I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s in a home with no VCR. Of course in the 70’s, there were no VCRs. So, for me, whenever I watched a movie on television, I made sure to really watch it. There was no rewinding or pausing in order to come back later and finish it. I made sure the screen had my full attention for the duration. Certainly the only martial arts star I had even heard of was Bruce Lee. But, the difference between “The Dragon” and someone else I later saw on the screen, Bruce Li, was totally lost on me.
Never had I even seen David Carradine’s “Kung Fu” series on television as I believe I was a little young for it. I can’t recall what year it was, but at some point while flipping through the channels, at a friend’s house or maybe it was at home, I stumbled on Kung Fu Theater or maybe it was Black Belt Theater. It varied depending on where I lived at the time, but it seems one of these or others by different names existed and could always be found on Saturday afternoons.
Instantly I was glued to the screen like never before. Of course I had seen many action or science fiction movies before, but never anything like this. The characters were all wearing clothing with bland colors, made worse by the seemingly old film. They were fighting in ways I had never seen before, always in desolate mountain or forest locales, ugly and unappealing in their own right. And such mysterious weapons! No matter what the attachment was on the end of the spear, it was still just a spear to me. Men were walking up walls, old blind men fought as well as those with sight, and why don’t their words match the movement of their mouths!
Despite being captivated by these odd films, I didn’t exactly set my weekend schedule around them. I’d stumble on them sometimes, or remember them an hour after they finished. I can’t name one film I saw back then. Anyway, I now know it’s highly likely that the titles I saw back then were not very accurate as many get changes based on distribution. Alas, fond memories remain.
Fast forward to the slightly late 1990’s. A roommate puts on “The New Legend of Shaolin” (aka Legend of the Red Dragon) which starred another “Li,” Jet. A name I had heard, but wrongly assuming it was connected to Jean Claude Van Damme, (who I had no interest in and to this day have never seen a movie by!) had never bothered to seek him out. I was even more blown away by what Jet and his co-star Xie Miao were doing on the screen than I had been as a little kid on the weekends. This roommate also showed me some of the Japanese “Lone Wolf” stuff, but it didn’t grab me quite the way Jet Li had.
Now, you might think that with this reintroduction that I would leap right into the land of martial arts movies, but no, didn’t happen. Sure, I bought “The New Legend of Shaolin” for my movie collection, but it was not a catapult to the jiang hu. That happened in 2005.
A friend came over with a copy of Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” that he had been given by his friend who lived in Thailand and was very into Eastern cinema. Here was Jet Li again! I was left breathless by “Hero!” This wu xia pian was far different than the kung fu flicks I was mildly familiar with. The vibrant colors, wow! The dialogue matched their mouths. The action was otherworldly. And, the cast could actually act! This was it! This was what I had been unknowingly waiting for!
The rest is a blur. From that point on, I researched the actors and actresses, directors and studios, old and new. I dove into every era possible of kung fu films and learned everything I could about Hong Kong, Chinese and Taiwanese cinema. Luckily, the internet existed and the information was not hard to find. I found websites, books and starting going to Chinatown for something other than food. I sought out and found a kung fu sifu and began learning kung fu myself. It may have taken a modern big production for me to truly appreciate the washed out frames of much of the 70’s films, but fortunately that’s what it took.
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