At some point in the last horrific couple of weeks writer Jessica Ritchey asked what sort of media made you feel safe, what was your head’s comfort food. That was during one of my very brief returns to the turbulent waters of social media, and I didn’t respond. Well, now I am: kung fu movies.
That is a gross generalization: what I truly love is wuxia films, tales of righteous men and women taking up the fight against evil, often in the defense of the weak and helpless. Righting wrongs. That’s a message I need to see right now.
I watched two in the days before the Election, unknowingly preparing myself, I suppose. Then came the dark days, when I couldn’t get up the gumption to watch a movie until I forcibly broke my two-week fast with another – and then I watched Doctor Strange, and found myself watching a Marvel wuxia movie, complete with training scenes. I’ve since watched at least two Chinese fantasy adventure films, maybe more by the time this finally posts.
As usual, we’ll take these things on in a sort of backwards, piecemeal manner, with the movie that broke my fast, Kung Fu Halloween. This showed up several years ago in one of those “Weird Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists, which I usually read for sneering purposes, but by golly, I had to admit I hadn’t seen it, or even heard of it. The poster that accompanied the list looked pretty interesting, too. Let us gaze now upon that image, and realize, as is the way with many exploitation posters on these fair shores, that it has absolutely nothing to do with the movie, and this scene will never occur, so stop waiting for it.
As you know, we just came off the annual Hubrisween challenge, an A-Z movie review event. Because some of us are unbridled masochists (and probably sporting a certain amount of brain damage), the dust hadn’t even settled before we started working on our lists for 2017. From the depths of my memory – oh, all right, my ever-freaking-growing Letterboxd Watch List – I pulled out Kung Fu Halloween for the difficult letter K, and took the rest of the day off.
Which is where things get interesting, if you’re interested in trivia. Like any Hong Kong flick of that era (and any other, really) that is not its original title, which would be Shi da zhang men chuang Shao Lin. Finding a copy of it would prove somewhat difficult, unless you were looking for the correct alternate title. Probably the most recent release was as Lady Wu Tang, back when Xenon was being breathtakingly barefaced in their greed to cash in on the success of kung fu-suffused hip hop group Wu Tang Clan (Kung Fu Cult Master became Lord of the Wu Tang, Taoism Drunkard changed to Drunken Wu Tang, you get the idea). Another popular title was apparently Don’t Bleed on Me. But if you go back far enough, the English title is the more generic Fight for Survival, which is how I finally found it (a tale which echoes my fractured search for Terry Jones’ The Wind in the Willows only to find out – years later – Disney had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride).
“But what about the movie, you long-winded buffoon?”
So the ten best, most famous fighters in the World of Martial Arts converge on the Shaolin Temple, saying they’ve heard a rumor that the famous Tammo martial arts manual has been stolen. As it is a great treasure of the temple, the Abbot is disturbed, and brings out the manual to prove it’s safe. At which point the leader of the fighters sucker punches the Abbot – mortally wounding him – and grabs the book, which is apparently like those books that contain multiple volumes on the sales tables at Barnes and Noble, because it flies into pieces and each of the fighters grab a piece and run away. Now that they each have one manual for each of the techniques in the Tammo book, they pull off Mission Impossible masks to reveal they were not the fighters they appeared to be.
And that right there is the justification for the Halloween portion of the title, over in the first five minutes, and to my mind, disqualifying it for Hubrisween. I mean, the rest of the movie gets fairly weird, but we’ve left the October Country behind.
This is where we meet Shi Fu Chun (Polly Shang Kwan), a girl who steadfastly kneels before the gates of Shaolin, hoping to gain admittance for training, even though the Shaolin He-Man Woman Haters Club does not admit girls or their cooties. Two lazy acolytes fool her into carrying water for them for a year in exchange for eventual training. That works against them when the current Abbot finds out (they now have to carry water for three more years before they can train) and Shi still can’t gain admittance. This doesn’t sit well with the old hermit Shi met and has been caring for along with the water carrying (Chan Lai Wau), who it turns out was a former Abbot who left because he was fed up with Shaolin rules.
He’s also shocked that the Tammo book was stolen a year before and no one’s managed to get it back. Just to show everyone, he trains Shi in every one of the techniques in the Tammo book so she can retrieve it and restore Shaolin’s prestige. He estimates this will take three years (this movie is pretty serious about its time compression). One problem: learning Positive kung fu causes her to grow a moustache, which the Old Man says is natural, and can remedied by studying Negative kung fu… but he’s forgotten how. To escape Shi’s temper tantrums, he fakes his own death.
These are the jokes, folks.
So after the Old Man is installed in the hall of golden former abbots, Shi does the pick-up-the-hot-brazier-and-get-dragons-burned-into-your-arms bit and leaves the temple with the two rapscallions from earlier (because we need not one, but two Odious Comic Reliefs) to reclaim the Tammo books.
Shi and her two fifth wheels make fairly short work of tracking down the various pieces of the book, and we get to see the “magic kung fu” styles we saw briefly during her training montage, some of which involve growing arms and legs to extraordinary lengths, as seen in the previous year’s Master of the Flying Guillotine and subsequent Street Fighter games. (“They look strange because they’re very evil,” Shi explains to the OCRs) The fight scenes are unusual and exciting, but feel a bit short if you’re used to a diet of Chang Cheh blood and thunder flicks, or the more modern action movies.
Mixed in with this is the fact that the guy who snagged the Negative kung fu manual has, of course, turned into a woman and has been smitten with the Positive kung fu gender-swapped Shi (a character that presages Swordsman 2‘s Invincible Asia by nearly 15 years). The remaining band of thieves reunite to try to take down Shi, but are undone by Negative’s unrequited love and the fact that the Poison guy can’t resist poisoning everybody. Shi eventually triumphs – with the aid of the two Odious Comic Reliefs, even – and takes the Tammo book and the captured thieves back to Shaolin.
Wait a minute… there’s still 25 minutes of movie left?
Well, those ten famous fighters show up at the Shaolin temple again – economical filmmaking right there – but this time they’re the real deal. Turns out the thieves were all various disciples of theirs, and they want them released. Not for any ethical reasons, you understand, but because having their followers imprisoned affects their prestige in the world of martial arts. So they have to fight their way through the temple – represented by three of the fighters taking on masters in Monkey, Tiger, and Crane kung fu – and eventually reaching Shi in the central courtyard. She’s more than a match for any of them – even two or three of them – so they form the Shantung Battle Line, a sort of Kung Fu Conga Line that spells mutually assured destruction for both sides. With appropriate locomotive sounds, the Line takes to the air.
Luckily, one of the two Odious Comic Reliefs knows the Old Man faked his death and he takes the hit of the Shantung Battle Line. Everyone learns a lesson, the thieves have been magically reformed by the teachings of Shaolin, the Old Man has earned his gold plating, the end.
Kung Fu Halloween/Fight for Survival isn’t the weirdest martial arts movie I’ve ever seen, except perhaps in tone. The plot is pretty standard stuff, save for the gender twist on the protagonist, and its pursuant lighter, often comedic touch. Polly Shang Kwan (real name Lengfeng Shangguan) was a versatile actress who manages the change from girl hiding behind the master (and going ee! ooh!) while he routs upstart monks to kung fu badass very well. Chan Wai Lau is a gifted physical actor who appears in what seems like thousands of kung fu flicks.
That, in fact, covers a lot of the actors in this – it’s full of familiar faces, and only the breadth of my ignorance prevents me from naming them all. Most only get one brief fight scene, if that – Polly’s the only woman who gets to show off her stances – but that original poster has the line of head shots along the bottom to prove it.
So I was a bit disappointed that I wouldn’t get to do a kung fu flick for Hubrisween – but I wasn’t disappointed in the movie itself. It was a whole lot of ridiculous fun – and isn’t that what Halloween is all about, anyway?
It’s Thanksgiving. Buddha and YouTube are merciful: