For over 100 years, celluloid was the the preferred format for showcasing the many stories and creations of storytellers across the globe. In 1884, George Eastman essentially took the innovations of a group of thinkers and artists (including Thomas Edison) and gave it a format in the shape of film. Ever since, this medium has recorded the hard work of artists everywhere into historical documents of sorts and given us the audience our own memories that make up much of our lives.
As the last decade of the digital age has quickly begun to dominate the scene, people like Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have advocated the importance and quality of stories recorded on film. And while many great films over the prior century, particularly created in the United Staes, have been preserved, cared for and scanned digitally for future generations, a number of lesser known and appreciated films have quietly eroded away. Something like Gone with the Wind has an army of well funded caretakers but look for a feature like Bruce Le’s Greatest Revenge and you will find the guardians are less than stellar.
Bruceploitation, and the mothership it belongs in the Kung Fu (Wuxia) genre, has not found many to champion its survival. Until about the mid 1980s when home video became a viable means of revenue, these action nuggets were the equivalent of a pair of running shoes. They ran hard and fast but were quickly discarded. The producers and filmmakers would have had a fairly short sighted projection of the longevity of these films and so were in many cases poorly cared for. Film prints were repeatedly pulled from the same film negative, beating them into unusable celluloid. Images for publicity were frequently made from frames cut directly from the prints leaving less than complete versions of the movie. As home video and television were beginning to become a viable avenue for the films’ future, edited versions cropped from their wide 2:35 scope or anamorphic composition into an awkward 1.33 academy ratio became the new elements for future generations.
As such, the low budget action sub-genre known as Bruceploitation was one destined for a distant memory of blurry youtube versions and a handful of German super8mm digests.
In preparation for a documentary I was co-producing, this state of affairs of our precious genre was becoming very clear. And with each less than stellar print I would find in some collector’s closet or distributors dusty storage unit, it became clear to me we were loosing some of our history. One doesn’t have to argue that The Deadly Silver Ninja is as an important film as Ozu’s Tokyo Story to voice concern, but there is no doubting that the artists, stunt men and actors involved in these energetic stories are still a part of cinema’s history and needed to be preserved. Bluray has in the recent years become a godsend in at the very least maintaining the quality and aspect ratio of these images for future generations. In some cases, the filmmakers are lending some helpful hands to these projects. I recently have been working with Lee Tso Nam on transferring a few of his fan-favorite films into the most watchable and true to form releases of the films since their initial screenings. Putting aside for a moment the viable argument of screening a film in a 35mm print in front of a live audience, the attention to actual 2k scans of original negatives and prints will only help secure the future for many of these left-behind classics.
Film collecting and scanning is an expensive and time consuming endeavor. It is easy to play armchair critic with less than stellar film transfers when they are released but the uphill battle of film sources, scanning quality and color timing make for costly and involved work. I have spent many months with the colorists and filmmakers of various Hong Kong and Taiwanese action films trying to achieve via very modern means the most accurate presentation of the productions. It is an elaborate, and at times subjective work flow that requires focus and passion.
At one time, owning a film collection of even ten films was not only enormously costly and space consuming, but actually illegal in the 1970s. You can look up the stories of actor Roddy McDowall investigated by the FBI for owning prints of his own movie, Planet of the Apes! Today, you can own a film in a beautiful hidef transfer, easy to watch and store all for $14.99. But the issue I realized was there are literally thousands of these classic martial arts films with their best and most accurate renditions already stored and maintained on celluloid. And unless we find the best 35mm prints available, and restore them digitally to hold both their value and the integrity of the filmmaker, we will one day lose the efforts.
I have heard in response to my expressing this that some of the available standard definition, slightly cropped scans that exist on DVD and upscaled bluray are good enough for some. I won’t ever try to convince them otherwise of what they prefer, but as someone who cherishes the cinema I grew up on and respects the goal of the artists behind and in front of the lens, I want to see this format survive as close to the original intention as possible. This over the last couple years has become a burden of responsibility to me as I have encountered 35mm prints of certain films I have not seen in their most ideal condition since screenings in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the bay area. Maintaining both the condition of the films via 2k/4k scanning and making the productions available for future screenings and showcases on a big screen began to feel more like an obligation I owed to my impressionable youth.
Today though the fans of these films rarely experience them the way they were meant to be seen at the time (Millennial filmmakers are now focused on their inevitable viewings on iphones and ipads), the importance of reviving 35mm and 16mm film prints of these forgotten films will only become more and more critical as the years go by and their colors and images continue to fade. But this is not to be a doom and gloom history of Kung Fu movies as 2019 and 2020 look to be good years for film fans hoping for a glimmer of hope. At least a dozen titles worth being excited for as well as a new label forming to focus solely on restoring Kung Fu films in beautiful 2k scans and special editions are in development as of this writing. Using this medium to explore the history of both the films and the genre itself is a worthwhile stage in the evolution of filmmaking and one that will also look to shine a little light back through the frames of celluloid for new generations to experience these nearly forgotten nuggets of action cinema.