Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kung Fu Cinema

There has never been a better time than right now to get into Kung Fu cinema. And there’s no better place to start than with the brand new Dragon Dynasty DVD release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on Kung Fu movies – for that I could easily refer you to a few I know – but I have been dabbling in the genre off and on for several years along with countless other Kill Bill fans. I’ve seen the hilarious and exciting Jackie Chan movie Drunken Master, much better to my eyes than any of his Hollywood movies. I’ve seen The Five Deadly Venoms knowing that it was an inspiration for Kill Bill’s DiVAS. (Honestly, the biggest thrill I got from it though was seeing the famous Shaw Brothers opening logo and fanfare somewhere other than at the top of Kill Bill.)

I’ve recently watched the Dragon Dynasty DVD for Have Sword Will Travel with its thrilling sword fighting climax up and down a pagoda and went through the semi-black market to get a copy of the amazing Shaw Brothers gangster epic The Boxer of Shantung. (For this one, think Scarface set in period Hong Kong with Kung Fu instead of “Say hello to my little friend!” and you’ll start to get the idea.) I even followed the advice of one of those Kung Fu movie experts I told you about and rented We’re Going to Eat You, a great action film set almost entirely on an island of cannibals that is – my friend assures me – the only such film to feature Kung Fu fighting on rollerskates.

None of these experiences prepared me for the greatness of The 36th Chamber though. It tells the story of a village cowering at the feet of a band of oppressors. Its reluctant young hero, San Te, feels that his village would be much better off if they all knew Kung Fu and knows that the monks of Shaolin Temple are the best teachers anywhere, but he doesn’t want to go seek their help since, “They aren’t interested in worldly matters.” But when the villains kill his father, he is forced into action in a scene as wonderfully dark and chilling as Luke Skywalker’s discovery of his murdered aunt and uncle. San Te is now committed to becoming a Jedi Knight … oops, I mean a Kung Fu master.

When San Te arrives at the Temple, by stowing away with some vegetables, he finds himself in a special new world completely insulated from the one he left behind. After a year in the temple though, he complains that he wishes to learn Kung Fu but hasn’t seen anything like it yet, just a lot of yard work and doing dishes. His new masters calmly tell him that all he had to do was speak up and his training – which consists of lessons taught in a series of 35 chambers – could begin.

Again, much like Luke Skywalker, San Te is impatient and wishes to jump straight to the last and toughest chamber to get through his training quicker. And with a sigh, his master obliges and escorts him into a room full of meditating monks. He walks to the end of the room and stands before the head monk who looks up at him with scorn for his impudence and knocks him to the ground merely by the power of his thought, much like The Force. San Te then reconsiders and decides to work his way up from the bottom.

Just as Luke Skywalker had lessons to learn and skills to master before he’d be ready to face Darth Vader, San Te goes through many lessons – a Kung Fu movie expert told me that The 36th Chamber is rare in the huge amount of screen time it devotes to training scenes – and these lessons are widely varied, fun, and fascinating. And of course, just as Luke needed his training with lightsaber and trusting The Force rather than his eyes to defeat his enemies, San Te will need and make use of all of his lessons in often surprising and clever ways to defeat his village’s band of oppressors.

It’s not a coincidence of course that I’ve been comparing The 36th Chamber repeatedly to Star Wars. They’re both torn from the same mythical cloth – even The 36th Chamber’s Buddhist monks as San Te’s mentors have their parallel in Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda (Lucas has never tried to hide the Buddhist inspiration behind these elder Jedi). And I think anyone who enjoys the Star Wars movies will get a major kick out of The 36th Chamber. (No pun intended.) They’re both classic hero journeys and I’m convinced that Lucas had this and other Kung Fu films explicitly in mind when he developed his signature epic.

After watching just a few Kung Fu movies, I’m frequently amazed at all the places I note the genre's influence. It’s actually widely known that the Matrix movies are new school Hong Kong Kung Fu cinema in new clothing. When I finally got around to seeing Casino Royale, I was immediately impressed by its chase and fight scenes as being straight out of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And just last week, I had a very eye-opening re-watch of Peter Jackson’s horror film Dead Alive. It was eye-opening because I’d forgotten just how great it is – best zombie movie ever I tell you – and because it contains a scene of a Kung Fu fighting priest who “kicks ass for the Lord.” This was a reminder that The Lord of the Rings is heavily influenced by Kung Fu cinema, from the sword fighting to the acrobatic antics of Legolas.

Anyone who really wants to understand why movies like The Lord of the Rings are made the way they are really should take a look at some Kung Fu cinema like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Quentin Tarantino also feels very strongly about this and partially intended Kill Bill as a way to get moviegoers to take an adventure and start watching this striking genre whose popularity has sadly died out since the 70s and grindhouses and disco songs – remember “Kung Fu Fighting?”

Now, how to get more people to start watching the many great horror films that paved the way for the realistic and harrowing violence in films like Saving Private Ryan. I think I’ll save that for another time.

No comments: