A lifetime of observation and interest has lead this once teenaged Kung Fu Movie fan from the 1980s grindhouse theater screenings to the homeland in the far east of the filmmakers that made them.
I am at this moment, sitting fifteen stories above the same cement streets that many of my youthful icons battled it out for cinematic supremacy. I am back in Hong Kong (also where this trip began and is now ending after a tour of both Taiwan and South Korea) with a group of documentarians and fellow producers who have begun assembling the greatest group of Bruceploitation filmmakers since the casting of the infamous The Clones of Bruce Lee. The goal has been to get them to sit down with us and discuss these many years later how they feel that sub-genre has actually shaped up.
As a young Kung Fu movie obsessed fan, I sat and watched films like Clones over and over again at several Bay Area double-bill theaters now long gone. And at this moment, just a bit over ten days into this trip, I have already sat with, had lunch with and even traded some techniques with these icons of my adolescence. But of course the main focus of this journey, to question them on their careers and lives for both a companion documentary to my book and supplemental material for the restoration and release of a handful of their films planned for 2017, was also turning into a goldmine of information.
Film study has been a big part of my life and to have an opportunity to not only meet these far-east filmmakers but to have a hands on investigation into the original physical prints of these films (yes, it can get nerdy like that) has been a once in a life time experience. Particularly with many of these films where their life expectancy was never intended beyond their initial releases. Most more recent converts to these 70s output of films are only used to degraded youtube videos or now antiquated VHS copies, not realizing that unless we “rescue” these prints and negatives from the assault of father time, that format will be the best they will ever look.
So here I will fill the next few blog posts with the experience of the trip and how a 14 year old fan went from watching Dragon Lee rip through Mr. Gruber and his henchmen in The Real Bruce Lee on a triple bill in Oakland to standing in a room with him in South Korea exchanging friendly punches.
On landing at the Hong Kong Airport there was little time to do more than drop our suitcases at the hotel before zooming off to mid town where a small dojo awaited us, 14 stories up a Hong Kong high-rise. I had seen Yasuaki Kurata for the first time in Fist of Unicorn (1972) as a kid but was a bit too preoccupied trying to discern Bruce Lee’s choreography to notice him. Though this Japanese martial artist in his first two years as an actor had already amassed a 20 plus run of films on his resume. Later I would be more aware of his skillful presence when I watched him tangle with Bruce Leung in Little Godfather of Hong Kong (1974), an early entry into the Bruceploitation franchise.
Here the modest and clean dojo was occupied by Kurata’s two children who welcomed us and just a few minutes later, in stepped the man himself. Wearing a pair of gi bottoms and a black t-shirt, his face was easily recognizable under a new mane of white hair. The questions focused mainly on his being a Japanese actor within the Hong Kong film industry, but as with all the interviewees, the main focus was on Bruceploitation and his involvement in it. We would soon find that many of the actors we were to talk to would in many cases need visual reminders of what the films were we were referencing. This was in part due to the many name changes of the titles but also had much to do with the work out put of each one and how many of these films in the end would blend together within their memory. In this case, the film in point was Edge of Fury witch starred Bruce Li and was directed by Lee Tso Nam, two men who we hoped to track down in Taiwan.
Luckily I had brought a stack of “reminders” with me in the form of old posters and lobby cards I had collected over 30 years that were to act as both a memory jolt and an excuse to get my long sought after autographs. In the end, what we got from him was poignant and personal and was only the start of a great group of a dozen super stars of the east to come.
The next day we had both a legend to talk to and a legend to retrace. David Chiang who is one of the most well know Shaw Brother stars in history was to meet us later in the afternoon, but first we went out to get some footage of the locations where the man who inadvertently created this sub-genre had walked: Bruce Lee. The spots we decided to visit were from his most internationally recognized film, Enter The Dragon. First up we took the famous Hong Kong trolly to the top of the hill where the iconic panning shot of Hong Kong was done for the opening credits. We then sped across town to seek out the temple front used to open the film’s debut fight scene with Bruce Lee and Sammo Hung.
Once to where the hired driver had stopped I could tell the area looked different. It was here we discovered that the temple front had been moved from it’s location in 1973 and stored here in its new home. Now looking more like a fake movie front, the ornate giant pillars were supported by modern reinforcement, standing in the courtyard of another actual temple. But this was clearly the gateway to that world of Enter The Dragon that I “walked through” so many times as a young adult.
We then went to the graveyard where Lee’s martial hero paid his respects to his parents before sailing off to Han’s island. A very steep hike up a series of stairs in the middle of Hong Kong landed us in what was recognizably the place I had seen so many times on screen. The main tombstone now replaced where he had once stood, but the many around him were still the same (we had screen caps to refer to as we tried and recreate the shots for the documentary). Was a bit odd being there I had to admit, picturing the crew, who were most now gone, standing here so many years ago filming what would become a monster hit for the company. But there is something about occupying the actual space you have watched dozens and dozens of times on film over your lifetime that is sldo absolutely surreal.
From there we drove to a small Italian restaurant to meet The One Armed Swordsman himself, David Chiang. Located several floors up, this quiet little diner became our base for the afternoon as we set up the cameras and lights. Then in walked David Chiang. Looking much better than I was actually anticipating, knowing his long and respected 60 year plus career at the Shaw Brothers. Dressed well sporting a tweed like button up coat and glasses, he sat for our cameras and in Cantonese spoke for nearly an hour. Clearly a thoughtful and well spoken man, David discussed the early days of Shaw’s martial arts epics, Bruce Lee’s influence on the industry and the way filmmaking has changed over the last couple decades.
On a final note, he took a few questions on The Legend of The Golden Vampires and what it was like learning from actor Peter Cushing on a British co-production. Afterwards, he kindly snapped some photos with the crew and left the building. I was quickly becoming aware of the history and experience I was encountering and about to encounter on this journey and for a life long student and fan of martial arts cinema, it was pretty mind blowing.
As was the unorthodox way we had to shoot this documentary, we traveled over 7000 miles with barely a secured actor assured. That’s right, we were told we had to just “make calls” when we got there to find people. And with a few notable exceptions, our 12 day trip had little scheduled by the time we landed. Each day the goal was to try and secure as many actors, director and filmmakers on my short list 0f 20-30 hopefuls. But by the end of the second day we had been guaranteed an audience with another Shaw Brothers great and a Bruceploitation director with a long and controversial resume.
And somewhere, a half days drive from the hustle and bustle of Taiwan, there was an icon of 1970s Kung Fu cinema who had agreed to meet us in a small park within a small town where he was born and where after a decade long career had decided to “disappear” back into.
But the “Tiger” was about to return for us and we were all anxious for that journey.
NEXT: CLONES AND VENOMS