Film festivals exist in service of the unique. The main lure motivating scores of diehard cinephiles to travel the globe just for something as commonplace as watching movies is the promise of the rare, the hard-to-find, the special. A viewer expects to find something they couldn’t see at their neighborhood cineplex when they arrive at Cannes, or Berlin, or Venice — or the Metrograph, New York’s newest arthouse movie theater and the site of the 6th annual Old School Kung Fu Film Festival. Over this past weekend, the month-old theater nestled in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood played host to an eclectic selection of Chinese martial arts flicks preserved on imperfect but handsome 35 millimeter prints, and it was a treat for the grateful viewers in attendance. A relatively minor offshoot of the larger New York Asian Film Festival, the OSKFFF had a genuine sense of looseness and spontaneity about it that kept audience spirits high and turned each screening into a vocally enthusiastic burst of catharsis. Though that laid-back attitude wasn’t always a blast; the showing of Sammo Hung’s 1981 classic The Prodigal Son had to be cancelled when acquisition for the print fell through at the last moment. Regardless, the weekend was a celebration not just of one storied cinematic legacy in specific, but of cinema, of movement itself.
During the ’60s and ’70s, kung fu matinees would run in dilapidated movie houses to audiences of kids playing hooky and other unsavory types. As the widescale development of Manhattan wiped out many of the smaller theaters in the ’80s and ’90s, both the traditional wuxia pictures (martial arts epics set in medieval China, the East Asian equivalent of the Western in the United States) and modern-set films grew more difficult to track down. Today, while some have been made available online through various streaming platforms — Netflix has a surprisingly solid selection of Shaw Brothers gems — many others float around on pirate sites or only as rumors. Even then, a sensory gulf separates kung fu on a laptop from kung fu in a theater, surrounded by people who roar with approval when Jackie Chan punches a dude so hard he goes flying off his motorcycle in Rumble in the Bronx.
The best kung fu movies are ironically funny and unironically awesome as hell; they elegantly balance knowingly campy humor with gravely serious, physically proficient stuntwork, functioning first and foremost as showcases for the billed talent, meaning both the rigorously disciplined fighters as well as the virtuoso directors. A good kung fu flick is a shot of pure enjoyment, one that firebombs the pleasure center of the brain that marvels at spectacle and thrills at how’d-they-do-that miracles of cinematic trickery. Because understanding wuxia films requires a workable knowledge of medieval Chinese history and modern kung fu flicks don’t always take their storylines too seriously, it’s easy to leave plot behind and focus on the film as an unadulterated sensory delight. Viewers can exult in the high-wire camerawork and dizzyingly balletic fight choreography as if a good beatdown scene were no different than an elaborate production number in a musical, which in many ways, it isn’t. Watching Bruce Lee whup ass in rightful cult object-of-worship Enter the Dragon is like watching Gene Kelly dance, or Michael Jordan play basketball: It’s to see a master at the peak of his powers expand that which was previously thought to be doable.