I caught a double feature of campy Kung Fu classics last night at the Roxie, but I have to start with the story of finding the 35 mm print of these films. First up, Roxie programmer Mike Keegan confessed to having a "blind spot" when it comes to Kung Fu films, and so he introduced the guest programmer from the Hollywood Theatre in Portland (where I attended the H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival and Cthulu-Con, so it's the one arthouse theater I know of in Portland, and it's an awesome place any of my Portland are friends should check out.) I'm sorry I forgot the guy's name, but he told us all the story of how he had been looking for 35 mm prints of old Kung Fu films, and even film collectors kind of looked at him askance for this. But he learned about the Shaw Brothers Theaters. Through correspondence with Run Run Shaw's niece (who ran the theater operations in North America) he developed a theory that films might have made their run around the continent and then ended in a theater in Vancouver, B.C. where it cost more to ship them back overseas than they were worth, so they just stayed there. She finally sent him a key to that defunct theater (now I think resurrected as the Rickshaw Theatre) and he took a road trip there. Now, Vancouver is a lovely city for the most part, but at least at the time he made this trip this theater was on a block of Hastings Street that was famous for having the highest concentration of crack and heroin addicts in all of North America. To hear him describe it, there weren't just frequently people shooting up in the alley, there was literally not a single moment during his visit when nobody was shooting up. In any case, he entered the theater, which was pretty run-down although the auditorium area was still okay. And under the stage he found the mother lode--reels and reels of 35 mm Kung Fu. Cataloguing it, boxing it up, and shipping was another challenge, including the whole shipment being flagged as porn at the border (because of one specific title.) But he now has this amazing collection, including many that are at least the only 35 mm prints in North America, if not the world.
Whew, okay but how about the movies?
First up, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982): We open with two warring clans competing in a martial arts tournament with various forms of weapons. The losing clan decides to get revenge by hiring the Five Element Ninjas from Japan. The Gold ninjas blind opponents with their shiny, shiny outfits. Wood ninjas hide in trees. Water ninjas hide underwater and drag their opponents under and drown them. Fire ninjas...really should be called smoke ninjas, because they mostly just use smoke bombs to hide their attack, but there's a little fire, too. And finally Earth ninjas hide underground and attack upwards with spears to the groin (in a move that drew pretty universals groans of horror from all the men in the audience.) They defeat the first clan's best warriors, destroy their compound, and for good measure also defeat the second clan and claim themselves as the rulers of martial arts in China (I'm assuming the whole Japan-invading-China thing was an intentional WWII allegory.) Only one warrior survives, a brash young guy who is not mature enough. But he meets a new master, studies with his three new brothers, and sets out to avenge his fallen brothers and defeat the Five Element Ninjas. Lots of Kung Fu mayhem, outrageous costumes, and fighting that is of course more like choreographed fight acrobatics than actual fighting. I.e., a Shaw Brothers movie.
MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (1979): While Shaw Brothers were the high-quality movie studio, this was a no-budget film that tried to capitalize on the early popularity of Jackie Chan (this came out one year after his breakthrough DRUNKEN MASTER) by using a Jackie Chan look-alike as the hero. And yes, I mean he really looks and acts like Jackie Chan, more than just all-Asians-look-alike similarity. It also has the best villain--Ghost Face Killer (although the subtitles are so bad, for the first half of the film he's Ghost Face Killing.) In fact, the titles are bad enough that if it had much of a plot it would be hard to follow. But the hero wants to learn Kung Fu, kowtows enough at the first school to get in, but is hated by one of the leading students (because his "help" caused him to lose a chess match.) So after some difficulties, just as he's getting the hang of the place he's kicked out, has to find a new master, and eventually faces Ghost Face Killer himself. Bad subtitles, bad fright wigs, bad acting, good fun!
And afterwards, Mike Keegan promised more Kung Fu in the future at the Roxie, woo hoo! (He also made a personal plea for the Bela Tarr double feature going on this week. So go see that, too.)
Total Running Time: 192 minutes
My Total Minutes: 289,644