March 4 through 6, UW Cinematheque presents six 1970s kung fu flicks, with authors and genre aficionados Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali in attendance.
Header Collage: Four of the six films screening as part of the “These Fists Break Bricks” program. Clockwise from top left: Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) gestures hypnotically in “Fists Of Fury”; Beggar So (Siu-Tin Yuen) trains Chen Fu (Jackie Chan) in Snake Fist technique in “Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow”; Sao Chin Tan (Tao-Liang Tan) fights off a sneak attack in “Dynasty 3-D”; and One-armed boxer Liu Ti Lung (Jimmy Wang Yu) battles the blind monk in “Master Of The Flying Guillotine.”
Kung fu movies have rarely gotten proper respect in mainstream American culture. Often hastily made, badly dubbed by American distributors, and endlessly repackaged to audiences under different titles, they’ve long been considered disposable, low-brow fare. However, at the peak of their popularity in the 1970s, martial arts films became a massive independent film industry with international appeal. Kung fu movies’ storylines of vengeance and rebellion struck a nerve with audiences in the decaying cities of the era as much as they did back home in British-ruled Hong Kong.
A new book on the subject, These Fists Break Bricks: How Kung Fu Movies Swept America And Changed The World, is a lovingly compiled history of martial arts films’ popularity in the United States. Authors Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali cover the rise and fall of the genre, from the surprise success of Five Fingers Of Death (1972) through the 1980s video boom and demise of the 42nd Street grindhouse theaters. Full of larger-than-life conmen, obsessive martial artists, and racially-charged moral panics, it’s a freewheeling book overflowing with outrageous anecdotes and garish movie posters. In celebration of the book’s release, UW-Cinematheque has curated a weekend-long marathon at 4070 Vilas Hall starting on Friday, March 4, at 6 p.m. It features some of the genre’s most influential films alongside several obscure oddities. Hendrix and Poggiali will be visiting in-person to introduce each film.
One of Bruce Lee’s best films, Fist Of Fury (1972) kicks off the series. It’s set in 1910 Shanghai, and stars Lee as Chen Zhen, who seeks vengeance for his master’s death at the hands of a rival Japanese martial arts school. By the end of the film, Chen has killed a lot of stereotyped foreign villains and become a folk hero in the process. While his previous film The Big Boss (1971) reserved his fighting skills for the film’s climax, Lee’s martial arts style is on full display throughout Fist Of Fury. The film also allows Lee to flex his acting range, giving him a love interest to expand his matinee idol appeal and show off his comedic side as Chen disguises himself as a dorky telephone repairman. Featuring the first filmed nunchaku fight and a dynamic performance from Lee, Fist Of Fury set the standard for the kung fu films that followed.
Lee’s tragic death in 1973 cast a shadow over the genre, as it suddenly lost its biggest and most bankable international star. For a decade after his death, fake Bruce Lee movies flooded the marketplace, and Hendrix and Poggiali devote a large chapter of their book to examining the Bruceploitation phenomenon. They cover the careers of imitators like Bruce Li, Bruce Le, and Bruce Lea, as well as the huckster producers responsible for the trend. Truly the weirdest Bruceploitation film of all, The Dragon Lives Again (1977), screening March 4 at 8 p.m., stars “Bruce” Leung Siu-Lung as Lee, who awakens in the afterlife to fight cinematic icons like James Bond, Dracula, Zatoichi, and The Man With No Name. In the film’s climax, Lee teams up with Popeye to defeat the king of the underworld’s mummy army and return to earth. Full of bootleg characters and raunchy jokes about Lee’s sexual prowess, it’s a supremely stupid but thoroughly entertaining piece of trash cinema.
The sole Japanese film in the series, The Street Fighter (1974), screening Saturday, March 5 at 2 p.m., is a gritty, ultra-violent action rampage. Sonny Chiba stars as “Terry” Tsurugi, a vicious hitman waging a one-man war against a crime syndicate who’ve kidnapped an oil heiress. In a genre filled with chivalrous protagonists, Tsurugi is a startlingly unique anti-hero—a sadistic, amoral creep who’ll stop at nothing to get what he wants. Grinning malevolently, Tsurugi gouges out eyes and rips out the throats of his opponents with his bare hands. These Fists Break Bricks recounts how Chiba and Toei Studios disliked the film’s gratuitous violence, while New Line Cinema president Robert Shaye recognized its potential in scouring Japan for films to import to the US. Tsurugi’s macho swagger and the film’s new tagline—”If you’ve got to fight–fight dirty!”—appealed to the genre’s streetwise American audience. The first movie to be rated X solely for violence, The Street Fighter is a gleefully nasty action classic that retains its power to shock audiences.
Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow (1978), which immediately follows The Street Fighter on March 5 at 4 p.m., is an early milestone in the careers of both Jackie Chan and director/legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. In both Eagle’s Shadow and their 1978 follow-up The Drunken Master (the latter not screening as part of this series), Chan plays Chien Fu, a simpleton servant at a mediocre martial arts school, who learns to fight through the eccentric teachings of Beggar So (Siu-Tin Yuen, who would reprise the role for 15 more movies before his death in 1979). After learning Snake Fist technique from a mysterious stranger (Yuen), Chien Fu must protect his new teacher against an arch rival (Jeong-Lee Hwang) out to destroy him. Chan had previously worked as an undistinguished Bruce Lee imitator, but Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master established the reluctant underdog persona and physical comedy skills that he would later perfect in his own films in the 1980s. (Content warning: Snake In The Eagle’s Shadow contains a scene of animal abuse.)
One of the biggest pre-Lee kung fu stars, “Jimmy” Wang Yu, made his name at Shaw Brothers Studios as the lead in Chang Cheh’s influential The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). While it does not appear in this program, the film ushered in a new era of bloody swordplay epics. Though he was popular in Hong Kong and overseas, Wang was notoriously difficult to work with. By the mid-1970s, he was trying to get out of a contract dispute by directing and starring in low-budget films in Taiwan. Master Of The Flying Guillotine (1976), the third screening in the series on March 5 at 7 p.m., is by far the most memorable of the lot, with non-stop fight sequences that made it a hit with American audiences. Reprising his role from 1972’s One-Armed Boxer, another kung fu classic viewers can seek out separately, Wang plays Liu Ti Lung, a martial arts master pursued by a blind monk armed with a mythical decapitating weapon. After attending a martial arts tournament that’s mostly an excuse to fill the movie with one deathmatch after another, Liu faces off against a series of outlandish exotic fighters before a furious showdown with the mad monk. Accented with musical cues plundered from Neu! and Tangerine Dream, it’s a deliriously weird cult classic.
As the kung-fu craze waned in popularity, filmmakers tried to win back audiences with every gimmick imaginable. One of a handful of kung-fu movies shot in 3-D, Dynasty (1977), which closes out Cinematheque’s marathon program on Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m., also used Hollywood’s Sensurround sound system, which was initially developed for the disaster movie Earthquake (1974). Armies on horseback gallop across the screen in quadraphonic sound, and weapons fly at the audience in an attempt to add excitement to a fairly generic wuxia storyline about a prince (Tao-Liang Tan) seeking revenge on a supernaturally powerful eunuch (Ying Bai, in a role similar to the one he played in Dragon Inn). Rarely seen since its original release, Dynasty has been painstakingly restored by the 3-D Film Archive. To kick off the screening of Dynasty, Hendrix and Poggiali will recount the film’s bizarre making-of story, which involves a maverick porno producer and a fiery helicopter crash.
A mix of films from kung fu’s biggest stars as well as some of the genre’s outlandish cash-grabs, Cinematheque’s These Fists Break Bricks marathon is a warts-and-all celebration of kung fu’s golden age. For generations of fans who grew up on grainy VHS instead of grindhouse theaters, it’s a rare chance to see these films in a theater full of other martial arts maniacs.