Sunday, August 28, 2022

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: Kung Fu Craze Hits USA! These Fists Break Bricks Co-Author Interview & Book Giveaway

By Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali
335 pages; softcover; color & B/W photos; first edition 2021

***At the bottom of this review + interview, you'll find information on how to win one of three copies of 'These Fists Break Bricks'.***

Die-hard fans--particularly those who experienced these movies on New York's fabled 42nd Street--will find this hefty volume the ultimate nostalgia trip; a veritable Bible of martial movie mayhem and everything in between. Casual fans and curiosity seekers won't be disappointed either; there are hundreds of full-color and B/W images of posters, newspaper and magazine ads adorning this brick-breaking, coffee table tome.
Since they exploded on the global stage back in 1973, Chinese Kung Fu flicks left a fistful of imprints all around the world. In the United States, it's a "You Had To Be There" experience to fully appreciate the impact of the Kung Fu movie on American culture. From the early 1970s when they first hit US theaters, to the 1980s when they took on home video and television, the Western fascination with Asian martial arts cinema has managed to survive in one form or another ever since. Whether you were there from the beginning, or came in towards the tail end of it, the history of old-school Hong Kong KF film's influence on every aspect of American heritage hasn't been told till now.
'These Fists Break Bricks' spans four sprawling chapters starting with, appropriately enough, 'In the Beginning', when the first signs of martial arts sprang into motion picture action on Western screens. 'The Seventies', 'Bruceploitation', and 'The Eighties' are jam-packed with a litany of in-depth sub-sections covering the American distribution of the films; their influence on the culture; the cinematic invasion of Sonny Chiba and the Samurai; Kung Fu and Karate's heavy-footed imprint on comic books, merchandising, and wild magazine ads guaranteed to transform you into a ninja or a master of the Death Touch. 
Elsewhere, the grip on the 1980s by Japan's infamous stealth assassins, the home video boom, Kung Fu Theater, and bootleg tapes is studiously documented. The genres big names and cult icons are likewise accounted for--like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Jim Kelly, Ron Van Clief, Charles Bonet, Warhawk Tanzania and others.

The one area that doesn't sell the book is in the protective enclosure housing the 300+ glossy pages. George Eliot's old saying of 'You can't judge a book by its cover'  is applicable in that the cover is not indicative of the lushly colorful contents within. Aside from that, you'll not find a better document of the genres sway on Occidentals.
Even if you're not a fan of this type of cinema, the history of its American cultural conquest is a rich, endlessly fascinating subject that any film fan-atic is sure to find some area of interest. It's especially remarkable in that no other foreign genre style took hold the way Asian Kung cuisine did on these shores and Anglo-lifestyles in general.

Below is a mini-interview with 'These Fists Break Bricks' co-author and film historian Chris Poggiali on his love of the genre, his experiences watching them, and what drove him to document this story with Grady Hendrix.
Venoms5: What was the first Kung Fu movie you saw and what was that experience like for you? 
Chris Poggiali: On a Saturday afternoon in early 1982, I was flicking through the cable TV channels and stopped on WNEW channel 5 about midway through a broadcast of 10 TIGERS OF KWANGTUNG – and could not believe what I was seeing. With its clumsy English dubbing, outlandish sound effects and seemingly endless fight scenes, it looked to me like a transmission from another planet. My brother, who was two and a half years old at the time, wandered into the room a few minutes later and – after hearing me laugh out loud a couple of times – sat down and watched the rest of it with me.
V5: What was the atmosphere like in NYC movie theaters when these movies were shown?
CP: In the '70s and '80s there was an "action track" of theaters across the country that would play dubbed martial arts movies on double and triple bills; or booked with soul cinema /blaxploitation, horror, Italian westerns and crime films – whatever programming put asses in the seats and sold a lot of popcorn. Since many of the exploitation distributors were based in New York, the grindhouses on 42nd Street were usually the first stop for a lot of these movies, and the only stop for the kung fu flicks from out-of-town distributors like Unifilm International (Los Angeles) and Ark Films (Jacksonville) that used William Mishkin as a sub-distributor. That usually meant the Cine 42 or Empire Theaters, but a lot of times the films would get a wider break and open simultaneously in the outer borough fleapits as well as venues in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Westchester County. 
Even in the early to mid ‘80s, a good kung fu movie could bring in $80-$100,000 or more a week just on 42nd Street. No way was a Stamford or Yonkers or New Rochelle theater getting the same kind of business! But those 42nd Street theaters were intense, especially the Cine 42, which had been awkwardly twinned in early 1979 and ran triple features that started at 9am and stopped at 3am. The audiences were composed of mostly males – from teenagers skipping school to parolees, junkies, and winos looking for a dark place to sleep, and other fringe dwellers who’d stay there all day, shouting at the screen and smoking so much weed that the projectionists had to seal off the port windows with duct tape so they wouldn’t get high from the fumes wafting into the booth.
V5: At that time, did your family and friends share your interest in these films?
CP: I didn't have any friends who shared my interest until I got to the University of Buffalo in 1988 and so many of the guys in my dorm were from downstate New York and fans of the Shaw Brothers movies because of "Drive-In Movie" on channel 5. A couple of years later, a video rental store opened up near the campus and it had a substantial kung fu section with a lot of the SB Video bootlegs. We'd rent two or three every weekend. As for family, only my brother shares my interest in these movies. My father watched a couple of the Bruce Lee movies I rented on video, and years later saw a few of the Jackie Chan movies, but he wasn't a fan of the genre. My grandfather watched them with me on Saturday afternoon TV – I remember one time when we switched between FISTS OF VENGEANCE on channel 11 and BRUCE LEE: HIS LAST DAYS, HIS LAST NIGHTS on channel 5 during the commercial breaks – but again, he wasn't a fan, just watching them because they were fun.

V5: What is your favorite (or favorites) movie in the genre, star, director and martial arts choreographer and why?
CP: My favorite movies in the genre change from day to day, but for now I'll say DANCE OF DEATH, a kung fu comedy starring Angela Mao that Jackie Chan worked on behind the scenes. Grady and I showed a 35mm print of that at Fantastic Fest in Austin last year and it went over very well. I like Chang Cheh, Sun Chung, a few of the movies by Lo Mar (FIVE SUPERFIGHTERS, MONKEY KUNG FU, BOXER FROM THE TEMPLE), and pretty much everything by Jimmy Wang Yu. However, because kung fu movies rely so much on action, the directors who are also fight choreographers are really the ones to seek out: Lau Kar-lung and his brother, Lar Kar-wing, as well as Yuen Woo-ping, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and a stunt coordinator named Tang Chia, who only directed three movies (SHAOLIN PRINCE, SHAOLIN INTRUDERS, OPIUM AND THE KUNG FU MASTER) but they're all keepers.

V5: You are also a collector. What is your favorite piece of memorabilia and is there any other item, be it poster, lobby card set, or something else that you'd love to obtain?

CP: My favorite pieces of memorabilia are the ones that are signed, like the one-sheets of LADY KUNG FU and DEADLY CHINA DOLL signed by Angela Mao, a one-sheet of MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE signed by Jimmy Wang Yu, THE STREET FIGHTERS LAST REVENGE signed by Sonny Chiba, and so on. I mostly collect U.S. posters, ad sheets, and pressbooks, and there are still many I'm looking for – probably too many to list here, but I'll name a few. One is KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE, which isn't a movie that I especially like but it stars two late great martial artists, Ed Parker and Bong Soo Han, masters of kenpo and hapkido, respectively, and both well known for training celebrities and working behind the scenes in films. I also like that poster because one of the tag lines is "Ed Parker...11 years bodyguard to Elvis...turns assassin!" I'm also on the lookout for any material that can help identify the films hiding behind U.S. release titles like DRAGON NINJA VS. KILLER LEE, ONE HUNG LEE, TRIONIC DRAGON and others.
V5: What was the genesis for 'These Fists Break Bricks' and how long did it take you and Mr. Hendrix to put it all together from conception to completion?
CP: Back in September 2013 I saw a call for papers for an academic text titled 'Grindhouse: Cultural Exchange on 42nd Street, and Beyond', so I wrote up an abstract for a chapter on kung fu theaters and distribution and sent it off to the editors along with my bio. I didn't think it would get accepted, since I wasn't a university employee, so the rejection email that arrived a week later neither surprised nor disappointed me. I figured a professor with more experience with peer-reviewed journals had already staked his claim on the same subject; after all, isn't kung fu the ultimate grindhouse genre of cultural exchange? Imagine my shock when Grindhouse was published three years later and contained nothing about kung fu movies. It was at that point I realized that if I didn't write a book on the history of martial arts movies in America, nobody would. The academic rejection was the best thing that could've happened to me, because a lot of the wording in that abstract ended up in the book proposal Grady and I wrote five years later and took to his agent.
What finally got me to start taking this project seriously? My brother and I had talked for a while about eating a meal at Nan Bei Ho, a restaurant in Queens owned by martial arts movie star Angela Mao, and we decided to finally go there one Sunday in July 2018. The day before, I went to my storage unit to retrieve a couple of movie posters I wanted Angela to sign, and after an hour of digging through crates of original '70s and '80s exploitation one-sheets, I realized that I had almost 400 that were just martial arts movie posters. That got me thinking about the book in a new way. I had just been involved with 'Ad Nauseam', Michael Gingold's first book of horror movie newspaper ads, and so I had that and Grady Hendrix's 'Paperbacks from Hell' in mind. 
I'd known Grady for a while – neither of us can remember when or where we met – so I called him sometime in late October 2018 just to ask him if I was crazy or if my idea for a book was a good one. I told myself I needed a second opinion, but really, I was fumbling around and a little bit lost. My mother had died and I needed something to take my mind off of that, so I dove right into this kung fu book. I called it 'Kung Fu Ballyhoo' and I pictured it as a collection of my kung fu movie posters, newspaper ads, comic books, paperbacks and other memorabilia, peppered with interviews that would tell the story of martial arts movies in the U.S. The one publisher I pitched it to had zero interest, but I never lost faith – I don't know why, I just knew martial arts movies were going to come back into style. Grady agreed, because he had just been hired to write a Netflix documentary called IRON FISTS AND KUNG FU KICKS that was all about the worldwide influence of martial arts movies. I helped out with that production, and by mid 2019 we had put together a book proposal that caught the attention of Tim League at the Alamo Drafthouse. The book contract was signed in the fall, and then we started trying to figure out a way to tell this story. We began writing at the end of 2019, and around sixteen months later the file was sent to the printer.
V5: Are there any other genre-related volumes or other book projects coming from you in the future?
CP: A book that I co-wrote with Michael Gingold about THE WARRIORS (1979) will be out in 2023, and I'm currently working on a novel and a non-fiction book about movie distribution.
An immense thanks to co-author Chris Poggiali (Mr. Hendrix was unable to participate) for contributing this interview to enhance the review of his new book. 
As mentioned at the top of the page, this review kicks off a contest in conjunction with an upcoming, and massive, five-part series on Hong Kong's Independent Kung Fu film industry in the 1970s: 'The Wild, Wild East: Duel of the Independent Film Companies'
There are three copies of 'These Fists Break Bricks' to give away--two volumes for two US residents and one book for a participant outside of it. All you have to do is drop a message at the Cool Ass Cinema Facebook page. Leave your name, if you're in or outside the US, and what your favorite Kung Fu movie is. All three winners will be announced once Part 5, the last part of 'The Wild, Wild East'  series, is posted--in approximately one month's time. At that time, the three winners will be contacted about where they'd like their books to be sent.

If you'd like to purchase a copy of 'These Fists Break Bricks' , you can do so at amazon HERE.
You can also check out Chris's site, 'Temple of Schlock', a shrine to rare ads and information on genre pictures and their innumerable titles and advertising campaigns HERE.

Back in 2012, Chris Poggiali contributed extremely helpful information on a two-part article for CAC about the distribution of exploitation movies in Part 2 of 'The Age of Aquarius: New York City Sleaze Kings'  found HERE.
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