Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fists, Kicks, and Kung Fu Theater: Growing Up With Martial Arts Movies

Horror and Kung Fu movies are my two favorite styles of cinema. They are the first to leave a deep impression on my warped cinematic senses at a very young age. Having discovered them both in different mediums (horror on television and KF at the Drive-in), my affinity towards these two genres has never waned. This trip down memory lane is pretty much everything that I still rememer, and also how it began for me. Possibly some of you out there who maintain affection for the genre have a similar story to tell.

It's highly unlikely Kung Fu movies will ever attain the god-like status they enjoyed in the 1970s. There was a massive Kung Fu wave that submerged theater screens for several years in a veritable flood of fists, feet, swords and blood before the genre found a home on television where it lived rather happily for a decade. If you were ever a loyal viewer of your city's local KF programming, you are likely to recall the old WW Entertainment logo (the TV arm of World Northal), and that familiar music with the fondest of memories. From there the genre became a major staple of the bootleg market on both videotape and DVDs. The martial arts had been around long before the 1970s, but the film genre, and the arts themselves came to prominence during that wonderful, tumultuous decade.

As Carl Douglas put it in his epically memorable 1974 hit, 'Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting' after Warner unleashed Shaw's brutal bare-fisted actioner FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH in 1973 (aka KING BOXER [1972]) on an unsuspecting public. The fast fists of Bruce Lee quickly followed on the big screen with his own like-minded movies including the iconic ENTER THE DRAGON (1973); from there it snowballed. From music, to comics, and martial arts training advertisements promising to turn you into everything from a ninja to a killing machine, Kung Fu was here to stay. Once big budget Hollywood spectacles got even bigger, KF films became a cult phenom. The New Wave style that began in the 80s reached its zenith in the 90s with modern day slug fests primed with dangerous stuntwork and bone-breaking fight sequences. Towards the end of that decade, the martial arts film had a resurgence in America; in spirit, anyways, via choreographers spicing up Hollywood product with flashy HK style action. Then something magical happened -- the Kung Fu film genre enjoyed a renaissance with the restorations, and subsequent release of the Shaw Brothers library on DVD and VCD (well, most of it) back in the early 2000s lasting from 2002 to 2006.

Being born in 1975, I have vague, but vivid imagery of flying feet and crushing fists at a few different Drive-in's upon moving to NC from Newport News, VA in the late 1970s. Little did I know while sitting in the back of a station wagon enjoying a bottle of long neck Coca-Cola with salted peanuts inside it as Barry Manilow's 'Copacabana' blared on the radio, the impact such foreign treasures would have on my young eyes. I don't remember the first one I saw, but the sight of a one-eyed Chiang Cheng effortlessly hopping, flipping, and leaping around a prison cell in STROKE OF DEATH (MONKEY KUNG FU [1979]) stuck with me; as did the striking theatricality of the opening of AVENGING WARRIORS OF SHAOLIN (SHAOLIN RESCUERS [1979]). I don't recall the number of times, or how often we frequented the Drive-in (there were two in Eden and another was approximately 15 miles away in Wentworth, next to the town of Reidsville), only it was a lot, and there were double and triple features. The KF movies were the only ones I was allowed to watch. Whenever it was a horror film, or something unsuitable for young children, it was the back of the station wagon for me where my toys and blanket awaited; and where I often fell right to sleep.

MAD MONKEY KUNG FU (1979) was another Shaw flick we caught, although there were no signature images that stood out to me (the film is still just average all these years later), unlike the other, lesser known monkey movie mentioned above. MASKED AVENGERS was another Shaw Brothers movie I saw at the Drive In. I remember being at the concession stand with my parents, and wandering off to ogle the various posters lit up with light bulbs for films showing, or soon to be on that screen. MASKED AVENGERS was one of them, and I was transfixed by the image of a demonic mask with those tridents as its selling point. The one thing that stayed with me from that film was the finale when Lu Feng, with his energy nearly spent, sends half a dozen tridents high into the air; and they stayed there, twirling around in circles for what seemed like forever! If you've seen the movie, you know how it ends. One of Chang Cheh's most creative films towards the end of his Shaw tenure later turned up on USA Network's Kung Fu Theatre, and also our local Martial Arts Theater on WGGT-TV48 where it got regular airplay.

Sometime in the mid to late 80s, the Drive-in's we so often frequented were done. The one in Eden simply closed down (only to re-open years later), while Wentworth's Midway Drive-in became a giant flea market. It stayed a flea market for years before everything but the concession area was cleared off; and that was ultimately gutted and turned into a tanning salon, itself now closed down. The other Drive-in located in Eden near the mall never re-opened. I've no memory of going to this other Drive-in. Where we lived, the other two were more accessible. 

You can see the Eden Drive-in as it is today, and what's left of the Midway in Wentworth in the insert photo above. I only wish I'd of had enough foresight to have taken pictures of the latter before they tore the screen down. Reportedly, there were negotiations to re-open this passion pit, but talks fell through with the owner of the property.

After my parents divorced in 1983, the frequency of going to the Drive-in dropped off considerably. Still, I was ecstatic to discover them on the small screen without missing much of a beat in 1983. They were on various channels at different times of the day. The 'Big 2' that aired these movies were the aforementioned WGGT-TV48's Black Belt Feature (later to undergo a few name changes) and USA Networks Kung Fu Theatre. I no longer have episodes on VHS with that logo, but the BBF title screen was that famous still shot of Bruce Lee from ENTER THE DRAGON, while two or three scenes from other KF movies appeared on the screen. Mind you, channel 48 predominantly showed Shaw Brothers movies, but occasionally non-Shaw flicks would turn up like BRUCE LEE'S DEADLY KUNG FU (1976), RENEGADE MONK (1978), and CHAMP OF CHAMPS (1979).

The Black Belt Feature was where I was first formally introduced to the mighty Shaw Brothers, and their unique approach to Kung Fu movies. Prior to that, I'd not paid attention to the names in the credits. Their films were often very violent and bloody, and sometimes the bad guys would win, or everybody would die at the end. You just never knew who would survive. Their movies were so gory at times, a number of titles had these bloody scenes tinted in B/W so as to avoid cutting too much footage. It was here on the BBF that I first saw Shaw films like KUNG FU VENGEANCE (VENGEANCE! [1970]), FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1973), SEVEN SOLDIERS OF KUNG FU (ALL MEN ARE BROTHERS [1973]), DISCIPLES OF DEATH (MEN FROM THE MONASTERY [1974]), UNBEATABLE DRAGON (INVINCIBLE SHAOLIN [1978]), MORTAL COMBAT (CRIPPLED AVENGERS [1978]), THE DEADLY MANTIS (SHAOLIN MANTIS [1978]), ROAR OF THE LION (LION VS. LION [1980]), and the film that became an instant classic upon first seeing it -- SUPER NINJAS, aka FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982). 

Chang Cheh's next to last action epic for Shaw Studio made an impression on me, the likes of which can't properly be put into words. It was so over the top, so outlandishly gory, and I was surprised at how much channel 48 allowed to get through. Incredibly, a brief shot of nudity that occurs during the first 'Fire Element' sequence managed to evade the censors scissors as well. However, a later airing on USA's Up All Night program made sure to clip that nip slip out. Ironically, SUPER NINJAS was so damn good, it was also slightly detrimental to my KF movie love. Suddenly, I began comparing everything else to it; and nearly everything else came up short. All total, I've seen the film upwards of 50 times, and know every line of dialog, every inflection of the dubbers, and not ashamed to admit it.

Upon discovering the film was on videocassette (from Vista Video) a few years later while perusing Brewer's Movie Club in a neighboring town, I fell in love with SUPER NINJAS all over again. I was even more blown away by the amount of footage that was cut out, despite all the red splashing around in those early 80s airings. What was even more surprising was running into people who had seen the movie on television as I had. I bumped into a guy in a Borders Books and Music store once in Greensboro. We were both in the foreign section and struck up a conversation. The guy said he was looking for SUPER NINJAS, and we proceeded to talk about the movie. I did direct him to a video store in Greensboro where he could rent it. I did manage to procure a used copy of SUPER NINJAS from a very small local video store for $5.00. The tape had been rented what looked like a thousand times. They had these note cards affixed to the boxes with paper clips, and there was something like a dozen little note cards attached to the case for SN.

Around this time, Cannon's REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983) had finished its run in theaters and was on video and cable. My dad loved that movie; and I was a huge fan of Sho Kosugi. His TV series THE MASTER (he played the bad guy on there) was on television having premiered in early 1984. I remember showing my dad SUPER NINJAS, and while he enjoyed it, Sho Kosugi's modern day splatter fu was still his favorite ninja presentation.

Speaking of Sho Kosugi, he was my favorite action star in American martial arts films. The guy had a fabulously piercing "I'm going to kill you" stare akin to that of the great Sonny Chiba. He was extremely popular with us kids at school; even though his movies were always R rated, we'd manage to see them regardless. Aided by the popularity of his first three ninja movies, ninjas were anywhere but in the shadows in the 1980s. Kosugi even had his own 'Ninja Theater' video series from Transworld Entertainment. He'd show up with a big smile on his face and state, "Today I'd like to introduce to you...." some deadly ninja weapon followed by a choreographed demonstration of Kosugi battling a number of assailants. After that, he'd bow to the audience and introduce "one of finest kung fu movies"; and occasionally it was. I had about a dozen of his NT tapes that I unfortunately no longer have. 

Meanwhile, over on USA Network, they aired Chinese martial arts movies up to two times a day, and again on their fantastic, all night long music-film-video variety program, NIGHT FLIGHT. You could get your after hours Fu flix fix there with Rick Shaw's Takeout Theater hosted by comedian Frankie Pace. Kung Fu Theatre had a marvelous intro, and commercial bumpers where a narrator would read off fortune cookie fortunes. A mix of independents and Shaw made up the itinerary; such as DEATH OF BRUCE LEE (BLACK DRAGON'S REVENGE from 1975), IRON FINGERS OF DEATH (1982), LITTLE MAD GUY (1980), SHAOLIN DEADLY HANDS (SHAOLIN INVINCIBLE GUYS from 1978), TEN TIGERS OF KWANG TUNG (1980), and INVINCIBLE OBSESSED FIGHTER (1982). Rick Shaw's Takeout Theater was the first time I laid eyes on the utterly ridiculous, if thoroughly entertaining ISLAND WARRIORS (COUNTRY OF BEAUTIES) from 1981.

I used to draw a lot when I was a kid, and into my teenage years. I had this one character I came up with after watching this claymation film in school about dental hygiene. I have vague memories of it, but basically plaque was visualized as something of a serial killer; and this short film showed these little claymation teeth being terrorized and killed by this psychotic plaque creature! Anyway, not long after I made up a comic strip series called Super Tooth. I actually won a (meaningless) school art award (in fifth grade, I believe) for this one Super Tooth story I put together. How does this tie into Kung Fu movies you ask? Well, I was so absorbed with Kung Fu cinema that I eventually dumped the Super Tooth line, and drew these long, drawn out versions of my favorite KF movies using teeth as the main characters. I had dozens of them all drawn in these wire ring notebooks, and only one strip survives today -- unfinished. You can see four pages of it in the insert photo; and if you right click and open in a new tab or window, you can see a bigger picture.

A sample of four kung fu movie related things I'd drawn back in the early 90s.

I also drew more serious illustrations molded after my favorite KF films. Nearly all of these had a noticeable Chang Cheh style appearance with all the blood and grotesqueries. I preferred drawing with pens and B/W imagery, but my morbid mind decided if I were to capture the proper Chang Cheh feel, I'd try out using the color red for the amount of blood I was to splash across the paper. I even created some of my own characters for my own mini-comics. These included a ninja called The Black Manta, The Ghost Fighter, and others; like this armless kung fu fighter pictured at right. I can't remember the name I gave him, but I do remember my little chihuahua pissing on my coffee table and getting several of my drawings wet, including this one.

As the 80s progressed, Black Belt Feature morphed into Billy Bobb's Action Theatre. Billy Bobb (Dana Lowell) was a local celebrity; sort of Greensboro's own hometown version of Ernest P. Worrell ("know what I mean?") and Pee Wee Herman all rolled into one. He even had a weekday Pee Wee type show called THE 48 FUN CLUB. He was often heard laughing in a lovably goofy voice before uttering those famous words, "Too funny". And as you can see from the insert photo, it was emblazoned on his t-shirts as well. Billy Bobb is likely most well known around these parts for his horror hosting on the late, great, lamented WGGT-TV48 on Saturday afternoons and nights. He went from Kung Fu to Horror-SciFi-Monster movies; although one Saturday night in particular, I vividly remember him saying the tapes for the month had been erased somehow, and so martial arts movies were the replacement. 

Channel 48 then resurrected their Kung Fu programming, re-christening it as Martial Arts Theater. At this time it was almost exclusively Shaw Brothers movies, although once in a while an indy movie like REVENGE OF THE SHOGUN WOMEN (13 GOLDEN NUNS [1977/1982]) would sneak in. No longer relegated to Saturdays, MAT was on five days a week from 11pm to 1am. While it was nice to watch KF flicks on weekends, this trade-off had its advantages considering you were getting KF five nights a week instead of just one. It being school nights was moderately problematic, but I'd often sneak up after my grandparents went to bed, make a pallet in the floor, turn the volume down low and revel in the Fu Fury unleashed for two hours on WGGT-TV 48, The Great Entertainer. It quickly became a tradition at school in Home Room the following morning to talk about what movie was on the night before, and what our favorite part was. 

Entering the 90s, Martial Arts Theater changed titles again, and for the last time as Kung Fu Theater. Kung Fu movies on 48 was soon to come to an end as the channel was reportedly in financial troubles. During these dying days, most all the films shown were of Chang Cheh's venom era; and it wasn't unusual for movies like KILLER ARMY (REBEL INTRUDERS [1980]), MASKED AVENGERS (1981), THE DESTROYERS (MAGNIFICENT RUFFIANS [1979]), and DAREDEVILS OF KUNG FU (THE DAREDEVILS [1979]) to play every week.

Not long after, I began collecting martial arts magazines like Black Belt, Inside Kung Fu, and Ninja among others. I'd bought a few here and there in the late 80s, but by 1993, I was buying them with regularity. In these periodicals you'd often find ads for mail order video outlets selling VHS tapes of assorted Chinese and Japanese martial arts movies. The first that caught my attention was a small advertisement for JARS Video Collectibles. Owned and operated by Joe Ragus, Sr., JARS sold pretty much every KF movie available on NTSC tape; and at this time, there were hundreds of them. Whether it was Ocean Shores, Unicorn Video, Master Arts, Saturn, Magnum Ent., Vista, or Southgate, JARS had it. I ordered one of their catalogs, but it did me little good as my allowance was never quite enough to afford the retail prices. VHS tapes were very expensive back then, and I was too young to have a job. We're talking anywhere between $30-$80 for a single tape (see accompanying photos). Considering so many KF movies had enticing titles, the films didn't always deliver. Mind you, I was still comparing everything to SUPER NINJAS. If I remember right, the Vista tapes were $60; and I'd of paid that for my favorite Chinese martial arts movie of all time. I never did order anything from JARS, but I did peruse the catalog dozens of times picking out movies I'd hope to own some day. Joe was very friendly, and I'd often call and discuss Kung Fu movies for an hour or two. He likely had better things to do than talk to a 13 year old fixated on old Chinese movies, but he never let on like he was bothered at all.

Dragon Video was another mail order outfit that took up a two, sometimes three page space within the glossy pages of Black Belt magazine and others like Karate International. Dragon Video spoke my language by offering dozens of Shaw Brothers movies. There was a downside to this, naturally. DV was my first experience with bootleggers. Movie pirates were just like used car salesmen with lots of lemons on their lot. Regardless of who started what first, most of these guys would lie their asses off to get you to buy their stuff. And at $40 a tape, Dragon Video tapes were woefully overpriced, and the custom made covers screamed bootleg. I was so infatuated with Shaw Brothers movies, I didn't care about the price, or the source; so I frequently bought tape after tape with my allowance. The first tape I ordered was MORTAL COMBAT (CRIPPLED AVENGERS). I was ecstatic upon receiving it, despite reservations over the look of the cover. I'd never ordered a tape like this before. The print quality was quite good, and this version definitely had a lot of additional footage that was sacrificed for the sake of commercials on TV, but it still seemed to be missing something. I called once and, instead of the usual answering machine, got to speak with the owner (George Tan, most likely), I asked if the film was complete, and he said, "yes". It wasn't, of course. There were these colored screens that obscured the "Edited For Television By Larry Bensky" title card, and a fake copyright for Shaw Brothers Video (another bootleg outfit). After buying a dozen or so of these TV prints I did manage to get an uncut copy of MASKED AVENGERS (1981), although the copy was one of the worst -- audibly and visually -- I'd ever seen. It wasn't worth $10 much less $40.

Eventually I found Far East Flix in the early 90s, and there was really no reason to go anywhere else again for a Fu Flix Fix. They were far more reasonably priced, and unlike virtually all other video pirates, you'd get an honest assessment of what you were buying. Finding them was like a revelation, too, as they offered a number of uncut Shaw Brothers films. Not all of them, of course, but most were; and a great many decent quality titles in Chinese with English subtitles. It was through FEF that I was able to see FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (FIVE VENOMS), the revered genre cult classic. It being in widescreen made it even better, but alas, I must admit it wasn't quite as good as some of the other venom movies I'd seen prior. Seeing such favorites as SHAOLIN MARTIAL ARTS (1974) uncut in widescreen, and Chang Cheh's 1970 epic HEROIC ONES (which I saw on TV in 1987 as the oddly titled SHAOLIN MASTERS!) in its uncut gory glory were additional revelations. Far East Flix are still in operation today.

I always ordered COD (with Dragon Video), and the UPS guy would sometimes come by and I'd be at work, or somewhere else. So I'd hop in my car and try to guess just where the UPS man might be in the area. Miraculously, I'd always find him! One time, it was a major thunderstorm with pouring rain. I found him going up highway 14 back to Greensboro, so I pointed for him to pull over, which he did. He likely thought I was telling him he had a flat tire, or something. He just laughed, probably at me that this crazy kid was that passionate about his "flicks" to chase down the UPS man in the middle of a downpour. He later let it be known he thought I had been ordering porn movies!

In addition to literally buying every budget label KF flick I could get my hands on (Video Treasures and Goodtimes, especially), I'd been to virtually every video store within a 60 mile radius looking for Kung Fu films I'd not seen; and also to vainly try and coerce the store owners to relinquish their copies to me. There was another video store (the name escapes me at the moment) in the 'Boro whose KF rentals appealed to customers more than the actual new releases! They had a massive selection, too. A lot of Shaw bootlegs from that Dragon Video label, and dozens of Ocean Shores titles among many others. On more than a few occasions I ventured out there and talked The Fu with like-minded members of the martial movie world. KF films were like this secret society among those that loved them. There was this overwhelming sense of camaraderie when fans discovered other fans; at least in my state as most folks weren't interested in these movies, and those that were, it was more of a case of passing nostalgia than any desire to watch the movies again.

I do remember being particularly excited when Jackie Chan was set to burst onto the American movie scene with his RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (1993). Personally, I've never been a big Jackie Chan fan (or Bruce Lee, for that matter), but still enjoy his earlier works; yet at that time, I was eager to see this, and unfortunately, I was resoundingly disappointed in this mediocre movie. There were much better films to re-introduce Chan to America (before with THE BIG BRAWL in 1980, and supporting roles in two CANNONBALL RUN movies), but New Line had a financial interest in this one. Deemed a hit (it really wasn't that big of a success), it led to a few more Chan flicks in US theaters, yet these were edited down considerably, had new music added, and each one made less and less till Chan was relegated to buddy status in Hollywood movies. 

Jet Li fared better co-starring in Richard Donner's LETHAL WEAPON 4 (1996). I remember being out with friends, and everybody wanted to go to the movies. Nobody could decide, so I suggested LW4. Admittedly, I'd never seen any of the other LW movies (and still haven't), but we all went to this one. When it was over with, all anybody could talk about was Jet Li. I was so excited that I'd possibly turned on my mainstream circle of friends to the HK style of cinema. We were all hanging out afterward and I suggested taking a look at some of Jet's Hong Kong pictures. Everybody was in agreement, so I rushed home and returned with modern day actioners like BODYGUARD FROM BEIJING (1994) and HIGH RISK (1995). As soon as I'd started up the former, one of my friends turned to me and said, "Is this dubbed?" They'd never seen one of these films before. They knew of them, but hadn't experienced one before. Needless to say, about ten minutes into it, nobody was into it.

And so our close knit society of KF film fans got smaller and smaller. Many of the old guard have gotten older, or passed away, and there's fewer and fewer new fans. 'But still' -- to use an oft-heard phrase in old school KF flicks -- the genre got a major shot in the arm with the aforementioned release of the bulk of the Shaw Brothers library (549 films were released in a five year time frame). This was a dream come true, at least for me. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think those movies would EVER surface legitimately on DVD; and meticulously restored looking like they were made yesterday. 

Things have died down considerably since the last HK Shaw release in 2006, and the relatively brief US exposure of a handful of familiar titles on DVD and Blu-ray on these shores. Over the years I've amassed a sizable collection of old magazines and memorabilia, along with DVDs of these movies numbering in the hundreds. My affection for the genre hasn't died down at all; if anything it's increased, particularly for the Shaw library since so many more films saw release on DVD that I'd either only ever heard of, or not at all. There's something special about their films that clicked with me. The look, the sets, the sound effects, and of course the splattery action sequences. There weren't many in my area that maintained this life-long love for martial arts movies (I am likely the only one in this town!), I only wish I could remember more than what's transcribed here. There are times when I watch one of them now, I feel like that same bright-eyed little boy sitting in the back of a station wagon marveling at the action that captured my imagination over thirty years ago. That never gets old, and I suppose it's one of the things that allows me to remain a kid at heart.

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