A look at Hong Kong action films, from their roots in choreography of Beijing Opera and the Wuxia tradition of honorable solitary fighters to the evolution in film from martial arts (swordplay) to Kung Fu (fists, feet, and sticks). Talking heads discuss actors: the stylized fighting of David Chiang, the realism of Bruce Lee, and the comedy of Jackie Chan. They discuss directors: King Hu and Cheng Che, whose work leads to international successes of Ang Lee and John Woo. There's a demonstration of editing in the camera, and there are discussions of Japan's influence, the increased violence of 70s and 80s films, the emergence of the superhero, and the films' cultural subtext. Written by
Good but incomplete and slightly inaccurate documentary
This should have been a good 1/2 hour longer. Much of the story was left untold and in that way is slightly misleading. Many clips were not properly attributed and there was a tendency to return to films that were already discussed and passed when the film makers clearly had a larger choice of films to choose from.
A few notes:
It was great to see the really strange magic kung fu films from the silent eras and some black and white scenes that never made it to the states. The "palm power" animated, sword fights were insane. However, the actor who portrayed Wong Fei- Hung was the great Tak-Hing Kwan. His name is never credited as far as I was able to tell. This is like showing clips of Errol Flynn or Humphrey Bogart and never mentioning their name.
Much time is spent on director Chang Cheh with many clips from his brutal historical dramas but no mention is made of his "Five Venom" series of films. Strangely when a clip is shown from Five Deadly Venoms (uncredited), it is dismissively used as a lead in to Bruce Lee's revolutionary new style of film fighting! This is despite the fact that Five Deadly Venoms was filmed at least 5 years after Mr. Lee's passing. The way I've heard it, Lee's film fighting was a reaction to the highly stylized and abstract Peking Opera based fighting of the 60's (King Hu's films for example). It was also a reaction to the many Hong Kong cinema attempts to imitate the fighting style of the Japanese sword films (something Chang Cheh was guilty of). Lee introduced a dynamic and uniquely Chinese way of film fighting. The films that came after Lee, especially those from the Shaw studios, were a reaction to Lee's fight scenes which featured him endlessly defeating mobs of inferior opponents. The late 70's films from Hong Kong had matched opponents in extended, sophisticated battles to the death. Which is better is not the point.
Director Liu Chia-Liang (Lau Kar-Leung) is interviewed, which was great to see, but his films are never given the importance they are due. "36th Chamber of Shaollin" (Master Killer) is probably the most influential film after the Lee films. Besides being a box office success where ever Hong Kong films were shown, the film is probably the best known in the United States from repeated showings on TV. Interestingly "Dirty Ho" is called one of the best Hong Kong martial art films ever but neither Liu or the lead actor Liu Chia-Hui (Gordon Liu) are asked about the film. However since it's almost impossible to see interviews from these men any where, it's hard to complain. Plus some of the things they said were very interesting.
Finally, Jet Lee is brought up and interviewed but it seems that his start in the Mainland China film industry is not considered important. A lot of fuss is made about Jacky Chan's Peking Opera background but Jet Li's as interesting Wu Shu performance background is not mentioned. A point that could have been made was that the classic Hong Kong kung fu film genre had fizzled by 1985, so much so that the Shaws closed their studio and went into real estate. Jacky Chan was making contemporary stunt actioners at this time. It was only the fact that the kung fu genre was growing in Mainland with Jet Li as the main superstar that the new wave was able to take hold.
All in all, a reasonable documentary and some fun to watch. Could have done without the Kill Bill footage. For your information, this particular documentary is a re- edit for the U.S. market of a longer multi-part documentary series.
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