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.
However, closer analysis reveals a heartening free exchange of cultural markers and cinematic passions between Hollywood and Hong Kong, the epicenter of kung fu cinema. The Far East and Hollywood have been engaged in a fruitful feedback loop of influence for decades, dating back at least to when Akira Kurosawa named John Ford as his chief influence for his ravishing samurai masterpieces. The high point of the weekend by my measure was the Saturday night screening of Tsui Hark’s 1995 all-out visual assault Blade, not to be confused with the Wesley Snipes vampire film of the same name. (Before everything got started, the MC related an anecdote of a friend’s theater that ran a mislabeled reel from the Snipes picture to a crowd of highly disappointed kung fu enthusiasts.) Tsui’s film pummels the viewers with a flurry of punches and kicks with frenetic cuts and furious whip pans to match — there’s really no telling whether the off-the-wall cinematography or sense-defying stunts are more viscerally affecting. In his deliriously kinetic movements, you can see the aesthetic trends that would trickle down to domestic action movies, music videos, and commercials, even going on to shape the landscape of hip-hop. Sam Raimi clearly learned a few tricks from the late-’80s/early ’90s creative explosion dubbed the Hong Kong New Wave, and outspoken disciple Quentin Tarantino helped bring the work of John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and other esteemed Chinese filmmakers to America in the first place.
At the same time, the films evince a winning infatuation with the tropes of Hollywood genres. My first feature at the festival, Benny Chan’s combustible Big Bullet, adheres faithfully to the stock characters and typical plotlines of American police movies, with the requisite gruff cop-on-the-edge, quirky team specialists, and the other customary trimmings. Many of the filmmakers who would grow up to lead the Hong Kong New Wave were raised on a strict diet of Chinese cinema and American imports, fostering a lifelong love for the traditional characteristics of the gaudy musical, the cop thriller, the melodrama. There’s plenty of awkward cultural friction to go around — the unspoken moral of the otherwise-excellent Pedicab Driver seems to be that women should do what men say if they know what’s good for them, and 1975’s Australian-Chinese co-production The Man from Hong Kong is shockingly racist, chockablock with jolly jokes punning on the multiple meanings of the word “yellow” — but for the most part, the festival bridged gaps. There’s something stirring about hearing bespectacled Brooklynites and shriveled-up old ladies without a lick of English erupt into laughter in perfect tandem.
By their very nature, film festivals valiantly argue for the essential preservation of film as an active, communal experience, but the OSKFFF makes an uncommonly convincing case. Kung fu engages the viewer on a physical level, tapping into primal reactions of amazement and exclamation. Laughs turn into belly-laughs when surrounded by other laughs. The iconic punch sound-effect, a perfect blend of scratchy analog midrange and gut-churning bass, hits the viewer as if it came directly out of the screen. Every time Zhang Yimou (better known as an actor but here working as an actor alongside muse Gong Li) ran an enemy samurai through in A Terra-Cotta Warrior, the sound the audience made was not quite a gasp and not quite a cheer. That hearty, unison “Oh!” was an involuntary response, a reaction of nameless exuberance that few things can elicit. It’s a rare, precious feeling and there are only so many places to find it.