All Sorts of Action

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The New York Sun

Beginning today, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater hosts Heroic Grace II, a sequel to the UCLA Film Archive’s 2003 touring minifestival of Hong Kong martial arts films, Heroic Grace. Version II boasts 10 films (six in immaculate new restorations) from the 1970s and early 1980s, the kung fu movie heyday of the Shaw Brothers Studios in Hong Kong. Though the name before the titles is “Shaw,” this grouping is a testament to the talent of the four directors featured in the program.

By the late 1960s, Run Run Shaw had used his family’s vast theater chain and Movietown, his own Kowloon studio fiefdom, to take a large bite out of the competitive Asian film market. As the ’70s approached, Mr. Shaw’s horizons spread overseas. Noting that “the public loves action, all sorts of action,” Mr. Shaw urged his staff to create Asian action films that could fill seats in every international market.The result was the modern kung fu movie.

In his indispensable book “Planet Hong Kong,” David Bordwell observes that Mr. Shaw’s house filmmakers took inspiration from wherever they could find it. The films in Heroic Grace II swipe styles, plots, beats, and whole music cues from Italian and American Westerns, Japanese samurai films, and traditional Peking opera. But beneath the Shaw Brothers’ surface kung fu trademarks of atrocious dubbing, cartoonish bloodletting, whip zooms, and abrupt endings lies resourceful filmmaking of the highest order. What makes Shaw Brothers 1970s and 1980s kung fu movies endlessly fascinating to watch is the creative dynamic between the feats of physical precision the films depict and the corresponding feats of directorial ingenuity used to depict them.

Mr. Shaw knew he would need directors of unusually adaptable vision to helm his new films.After seeing the work of South Korean Chung Changwha, he signed Mr. Chung to a multipicture deal. “King Boxer” (July 12 & 15), Mr. Chung’s third film for Shaw, became a surprise box-office sensation when it was released in America (as “Five Fingers of Death”) in 1973 and introduced American audiences to Hong Kong martial arts films. The story of a ruthlessly maimed combatant’s redemption and revenge in “King Boxer” became a story paradigm for many of the films that followed. Mr. Chung (who cited George Stevens’s “Shane” as an influence) staged the film’s multiple fight scenes, eye-gougings, and tortures with breathless verve and surprisingly tasteful visual economy.

Director Zhang Che had streamlined the traditional Chinese wuxiapian swordfight film with 1967’s “The New One-Armed Swordsman” (featured in the previous Heroic Grace collection). During the ’70s, Zhang continued his peculiar career-long preoccupation with the rending of male bodies. The single-handed armhacking climax of a 1971 revisit to his previous triumph, “The New One-Armed Swordsman” (July 13, 16 & 20), must be seen to be believed. In a Zhang Che film, limbs are amputated with such frequency and ease that, despite gouts of blood, fight scenes take on a dreamlike, Jungian clarity. Critics have pointed to Zhang’s emphasis on male relationships and the gleeful destruction of the masculine form as evidence of latent homoeroticism. But the vivid cruelty on display in “The Boxer From Shantung” (July 14 & 15) and especially the amazing “The Five Venoms” (July 12 & 16) seems more in tune with “girls are icky” prepubescent boy clannishness than with any recognizable form of desire.

In addition to Chung Chang-wha and Zhang Che, Heroic Grace II spotlights the directors Lau Kar-leung and Chu Yuan. A former fight choreographer, Mr. Lau’s “Legendary Weapons of China” (July 16 & 17) is a favorite of both martial arts practitioners and film buffs. Mr. Chu, whose stately and graphic “Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan” is screening in a parallel non-kung fu sidebar at the Walter Reade, was one of the Shaw Studio’s most reliable journeymen. Mr. Chu’s 1976 wuxia throwback “The Magic Blade” (July 13, 15 & 20) giddily unites two generations of storytelling by dressing up a fairy-tale, epic journey in spaghetti Western and horror film drag.

Heroic Grace II’s focus on four specific directors presents an unusual opportunity to connect the dots in a film genre that is rarely seen as an individual creator’s arena. Of course it probably hasn’t helped these extravagantly talented directors’ auteurist reputations that, between the four of them, they have worked under more than 20 aliases during their careers.

Until July 20 (Lincoln Center, 212-875-5600).

The New York Sun

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