The Season of Kicksgiving
Kicksgiving is nearly here! I thought I’d do a little rundown of my journey to becoming a kung-fu movie fanatic and offer some recommendations if you’d like to become one too.
I watch too many movies. This has been true for most of my life. I’ll watch just about anything, and exceptions to this tend to be specific. However, action and, by extension, martial-arts movies were a blindspot for me until a few years ago. I never put much thought into it at the time, but in retrospect, I think I avoided them because I had a narrow view of the genre, informed by less-than-stellar representatives. While it still holds that films that act as conservative power fantasies are spectacularly uninteresting to me, now I know for a fact that that describes only a small fraction of what the genre has to offer.
It started with Arnold. Total Recall (1990) is a movie I liked from my childhood. Then The Fifth Element (1997). Yeah, I was that person: I defended my beloved genres all while playing the it’s-not-really-an-action-movie game every time I liked an action movie.
My significant other is an action movie enthusiast but never gave horror films a chance. I am a horror movie enthusiast that never gave action films a chance. We schooled each other. He showed me Commando, Fist of Legend, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. I showed him Suspiria, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Fright Night. I’m now a die-hard Shaw Bros fan. He’s now a Dario Argento devotee.
Then I started watching kung fu movies voraciously at The Hollywood Theater and on the El Rey Network. (FYI: El Rey does a Way of the Turkey Kung Fu Marathon now on Thanksgiving weekend!) Shaw Brothers films in particular captured my attention. Learning the folkloric ropes of wuxia movies was fascinating. (Wuxia means “martial heroes” and usually refers to period stories about martial arts legends of China.)
The theatrical staging, bright and bold costuming, and pacing of Shaw Brothers’ wuxia movies are reminiscent of traditional hollywood musicals. Swap out the songs for sword fights. Not always tho, sometimes there are songs too.
From my perspective as an American, it took me off guard how many woman-led kung-fu movies are out there. There’s so much variety to the women in kung-fu movies and that variety is almost always valued in the film. Women can be powerful, villainous, dainty, coarse, naive, religious, iconoclastic, antisocial, goofy, cunning, horny, and any of combination of the above. In other words, women are people not plot devices. It’s no wonder Cynthia Rothrock went to Hong Hong to be a movie star, while Hollywood slept on her.
Kung-fu movies can be harder to get into for Westerners because, honestly, plot summaries and home-video packaging can be very misleading for a lot of Chinese/Hong-Kong releases. Take literally any Jackie Chan movie from the 1970s or 80s as an example.
Actual Star of the Movie: