“Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung fu film.” – Werner Herzog
There have been a few times in my life when I’ve been searching for a song, but I only have a fragment of a lyric or even less. One time, I had been searching for a song I’d heard repeatedly when I was a kid in the 1980s. For years, after that, I’d scour greatest hits of the 80s CDs and playlists. Until about a year ago when I found it; I just happened to click on a Youtube video and found “Stepping Out” by Joe Jackson. I must have listened to it on repeat every day for the next week. It had been a culmination of different emotions: relief, joy, excitement. The following is an example of a similar quest; this time for a film.
In the early 1970s, kung fu films had become extremely popular essentially taking over the market from Wuxia, which had also featured martial arts but factored in fantasy elements that were missing in kung fu pictures. Films like Chinese Boxer and Vengeance were box office favorites in Hong Kong, but it wasn’t until the arrival of The Big Boss and King Boxer, in the West, renamed Fists of Fury and Five Fingers of Death, that the genre became an international sensation.
For years, I had heard the story of how my parents had taken my maternal grandparents and uncle to the theater in 1973 to watch Five Fingers of Death. I continued to hear the lore about the film throughout my youth. My own experience with kung fu films stemmed from watching a television show called Kung Fu Theater with my father (also in the mid-1980s). Thinking about it now, I recall watching two programs with my dad during this time: Dr. Who (with Tom Baker as the doctor) and Kung Fu Theater. One of the films which left an impression on me featured a character who worked at a dye factory. He and his colleagues are oppressed by the factory owner and the owner’s subordinates. In order to right these wrongs, the lead character (who I knew was portrayed by Gordon Liu, but I was searching for this movie before The Internet) attempts to learn kung fu from Shaolin monks. However, first, he must repair the roof of the Shaolin temple. As he works, he watches the students practice in the courtyard below. He develops a style “Roof-top kung fu” which incorporates elements of what he’s learned from watching the sessions below combined with his rooftop repair.
This movie made a lasting impression on me.
Years later, I was in Times Square with a friend, and we went looking for Five Fingers of Death as a gift for my father. We found a video store that specialized in Kung Fu films. The man behind the counter looked like the recently deceased Tom “Tiny” Lister; Zeus from professional wrestling. He also portrayed The President in The Fifth Element and Deebo from the film Friday. My friend asked about a movie in which Shaolin monks warded off wolves, and immediately the man knew it was Eight Diagram Pole Fighter. My friend was thrilled, and I asked about Five Fingers of Death which they also had. Since I was there, I figured I’d ask about the rooftop kung fu film. Mere seconds into my description, the man said they had it. The film was titled Return to the 36th Chamber or Return of The Master Killer.
I can’t accurately describe the elation I had felt at the time, but I’m sure you get the point. It was a thrill to pick up a copy of Five Fingers of Death for my father, but the real score was Return to the 36th Chamber. I had not only found the movie but looking back on it now, this nameless person at the video store had become my sensei. My only regret, other than the fact the store is probably gone now, is that I purchased a VHS copy which is pretty much obsolete these days; however, the film regularly streams on Netflix. I most assuredly suggest you watch it.
Years later, when I taught in Asia, I walked along the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong a few times and got to see the stars of multiple luminaries such as: Sir Run Run Shaw, one of the founders of Shaw Brothers Studio, a producer of some of the greatest kung fu films of all time. He also lived to be 106. Chang Cheh referred to as “the Godfather of Hong Kong Cinema,” and Wang Yu, icon and star of such films as The One-arm Swordsman, The Chinese Boxer, and Master of the Flying Guillotine.
Andrew Davie received an MFA in creative writing from Adelphi University. He taught English in Macau on a Fulbright Grant. In June of 2018, he survived a ruptured brain aneurysm and subarachnoid hemorrhage. His other work can be found in links on his website: asdavie.wordpress.com