There’s a rowdy revival underway in London. Usually, when a film begins, the room is gripped by hushed anticipation. Not here. At the Genesis Cinema in Mile End, as the lights go down the gloves come off. This is Kung Fu Cinema – and there’s only one rule: make some noise.
The bimonthly event kicks off with casual drinks in the bar, soundtracked by hip-hop tracks and the thwack of arcade touchstones such as Tekken 3, before culminating in a raucous 10pm screening of a Hong Kong classic, MCed by a man for whom martial arts is a lifelong love.
Marlon Palmer has been an exhibitor and distributor of Black cinema for more than 20 years and a kung fu fan for even longer. As a kid, he was introduced to martial arts by his older stepbrother. Soon he came to idolise Bruce Lee. Later, he found cinema.
In the 1980s, Palmer was a regular at renowned late-night London picturehouses like the Rio in Dalston, the Curzon Turnpike Lane and the Odeons in Wood Green and Holloway. Back then, there were few opportunities to see non-white heroes on the big screen and, against a backdrop of racism and riots sparked by the National Front and Metropolitan Police, the genre’s themes of resistance against injustice, as well as the sheer flip-kicking cool of its protagonists, proved popular with Black audiences.
Kung fu films resonate with the Black community. We’re looking for those heroes – the guy that fights back
‘There were a lot of issues in those days,’ says the Tottenham-born promoter. ‘You had to be ready to fight at all times. That resonates with the stories we used to see in martial-arts films: the weak oppressed by the elite. I think that’s why it’s always resonated with the Black community. We’re looking for those heroes, the guy that fights back, but fights back in style.’
The idea for Kung Fu Cinema struck during lockdown. But due to the difficulties of screening Hong Kong flicks in the UK, many thought it wouldn’t work. Palmer thought differently. ‘I’m a bit dogged in that way,’ says the 58-year-old. ‘With all my years of being a Black-film distributor, I’ve been through all kinds of things, mate, the whole gamut. It was easy work to me.’
Given the go-ahead by the Genesis, Palmer secured a partnership with Eureka Entertainment, which owns the screening rights to films by the likes of Lau Kar-wing, Yuen Woo-ping and Sammo Hung. All he had to do now was fill the 500 seats.
Don’t just sit there being all polite. Feel free to scream
He’s getting there. Screening attendance has almost tripled in the four events since September 2021, with 140 whooping kung fu fans turning out to see Hung’s ‘Warriors Two’ in February.
The energy feels vital. Kung Fu Cinema might be the most multicultural film event in London: a mix of Black, Chinese and white audiences encouraged by Palmer – the perfect hype man – to hoot, holler and marvel at the madcap exhibitionism of 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong cinema.
‘I’m trying to recreate some of that vibe,’ says Palmer. ‘I’m saying to people: “Don’t just sit there being all polite. Feel free to scream or whatever.” We want atmosphere. That’s how it was back in the day. When we came out of the cinema, we didn’t just walk home – we hopped, skipped, jumped, kicked, punched all the way.’
Many have waxed poetic about the power of cinema post-lockdowns. Palmer is out to prove it. He recently landed another bimonthly slot, at the Whirled Cinema in Brixton, and over the coming year hopes to expand the event across the UK. But for now he just wants to fill the Genesis, and the more punters the merrier.
‘It was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to show late-night martial arts films,’ he says. ‘Especially being an older guy and seeing two years of my life disappear, I just wanna do things I enjoy. Late-night kung fu, that’s what put a smile back on my face.’
Visit Kung Fu Cinema’s Facebook page for more. Next dates: Whirled Cinema on May 13 and the Genesis on Jun 24.
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