CSB talks with Grady Hendrix about this week’s 9th Old School Kung Fu Festival in NYC, featuring the films of Joseph Kuo

Grady Hendrix has made a name for himself in the last decade as an author, with books like Paperbacks from Hell, Horrorstör, and My Best Friend’s Exorcism. But Asian film aficionados know him as part of the Subway Cinema team that helped create and launch the now venerable New York Asian Film Festival (his film introductions were half the fun) and the Old School Kung Fu Festival, and as the impresario of the annual Hong-Kong-A-Thon marathon, as well as a prolific writer on Asian cinema.

With the new OSKFF opening at the Museum of the Moving Image and online this week (more information and tickets available here, including online screenings) with a focus on beloved Taiwanese kung fu cinema auteur Joseph Kuo – director of classics like Born Invincible, 18 Bronzemen, Mystery of Chess Boxing, and my favorite, Seven Grandmasters (perhaps the most perfect exemplar of an old school kung fu film) – CSB took a few minutes to chat with Grady about Kuo, the Old School Festival, and the Hong-Kong-A-Thon.

CSB:  This year’s OSKFF is focusing on the films of Joseph Kuo, so I wanted to ask, what’s your personal favorite Kuo film?

Grady:  He has these phases – his comedy kung fu films like World of Drunken Master, and Mystery of Chess Boxing to an extent, and movies that are very much derived from Snake in Eagle’s Shadow – but what I really love are the first and second 18 Bronzemen movies because (a) they’re pretty high budget for Joseph Kuo, and (b) I’m a sucker for those Shaolin training movies where they just come up with one bizarre training technique after another. But these two also do this interesting thing where the first one is all from the Ming point of view, the rebels getting chased down by the evil Qing dynasty, fleeing and hiding in Shaolin and coming back for revenge, very righteous, rah-rah. But then the second movie is from the Qing point of view, and the entire film takes place within five minutes, as lead Carter Huang decides whether to burn down Shaolin Temple or not. It’s experimental, it’s kind of wild, and I appreciate that Kuo, even when his films were lower budget and made quickly, was always trying to do something new and keep the audience engaged. So those two back-to-back are my favorite in the lineup.

CSB:  As you say, it’s obvious he’s working with a bigger budget on the Bronzemen movies, and I was curious if he was working within a studio system in Taiwan, anything comparable to the Shaw Brothers?

Grady:  No, he directed a bunch of Taiwanese movies and then got recruited by the Shaws after two of his movies were big hits, and he worked with the Shaws for two or three movies before he said “screw this” and started Hong Hwa International Films, his own independent production company. He at that point basically financed, produced, wrote, and directed all his own stuff for the rest of his career through Hong Hwa. Hong Hwa was based out of Hong Kong but the films were shot in Taiwan. So, for the Shaolin movies, he had a much bigger budget because he was coming off some hits. And then later in the decade, pretty much everyone got a lower budget basically except the Shaws and Golden Harvest, including Kuo, but he was also working with a much more consistent crew and cast. The Bronzemen movies were definitely Hong Hwa, but immediately post-Shaw. And they were competitors to the Shaws because that was when the Shaws were doing their Shaolin cycle. And 18 Bronzemen was a huge hit.

CSB:  I wasn’t sure of the precise order and level of influence between 18 Bronzemen and Shaws hits like Shaolin Temple and 36 Chambers, which have a similar premise.

Grady:  36 Chambers was later, but Heroes Two, and a couple of those first wave of Chang Cheh/Lau Kar-Leung movies started in ‘72 or ’73, but Bronzemen was at the beginning. I don’t know my Shaolin lore very well, but I think 18 Bronzemen was when the Bronzemen concept really entered the mythology – they’d been around before but not a huge thing as I understand it. 

CSB:  Obviously Taiwan had its own distinctive martial arts cinema with directors like King Hu and Kuo, what do you think distinguishes the cinema of Taiwan, and Kuo specifically, from that of HK?

Grady:  Taiwan and Hong Kong cross over so much it’s hard to draw a clear distinction, but Kuo himself, there are a few things. First is that he was really committed to the audience. His movies are designed to keep butts in seats. There are stunts and action bits, but the films are also incredibly complex. Characters are always revealing some plot twist or secret identity, Kuo wanted the audience too scared to get up. He uses a lot of flashbacks and flashforwards, very complicated structures, he was a writer first and really believed that you had to keep your audience off-balance, not knowing what would happen next. He’d start movies in the middle of a scene, you see that in 36 Deadly Styles.

He also had a good sense of editing and what you could do with the camera, he’s always using little camera tricks and editing tricks to create special effects and supernatural techniques. You see it a lot in Mystery of Chess Boxing, there is a bit where an actor is catching rice bowls that’s obviously an in-camera effect, but it’s fun. And once his action scenes start, they don’t stop. He shoots some of the longest fight scenes. Often it’s just two guys in a courtyard or a field, but he keeps it going and creates mini-narratives within the fights. Kind of like a really stripped down band, like Fugazi, what they do with a minimal set-up. It really emphasizes the physicality of the actors.

Also, he’s always so depressed. Every one of his movies has such a bleak ending. “Finishing move, everyone collapses, the wages of revenge is death.” Which I kind of love.

CSB:  The narrative in 36 Deadly Styles is so convoluted I’ve even read theories that it was a couple of movies that he combined.

Grady:  I’ve heard that but it’s so hard to know. So many movies did that, especially some of the Shaw Bros anthologies like the Criminals series and some wu xia projects that were clearly meant to be bigger but got abandoned and lumped together as mini-films. Kuo, I don’t know. It’s possible, but you see a lot of interaction between the narrative threads, it could have been reshoots to bind it together, because it’s so much of a piece once it gets to the mid-point. Honestly, the first 25-30 minutes of a Joseph Kuo movie, you never have any idea what’s going on. 36 Deadly Styles is like that, but I find that to be the case in all of his movies. It takes almost 30 minutes for them to settle into a groove. 18 Bronzemen, the first 30 minutes is the kid growing up and traveling, and then the last hour is Shaolin. Similar with Return of the 18 Bronzemen. It’s very consistent and weird.

CSB:  Speaking of weird, you’ve told us your favorite Kuo but which is the oddest film of the bunch?

Grady:  One of the virtual screenings, The Old Master. It was made in around 1980, shot in LA, with Bill Louie, the karate star, who’s really great, but the star is Master Yu Jim-yuen, who taught Jackie and Sammo, and beat them with sticks and starved them as children until they learned kung fu. He’s just lost in L.A., looking for his student. There’s this painful scene in the middle where he has to do a disco number and you can tell he wants to die. Every time he turns his back on the camera he gets doubled – rumor is that it was Yuen Biao who doubled him – but the movie just makes no sense, there’s chainsaw fu, it reminds me of something like L.A. Streetfighters or Miami Connection, just a bizarre artifact.

In terms of good weird. Mystery of Chess Boxing, it does that Karate Kid/Drunken Master “I’m teaching you chess but really I’m teaching you kung fu” thing, but then people are turning into giant chess pieces and there’s animation. It’s a straightforward movie with a lot of weird creeping around the edges.

36 Deadly Styles also has some gratuitous wig use.

CSB:  Mystery definitely has a Melies touch in the in-camera effects. Speaking of the wigs in 36 Deadly Styles, I’ve seen a lot of kung fu movies, you’ve seen a lot of kung fu movies. Is Bolo’s wig the silliest wig ever to be in a kung fu movie? It looks like he’s wearing a Komondor on his head.

Grady:  I think that has to be yes. I’ve seen Bolo in some bad wigs. I’ve seen Bolo with a tiny Hitler moustache in more than one movie. But he’s never looked more ridiculous that he does in 36 Deadly Styles. And the other guy in a terrible wig is Hwang Jang Lee, the big bad from Drunken Master and Snake in Eagle’s Shadow. Who is amazing but you have to get past the wig.

CSB:  He looks like he’s trying to be a pop star, not a kung fu master.

Grady:  And by the way, World of Drunken Master has footage of Simon Yuen [ed. Yuen Woo-Ping’s father] as his Beggar So character, just doing drunken boxing on a beach. And it might be the last footage of Simon Yuen as he’d already died by the time the movie came out. The movie itself has a much bigger budget, basically elderly Beggar So and another elderly drunken master meet at the end of their lives and flash back to being kids. And it’s fun and super acrobatic, but then you see how they stopped being friends and it’s actually really emotional and powerful.

CSB:  That’s the same legendary Beggar So character Simon Yuen plays in Drunken Master and Mystery of Chess Boxing, right?

Grady:  Yeah, and there are a lot of people who think he died during Mystery because his character just disappears partway through. Though that wouldn’t be the first time that happens in a Kuo movie. But I tend to believe that he might have died, or gotten really sick during production.

CSB:  There are a lot of great classic kung fu character actors in these films, like Fan Mei Sheng, Carter Wong, and Simon Yuen, any performance you want to highlight?

Grady:  Two people who never get enough credit. Lee Yi-Min, who plays the Jackie Chan part in Mystery and Seven Grandmasters. And Mark Long, he really brings it. He’s Ghostface Killer in Mystery, and usually plays these older roles. Both he and Jack Long are super athletic, super acrobatic, their tumbling skills are great, and a lot of their fight scenes are in fields, not a lot of trampoline, no wires, and they get serious elevation in their jumps. These movies were shot on such tight schedules which reinforces how much Kuo had to rely on the physical skills of his performers. Jack Long’s battles in Seven Grandmasters with Corey Yuen or Yeut Sang Chin as Monkey Liu, those are long, grueling battles with no sets to hide behind. Just the two of them.

CSB:  So, changing the subject, will we see another Hong-Kong-A-Thon this year, or is it still too difficult because of Covid?

Grady:  Tickets are on sale now, and we’ll announce it shortly. January 8 at Anthology Film Archives. As long as Omicron doesn’t kick everyone’s butt and force us to cancel. It’ll be amazing. We have some intensely rare prints. 3 of these I’ve never seen on the big screens. Mostly from 1989 or 1993, two peak years. It’s heavy on Girls with Guns, I think we have two but they’re radically different. This is going to hurt people. Some super intense movies that people will not forget.

CSB:  Looking forward to it. Thanks Grady!

Thanks Emma Griffiths for setting this up. Edited for clarity.

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Review: Benedetta (France 2021)

Paul Verhoeven’s new nuns gone wild true story is a fascinating study in wrong-footing an audience. Just when you think you have the movie, and the titular character figured out, Verhoeven shifts the narrative and point of view. Sometimes a savior, sometimes a monster, Verhoeven’s Benedetta is magnetic, even for her enemies. And a reminder that religion and crazy go together like peanut butter and jelly. Benedetta never quite rises to the hysterical heights of The Devils (the obvious point of comparison), but I’m glad to see major filmmakers still going this far out on a limb.

Some random thoughts:

  1. Hunky Game of Thrones action hero Jesus is a pretty fun Jesus. 
  2. Fun to see Verhoeven back in grungy Flesh + Blood territory, though on a couple of occasions he slips into full Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “Bring out your dead!”
  3. The performances are uniformly excellent, especially Virginie Efira as Benedetta and Daphne Patakia as Bartolomea. But I kept being distracted by Efira’s odd resemblance to Kim Cattrall – am I the only one?
  4. Charlotte Rampling is aging like fine wine – she’s now managed to play spiteful elderly nuns in not one but two excellent movies this year.
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Review: Sawdust and Tinsel (Sweden 1953)

“You smell of stables, cheap perfume and sweat. But I’ll lick you clean like a dog.”

Maybe earlier Bergman is just more my style, I prefer this more wry, humanist material (and his delightful Smiles of a Summer Night) to his heavier experimental or nakedly philosophical films. Sawdust is Bergman at his most Fellini-esque with his tale of a ringmaster going through an existential crisis as his circus visits his hometown, setting up a conflict between his road wife (played by Bergman regular Harriet Andersson) and his actual wife, who has long since moved on. Though maybe it’s the other way around and Fellini borrowed from this, as La Strada came out the following year. Of course, maybe both were borrowing from Ozu, who bookended these films with his dual versions of Floating Weeds in ’34 and ’59. This is such fertile ground, they’re all terrific.

Andersson is really the highlight here, she’s childish and petulant, but vivacious and dynamic – the scenes of her bantering and flirting with a local cad positively crackle with sexual chemistry. She owns this movie.

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Review: The Imp (Hong Kong 1981)

Security guard Keung (Charlie Chin) and his pregnant wife end up with a bit of a Devil Fetus situation after he gets a job in the absolute wrong building. The Imp has all the craziness I associate with HK horror of the era, but relies far more on traditional scares and avoids all of the usual sleaze. It’s effective stuff – I need to check out more by director Dennis Yu, both this and Evil Cat were very strong.

MVP – Kent Cheng, in his matching “Am I a Girl?” “No! I am a Man” shirts and short shorts. (I posted some pics here). Not enough Wang Chung though.

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Review: Wife of a Spy (Japan 2020)

Watching Kiyoshi Kurosawa experiment with new genres over this past decade or so has been fascinating. The man knows how to make an incredibly spooky supernatural chiller – his Kairo/Pulse is probably the pinnacle of J-horror for me – but in his later years he can often feel like he’s going through the motions with horror (as in his lackluster Daguerrotype). Whereas with his more out-of-the-box work, like Journey to the Shore, and Tokyo Sonata, or even Before We Vanish, you can sense the excitement of trying something new.

With Wife of a Spy, Kurosawa enters all new territory, the wartime drama/thriller – perhaps closer to Hitchcock than Kurosawa has ever come before. Except where Hitchcock is usually visceral, Kurosawa remains removed and intellectual, even as he engages with more humanist concerns.

It’s an odd project, a Nikkatsu-produced television movie (shot on 8K digital, and converted/reedited for the big screen) that focuses tightly on a married couple living in Kobe in 1940 in a nation on the cusp of war, a war already well underway in China. Industrialist Yusaku Fukuhara (a cool, confident Issey Takahashi) is a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan, opposed to the war crimes and increased militarization of Imperial Japan. Whereas his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) is more easygoing, more concerned with the personal than the political. When the two get caught up in a plot involving evidence of Japanese war crimes, the biggest confrontations are between them, not the outside world, despite the constant circling of old friend turned military policeman Taiji.

The film is definitely a slow burn. The primary drama lies in the dynamics of the marriage – Takahashi’s Yusaku is an enigmatic figure, whereas the always excellent Yu Aoi constantly wears her emotions on her sleeve. And while the period detail is accurate, I wouldn’t call it sumptuous, this is not Lust, Caution – if anything, it errs on the side of the realistic and drab (perhaps a function of the television budget, perhaps a choice), though the costuming is excellent. And it takes time for the real crux of the plot to sink again, I did not feel fully engaged until the endgame.

Indeed, there are really only a couple of points where the film, for better or for worse, aesthetically feels like what I would call a “Kiyoshi Kurosawa movie.” The Fukuharas fancy themselves filmmakers, and the segments where they and their associates or others gather to watch films capture the oddity of a communal viewing – the in-film films themselves have a slightly surreal quality, especially the choppily edited and faded footage of war crimes.

Oddly, this may be the closest Kiyoshi Kurosawa has come to that other famous Kurosawa, Akira, resembling in some respects his deeply emotional post-war films like No Regrets for Our Youth but mingled with his noir stylings of the ‘40s and ‘50s.  Kiyoshi Kurosawa remains a fascinating chameleon – I’ll always await what he brings next.

Wife of a Spy opens tomorrow, September 17, at the IFC Center in New York before expanding to select theaters and virtual cinemas nationwide, from Kino Lorber.

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Review: Yakuza Princess (Brazil 2021)

Brazil has a large Japanese population, and the social conflicts between returning Japanese ex-pats and more traditional Japanese citizens have been the subject of a lot of great Japanese cinema, like Takashi Miike’s wild City of Lost Souls and Masato Harada’s tremendous, soulful Kamikaze Taxi. But this is the first time I’ve seen the topic tackled from the Brazilian side, as a Japanese-Brazilian woman (musician MASUMI) finds herself pursued by her family’s criminal past in the home country.

The story, based on a comic by Brazilian artist Danilo Beyruth (who did some excellent work on the recent Gwenpool series), leans a bit heavily on yakuza tropes, as we get honorable (and dishonorable) gangsters, betrayals, and assassins. But the film benefits from its atmosphere, as the characters prowl Sao Paulo’s Liberdade neighborhood, home to the biggest ethnic Japanese population outside of Japan. If anything, I wish we’d gotten more of the local color, as the shots of Liberdade are fascinating – I’d like to see a film set more tightly in that milieu.

Despite that, director Vicente Amorim has style to spare, establishing a strong neon aesthetic reminiscent of the work of Michael Mann, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Ridley Scott. But Amorim’s Liberdade has a grungy edge to its Kabukicho-esque visuals – a darker, dirtier edge that still manages to capture the feel of a place where real people work and do business.

Amorim is aided by an excellent international cast, with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as an amnesiac hitman and Tsuyoshi Ihara as an ambiguous gang boss from the home country. Ihara in particular is very strong here, even though the role requires playing his cards very close to the vest. MASUMI has to shoulder a lot of the narrative burden and frankly looks a little more comfortable when asked to sing than act, but handles the numerous action scenes with aplomb.

Yakuza Princess doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre, but it’s a satisfying yakuza film in an unconventional setting, and small touches of oddness (like the yakuza retirement home) are thoroughly enjoyable. Yakuza Princess opens today, September 3, digitally and in US theatres from Magnet Releasing.

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Review: Behemoth (USA 2021)

Horror is traditionally one of those genres where you can do a lot on a wing and prayer, and where you can show off your chops despite a low budget. Here, director Peter Szewczyk (coming out of major shops like WETA and Skywalker Ranch) accomplishes a ton with just 3 months of work and $65,000, and I can’t wait to see what he can do with a serious budget. As proof of concept, this low budget horror looks strong as hell despite its flaws.

Behemoth is a bit of a mindf—k in the Cronenbergian tradition, as our protagonists find themselves embroiled in both real world complications and increasingly bizarre and alarming visions whose reality is constantly in question. Josh Eisenberg stars as the whistleblowing schlub who gets his friends in way over their heads as he tries to force answers out of his sinister employer, a thinly veiled Du Pont-esque corporation that seems to have poisoned his daughter.

While the effects are initially restrained, Szewczyk gradually lets loose as the real world starts to crumble. I’ll confess, I’m much more of a practical effects guy than a CGI fan, but Szewczyk understands that CGI is often best used to make subtle alterations to the real world or to insert vague menace, and is nowhere more effective than when depicting creeping delusions – more Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Pan’s Labyrinth than Phantom Menace.

The cast, many of whom have put in their time in the DTV sci-fi and creature feature salt mines aren’t all fully up to carrying the film, but there are a couple of bright spots – particularly Jennifer Churchich as the sympathetic friend-hoping-to-be-more Keelee and Paul Statman as a Mephistophelian company man.

All in all, an enjoyable time in the vein of a modern Wishmaster, albeit less tongue in cheek.

Behemoth releases nationwide this Friday, August 27, in the US from Level 33 Entertainment.

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Review: Wonderful Paradise (Japan 2020)

Japan Cuts 2021

Looking to scratch that “weird Japan” itch but with some more substantive meat under the oddity? This has a bit of an After Hours energy, as a small goodbye party thrown by a depressed family losing their home spins out into a full blown festival with funerals, weddings, impromptu yakisoba stands, and Biollante. The surreality emerges slowly, like a turtle poking its head out to test the air before sprinting for the ocean – going from a couple randos stopping by to a full on Bollywood dance number. My only real complaint is that there are a few points where the film goes into Funky Forest territory a little too far too fast.

I need to check out more Masashi Yamamoto – I’ve only seen this, Three Points (which I didn’t care for), and Man Woman and the Wall (which was delightfully perverted).

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Review: Go Seppuku Yourselves (Japan 2021)

Japan Cuts 2021

You want a master class in how to make a monologue absolutely riveting? Look no further than this intensely angry short film that maps Toyoda’s anger about government failings during the pandemic onto the story of a samurai (an intense, excellent performance by Yosuke Kubozuka) made scapegoat for an older epidemic. Very much a spiritual successor to Harakiri, and with a funky Noh-meets-noise rock score.

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Review: Free Guy (USA 2021)

A pinch of Matrix, a healthy smatter of Lego Movie, two tablespoons of They Live, and a dusting of Truman Show, stir in some Ready Player One. Let sit for one year and serve slightly cold.

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