By James Kenney
(First published at WhatchaReading in April 2016). Rejoice, Rejoice! Thanks to Subway Cinema and the newly opened Metrograph Theater, The Old School Kung Fu Fest returns to Manhattan for its 6th annual edition, celebrating Golden Harvest, the studio that proved Hong Kong’s leading purveyor of action cinema in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. All Hong-Kong film fans will know the Golden Harvest opening logo, omnipresent to those who watched martial arts marathons on New York’s channel 5 in the early 1980s and later rented out every Hong Kong title obtainable from Kim’s Video on St. Marks Place or some discreet Chinatown location – my personal haunt was a basement locale on Flushing’s Main Street in Queens where I’d rent imported Hong Kong laserdiscs (!) – they had John Woo’s BETTER TOMORROW and Tsui Hark’s BETTER TOMORROW 3, but, as luck would have it, no BETTER TOMORROW 2. But I digress. Established in 1970 by Raymond Chow and Leonard Ho, Golden Harvest was, alongside the Shaw Brothers, the key studio in the Hong Kong film industry, cultivating talents such as Bruce Lee, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Angela Mao, and many others.
To celebrate Golden Harvest’s legacy, the Metrograph Theater in Chinatown will screen a crowd-pleasing assortment of films from the ’70s through the ’90s, projected in 35mm, save the ultra-rare PRODIGAL SON, which will have a DCP screening.
I was there for the heyday of Hong Kong’s cinema U.S. breakthrough. I saw Jackie Chan’s 1985 classic collage of death-defying stunts POLICE STORY at the 1987 New York Film Festival, where it was a contentious choice, and I saw John Woo’s THE KILLER at its initial, thinly attended 1991 foray into a non-Chinatown theater, the Village East (it was later reissued to considerably more success). Some of my personal favorites beyond the well-known Chan, Tsui Hark and Woo classics include 1990’s unheralded RETURN ENGAGEMENT featuring Alan Tang and Andy Lau; the often televised (but now rather obscure) 1979 Bruce Li vehicle THE THREE AVENGERS; and Johnnie To’s broad Chow Yun Fat comedy EIGHTH HAPPINESS, made before To broke out as the top 21st century Hong Kong action director, responsible for P.T.U., BREAKING NEWS and EXILED.
So I’m proud to report the Sixth Old School Kung Fu fest screens some indefatigable classics that should be seen on the big screen (ENTER THE DRAGON, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX), some must-see relative obscurities (the oft-referenced but little-seen in the U.S. Australian/Hong-Kong co-production MAN FROM HONG KONG) and some in-betweens, including Sammo Hung’s rather bewildering but hugely successful PEDICAB DRIVER. The good-looking Metrograph Theater is very much a work in progress (a restaurant and cinema bookstore are coming) but its screening room has comfortable seating, excellent projection and great sight lines. Be warned The Metrograph is hard to stumble upon, with no exterior marquee. Better to use Google Maps first than blunder around the wrong side of the Manhattan Bridge on Canal Street looking for it as I did. In addition, several (but not all) of the titles being screened have been released on DVD by the good folks at Warner Archives (more information at the end of the piece).
THE MAN FROM HONG KONG (aka THE DRAGON FLIES) 直搗黃龍
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, Jimmy Wang Yu
Starring: Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Ros Spiers, Sammo Hung.
Showtimes: Saturday, April 9 at 5:40pm; Sunday, April 10 at 3:15pm.
Much discussed in the indispensable documentary on Australian genre cinema, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, MAN FROM HONG KONG features the somewhat smug (and dubbed) Jimmie Wang Yu as Inspector Fang of the Hong Kong Special Branch, facing off against a vigorous post-James-Bond George Lazenby and his Chinese and Australian henchmen in a mindless, but ceaselessly entertaining, action time-capsule from 1975. Renowned Aussie cinematographer Russel Boyd’s energetic lensing of no doubt long gone Hong Kong and Sydney locations make every frame mesmerizing even when the foreground action is ordinary. Inspector Fan is a somewhat disagreeable hero, snubbing reasonable requests from the Aussie cops working with him, and paying back a veterinarian who saves his life by immediately bedding down his lovely daughter and putting her in harm’s way. Oh, well. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith (a Tarantino favorite who is best known here for DEAD END DRIVE-IN, SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA, and most recently the John Cusack action comedy DRIVE HARD) keeps the karate fights, foot chases, car chases and hang-glider assaults moving briskly and Mad Max’s “Toecutter,” Hugh Keays-Byrne, is humorous as a bad-mannered Police Officer. An eccentric hybrid of Hong Kong and Australian exploitation cinema, MAN FROM HONG KONG (never available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S.) is necessary viewing for anyone interested in these legendary outposts of extreme action cinema, and features an infuriatingly catchy theme song (“Sky High”) that was apparently a hit everywhere but in the U.S. A must-see.
PEDICAB DRIVER 群龍戲鳳
Directed by Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Nina Li, Yuet Suen, Lau Kar-Leung, Corey Yuen Kwai
Showtimes: Friday, April 8 at 7:50pm – followed by a panel discussion on the history and importance of Golden Harvest Studio (TBC); Saturday, April 9 at 11:00pm.
If Tyler Perry made a Kung-Fu film, it would likely come out like Sammo Hung’s PEDICAB DRIVER, an episodic (or is that disjointed?) look at the lives and loves (and fisticuffs) of 1930s Pedicab Drivers in Macau. The film starts off as a broad comedy, sort of a nostalgic-look-back that must have connected with the Asian audiences who made it a huge hit. Hung’s outsized frame is certainly an interesting variation on the generally lithe physiques of Asian action stars, and the film begins as a mildly diverting Kung-fu COOLEY HIGH, if not quite reaching AMERICAN GRAFFITI-quality. However, as the film progresses, the low comedy develops uneasily into over-emotional sentiment, mawkish romance, and ugly violence perpetrated by a really contemptible (and pretty unlikely) villain that I suppose really played well for mainstream Hong Kong and China audiences. I admittedly found it rather trying dramatically, while still enjoying the film’s milieu, until the whole unholy mix explodes in a final half an hour of lively violence that certainly delivers on the action front. Still, the best action scene, for my money, is an early sequence where Hung magnificently takes on a strangely benevolent Casino owner played by Lau Kar-Leung, who by fight’s end has becomes Hung’s friend. In typical fragmented-narrative PEDICAB DRIVER fashion, this Casino owner is never seen again or referenced.
BIG BULLET 衝鋒隊─怒火街頭
Directed by Benny Chan
Starring: Sean Lau Ching-Wan, Jordan Chan, Cheung Tat-Ming, Theresa Lee
Showtimes: Friday, April 8 at 5:40pm; Sunday, April 10 at 10:00pm.
Less unique than PEDICAP DRIVER but more successful for my money is Benny Chan’s THE BIG BULLET, which plays a bit like a Hong Kong SHARKY’S MACHINE, as a top cop Lau Ching-wan is demoted because of a hostage-situation gone wrong that resulted in him punching out a fellow officer. Sure enough, in his new role, within minutes of screen time he’s already stumbled upon a high-level case involving an effort to knock over Interpol Headquarters and utilizes his not-ready-for-prime-crime-time new associates in bringing down Mister Big. Fast paced and filled with the color and sound of the best Hong Kong Cinema, BIG BULLET may lack the brilliant lunatic poetry of the best John Woo but delivers the goods for any Hong Kong action fan.
ENTER THE DRAGON 龍爭虎鬥
(1973, USA/Hong Kong, 98 minutes, 35mm)
Directed by Robert Clouse
Starring: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly, Angela Mao, Bolo Yeung.
Showtimes: Saturday, April 9 at 3:15pm.
ENTER THE DRAGON revealed Bruce Lee as the international star that he was born to be, breaking free of the provincial action of THE BIG BOSS and FISTS OF FURY. Lee does more for director Robert Clouse (who later made the less distinguished BLACK BELT JONES and GYMKATA) than Clouse does for Lee, but the movie moves quickly and allows for Lee, Jim Kelley and John Saxon to strut their stuff as a satisfyingly diverse trio of “good guys” caught up in one of those to-the-death competitions evil madmen like to sponsor on their private islands. I have never seen DRAGON on the big screen and will thankfully be attending the April 9th screening at the Metrograph. Lee’s feline and ferociously feral fight moves can shatter a television screen; to pay Lee true respect is to take advantage of this rare theatrical screening to see DRAGON in the arena Lee designed it for.
RUMBLE IN THE BRONX 紅番區
Directed by Stanley Tong
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Francoise Yip, Bill Tung, Marc Akerstream.
Showtimes: Saturday, April 9 at 1:00pm; Sunday, April 10 at 5:30pm.
Many snicker at RUMBLE IN THE BRONX’s careless Vancouver-doubling-for-The Bronx locations, with lovely mountain ranges on the horizon as opposed to the Major Deegan Expressway. But that’s churlish, and it’s easy to see why this film proved Chan’s leap-forward-film in the West. His by-and-large sweet-natured humor (unlike Hung’s rather sour, abrasive style as evidenced in PEDICAB DRIVER) is well served in this flamboyant candy-cartoon setting as he helps his Uncle run a Bronx grocery store and fight off a colorful bunch of multi-racial hoodlums who in the end prove to be more-or-less misunderstood ruffians needing a little love. Compare this to PEDICAB DRIVER and it’s easy to see why Chan proved a long-term international star while Hung basically remained a (formidable) Eastern premise. Never mind Chan’s physical grace, skill and timing, equal to Buster Keaton. His action scenes are filmed from all the right angles, capturing the absurd and entertaining acrobatics while quickening the pulse, and his humor, while silly, is actually funny. Chan certainly delivers the goods, and in a much more family-friendly way than Hung (or Bruce Lee, for that matter). Absurd, sometimes hilarious, and often electrifying, RUMBLE IN THE BRONX is another must-see in this series. Chan broke his ankle making it (documented in Chan’s always-great ending-credit outtakes); he gave of himself for you, the cinema-goer, and it’s only right that you pay him back by buying a ticket. Also, be aware this is the Cantonese English-subtitled version of RUMBLE, which was edited a bit for its wide English-language release. So this is your chance to watch the slightly longer Cantonese version, not easily available in the U.S.
A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR 秦俑
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung
Starring: Zhang Yimou, Gong Li, Yu Rong-Guang, Suk Bung Luk.
Showtimes: Saturday, April 9 at 8:45pm.
Anything but subtle, A TERRA-COTTA WARRIOR is an unusual, bursting-at-the-seams period fantasy film that blends romance, kung-fu, comedy and pretty much everything else. Produced by Tsui Hark, WARRIOR follows one of the First Emperor of China’s soldiers (Zhang Yimou) as he is accidentally awakened in the 1930s by Zhu Lili (Gong Li) after being encased alive in clay in the Emperor’s tomb as a punishment. I stole that synopsis from the press release because it’s as good a stab as any to define the undefinable. At times I was baffled at the goings-on; if you blink you might easily lose a thread or three. But the film’s charm and Li’s magnetic beauty will win you over soon enough. Best not to grumble about the intermittent impenetrability of the plot and just sit back and let the humor, action and spectacle overpower you.
THE BLADE 刀
Directed by Tsui Hark
Starring: Zhao Wen-zhou, Moses Chan, Xiong Xin-xin, Austin Wai, Song Nei.
Showtimes: Friday, April 8 at 10:15pm; Sunday, April 10 at 1:00pm.
THE BLADE is Tsui Hark’s homage to the martial arts films he grew up with, such as director Chang Cheh’s wuxia (swordplay) classic, The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). Brutal and gory, with baroque narration by the female lead, THE BLADE is about an orphan (who, sure enough, loses his arm during the violent proceedings) who toils in a foundry making swords and end up defending a town against bandits. This meager synopsis in no way prepares you for THE BLADE, a dark, fiery violent throwback that apparently was a commercial flop upon release (it escaped my antenna entirely) but is now recognized as a modern wuxia classic. It is tough, bloody, bleak and essential viewing for Hong Kong enthusiasts and I’m very glad to have made belated acquaintance with it.
THE PRODIGAL SON (aka PULL NO PUNCHES) 敗家仔
Directed by Sammo Hung
Starring: Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Lam Ching-ying, Frankie Chan
Showtimes: Sunday, April 10 7:45 pm
I haven’t seen Sammo Hung’s THE PRODIGAL SON, so I’ll just quote the press release’s description of the film:
This posh Wing Chun epic is a masterpiece of Sammo Hung’s early career, and the last period kung fu film that he directed at Golden Harvest. Spoiled brat, Yuen Biao, comes up against a true martial arts master, Lam Ching-ying, and begs to become his student. Lam’s not having it, and a series of savage throat locks ensue. Yuen Biao does backflips off the sprocket holes and Sammo Hung punches holes in the screen, but it’s Lam Ching-ying, as an asthmatic Chinese Opera diva, whose blistering fu scorches the emulsion and burns up the film. Unequaled in cinema history, this movie serves it up hot and fast. Lam Ching-ying died sixteen years later at the age of 44 and this movie is a ferocious tribute to the man who was Bruce Lee’s stunt double, and an iconic martial arts star in his own right.
Screenings will be held at Metrograph, located at 7 Ludlow Street, between Canal and Hester streets, in the Lower East Side. Tickets can be purchased in advance online or at the box office. For more information about the Metrograph movie house, visit metrograph.com, facebook.com/metrographNYC/ and follow @MetrographNYC on twitter.
For more information on Subway Cinema, co-sponsors of this event, who also present several other Asian-themed film festivals a year in New York, visit subwaycinema.com,facebook.com/NYAFF and follow @subwaycinema on twitter.
Warner Archive has also thankfully begun to make Golden Harvest titles available as part of their manufacture on demand service. 16×9 widescreen DVDs in their original language with English captions can be ordered for the discerning film fan’s collection. Titles include A Terra-Cotta Warrior (1989), He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (1994), The Blade (1995), Pedicab Driver (1989), Blade of Fury (1993), Big Bullet (1996) and Downtown Torpedoes (1997) – and these few are just the beginning! For information on how to order visit www.warnerarchive.com