The Movies That Made Us
Updated: Feb 18
Welcome back to Rhetorical Roundhouse, the blog with nothing to do but daydream about how to secretly teach martial arts under the guise of higher education writing classrooms. Last week I showcased a few lecture video clips that demonstrated just that--how to teach self defense, erm...uh, I mean, embodied rhetorics, to my Expository Writing students. Be sure to check that out if you haven't already. And, while you're looking at the Rhetorical Roundhouse Youtube Channel, be sure to like, share, and subscribe so you can stay up to date on our latest content.
This week I'd like to talk for a moment about such content and how the modern culture of martial arts was shaped forever by the film industry. Recently, after it was suggested to me by a member of the Martial Arts Studies Facebook group, I watched a fantastic documentary available on Netflix now called Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks. First of all, I highly recommend this movie if you'd like a crash course in the development of Kung Fu movies, their spread, and larger cultural influences. Today I want to simply highlight a few of the films discussed in the documentary that I have added to my personal watch list because, in all honesty, I'm not the biggest expert in the genre. This documentary encouraged me to embark on a mini Kung Fu flick appreciation journey so I'm happy to share that with you today. Even more important, I want to hear from you! Help me expand my cultural knowledge--what films am I missing? What must I see?
Come Drink with Me (1966)
One of the first concepts discussed in Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is the connection between the early days of Kung Fu cinema and classical Chinese opera or ballet. A fantastic example of that is Come Drink with Me starring Cheng Pei-pei, a classically trained dancer. This film exemplifies the beauty and fluidity of Kung Fu fight choreography despite many early crtitics' belief that it did not belong in the same pantheon of high art. I can't wait to check this one out to see a famous early performance of one of the Kung Fu film industries most celebrated heroins.
The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Of course, not all directors shared the same taste. Chang Cheh is celebrated as someone who added more violence, bloodshed, and machismo to early Kung Fu flicks and pivoted narratives more toward the angry youth rebelling against the establishment. One-Armed Swordsman depicts this clearly and opens the door for future actors and directors to make a critical move away from battles with weapons toward bare-knuckle brawls, ones that featured an underdog against all odds, something that would be crucial for these films to take root in the hearts and minds of marginalized communities across the world.
The Chinese Boxer (1970)
Considered by many to be the first classic Kung Fu movies, The Chinese Boxer was written and directed by Hong Kong's biggest star at the time, Jimmy Wang. This film is most notable, perhaps, because it switched the narrative toward a very explicit critique of Japanese oppressors, thus opening the door for Kung Fu movies to become overt political commentaries. By adding to the successful trope of the underdog story and featuring even more hand to hand combat, The Chinese Boxer fundamentally changed the trajectory for Hong Kong film.
Billy Jack (1971)
One of the first American films to capitalize on this sensational storytelling was the now infamous Billy Jack. An independent film that was first considered a flop, this movie features a champion for a vulnerable native community in Arizona--one who can kick fast. If you haven't seen one of the most iconic martial arts scenes in American history featuring the late great Bong Soo Han, the "father of Hapkido" in America, please watch the clip below. This film marks an important moment in the West: the door was opened for audiences to pivot from their love of American westerns to something different. In many ways, this film marks the beginning of an era dominated by David Carradine's Kung Fu and other television adaptations of the martial art.
Need I say more? The Kung Fu craze was bubbling up in the West, but the full explosion came as a direct result of the most iconic man to ever do martial arts on film. After a rough go at it in Hollywood, one that was not entirely unsuccessful, Bruce Lee decided to make films in Hong Kong. There, e filmed The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The Way of the Dragon, in under two years. It was the success of these movies that finally convinced Warner Brothers that this "Kung Fu thing" was legit and could draw American audiences. This prompted the filming of Enter the Dragon to be released in the West in 1973, just after Bruce Lee's untimely death. It's hard to describe how important Bruce Lee's work and legacy is to the growth and popularization of martial arts movies. It's an understatement to simply say that he changed the world forever. For more information about Bruce Lee, I highly recommend Mathew Polly's biography, Bruce Lee: a Life (2018).
The Man from Hong Kong (1975)
Following in the footsteps of Enter the Dragon came various other successful East/West collaborations--one of which is The Man from Hong Kong. Described by many as the Chinese "Dirty Harry," this film continues to add in spy/crime drama to the modern Kung Fu genre and pushing stuntmen and camera crews to new limits.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Directed by Lau-kar Leung, the 36th Chamber of Shaolin is hailed as one of the greatest Kung Fu movies of all time. I had been familiar with the title more because of Wu-Tang Clan than any real film knowledge and, to be honest, I was surprised at how much this still resonated. I tend to expect that plot takes a backseat in all martial arts films, but that's certainly not the case in this movie or one like The Five Venoms from the same year. Leung's films attempted to demonstrate Kung Fu in a more realistic, fast-paced way, and this film truly delivers. Not only that, but this movie, in many ways, introduces Western filmmakers to the concept of the "training montage" that would come to dominate Hollywood 80's action movies. I'm also putting the 1979 film Dirty Ho on my watch list because it contains one of the most celebrated fight scenes in Kung Fu movies where martial artists simultaneously pour tea and exchange techniques--the clips I saw made this look pretty amazing.
After this period comes martial artists like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet li, and a host of other famous martial artists who have helped shaped the genre to this day. I don't have time to provide the exhaustive list here, but I wanted to share a few that I was excited to investigate. Of course, due to the monstrous success of films like The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Kill Bill (2003, 2004), we live in a world now where Kung Fu is part of the dominant culture--but it wasn't always this way. These early martial arts films aligned with counter-cultural sentiments across the world at just the right time to produce the powerhouse industry we know and love today. And these films and their stars continue to inspire.
In fact, part of the reason I'm cutting it short today is because this film journey inspired me to try a little fight choreography of my own. Be sure to check back in a few days for the Rhetorical Roundhouse Valentine's Day Special: Bee Mine, an original short film with real, live, chop-socky action! I can't wait to show it off to the world this Friday and tell you next week just how hard it is to stage a realistic fight scene.
Until then, thanks for reading. And go watch some movies!