Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is a new documentary about the rise and legacy of Kung Fu cinema out of Hong Kong. It was written by our friend Grady Hendrix and director Serge Ou. What they have created for us is a fascinating and entertaining survey of the globally popular genre. They trace the history of it from its beginnings in Hong Kong, with the growth spurts and transitions to different approaches to presenting it to fans around the World, to its influence over popular culture through the decades. Guaranteed you will come away from it enriched, entertained and enlightened.
Iron Fists was produced by Veronica Fury who helped bring us previous Australian cult film documentaries Electric Boogaloo and Machete Maidens, so you can imagine that it shares the same DNA. Do not mess with a formula that works. First you weave together footage from your favorite martial arts films with interviews, archival footage and behind the scenes tidbits. Then you connect all the dots with eye popping visuals and graphics. The presentation is nearly as dizzying as the amount of information that flies at you like a Chinese Boxer combo. It is a gluttoness amount of information to get through is such a short time, you wonder if the topic would have been better served in a mini-series format. That aside, there is never a dull moment and repeat viewings may be required to ensure you catch all the footage and information they dropped into the mix.
While I would never consider myself an expert on the level of anyone in this film my enthusiasm for the genre is what got me here today, writing this review and writing about film in general for Screen Anarchy. So I think I know a fair bit about martial arts movies. It is nice to go into a film like Iron Fists and still make discoveries and learn things about a genre that you love. I especially consider it a treat to watch all of the archival footage including some behind the scenes footage from the sound stages of Shaw Bros Town. It is a moment where even a clip of foley artists is endearing. That is the stuff I find utterly fascinating.
About the talking heads. This collection of talking heads is vast and knowledgeable. Who is in it? The list varies from from filmmakers, producers, cinema owners to festival programmers – all experts in their field. The filmmakers talk to folks who were there as close to day one as mortality will allow, to those involved in bringing martial arts to North America, to patrons and protectors of the genre today. Friends of the Screen Anarchy family, writer Grady Hendrix and programmer/curator Colin Geddes, have long championed the genre and feature heavily into the mix. Hendrix is in it most of all but that is okay because he wrote the damned thing.
There is a vast number of industry insiders who lend their voice to the story. Producer Mike Leeder, film historian Ric Meyers, Hero cinematrographer Christopher Boyle, director Brian Trenchard Smith, historian Eric Pellerin, founder of the Black Filmmaker Foundation Warrington Hudlin, distributor Terry Levine, whose string of cinemas on 42nd street in New York, between 7th and 8th, will play a vital role in the explosion of interest in martial arts cinema in the U.S. in the 60s and 70s.
Then there are the folks who were on the front lines and part of the action, you have a groundbreaker like Cheng Pei Pei (Come Drink With Me) who paved the way for women like Jessica Henwick, JuJu Chan and Amy Johnston. Legends Sammo Hung and Lo Meng are in there. Contemporary male stars include Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins. Stars of the video era include Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock, Billy Banks and Dan The Dragon Wilson. Ron Van Clief, star in the Blaxploitation movement speaks of his time as The Black Dragon.
Safe to say the list is vast, entertaining and interesting not just because of who is in it, but also who is not. Of the big names that are still around today there is no contribution from megastars like Chan, Li, or Yen. Though Chan features heavily in one of the Shaw Bros’ greatest misses moments he speaks in the doc only through archival footage.
And why is Wilson Yip the only talking head without a name graphic on our screener? He’s one of Hong Kong’s best contemporary action directors and one of the reasons we now see the infusion of MMA principles in martial arts action cinema. The work of Yip and Donnie Yen together (SPL. Flashpoint, and the Ip Man series) is one of the reasons why Hong Kong is still part of the martial arts cinema conversation these days.
Ou’s documentary starts by tracing the beginnings of the martial arts genre from Peking Opera to its modern successors and sphere of influence. I found it curious that Iron Fists starts with Peking Opera and does not make mention of the Seven Little Fortunes, the young Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Corey Yuen, among others, who would shape the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema in the 80s and 90s. I suppose that it was just a matter of “More on them later” when we get to them in the timeline.
If you start at the beginning you start with the mighty production house Shaw Bros and its reign in the 60s and 70s. Described by Hendrix as the ‘Death Star of Hong Kong cinema’ Shaw Movie Town was its own factory; everything could be done in house – from script to screen – and on site because everyone stayed in dormitories. Fist of Legend’s Chin Siu Ho is believed to have held the record of shooting six films at once. Amazing. No union would stand for it anywhere else.
But we discover that Shaw Bros was so big that two of the biggest opportunities to come along in the genre, in a generation, were ignored by the company. They are missed opportunities that would play a part in its eventual ceasing of film production. The mantle for Hong Kong action would be taken up by upstart Golden Harvest and it would run with it through the Golden Age at the end of the century. Shaw Bros never really failed, it just never really capitalized on the big movements and moments in the genre as you will see in the doc.
We see the arrival of Bruce Lee as a godsend. A Kung Fu savant, he also helped bring around the rise of nationalism in Hong Kong, where there would no longer be no ‘Sick Men of China’. Films like these spoke to not only the common man in Hong Kong but also to the genre’s new found fans in America. It was Bruce Lee’s involvement in the television show Green Hornet which set of this explosion of interest in martial arts in the U.S. We see that these films and tv shows arrive in America at the height of the Civil Rights movement, which would give way to the Blaxploitation movement. Standing up to the oppressor in Kung Fu films resonated with that community. Hard. Fight the Man. Fight the Power. The genre also came at a time when the anti-Vietnam War movement was coming along. This sets up the West for the first American martial arts hero in 1971.
There was the emergence of directors Cheng Cheh and Kau Kar Leung and how each of them changed how martial arts films were approached, through violence and Kung Fu’s multiple disciplines. With the rise of a star like Jackie Chan into the 80s we see another shift into how action shifts from scene to scene. The genre was always fluctuating and changing adapting to the times, good and bad, and it’s audience’s needs.
Finally their story will come to the end of the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema at the end of the 90s and the arrival of directors from the East to Hollywood.Their story culminates with Yuen Wo Ping and his game-changing work on The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
That is the history of martial arts cinema in Hong Kong. What about its influence on the international stage?
Part of the history of martial arts cinema that I did not know a lot about was its arrival on American soil, specifically how it exploded in New York, versus, say, anywhere in California or the west coast. You know, what with direct passage and all.. I am sure that the west coast will have something to say about it, but the communities in the disenfranchised sections of New York latched on to it and ate it up, for reasons explained before. New York is where that relationship between martial arts and hip hop began.
The birth of Hip Hop was in New York and Kung Fu cinema was there from the start. You could say the two are synonymous with each other, some hip hop groups obviously more than others (yet, strangely absent from this doc). B-boys Ken Swift and Alien Ness regal tales of how they were influenced by Kung Fu cinema, emulating moves they watched on screen. Hip Hop battles for instance are similar to duels between masters of two schools. As one historian puts it, “They were already doing it but it just expanded the vocabulary”.
The stories of Jerry Levine and his cinemas and editor Marco Joachim and what he did with reels of Green Hornet footage are amazing. After Bruce Lee’s arrival in the U.S. set off that explosion of interest in martial arts cinema audiences could not get enough of it. That is where distributors like Levine came in with his string of cinemas. That stretch played two types of films in those days, porn and martial arts. You got your kicks either way back then. But for a couple bucks you could watch two or three Kung Fu flicks a day. That is my new dream now.
You could throw a dart at a World map and you would find someone in that country who has been influenced by the genre but recently the biggest surprises and greatest achievements have come from countries from the region. These are countries that are taking to heart that will-do-whatever-it-takes attitude from the Golden Age; as Geddes puts it, “Wherever you consider your stuntmen expendable, that’s where the next big trend in action is gonna come from”.
Not only has the genre has risen in other territories and we now get to see other indigenous and local martial arts styles. From Thailand we got Ong Bak and Muay Thai. From Indonesia we got The Raid films and Silat. Filmmakers influenced by decades of martial arts cinema out of Hong Kong now get to put their own spin on the genre, with bone crunching, skull shattering effect.
Jackie Chan’s aerobatics on screen helped birth the Parkour movement in Paris, France. Jackie planted the seed in co-creator Sebastien Foucan that sparked a movement. Wire-fu was a big influence for local Australian rowdies and YouTube stars RackaRacka. Even in a country like Uganda we now have martial arts cinema coming from IGG Nabwana and his DIY films in Wakaliwood, specifically their new film Crazy World, featuring Kung Fu kids fighting off kidnappers.
Back to YouTube before we shut her down for the night. Contemporary stars like Amy Johnston were discovered on YouTube and now she is starring in films opposite Scott Adkins. Going digital has given us unprecedented access to the stars of tomorrow and is the new way for anyone to draw inspiration from the Grandmasters. You can go to any streaming service provider today and find any number of classic and contemporary martial art films in their library. Still though, if I had a time machine, I’d go back to that strip of cinemas on 42nd street and take in a triple bill.
Martial Arts cinema dynasties have come and gone. Institutions like Shaw Bros and Golden Harvest are not the behemoths they once were. They have however indefinitely left their mark on the landscape of the action cinema we appreciate and love today. Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks reminds us how dynamic that journey was.
We may have missed the coming of a martial arts messiah like Bruce Lee we can recall the excitement we felt the first time we saw a Jackie Chan movie. Where were you when Neo said he knew Kung Fu? Where were you when Ong Bak landed its proverbial elbows in your eye holes? Where were you when The Raid changed the game once again?
Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks reminds us that there will always be these moments in martial arts cinema. The vitality of the genre means that it is always changing and always challenging itself to do more, to stretch the limits, to bring it each and every time. The foundation had been laid down before us and it is unshakable. How artists and creators duck and weave on it is where the excitement lies now.