The Old School Kung Fu Fest presented by Museum of the Moving Image and Subway Cinema, returns for the 9th edition with eight newly restored films and one fan favorite classic by Kuo on 35mm — four titles available exclusively online, December 6–13, and another five films for in-person big-screen viewing at Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI), December 10–12.
Whether you know his name or not, when someone says “Old School Kung Fu” the first image that flashes across your brain is probably from a Joseph Kuo movie. Taiwan’s ultimate independent filmmaker, Kuo put his stamp on the Seventies as his own boss, writing, producing, and directing dozens of movies through his production company, Hong Hwa International Films, which he founded in 1973.
Kuo’s credo was simple: “I cannot let down the person who buys my works.” He learned to deliver maximum impact on minimum budgets, taking the latest trends of the day and turning them into hard-hitting spectacles boasting unlimited mayhem. To make his movies rock the hardest on the smallest of budgets he assembled a rotating cast of charismatic action stars that included Wen Chiang-lung (who looks like Bruce Lee after a Cantopop makeover), the musclebound Carter Huang, the puckish Li Yi-Min, the underrated female fighter, Jeanie Chang, the versatile Jack Long and Mark Long. Working with action choreographers like Corey Yuen, one of the Seven Little Fortunes, and Yuen Cheung-yan, brother of Yuen Wo-ping, his flicks feature wall-to-wall fight scenes, and in an attempt to please every single audience member these fight scenes go on, and on, and on, continually changing location and upping the stakes, so that just when you think you’ve seen every possible variation on two guys standing in a field kicking the stuffing out of each other, Kuo takes it to another level.
Full of funky editing tricks that momentarily turn his movies into experimental flicks, Kuo hooks eyeballs with convoluted storytelling structures packed with frenetic flashbacks that force viewers to pay close attention. Everyone is related to everyone else, everyone has a secret identity, there’s almost always a last minute revelation popping up out of nowhere, usually with evil laughter on its lips, and every movie single revolves around revenge. While the first half hour of any Joseph Kuo film takes some patience while he clears his throat and gets down to business, once things kick off it’s a non-stop roller coaster ride that ends in an apocalyptic beatdown that leaves the main characters doling out a galaxy-shattering finishing movie before confronting the futility of vengeance. Delivering martial arts mayhem and a moving moral message in 90 minutes or less, Joseph Kuo gets in, delivers the goods, makes his point, then gets out, leaving you hungry for more. And in this year’s Old School Kung Fu Fest we’re offering plenty more.
9th Old School Kung Fu Fest Lineup
Five In-Person Screenings!
18 Bronzemen & Return of 18 Bronzemen (1976)
Theatrical World Premiere of the brand new 2K restorations!
Starring: Carter Huang (aka Carter Wong), Polly Shang-kuan, Tien Peng
When Shaolin Temple movies became the next big thing, Kuo delivered these back-to-back movies about the world’s toughest college of kickass. “Overthrow Qing! Restore Ming!” was the rallying cry that echoed throughout the land. The Qing Dynasty were the Manchu invaders who stormed China and deposed the 300 year old Ming Dynasty, whose loyalists promptly went into hiding and led an underground resistance for the next 400 years centered on the cradle of Southern Chinese martial arts, the Shaolin Temple. Kuo tells the same story in both movies, each with essentially the same cast, but one’s from the point-of-view of the good guys, while the other takes the POV of the bad. 18 Bronzemen gives us Carter Huang as the son of heroic Ming rebels, spirited away from a Qing-led massacre of his family and hidden in Shaolin Temple. There he spends 20 years learning Shaolin kung fu before graduating by entering the labyrinth of death where he must face the 18 Bronzemen, who are gold-skinned fighting robots, as well as a series of tests that can drive you mad. But once he graduates he can take his revenge on the evil Qing scum with his Diploma of Death!
Inexplicably released before 18 Bronzemen everywhere except its native Taiwan, the sequel, Return of 18 Bronzemen, takes us to the dark side where Carter Huang plays an evil Qing prince who stages a coup, murders his dad, poisons his brother, and then someone asks him if they should burn Shaolin Temple to the ground because it’s full of rebels. Pausing, Huang stares at a tiny statue of one of the 18 Bronzemen on his desk, the screen does a wipe, and suddenly we’ve traveled back in time for a flashback that will take up the rest of the movie. Here, Huang is a young, fun-loving Qing punch-a-holic who discovers that he can’t beat Shaolin kung fu, so he disguises himself and enrolls in the monastery, determined to pack their 20 year training program into a single year. Taking on a heavy course load, including a trip through the labyrinth of death, and multiple battles with the 18 Bronzemen, he ultimately learns that he can be a Shaolin monk or he can be a Qing prince, but he can’t be both. That’s when we come back to the present and realize that we’ve just watched an entire 90 minute movie about one man making a single decision. It doesn’t get any more ambitious or experimental than that! Kuo’s invention, the 18 Bronzemen, would become so popular they remain a staple of the Shaolin legend to this day.
7 Grandmasters (1977)
Theatrical World Premiere of the brand new 2K restoration!
Starring: Li Yi-min, Jack Long, Corey Yuen
Three movies dominated Times Square grindhouses in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Mad Monkey Kung Fu from Shaw Brothers’ king of kung fu, Lau Kar-leung, was one. But the other two were both by Joseph Kuo: Mystery of Chess Boxing and 7 Grandmasters. With action choreography by Corey Yuen (one of Jackie Chan’s opera school brothers) and Yuen Cheung-yan (one of action genius Yuen Wo-ping’s real life brothers) 7 Grandmasters is a non-stop series of freaky fight scenes, with martial artists kicking up dirt and dishing out hurt as Master Sang Kuan-chun (Jack Long) receives an anonymous challenge on the eve of his retirement that sends him on a martial arts road trip to prove he’s still the best by taking on every single master of the martial arts he can find. No one dies because these fights are about respect, and tradition, and acknowledging that Master Sang is the better marital artist no matter what anonymous challenge letters written by meanies say, but somewhere along the way Master Sang gets framed…for MURDER! As if that isn’t bad enough, he also acquires a new student, Li Yi-min, who is so irritating that his other students try to beat him to death on a regular basis.
By the time we get to the final, no-holds-barred showdown, Li has become our hero, albeit a conflicted one, as secrets are revealed, hidden uncles spring back to life, we see an earth shattering weapons duel between Jack Long and choreographer Corey Yuen, a totally bananas battle with Monkey Liu, and a psychedelic progression of increasingly insane kung fu stances that sound like someone’s making them up as they go along: Eagle Catches Chicken, Cicada Shedding Its Skin, Buddha Standing on His Hands, the mystical Downstream Current, and our personal favorite, Falling On the Ground. Kuo’s flicks deliver pure, uncut action and the fact that these movies were made so fast and cheap actually makes the sheer athleticism of the performers that much more impressive.
Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979)
Starring: Li Yi-Min, Jack Long, Mark Long (aka Lung Kuan-wu), Jeanie Chang, Simon Yuen
A riff on Jackie Chan’s box office-shattering Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978), this is the movie that provided inspiration for the Wu-Tang Clan, with Ghostface Killah taking his name from its unforgettable bad guy, Ghost Faced Killer (Mark Long). Shot outdoors, like most classic Kuo productions, the action’s on overdrive right out of the gate, and these fights hurt. Kuo knows how to keep a story cooking, he’s got a knack for framing, and he’s excellent at delivering fun effects with nothing more than some nimble editing and clever camera tricks.
When a young novice who’s the butt of his kung fu school’s jokes gets sent to learn “real kung fu” from a master who keeps making him play chess all day, he complains, “I didn’t come here to learn chess! I wanted to learn kung fu.”
“You’ve been learning,” the master purrs, before barking out a series of chess moves and stances, turning the novice into a living, fighting chess piece, complete with groovy animations.
This kind of “You’re not painting my fence, you’re learning martial arts” schtick was the core of the Shaolin kung fu flick, and later of Jackie Chan’s kung fu comedies, and it would eventually find its fullest expression in the West via The Karate Kid, but Kuo delivers it here with an intense, acrobatic style that makes it easy to understand why this movie played for almost 10 years in Times Square, finally tapping out in 1989 paired on a double feature with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
36 Deadly Styles (1979)
Theatrical World Premiere of the brand new 2K restoration!
Starring: Cheung Lik, Jeanie Chang, Hwang Jang-Lee, Jack Long, Bolo Yeung
Few Joseph Kuo movies Kuo quite as hard as 36 Deadly Styles. A nutso opening half-hour that feels all over the place? Check. A complicated structure full of flashbacks? Check. Everyone is in disguise and maybe all related to each other? Check. Revenge-motivated main characters? Check. And, finally, some of the longest, most intense, ground level acrobatic fight scenes ever put on film? Check!!!
A kid on the run from a rival clan determined to wipe his clan from the face of the earth finds safety in a temple where he meets a soy milk salesgirl (Jeanie Chang) and her dad who help him out with the kung fu. He needs all the help he can get as a quartet of the best screen fighters ever assembled come gunning for him, all of them wearing deeply tragic wigs, including Bolo Yeung (the musclebound brute from Enter the Dragon) and Hwang Jang-Lee (the Korean superkicker tapped to be the big bad in both of Jackie Chan’s hit movies, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master ). It all leads to a final fight in a field where people kick each other in the face until they can’t stand up anymore and their guts explode, their quests for revenge bleeding out on a bleak landscape littered with motionless bodies as haystack fires leave black smudges floating across an uncaring blue sky.
Four Virtual Screenings!
Shaolin Kung Fu (1974)
Starring: Wen Chiang-lung, Yi Yuan, Liu Hsiu-yun
After the wu xia (heroic swordsman) resurgence of the late Sixties, Jimmy Wong-yu changed everything with his Shaw Brothers hit, The Chinese Boxer (1970), playing an angry young man fighting his oppressors with kung fu, and that came right before Bruce Lee’s box office-shattering kung fu flicks of ’72 and ’73. Suddenly, everyone wanted pissed-off poor dudes with badass brawler skills bashing open the skulls of The Man and Joseph Kuo delivered. He and flying kick specialist, Wen Chiang-lung, made seven movies together between 1972 and 1974, including this one, which is a remake of their Rikisha Kuri shot the previous year.
Here, Wen plays a rickshaw driver who’s promised his blind wife he won’t fight. Turns out that’s a hard promise to keep when a rival rickshaw company keeps stealing his fares, bullying a kid selling hardboiled eggs, and kidnapping his wife. A series of escalating brawls break out, building to a torture-filled climax and, don’t worry — there’s a (very) brief flashback to Shaolin Temple to justify the title of the film. Turns out there’s no film genre that doesn’t get better when you add a little Kuo.
Shaolin Kids (1975)
Starring: Polly Shang-kuan, Tien Peng, Carter Huang (aka Carter Wong)
In the early Ming Dynasty, the first Emperor Zhu believed his Chancellor, Wu Wei-yung, wanted to take over the throne. In retaliation, he had Wu, his family, and 30,000 of his nearest and dearest murdered. Despite this, history generally remembers Emperor Zhu fondly as a kind and effective leader. Wu, on the other hand, is remembered as a dirty traitor and Shaolin Kids is the largely fictitious tale of the brave heroes and tragic martyrs who worked to bring his treachery to the attention of kindly old Emperor Zhu.
Only World of the Drunken Master boasts the kind of budget Kuo has in Shaolin Kung Fu, and this posh period exercise allows him to return to the world of wu xia swordplay, this time putting a woman in the driver’s seat. Polly Shang-kuan (18 Bronzemen, Return of 18 Bronzemen), was discovered by Taiwan’s great cinematic innovator, King Hu, when he cast her in his groundbreaking Dragon Inn, and here she plays the daughter of a court official murdered by Chancellor Wu as the first step in his attempted coup. Shang takes it on herself to round up a bunch of friends to form a ragtag band of freedom fighters and bust skulls in revenge.
The Old Master (1979)
Starring: Master Yu Jim-yuen, Bill Louie
One of the strangest movies ever made, this cult-classic-in-the-making stars Master Yu Jim-yuen, the teacher of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen, and a host of others, as a fish-out-of-water martial artist in contemporary Los Angeles. The 74 year old Master Yu finds himself in LA trying to save one of his lazy student’s kung fu schools that the kid has almost lost through his gambling debts, but then he discovers that his student is paying off what he owes by setting Master Yu up in fights and betting on the outcome. Fortunately, he meets American karate champion, Bill Louie, and agrees to teach him kung fu (Louie’s other teacher is a toy robot — yes, you heard that right).
Armed with an earworm synth soundtrack and a complete and total commitment to disco, this flick feels like a bad dream where you just can’t wake up. Along the way, Louie more than demonstrates why he’s a superstar in the ring, we get to witness the birth of chainsaw-fu, there’s a face-melting dance number scored to the disco version of “Popeye the Sailor Man”, and every time a fight breaks out Master Yu turns his back to the camera so he can be doubled by one of his students (rumor has it that his double is the world famous Yuen Biao). You won’t believe the lunacy that’s unfolding before your eyes.
World of the Drunken Master (1979)
Starring: Jack Long, Mark Long (aka Lung Kuan-wu), Li Yi-Min, Jeanie Chang, Simon Yuen (kind of)
Between appearing as Beggar So in Jackie Chan’s 1978 Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, and dying in January, 1979, Simon Yuen (Yuen Wo-ping’s 66 year old father) played his Beggar So character in no less than 15 movies, and Joseph Kuo made two of them. He first appeared in Kuo’s Mystery of Chess Boxing, although his character disappears halfway through the movie leading some to speculate that he died during its production. Then he appears in some footage shot on a beach at the beginning of this film, which is probably some of the last footage ever filmed of Yuen. And you know what? That’s okay. Because World of the Drunken Master is one of the finest-looking, best-made Kuo movies around, and the entire thing is a touching tribute to Beggar So, the kung fu character that Simon Yuen forever made his own.
In the framing story, an elderly Beggar So meets his frenemy, Northern Jug (Jack Long), at a roadside bar and the two of them flash back to their glory days as kids before they ever learned Drunken Boxing and from there it’s a high velocity hayride of comedy, kung fu, and crazy battles in the middle of fields. Released only 10 months after Simon Yuen’s death and with action choreographed by his son, Yuen Cheung-yan, World of the Drunken Master looks fantastic, probably because it’s shot by Chris Chen, who’d go on to film a lot of Jackie Chan’s early movies (Young Master, Dragon Lord), but it’s also a highlight in Yuen Cheung-yan’s filmography. The acrobatic action makes your joints ache and its relentless intensity just keep ramping up as the combat gets more and more gravity-defying. A fitting tribute to the master himself, Simon Yuen.