Treasure Hunters: How the Wu Tang Clan Sent One Nerd on a Quest to Find Rare Kung fu Movies and Schools

 

I was fascinated by Kung Fu movies at an early age. When I was young, I would occasionally catch Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies on television, and my brother and I would fight each other, mimicking the moves we saw on TV. The movies weren’t shown on a regular schedule, and after a few years, they seemed to just disappear.

Later, I watched Bruce Lee movies and many of the terrible ninja movies during the ninja craze of the early 1980s. I also saw Jackie Chan in a few of his early films (The Cannonball Run, Police Story), but I had no idea of who he was. I watched all of Chuck Norris’s movies and later saw the early Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal films – but none were able to capture my attention the way that the Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies had. Years passed, though, and I all but forgot about the Brothers Shaw and their films.

Cut to the mid 90s, and the Wu Tang Clan has hit the mainstream. I had no idea who they were at the time, until my brother played their debut album for me – and hearing all the sound effects and clips they incorporated into their music from various Kung Fu movies awakened dormant memories.

Soon after, I started a quest to find Kung Fu movies, a pursuit that would last for many years. It was also around this time that I began to entertain the idea of joining a Kung Fu school – a task that would prove to be most daunting.

At the time, most video stores had Action/Adventure sections, Foreign sections, and some even had Martial Arts sections. My plan was to join any video store that had the Kung Fu titles I was looking for. This was still a few years before the first DVD players came out, and although this was no longer the heyday of video stores, there were still many around. My first target, a Blockbuster a few towns over, yielded a major find that would change my life – sad as that may be.

 

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While perusing the store’s Martial Arts section, I found a plain, yellow rental box that had the words “Master Killer” printed on its face in a tiny font. Master Killer was the English mangling of the original Chinese title of a movie called 36th Chamber that starred Liu Chia Liang – also known as Gordon Liu.

If you’ve never heard of Gordon Liu – and odds are you haven’t – he looks a bit like the late Yul Brynner. (If you’ve never heard of either Gordon Liu or Yul Brynner you’re neither a movie nor a Kung Fu-movie nerd. If so, consider yourself lucky in that respect.)

As far as Kung Fu movies go, 36th Chamber is as good as it gets. I was pretty lucky to find this on my first outing – it set a high bar compared to the many terrible Kung Fu movies I later saw. The movie ranks a respectable 7.7 on IMDB.com and is considered to be the quintessential “protagonist gets his ass kicked, trains, and comes back for revenge” movie – which is the basic plot of many Kung Fu movies. A good bulk of the film is dedicated just to training, and the Kung Fu style used is called Hung Ga. The most famous Hung Ga practitioner, Wong Fei Hung, has been portrayed on screen close to a hundred times by actors including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, and Kwan Tak-Hing. The director of 36th Chamber was an accomplished Hung Ga martial artist in his own right, and he featured that style of Kung Fu, and the folklore and traditions surrounding it, in many of his most popular films.

After my successful find of 36th Chamber, I immediately hit a rut. Most video stores just didn’t have Kung Fu movies, and the ones that did usually only carried terrible ones – and I saw many at this time. Raiders of Buddhist Kung Fu, for example, was a South Korean Kung Fu movie stinker. It featured Gordon Liu in a supporting role and was shot and edited so terribly that it was borderline unwatchable. At one point in the movie Gordon gets attacked by a hawk and has to act like it’s eating, or clawing, or doing something to his eye….

I quickly learned that just because Gordon Liu was in a movie didn’t mean it was a good film. The movies he did outside of the Shaw Studios were mostly weak fare – and at first I fell for the bait: the details of He Has Nothing but Kung Fu, Fury in the Shaolin Temple, The Shaolin Drunken Monk, and Drunken Master III have all been erased from my memory.

I once found a video store that was a front for porn films, where I must have been one of the few customers, if not the only person, that actually rented regular videos there – that’s if you consider Kung Fu flicks regular movies. They had two Shaw Brothers Kung Fu films – and I actually emitted a nerd gasp when I saw them: Invincible Shaolin and Stroke of Death.

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Unfortunately, both were only mediocre at best.

I had surveyed pretty much every video store that I could find within an hour’s radius from my home, and I still had little to show for it. I found a Karate magazine that had an advertisement for Kung Fu movies that you could send away for, but they were ridiculously expensive for VHS copies. Plus, it took them months to ship the goods. I even went to Asian video rental stores, but the clerks had little patience for a geeking-out Gwai Lo.

As my Kung Fu movie hunt was winding down in frustration (I hadn’t yet considered searching in New York City, which would later unearth a treasure trove of Kung Fu movies), I began a secondary quest for Kung Fu schools. At first, this was even more depressing than my search for Kung Fu movies. There were plenty of Karate and Tai Kwon Do schools around, but I couldn’t find any teaching Kung Fu. I began visiting libraries, trying to find books on Kung Fu, but I couldn’t find a thing.

One day I did find some books on the subject at a Barnes & Noble. While I was looking through them, an Asian guy started asking me about Kung Fu. It turned out he was a Kung Fu teacher, and he gave me his contact info. When I visited his school the next week, he wasn’t even teaching – he was chilling in his office while someone else taught. I remember watching two of his black belt students sparring. One complained to the other that he was kicking too hard, even though they both were wearing lots of padding. One guy even said, “Ow, stop.” After seeing that, I pretty much gave up searching for a Kung Fu school.

By some stroke of luck, though – or so I thought at the time – I was able to find a Kung Fu school about a half hour from my home that taught the same style of Kung Fu featured in the 36th Chamber movie. I could hardly believe it. But I was a bit disappointed when I learned that the teacher was not Chinese, and even more disappointed when I learned that the Kung Fu school was actually a garage outside of his house.

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However, the teacher was skilled, his garage was big enough for classes, and it did look like a real Kung Fu school – as far as I could tell from the schools I’d seen in movies. I sat in on my first class in the spring, not yet realizing that this is where I would be training in the hottest weeks of August or during the freezing, snowy days of February.

That winter, the training felt pretty brutal, but working out in the coldest weeks of winter, with only a small space heater to lessen the chill, somehow made it seem more authentic. At times I felt like we must be training as hard as students in “real” Kung Fu schools in China.

After a year or so, I began training with another Kung Fu school in New York City’s Chinatown that was led by a charismatic, albeit a bit eccentric, teacher who had once sparred with Bruce Lee – or at least he claimed to have done so. During this time, I was exposed to different aspects of Chinese culture and traditions within Kung Fu. I met a lot of interesting people – including a real Shaolin monk (apparently there are a lot of fake ones running around) and a 70-year-old, chain-smoking teacher who still had the strength and vitality of a man twenty years his junior.

During this time, my training “brothers” and I would travel into Chinatown each week, train with the other school for a few hours or perform in the occasional demonstration, and then go out for some dim sum as a group. And then a couple of us would shop for Kung Fu movies.I also ate a lot of interesting food (not all of it good) that probably wouldn’t or shouldn’t appear on any Chinese take-out menu. And I once had the displeasure of drinking deer penis wine during a celebration of Chinese New Year. In case you’re wondering, it tasted like what I imagine paint thinner tastes like.

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So it was around this time that I started getting into some of the more modern examples of Kung Fu cinema: Jet Li’s Shaolin Temple series; the Once Upon a Time in China movies, and Fist of Legend; Sammo Hung movies, such as Pedicab Driver, The Blade of Fury, Enter the Fat Dragon, and The Prodigal Son; Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, Young Master, Project A 2, and Police Story 2; Yuen Woo Ping’s Iron Monkey; Tsui Hark’s The Blade; and Ringo Lam’s Burning Paradise – the latter a slick period piece, break-out-of-prison, Kung Fu horror movie.Some of the Chinatown video stores were actual storefronts; others – like a place on Mott Street that no longer exists – consisted of an old stone stairway leading down into a tiny shop that only (as far as I knew) sold VHS copies of Chinese TV shows and movies. They had a decent and cheap selection of Kung Fu movies.

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I studied these movies and tried to dissect them, trying to find out what worked and what didn’t, as far as filmmaking and staging fight scenes were concerned. I also used the movies as inspiration – watching them before class – especially when I didn’t feel like training too hard. I knew that the actors in them were accomplished martial artists and that they had undergone years of training to acquire a skill level that made what they did look easy.

In 2000 Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hit the big screen and became the first foreign Kung Fu movie to break through and enter the Western mainstream, becoming a hit both critically and financially. Arguably, that film brought the Kung Fu film genre to its highest consciousness in the US so far. Since that high point, genre filmmakers have been copying Lee’s style and/or breakthrough special effects and wirework.

The focus today is no longer on actual Kung Fu styles, as it was in past films. It may be possible that, if filmmakers were to focus on what made the genre strong in the first place – the actual art and folklore surrounding Kung Fu – there could be a kind of second wave of popularity, reminiscent of the genre’s original peak in the 1970s.

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The Kung Fu classes I attended were instructive and inspiring at first, but over the years things started to deteriorate – sometimes very quickly. Martial arts schools – and I’d guess this is even truer of the rare Kung Fu school – live and die with the teacher. It’s such a fragile experience when a group of people depend on just one person, but that’s the way of it. Each year my passion for the sport – which required hours of training – waned significantly, until I just stopped going. It eventually became a chore, and after about six years, I stopped training.

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It was around this time that I also, slowly, abandoned my quest for Kung Fu movies. I had already seen most of what were considered the best of the late 70s and early 80s films, and I felt that all of the new Kung Fu movies were just not the same – not that some weren’t good films – they were just an entirely different beast, and I had little interest in them.

Looking back at this time, it seems a bit surreal now. But I’m grateful that I was exposed to traditional Chinese Kung Fu and had the opportunity to meet many great and interesting people. I was able to meet the martial artist and actor Gordon Liu – thanks to a good friend – and to attend Chinese weddings, special screenings of Asian movies, and take part in Chinese New Year demonstrations and celebrations. Though I no longer have the desire to train long hours in a rigorous martial art, I still have a fondness and respect for it. And though I no longer hunt for Kung Fu movies, I still treasure the memories surrounding them.