As a kid, my first experience seeing a martial arts film in its original language was in San Francisco China Town at the Great Star Theater in 1980. The film was The Dragon, The Hero. What pulled me into the theater of course was one of its stars, Dragon Lee, who I had already developed a fondness for through films like The Real Bruce Lee and Golden Dragon, Silver Snake. Seeing one of these widescreen, non-English dubbed films up on the big screen was for a Kung Fu Film kid like me akin to the best Star Wars experience had to offer to a science fiction nerd. Sitting there I finally felt like I was a real cinephile of foreign action cinema.
Though the film was far from what I was prepared for, less Bruceploitation and more classic Kung Fu lore, one of the impressive introductions I had was to the story’s secondary villain, Ma Ti. The stoic and intense portrayal of the villain’s body guard by Phillip Ko Fei would always stay with me so I was always able to pull him from a crowd in every film I saw of his after. He would fight Dragon Lee again in Enter Three Dragons and of course lend his skills to one of my all time personal favorite films, The Hot, The Cool and The Vicious. But just read the man’s resume and you’d swear it was a rare classic action film that would pass him by.
At the end of 2015 while shooting the upcoming documentary on the Kung Fu film industry post Bruce Lee, Phillip Ko was one of our interview subjects. I covered this meeting in the prior blog but in hindsight now, meeting him would be one of the rare treats of the trip. Of almost everyone we spoke with, including the Shaw Brothers’ regulars like David Chiang and Lo Meng, Ko on paper seemed the most honed through one of the more evident pedigrees of action cinema. A calm and patient man, he waited for us to set up our cameras on a patio just outside the hotel. I remember watching him lift his phone to take a few selfies of himself and our small crew in the background.
He mentioned before we started that this was the first interview he had ever given on camera and in some ways seemed surprised we even wanted to talk with him. This above anything made me realize why we were making this documentary. That not only were the physical film prints becoming lost to the massive wave of time, but the people themselves who bled and bruised their way through a career for our enjoyment were also feeling lost in the swell as well. Ko will probably have much written on him over the next few weeks that will be more thorough than anything I will do here, but if there is one thing I can convey in the brief time I knew him, it is the genuine being that came across that day in Hong Kong.
Taking this youthful obsession of mine full circle as an adult and recount and interact with many of the main players for my book and our documentary has been as revealing about my own life as it is about the subject we are covering. We all take paths that guide us to a series of moments and goals that we either embrace in private or in front of millions of people. Phillip Ko Fei was luckily one of those people that managed to share some of his moments with all those wanting to watch and helped form a genre that history now owns. The kid in me may be on cloud nine for meeting a key player in my development as and adolescent martial artist, but the adult in me was also just as inspired by the same man to remain goal oriented and never stop smiling in the pursuit.