The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Movies offer a lesson
in kung fu fighting

January 15, 2004
By Franklin Harris

So, you saw "The Matrix" and now you think you know kung fu? Not so fast, grasshopper. You don't know kung fu. Not yet. But a quick trip to the video store will fix that.

Lesson 1: "Drunken Master" (1978).

Jackie Chan stars in ''Drunken Master.''
Photo © Copyright Columbia TriStar
Jackie Chan stars in ''Drunken Master.''
Not to be confused with its sequel, "Legend of the Drunken Master" (a.k.a., "Drunken Master 2"), this is the film that made Jackie Chan an international superstar everywhere except in America, where he nevertheless became a revered cult figure. (He had to wait until the release of "Rumble in the Bronx" here in the '90s to get the attention he deserved.) "Drunken Master" teams Chan with director Yuen Wo Ping, who went on to choreograph the fight scenes in "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Chan stars as Wong Fei-hung, a real-life folk hero in 19th century China, but more about him later. Fei-hung is the son of a martial arts teacher, but he isn't much of a student. So, his father and uncle try to kick some discipline into him, literally. And eventually Fei-hung learns his uncle's bizarre style of kung fu, "drunken boxing." The style imitates the movements of one who is drunk, but Fei-hung is only good at it when he actually is drunk.

"Drunken Master" set the stage for all of the kung fu comedies that followed, and its climactic fight scene is still regarded by many as Chan's best, lacking only the extensive use of props that would become the hallmark of Chan's acrobatic, fight-and-flee approach.

Lesson 2: "Once Upon a Time in China" (1991).

In this first of a series of films, Jet Li takes on the role of Wong Fei-hung and gives it a serious spin. Now an adult, Fei-hung is the champion of oppressed Chinese against foreigners who seek to exploit the land and ship hapless workers overseas.

This film and its sequels contain arguably Li's best fight sequences, although some purists complain about the use of wire-assisted stunts (as in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") in a non-fantasy film.

Lesson 3: "The Duel" (2000).

Wire stunts, however, are the whole point of director Andrew Lau's "The Duel." Swordsmen and martial artists soar through the air in epic combat. The convoluted story, which involves spies, a plot against the emperor and a showdown between two rival swordsmen, is almost beside the point.

The film stars Andy Lau (no relation to the director) and Ekin Cheng, star of two other Andrew Lau films, the wonderfully over-the-top "Stormriders" and the visually interesting but greatly flawed "A Man Called Hero."

Lesson 4: "Stormriders" (1997).

Two brothers, Wind and Cloud, fight. They fight each other over a woman. They fight together to avenge their father. And, most importantly, they fight the legendary Sonny Chiba ("The Street Fighter," "Kill Bill"). If you are familiar with the Japanese cartoon series "Dragonball Z," think of this as the live-action version, but without the endless hours of filler between fights.

Lesson 5: "Moon Warriors" (1993).

This is the movie that George Lucas told Samuel L. Jackson to watch to prepare for the fight scenes in "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones." Watch it and you'll see why. Director Sammo Hung (star of the CBS television series "Martial Law") and action choreographer Ching Siu Tung did everything Lucas did, but they did it first. And better.

Lesson 6: "Enter the Dragon" (1973).

Hopefully you've at least seen "Enter the Dragon" on cable TV. Now rent the 35th anniversary DVD, which presents Bruce Lee's masterpiece in all of its uncut glory. Lee's moves are still incredible to watch, especially when you consider that he had to slow down just to keep from being a blur on film.

Now, grasshopper, what have you learned?

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