Clarke Illmatical revisits his childhood in 80s New York and recalls the Shaw Brothers films that allowed him to escape the city’s grim reality
During the mid-80s, in a pocket of the galaxy known as St Albans, NYC, constellations were formed by gun sparks and the blaze of crack rocks. During these tumultuous years of New York history, I believed in heroes. Heroes like the Met’s Dwight ‘Doc’ Gooden with his jheri curl hairstyle, and MJ, back when he still had a complexion like mine.
But beyond the Moonwalker, beyond the glory of Shea Stadium, beyond the shine of the hustlers on Farmers Boulevard and Murdock Avenue, there were heroes from another world. These heroes had a standard time and place: 3pm, WNEW Channel 5, Saturday afternoon.
In New York City, this was the official time of Drive-In Movie, courtesy of the hero maker, the hero deliverer, Mel Maron. That’s the man who exported kung fu flicks from 42nd Street, the man who – to borrow the words of Travis Bickle – ‘stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit’ of a city projected to go the way of Escape From New York and hustled chopsocky to the five boroughs.
On those Saturday afternoons, you’d catch the movies at 3pm and afterward, you’d go outside and engage your friends in epic kung fu fights. I had some memorable ones, like me versus a girl named Mia. We decided we’d both be ninjas. She used her ninja powers to attack me and missed. I fought back; the only problem being my weapon was a curtain rod that almost took her eye out. She got stitches and I got a spanking.
My other epic battles were with my cousin Malik. When we got tired of using our fake instant-death inflicting moves that we learned from the previous week’s movie, we’d often create our own epic movies with figurines. One day, my cousin broke one of these toys. He told me that he would pay me back and that he’d buy me one of those ‘Chinese men that could fly over the bus’.
What my cousin was referring to was our perception of reality that we’d inherited from an upbringing founded on kung fu cinema. Back when everything Asian was still considered ‘Oriental.’ Back when you assumed that every Asian person you met in NYC really did know kung fu. Back when my parents allowed me to walk up to random Asian people and ask if they were Chinese or Japanese. Back when they’d smile at me with an expression that said, “Do you like watermelon or fried chicken?”
The Drive-In Movie flicks weren’t always good. Some were terrible, but the gratuitous fake violence and dubbing made them enjoyable. However, there was one guarantee of quality. If the film started with triumphant horns accompanied by a golden SB logo, you knew it would be good and quite possibly one of your favourites. Here are seven of the best…
Five Fingers of Death (1972)
Growing up, my mother told me that Five Fingers of Death was a favorite of my parents back when they were just dating. Over the years, when I was working with a martial arts practitioner, I’d learn that this was the movie that put kung fu cinema on the map outside of Hong Kong.
Lo Leih stars as Chao Chih-hao, a martial arts student engaged in a rivalry with another kung fu school. Eventually, he’s entrusted with a secret technique, the Iron Palm, which gives him a one-punch-man-Count-Dante death touch flow.
Aside from the interesting villains and their diversity, you’ll find yourself pulling for Chao Chih-hao, who perseveres through self-doubt and tremendous adversity. In all honesty, this is the film that inspired Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, which is basically a more modern remake.
Five Fingers of Death was also the prototype for many future martial arts flicks. Teacher or parents killed. Rescue the girl. Student learns secret technique and gets revenge. It’s also the film that may be partially responsible for my birth. All good, since I wasn’t named Chao Chih-hao.
Master Killer (1978)
My father happened to borrow a VHS tape from a fake ass mack friend named Terry. I don’t remember the first movie on the tape, but the second was entitled Master Killer, aka The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
After the fuzzy tracking was fixed, this movie introduced me to a young protagonist I identified with: a fresh face kid who said he wanted revenge but, more than anything, just wanted to change his life. And in order to do so, he had to get a six dot baldie and force his way into Shaolin.
This film transcends the genre. There’s a good story, solid acting by Gordon Liu (who would later teach The Bride in Kill Bill), great direction by Lau Kar-leung of One-Armed Swordsman and, later, Drunken Master II fame, and a glimpse of the intense – though fictionalized – kung fu training of Shaolin monks.
Like many a good martial arts film, this one is packed with metaphors about perseverance. If you’ve neglected kung fu cinema, you could do worse than start here.
Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
In sixth grade, a classmate named Martino and I were comparing notes on kung fu movies. He asked me if I had ever seen The Five Deadly Venoms. I hadn’t, so he responded by loaning me a tape that he had never returned to the local video store. This film was one of the best cinematic experiences of my preteen life.
It’s a deep, dark perplexing story. Five anonymous kung fu students, each with a lethal supernatural style; their teacher sends his final student to track them down and stop them. The action choreography stands out because several of the Venom actors, including Chiang Sheng, Philip Kwok, and Lu Feng had prior training in opera and acrobatics – just like messrs Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.
However, the real attraction here is the story. Yes, the character development could have been better, but the plot reads like a proto-The Usual Suspects, Keyser Soze and all. You spend half the time trying to figure out who is who and what is what. But by the time you do, it’s too late and you realize you’ve fallen for the greatest trick the devil ever pulled.
Invincible Shaolin (1978)
Despite my tempestuous relationship with my father over the years – mainly due to him trying to force feed me bible scriptures and lyrics by Jehovah – we still found time to watch kung fu movies.
I never really felt that Shaw Brothers movies were violent. The fighting was always more comical. It was impossible to take the extreme training sequences too seriously. There was always a superhuman element that bordered on fantasy.
Invincible Shaolin, also known as Unbeatable Dragon, is set during the time of the Qing dynasty and the Manchus overlords are stirring a beef between the Northern and Southern Shaolin. The film’s stayed with me because of the awesome training montages and this effort would influence other kung fu films which featured students going to great lengths to master particular techniques.
I’ll never forget Saturday afternoons with my father, seeing students fight their way out of small wooden houses, watching blind men who caught falling swords in the rain and Chinese men who floated through the air during battle.
Fist of The White Lotus (1980)
When me and my cousin weren’t engaged in epic battles in St Albans, I was getting lessons on Chinese men who could fly over the bus at his house in neighbouring Laurelton. His father had amassed a collection of films which included Bruce Lee movies, a ronin assassin with a baby, and a gang of other films my parents wouldn’t normally allow me to watch. I vividly remember him pointing out Fist of the White Lotus.
This film is important because the White Lotus is one of the greatest villains in cinema history. It’s also significant because it features the infamous story of Bak Mei, aka White Eyebrows, the priest who betrayed Shaolin and developed a form of kung fu that focused on specific pressure points.
Lieh Lo stars as the invincible, unmatchable White Lotus. His kung fu is excellent, his sharp dialogue even better. In the film, he uses a special nerve strike, similar to the legendary dim mak (touch of death) technique, which allows him to count how many steps his foe will take before they die. Sound familiar? This film would be another influence for Tarantino’s Kill Bill and the featured five point palm exploding heart technique. Not to mention countless other kung fu films that featured wig wearing white haired bad guys who always seemed to be having a bad hair day.
Crippled Avengers (1978)
“Iron Feet... These fancy names, often, they don’t mean a thing. Bring it!”
[punches thrown] “Hie! Hie! Hie!”
“You really should be ashamed. You call that a punch?”
“Hey, but they really are!”
“Come on, try your iron kick, now!”
[kick to the stomach] “AHHHHHRRRGH! Your feet! They really are iron!”
Believe it or not, this entire clip was on my friend Majid’s answering machine for years. Ironically, the film marketed as Return of the Five Deadly Venoms, isn’t about revenge, evil deeds or any diabolical plans. Crippled Avengers is about friendship and having your homeboy’s back.
Alongside the Venoms, minus Wei Pak, Chen Kuan-tai stars as a gangster who terrorizes a local town. During his tyranny, he injures four men who join forces to compensate for their own shortcomings. Just like any other Venoms film, the fight choreography is excellent.
The truth of the matter is, we all have our limitations. The message of Crippled Avengers is clear: friendship will kick the hell out of a gangster’s ass, whatever form that gangster may take. If you don’t have a friend who had a clip from Crippled Avengers on their voicemail, find one. Chances are, they really understand what the spirit of kung fu and Shaw Brothers movies are all about.
Three Evil Masters (1980)
A decade ago, my chillax routine was a kung fu flick, beer and greasy chicken wings. One rainy afternoon, I stumbled onto Three Evil Masters, one of best introductions to martial arts cinema.
Chien Kuan-tai stars as a master being hunted by three ruthless baddies, one of which is played by the legendary Johnny Wang Lung-wei. On the run, the master finds time to train a wayward kung fu student, imparting knowledge of his three evil foes. I’m not sure if it was the beer, the chicken or the fight choreography, but this film set me on my journey as a martial arts fiction writer.
Yes, this list is personal, but the seven movies here are on many other ‘best kung fu films’ elsewhere. But the difference is, you weren’t born like this. You didn’t have epic fake kung fu battles using lethal moves you never really learned. On Saturdays, after cartoons were over, you didn’t use a wrench to turn the knob on your TV to channel five and anxiously wait for the introduction of the movie, hoping that you saw the golden SB. You didn’t need heroes to make you forget the chaos in the streets around you. My cousin needed kung fu heroes to make him forget about his older brother who was murdered. I needed kung fu heroes to make me forget about my mother who was in and out of the hospital. Millions of souls needed heroes as New York teetered on the brink.
Chinese men and women flew on our television screens delivered escapism when we needed it the most. These heroes of the east flew into our hearts. They inspired thousands of 80s kids to learn kung fu and helped save them from the societal problems designed to keep them down.
These days, thanks to the internet, it can be Saturday, three o’clock all over again, all over the place. The world can experience ‘Chinese men who fly over the bus’.
Illmatical is a writer originally from Queens, NY. When he’s not penning his epic martial arts fiction story Masternever and the Flow of Death, he’s breaking forward on one or six, mastering Cantonese tones, and getting rhythm with the woman who use to be your girlfriend.