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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