The seventh Old School Kung Fu Fest kicks off today in New York City at The Metrograph. The event runs all weekend, and celebrates the kick ass women of classic martial arts cinema. The official theme is “Wonder Women of the Martial Arts”, which makes sense in a year that’s seen the release of Wonder Woman and Atomic Blonde.
The following seven films will be screened this weekend:
- Hapkido (with star Angela Mao in attendance)
- The Fate of Lee Khan
- My Young Auntie
- Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan
- Come Drink with Me
- A Touch of Zen
- Yes, Madam
All of the films have their place in the female action canon, and I’ve been able to watch most them. My stray thoughts on these movies are by no means comprehensive, but they may help situate these movies in the various tropes and traditions of female action cinema, giving you more reason to check them out this weekend.
We can start by tying this into last year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest, which showcased the films of Golden Harvest. The one Golden Harvest film this year is 1972’s Hapkido, starring Angela Mao, Sammo Hung, and Carter Wong. (Both Mao and Hung made appearances in the Bruce Lee classic Enter the Dragon.) The boys do a lot of the fighting against the Imperial Japanese baddies during the first half of the film, which is set in 1930s China. Mao eventually takes center stage to avenge her brothers and the oppressed people of both China and Korea. Lecherous thugs from imperial Japan and Chinese turncoats generally make for solid baddies in kung fu films set during this time--they’re the equivalent of Nazis and saboteurs.
The word “forbearance” comes up throughout Hapkido. It’s a keystone in many martial arts, and both patience and self-restraint help Mao’s character survive until she can exact revenge. There’s a scene in which Mao’s pride is insulted in a dojo full of goons, and rather than take on all the laughing hyenas around her, she clenches her fist and seethes. Wait, her body language seems to say, or you’ll be overwhelmed. Mao’s fight scenes are fierce and well-choreographed. Though it’s not the mega-quick, rhythmic/metered fighting of the later 1970s and the 1980s (a style that Hung would help pioneer), it’s eye-catching for the era and brutal and rooted in story.
Three of the movies at this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest are from the great King Hu, one of the maestros of wuxia pictures and kung fu cinema. The films are A Touch of Zen (1971), Come Drink with Me (1966), and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973). Hu’s undergone a major critical reassessment in the west over the years, praised for his lush productions and style. He’s influenced filmmakers as disparate as Hong Kong action madman Tsui Hark to staid Taiwanese arthouse director Tsai Ming Liang. In recent years, Hu’s films have played a number of retrospectives, and two of his masterpieces, A Touch of Zen and Dragon Inn, have been released by the Criterion Collection.
Though I haven’t seen The Fate of Lee Khan, there’s always been a strong woman as a central player in Hu films I have seen. In Come Drink with Me, it’s Cheng Pei Pei as the hero Golden Swallow, seeking to rescue a political prisoner. Western audiences probably know Cheng best as Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s 2000 wuxia homage Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In A Touch of Zen, it’s Feng Hsu as a hero named Yang on the run in an artsy adventure that’s also about Buddhist spirituality.
I’m going to try to catch The Fate of Lee Khan this weekend and see if I can tease out some bigger idea about King Hu and his badass women. Like Dragon Inn, The Fate of Lee Khan is centered around an inn. I’m left wondering if the martial prowess of the women in the movie (Mao, Hsu, Li Li Hua) leads to gender confusion, which is a common and universal trope in many action/adventure stories--“You can fight, bu- bu- but, you’re a woman?!” Such revelations are often disarming for the villains as well as the heroine’s allies.
It wouldn’t be old school kung fu without something from Shaw Brothers Studios. This year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest has two very different kinds of Shaw Brothers films nearly a decade apart. First there’s 1972’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, Chor Yuen’s brothel-based wuxia picture that plays a bit like a semi-sexploitation/revenge movie, albeit a well shot one. There’s sexual violence, a little lesbianism, and some S&M for good measure, with a kind of luridness that I wasn’t expecting from an early 70s Shaw Brothers production.
And on the other hand, there’s Lau Kar Leung’s My Young Auntie (1981), a broad Cantonese comedy starring Kara Hui as a demure martial arts master trying to keep a family’s fortune away from the hands of greedy relatives. My Young Auntie is kooky and delightful (though maybe a fight-lite affair for some action movie fans), and might play a good double-feature with Lau’s pseudo-screwball comedy martial arts picture Heroes of the East (1978). While the tone of both these Shaw Brothers films is different, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan and My Young Auntie are, broadly speaking, about women seeking empowerment, justice, and dignity in their own ways.
The newest film at the Old School Kung Fu Fest is 1985’s Yes, Madam, a very merry 1980s Hong Kong action movie. The movie stars Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock as a pair of female supercops busting criminals and making them take insane, breakneck falls. It’s so “Hong Kong in the 80s” that it features appearances by Sammo Hung and recurring players from the Lucky Stars movies. Yes, Madam kicked off the “girls with guns” HK subgenre, which basically meant action movies led by femme fatales. Other films in the genre include Magnificent Warriors (1987), Naked Killer (1992), Black Cat (1991), and Angel Terminators (1991).
Yeoh is one of the biggest Asian actresses in the western world, though her Yes, Madam co-star, Cynthia Rothrock, is probably one of the most unsung female action stars of her era. Rothrock was an accomplished martial artist prior to getting into action movies. While her American output tended to be of low quality and direct-to-video, she made many great films in Hong Kong during the 1980s as a star or supporting player. Yes, Madam is easily among her best, but also keep an eye out for 1986’s Righting Wrongs (co-starring Yueen Biao), 1987’s The Magic Crystal (co-starring Andy Lau), and 1988’s Righting Wrongs 2: Blonde Fury.
Seven movies and one weekend isn’t enough to cover the breadth of wonder women in kung fu cinema. An entire program might have been built around King Hu’s output or Angela Mao’s films alone using a similar theme. Though the 1990s isn’t old school enough yet, I was hoping to see something familiar from my teenage years in the fest. For instance, I remember loving movies with Brigitte Lin (particularly The Bride with White Hair), in which the “You’re a good fighter but you’re not a man?” gender confusion was to be expected. There’s also Johnnie To’s Heroic Trio films, which starred Yeoh, Maggie Cheung, and Anita Mui as three ladies saving the day in a dystopian future. (Maybe in the seventeenth edition of the Old School Kung Fu Fest.)
I suppose I bring those other movies up since Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens signal a genuine hunger for female-led action movies. People want stories in which the women aren’t just damsels in distress or trophies for the heroes. Even Doctor Who finally acknowledged the need for more gender representation in male-dominated genres, naming Jodie Whittaker as the thirteenth Doctor. This need goes back decades, and maybe in this particular year these kinds of stories seem more necessary than before.
Girls to the front, and don’t be afraid to kick anyone who gets in your way. Cheng Pei Pei did it 50 years ago, and so can you.