Metrograph Dream Double Feature Series, June 25th, 2016

by Kim A. on June 28, 2016 · 0 comments in Buddhist Blog

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Wu-Tang Clan big boss, martial artist and film director/actor RZA was invited by the Metrograph theater to host his Dream Double Feature.  RZA, a nearly lifelong Shaw Brothers fan, chose FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (1982, aka. CHINESE SUPER NINJAS) and HOUSE OF TRAPS (1982).

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I’ve wanted to attend Metrograph since their opening in March, so when stumbling across the Twitter announcement of RZA’s particular Shaws twofer, I jumped as high as my non-martial arts training would allow. As a Chan Wai-Man fan, the opportunity to see FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS in 35mm was impossible to pass up. Following FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS, was a screening of HOUSE OF TRAPS; adding a bit more blood-red bean-filling to this cinematic moon cake.

What follows is my report of the evening.

Manhattan’s Chinatown is now a mix of old and some new. Yes, that six demon taint known as gentrification is starting to creep into one of the most beautifully stubborn sections of this ever-changing borough. I found it interesting that currently hyped California style restaurant Dimes and lauded tattoo parlor Daredevil Tattoos kept their outside looking a lot like the rather ancient Chinese storefronts surrounding them. As if by ninja lore, I found the Metrograph theater easily, unlike previous attempts to cruise the neighborhood.  As you walk along Ludlow Street, the same mix of old and new buildings greets you.

Metrograph’s slightly modern design of attractive windows and Art Deco 1930’s type over the box office announces the theater.  If you didn’t know this, you could very well walk past the Metrograph theater and miss it altogether.  Please don’t. The Metrograph is nothing like the elegant film palaces of the past, nor the cookie-cutter multiplexes of today. When you go inside, you get the feeling of an old school movie theater by way of quasi-art deco mod. Metrograph’s restaurant, The Commissary, is modeled after their Golden Age Hollywood namesakes, very classy.  The open and sumptuous interior design make for a theater as unique as the movies it screens.

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An aside, Metrograph is located deep in Chinatown; it is a smart and shrewd move for the owners and film programmers to frequently screen Asian fare (new and old.) Since April they’ve shown a lot of old school kung fu. First, their hosting of Subway Cinema’s Old School Kung Fu weekend, and EIGHT DIAGRAM POLE FIGHTER a week later.  And now, this evening’s Shaw Brothers double bill.

Swords crossed that Shaw Brothers screenings will become a trend here.

Now for the theater itself: It is well apparent film buffs run The Metrograph.  With the recent closure of the Ziegfeld theater on 54th street and 6th, Metrograph purchased some of their film equipment to ensure the continued projection of films in 35mm and DCP (the digital equivalent of a 35mm film print).  The sound system was terrific (all the weapons clashing sounded great as did the dialog.)

I am glad I kept up with reviews of the Metrograph, as several mentioned the balcony seats are the best in the house.  The wooden seats are comfortable (unlike those in FIVE ELEMENT), and I was glad my friend and I were seated here as it allowed us to see everything.  That said, the first row of the balcony offers a much better viewing experience for watching subtitled movies. If you’re coming, shoot for first-row balcony and dress appropriately, it is as cold as Kembuchi’s stare in the balcony. In fact, sitting above most of the audience, I almost felt like Kembuchi “King of the Ninjas” glowering over the bodies of the Chinese Alliance members as he takes leadership over the martial arts world.

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And so, relaxing in my comfy chair, the fun begins as RZA took to the stage.  RZA clad in a Shaw Brothers shield logo shirt was gracious about every person and company he discussed. He spoke fondly about the choreography in these films and hopes that Hollywood would take notice.

Speaking of Hollywood, RZA announced he will be working with Marvel Studios in some capacity (obviously, he cannot say what that will be), and he offered a little trivia about FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS.  According to RZA, under the title SUPER NINJAS, FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS kept playing in Time Square theaters for 30 weeks.

Some more light chatter leads to the film itself.

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As for the movie, I was delighted these prints were subbed (old school Chinese and English subtitles.)  It was incredible seeing Chang Cheh’s go-for-broke China vs. Japan opus on the blood-soaked silver screen. For me, this is the best superhero film ever made – it nails that good vs. evil tone, has characters you love and hate (Junko…lord, I hate Junko) and is all kinds of great fun. To hammer home the superhero element, these super vigorous and flying people wear capes too. For a movie so much larger than life, seeing FIVE ELEMENT on the big screen makes it even more of a blast.  The crowd was predominantly let’s-see-a-movie types, but there were a few fans were in attendance.  I was the only person rocking a 36 styles shirt, Hmph!

Initially, many laughed at Lo Mang’s bare handed fight against the samurai in the opening match, but after Lo deftly disarmed his opponent, the crowd gasped and cheered. The wood and water ninjas earned the biggest laughs, along with Junko’s sexual ruse over Lo Mang (smart audience. ;))

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The loudest cheers came from the last moments of the final fight. People cheered and whooped loudly as the heroes shattered the earth sign, so ending the epic brawl between two nations.

For those awesome fans who meticulously keep track of Shaw Brothers movies cuts and runtimes this print -provided by American Genre Film Archive and Celestial-  was cut. Lei Ben’s fatal error of seeing female ninja breasts was omitted. It was a seamless cut too. As expected, there was print damage, but overall, this looked and sounded great. I loved seeing the difficult and insane final fight as our heroes go up against the formidable and vicious King of the Ninjas (or “Supreme Ninja” as he was called in these subtitles).

This evening made me a bigger fan of this film, and should FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS be screened here again; I’ll go.

FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS over, RZA returned for a Question and Answer session. RZA explained he chose these two films because of their influence on his debut movie, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012). “The Ninja” (Kembuchi) directly informed Lucy Liu’s character.

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RZA compared the action in FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS to the action in current Hollywood films by mentioning the differences in run time. “For a film like this, you probably had over 20 minutes of action, where maybe during the Hollywood action sequences we’ll get 3 to 4 minutes of action.”

After discussing how big a fan he was of Gordon Liu, the conversation quickly turned to RZA working with Gordon on THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS. Most notably, how tricky it was to bring Liu on board.  RZA said Liu’s management and agent was a bit wary after the success of KILL BILL! The fees RZA offered were less; however, the rapper’s story of why he wanted Gordon compelled Liu to join the production.

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RZA’s best line was while discussing the philosophies and chivalry in FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS (Lo Mang refusing p*ssy because a hero should not take advantage of a woman.)

I confess before the courts: I know little of RZA’s pre-filmmaking history, but I am grateful the man played a part in making more of these excellent films available to Western audiences. As someone who vaguely remembers seeing some Shaws on television in the early 80s, the revelation of watching Shaw Brothers movies in 35mm makes me respect and love this studio’s output even more.

After a break, I settled in for HOUSE OF TRAPS.

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RZA introduced HOUSE OF TRAPS with little fanfare, outside of saying HOUSE… was never released here because of Shaw’s financial troubles and that was one of the reasons why he chose this film over other Venoms Mob productions.  This movie works wonderfully in the native language, and the beautiful sets, costumes and makeup look even better on such a large screen. After this viewing, I finally caught the adorable Chin Siu-Ho as Pai, the Fifth Brother of the Heroic Five Rats. And I now understand Kuo Choi’s character and acting choices here.

For me, this film is all about Chu Ko, Wang Li, and Lung Hsiang-Tien.  These three were so fully vested in their characters, and their fight scenes are fantastic.  I love seeing Sky Rat do his thing, and Wang Li was the better of the two underworld figures serving the Prince. Watching Wang Li use those hook swords against Chu Ko and Chiang Sheng is pretty damn terrific, and I appreciated being able to see more of the intricate choreography on a larger screen.

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The crowd laughed at Lu Feng’s spectacularly silly demise and why not?  A fun way to end a great evening.

Fans take note: this print of HOUSE OF TRAPS had some minor cuts too.  The court torture sequence of the rooster and the servant dropped onto the board of nails were omitted. While these cuts were mostly seamless, you could still tell something was missing.

So to Metrograph, RZA, Celestial Pictures and the American Genre Film Archives, I say Xiexie!  Let’s do this again, please.

UPDATE: Uploaded by user ‘pcimprezzive‘ on YouTube, here is what appears to be a good majority of the Q&A with RZA after the screening of FIVE ELEMENT NINJAS.

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