Monday, December 17, 2012

Kung Fu Theater

Last week, I went to Kung Fu Theater at the Roxie.  Kung Fu Theater is a regularly scheduled series at the Hollywood Theater in Portland (Oregon).  "In 2009, Hollywood Theatre head programmer Dan Halsted unearthed the largest collection of 35mm martial arts films in the Western Hemisphere. We’ve dedicated ourselves to saving these films and presenting them to modern audiences."

Halsted takes some of the prints on tour including a visit to the Roxie earlier this year (which I missed).  This time Halsted brought two excellent kung fu flicks.

Snake in the Eagle's Shadow starring Jackie Chan; directed by Yuen Woo-ping; Cantonese with dubbing; (1978)
7 Grandmasters; directed by Joseph Kuo; Mandarin with subtitles; (1978)

Yuen Woo-ping is  mainly known for his fight choreography in films such as the Kill Bill series, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Matrix series.  Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was Yuen's directorial debut and he would follow it up with a better known Jackie Chan film - Drunken Master.  Far from being his first film, Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was Chan's first successful film as the lead actor.  It paved the way for his later successes in HK and internationally.

Kung fu films often seem to have nonsensical plots.  In Eagle's Shadow, the practitioners of Eagle style kung fu are hunting & killing the practitioners of Snake style kung fu.  Why?  I don't know but just accept it.  The Snake style master (played by Yuen Siu Tien, the director's father) is hiding in plain sight as a beggar.  He encounters Jackie Chan who plays a much abused janitor at a kung fu school.  He teaches Chan some snake moves but insists Chan only use the moves in life-and-death situations.  Chan ends up using the snake style kung fu to kick ass on an arrogant tournament winner but that attracts the attention of the Eagle assassin.  Chan later watches his housecat kill a cobra which inspires him to create Cat style kung fu.  Realizing Eagle style is better than Snake style, Jackie combines Snake and Cat styles in the final showdown.

The scene where the cat and cobra fight looked realistic.  I wonder how they achieved that shot.  Can a cat really defeat a cobra?  I don't know.  Snake in the Eagle's Shadow was entertaining throughout despite the predictability of the script.  It reminded me of sports.  When planning & execution is perfect, it doesn't matter if the opponent knows what play is coming, the play will still succeed.

Halsted introduced both films.  He claimed 7 Grandmasters was one of the five greatest kung fu films ever made.  Made in Taiwan on a small budget, 7 Grandmasters also follows a predictable script.  A kung fu tournament champion travels to each region to challenge the regional champions.  Each region has a different fighting style (monkey style was my favorite).  As the champ travels around with three students and his daughter, he picks up an eager prospective student who wants to learn kung fu to avenge his father's death.  Despite the inappropriateness of his motivation, the master accepts him as a student.

After defeating all the regional champs, the master is ready to retire but discovers his brother has planted the student so that he can learn the 9 strikes of Pai Mei.  There are twelve strikes but the brother stole the portion of the book that detailed the final three.  For 30 years, one brother knew 9 of the strikes and the other brother knew 3 of the strikes.  Frankly, this is all window dressing as the main point is the student goes from trying to kill his master to helping his master defeat the evil brother.  Each of the 12 strikes are "correlated."  I wondered what that meant when reading the subtitles.  It meant that one strike can be used to defend against another strike if the fighter is aware of the "correlation."  That's how the student (with the help of his teacher) defeats the villain.

These films didn't have much wire work which is more common today.  The athleticism of the actors is clear from the fight scenes.  Both were "old school" kung fu films which were skillfully made.  I've been bored silly by kung fu films in the past.  Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and 7 Grandmasters kept my attention throughout which means there must be something special about them.  I enjoyed myself and will likely attend a future screening if Ku Fung Theater returns to the Roxie.

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