The Old School Kung Fu Fest returns to the Metrograph theater, promising the biggest retrospective of Taiwanese wuxia (sword fighting hero) movies ever seen in New York City.
The 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition takes place April 21-30, 2023, showcasing 12 movies including the US premiere of The King of Wuxia, an epic documentary about King Hu, the revolutionary filmmaker who re-invented wuxia movies and turned them into high art, plus three of his best films — A Touch of Zen, and two of his most action-packed flicks, The Valiant Ones and The Fate of Lee Khan.
Other titles include all three movies in the Tsai Ying-jie Trilogy: Joseph Kuo’s The Swordsman of All Swordsman (US premiere of the new digital restoration), The Bravest Revenge (online only), and the wild and wooly Ghost Hill.
Also on the lineup are four films starring actress Hsu Feng (A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan, The Valiant Ones, A City Called Dragon), four starring Polly Shang-kuan (Swordsman of All Swordsmen, Ghost Hill, Grand Passion, The Bravest Revenge), and one starring the massive movie star, Josephine Siao Fong-fong (The Daring Gang of Nineteen From Verdun City) in which she’s only 12 years old.
FULL LINE UP
IN THEATER SCREENINGS AT METROGRAPH
Twelve In-Person Screenings!
THE KING OF WUXIA (2022)
Directed by: Lin Jing-jie
The most important thing to know about a 3.5 hour documentary about King Hu is that it’s not long enough. King Hu appeared in 1966 with Come Drink with Me and absolutely revolutionized Chinese filmmaking, action choreography, editing, and storytelling. The seven movies he made between 1966 and 1979 are stone cold classics that influenced a generation and then…heartbreak and tragedy struck as Hu’s uncompromising artistic vision met hard economic realities.
Hu worked with absolutely everyone over the course of his career and The King of Wuxia features interviews with friends and collaborators like John Woo, Sammo Hung, and his favorite actor, Shih Chun (A Touch of Zen, A City Called Dragon ). They take us to the locations where he shot his films, Chinese opera performers demonstrate how Hu created his stunts, there’s rare footage of Hu from his acting days before he became a director, and dozens of emotional stories that have never been heard before. This is a testament to greatness, a documentary that’ll make you want to walk out of the theater when it’s over, pick up a sword (or a camera), and forge your own path in the world.
A TOUCH OF ZEN (1971)
Directed by: King Hu
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, Pai Ying, Tien Peng, Tsao Chien, Roy Chiao, Sammo Hung
Astonishing is the only word for it. Running three ecstatic hours, A Touch of Zen is the kind of movie you surrender to, and you’ll walk out of the theater with your soul in better shape than when you came in. Butchered on release, it died at the box office and killed King Hu’s career until the three-hour cut played at the Cannes Film Festival three years later and received the Technical Grand Prize and almost took home the Palme d’Or. Ever since, it’s been considered one of the greatest Chinese movies ever made.
Starting as a ghost story, it slowly spins a web as a scholar (Shih Chun) living next door to a haunted house, falls for the woman warrior he first mistakes for a ghost (Hsu Feng). By the time he finds out she’s on the run from the government, he’s caught in her grip, and so is the audience, as this movie delivers bamboo forest fights, martial arts transcendence, and Zen Buddhism. Zen made Hsu Feng’s ferocious swordswoman a major star, and established that King Hu had more on his mind than mere swordplay. Spending 25 days shooting scenes that take up 10 minutes of screentime, Zen made it clear that for King Hu, making movies was a way of life.
THE FATE OF LEE KHAN (1973)
Directed by: King Hu
Starring: Tien Feng, Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Pai Ying, Han Ying-chieh, Angela Mao
King Hu’s most ferocious statement of feminist principles, this flick features five actresses throwing flying fists (Hu Chin, Helen Ma, Angela Mao, Hsu Feng, and Li Li-hua). The first half of the movie is all set-up, as rebels, spies, and government officials in disguise descend on a remote inn looking for a pivotal McGuffin (a battle map). The second half of the movie sees all hell break loose as identities are revealed, loyalties are betrayed, and all the furniture gets bashed, crashed, and thoroughly smashed. Think of it as The Hateful Eight but with women wielding swords.
This is also the movie where King Hu, the great action innovator, met the next step in the evolution of the action movie, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan’s “Big Brother,” who does the action choreography in this movie (and in Hu’s next, The Valiant Ones). Sammo isn’t fooling around, and his approach challenges and elevates Hu’s vision, making the action feel rougher, rowdier, and harder-hitting than the elegant ballet of previous King Hu films.
THE VALIANT ONES (1975)
Directed by: King Hu
Starring: Roy Chiao, Hsu Feng, Sammo Hung, Han Ying-chieh
For a small story told like an epic, the tale couldn’t be tinier. Corrupt Ming officials have taken bribes and allowed a band of Japanese pirates to terrorize the South China coast. The government dispatches a small band of fighters, anchored by a husband-and-wife team, to take care of them. Outnumbered, they have to rely on guile, cunning, and clever strategy to take down their opponents. What follows is almost non-stop action courtesy of fight choreographer Sammo Hung and director King Hu, who deliver some of their greatest set pieces, including a chess battle that has to be seen to be believed.
Sammo had a small role in A Touch of Zen, but he and Hu had just worked together for the first time on The Fate of Lee Khan, and now, in their second teaming up, they meld into a single brutal beast delivering intense onscreen beatdowns. Sammo’s action is aggressive, and features more kung fu than Hu’s other films, which relied mostly on swordplay. Hu edits to Sammo’s strengths, delivering a movie that feels like the future of Hong Kong moviemaking: hard-hitting, fast-moving, and out-of-this-world.
VENGEANCE OF THE PHOENIX SISTERS (1968)
New York Premiere of the Digital Restoration
Directed by: Chen Hung-min
Starring: Yang Li-hua, Liu Ching, Chin Mei
Where has this movie been all our lives? A black-and-white tornado that sometimes feels like the French New Wave doing wuxia, its opening half-hour will leave you breathless as it beats your eyeballs into submission with its muscular handheld camerawork, savage swish pans, and kinetic editing. Its score, on the other hand, feels like Ennio Morricone and Bernard Herrman weaving a tapestry of Chinese opera music. It’s all the work of first-time director Chen Hung-min, who had already edited a host of movies including King Hu’s Dragon Inn.
Stars of Chinese opera and the silver screen, Yang Li-hua, Liu Ching, and Chin Mei, play the titular Phoenix Sisters, separated as children in a brutal massacre. 15 years later, they cross paths again: oldest sister Xiufeng (Yang) an accomplished swordswoman who lives disguised as a man; middle sister, Qingfeng (Liu) doling out justice wearing a mask; and spunky youngest sister, Zhifeng (Chin) who loses her adoptive family in another attack. These three separated siblings ultimately reunite to remind audiences that the greatest wuxia family value is revenge.
THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN (1968)
US Premiere of the Digital Restoration
Directed by: Joseph Kuo
Starring: Tien Peng, Polly Shang-kuan, Chiang Nan
Taiwan’s Joseph Kuo owned the ‘70s kung fu movie to such an extent that we devoted 2021’s Old School Kung Fu Fest to his films (like 18 Bronzemen and Mystery of Chess Boxing). But before he dominated kung fu, Kuo made sword-slinging wuxia and they’re some of the best films in the genre. Released 55 years ago, Swordsman of All Swordsmen is newly digitally restored and it’s been the centerpiece of this retrospective as it plays around the world because it’s just that good.
Running a breakneck 85 minutes, the film begins with Tsai Ying-jie (Tien Peng) setting out to kill the 5 martial arts masters who murdered his parents. He’s spent 20 years preparing for this moment, so he’s understandably bummed when things go awry almost immediately and he winds up owing his life to Flying Swallow (Polly Shang-kuan) whose father orchestrated the murder of his parents, and Black Dragon (Chiang Nan) who tells Tsai that he owes him a duel to the death once vengeance is served.
Bloody, brutal, and full of thorny moral conundrums that can only be solved by killer chopsticks and razor-blade-lined hats, this flick was such a huge hit it spawned two sequels featuring the Tsai Ying-jie character and we’re showing both (The Bravest Revenge is screening online only but the crazy climax to the trilogy, The Ghost Hill, screens live).
THE GHOST HILL (1971)
Directed by: Ting Shan-hsi
Starring: Tien Peng, Polly Shang-kuan, David Tang Wei
The final installment in the Swordsman of All Swordsmen trilogy, no familiarity with the other two movies is required to have a blast. Polly Shang-kuan reprises her Flying Swallow character, alongside Tien Peng’s Tsai Ying-jie, and this time they decide to storm Hell itself in revenge for the death of Flying Swallow’s dad. After all, when life is this cruel, you want to speak to a supervisor.
Lord Chin, the Ruler of Hell, likes to bathe in boiling oil and he’s guarded by the Left & Right Judges, the Ox Head Demon, the Black & White Wuchangs, the Murdering Wonder Child, and Soul Hunter Yaksha, so this won’t be easy. Fortunately, Flying Swallow and Tsai have a just cause and an entire hobo army to help them crash through the styrofoam caves of doom and chop necks under multicolored disco lights. Shot by a cinematographer who films fight scenes like he’s storming the beach at Normandy, the visuals come flying at your eyes fast and furious in this delirious, blood-soaked fantasia. Will you be able to describe the plot or map the character arcs? Probably not. Will you see a flying head biting people? Guaranteed.
A CITY CALLED DRAGON (1970)
Directed by: Larry Tu Chong-hsun
Starring: Hsu Feng, Shih Chun
Hsu Feng debuted in a small part in King Hu’s Dragon Inn and almost immediately Hu tapped her to star in A Touch of Zen alongside Shih Chun. But Zen was a massive production that seemed to drag on forever, so during the downtime Hsu Feng, Shih Chun, and most of the Zen cast and crew teamed up with Hu’s assistant director, Larry Tu Chong-hsun, to make A City Called Dragon. Hsu’s performance in this flick is so hardcore that it won her “Most Promising Newcomer” at the Golden Horse Awards before A Touch of Zeneven came out!
Hsu plays a rebel infiltrating Dragon City to get battle plans which will help overthrow the Northern Manchus. Her contact gets beheaded by the Governor (played by Shih Chun, being the bad guy this time) who then locks down the city, leaving Hsu with three missions: find those plans, take righteous revenge, and don’t get murdered. That last one’s harder than it sounds because Dragon City is crawling with spies and assassins and they’re all looking for her. Sporting as much intrigue as action, Hsu Feng is a righteous sword of holy vengeance in this shadowy flick that’s like what would happen if John LeCarre’ decided to put down his pen and pick up a sword.
THE GRAND PASSION (1970)
Directed by: Yang Shih-ching
Starring: Polly Shang-kuan, Pai Ying, Tsao Chien, Shih Chun
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. King Hu’s A Touch of Zen was such a massive production that seemed to drag on forever, that during the downtime his cast and crew went off to make another movie. This time, it was his production manager, Yang Shih-ching, who picked up a camera, and he tapped Hu’s other major female discovery to headline the cast, Polly Shang-kuan. Dragon Inn may have put Hsu Feng on the road to stardom, but the intense Polly Shang-kuan was the actual lead swordslinger in that movie, and this hardcore flick is a showcase for what she can do.
Like A City Called Dragon, it’s also about rebels trying to deliver a McGuffin (a list of names) but this time Polly Shang-kuan and Pai Ying are siblings as well as part of a secret spy network, and they need to take the list to a middleman at the local teahouse. Standing in their way, of course, is the government’s torture-loving General, and numerous creeps who start coming out of the woodwork who may be friends or may be foes. Eschewing the occasional silliness of the genre, this one is an intense drama with gorgeous production design and a sense of realism that grounds the action and makes the twists feel real. Polly Shang-kuan would go on to be one of Taiwan’s biggest action stars, and Director Yang Shih-chung would make two more movies with her after this one.
NIGHT ORCHID (1983)
US Premiere of the 2K Remaster
Directed by: Chang Peng-I
Starring: Brigitte Lin, Adam Cheng, Don Wong Tao, Eddy Ko, Fung Hak-on
Movies don’t come more star-studded than this hothouse flower. Based on a zeitgeist-changing megahit TV series, and written by Gu Long himself (considered one of the greatest wuxia novelists of all time), this posh flick stars Brigitte Lin, one of Taiwan’s biggest actresses who was soon to find fame in Hong Kong movies, and Adam Cheng, a major Hong Kong pop star and actor.
Cheng plays Chu Liu-xiang, one of Gu Long’s most popular characters and the star of a series of novels. He’s a fun-loving, hard-drinking Robin Hood who refuses to kill his enemies and has a knack for the ladies. Cheng first played Chu (whose name literally translates as “lingering scent”) in an 65-episode TV series that was broadcast in Taiwan in 1982, and it proved to be so popular that producers invited him over to co-star with Brigitte Lin in this movie written by Long.
It moves a mile-a-minute, characters come and go with alarming frequency, and the whole thing culminates in a booby-trapped temple of wildly outlandish doom. Come for Brigitte Lin, stay for the kung-fu fighting tiger and leopard-men, the murderous, caped little girl who pops in and out from beneath the sand, and an enemy in white nylon who can flatten himself into a two-dimensional sheet and vaporize.
THE LEGEND OF THE SACRED STONE (2000)
Directed by: Chris Huang
Starring: a bunch of hand puppets
In 1984, the wuxia series, Pili, debuted in Taiwan and became one of the most popular television shows of the ‘80s. In 2000, the series spun off into this feature film which has almost never before been available in an unmutilated version overseas. Here at last is the full, uncut, puppet wuxia of your dreams, presented with all its wildness and beauty intact. The story is straightforward: an evil martial arts master is out to destroy the world and an army of heroes assemble to stop him. So what?
Here’s what. It’s all done with hand puppets, based on the centuries old po-te-hi style of puppet-based storytelling famous in China and brought to Taiwan by the Huang family. Director Chris Huang (called “Ten Carts of Books” by fans for his vast knowledge) is a fourth generation puppeteer and his relative, Vincent Huang (known as the “Eight Tone Genius”), does all the voices. Shot on a 36,000 square foot soundstage, with energetic, lo-fi CGI deployed at breakneck speed on vast puppet sets, Legend of the Sacred Stonefeels like an amped-up version of Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, only it’s all done with puppets. Delivered with total sincerity and dramatic depth, after you see it, you’ll never look at puppets in quite the same way again.
THE ASSASSIN (2015)
Directed by: Hou Hsiao-hsien
Starring: Shu Qi, Chang Chen, Zhou Yun
No one saw this coming. Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan’s great arthouse director and master of the long take, decided that he wanted to make his very own wuxia movie to pay tribute to the ones he saw growing up in Taiwan (just like the ones featured in this retrospective). The movie he delivers fits comfortably in this line-up, but the way he tells it makes it feel unlike anything else we’re screening. It won “Best Director” at Cannes, “Best Film” and “Best Director” at the Golden Horse Awards, and it stands as a labor of love that’s deeply respectful of the genre’s conventions even as it deconstructs them.
Shu Qi, a longtime veteran of the Hong Kong film industry, plays a veteran assassin towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, less than a single human lifetime away from when the grandeur of that dynasty will disappear, taking all its elegant refinements with it. She’s been trained from birth to kill for her masters, but now a sense of justice and mercy is beginning to compromise her kill count, making her wonder if the people who polish mirrors and repair robes might be more deserving of justice and mercy than the rich people who order her around. Made with meticulous attention to realism in its combat, clothes, and furniture, this is a gem of a movie, crafted, refined, and polished until it gleams.
SCREENING AT METROGRAPH AT HOME (SVOD)
VIRTUAL SCREENINGS ONLY
THE DARING GANG OF NINETEEN FROM VERDUN CITY (1959)
Directed by: Tu Kuang-chi
Starring: Josephine Siao Fong-fong
Fans of martial arts movies most likely know Josephine Siao Fong-fong best as Jet Li’s kickass mom in Fong Sai Yuk (1993) but she was famous for decades before that movie rebooted her career at 47 years old. Starting in movies when she was seven, and appearing opposite a 14 year-old Bruce Lee a year later in An Orphan’s Tragedy (1955), she got her first role as an action heroine in this flick when she was only 12. Essential viewing for her fans, in Daring Gang, Siao Fong-fong plays a child raised from birth to take revenge on the Evil-Doer (that’s literally how he’s credited) but she’s never told why. It’s not until they meet that she learns the reasons why she’s had to devote her entire young life to killing this man she doesn’t know. Complications ensue.
IRON MISTRESS (1969)
Directed by: Sung Tsun-shou
Starring: Han Hsiang-chin, Pai Ying, Tsao Chien
A wuxia programmer about a group of rebels taking on the Jin invaders during the Southern Song Dynasty, Han Hsiang-chin plays the Iron Mistress herself, leading a band of feisty fighters in guerilla warfare. Fighting by her side is Pai Ying (A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan, Grand Passion), who loves her. When another rebel leader (played by Tsao Chien) tries to team up, he immediately arouses Pai Ying’s suspicions that he could be a Jin spy or — even worse — a rival for the Iron Mistress’s hardassed heart. Filled with characters based on real-life historical figures, this flick really comes alive in its action scenes that are full of flashing blades.
THE BRAVEST REVENGE (1971)
Directed by: Chien Lung
Starring: Polly Shang-kuan, Tien Peng
The second movie in the Swordsman of All Swordsmen trilogy, this time the focus is on Polly Shang-kuan as a daughter who must avenge the murder of her father with the main character in Swordsman of All Swordsmen Part 1, Tsia Ying-chieh (played again by Tien Peng). After their dad is chopped up, Polly and her three brothers train for five years under five different masters to develop the martial skills they need to kill the bastard who killed their daddy. However, even after all that work they’re STILL not good enough. Fortunately, Tsia Ying-chieh comes along and decides to help. Might the three brothers, one sister, and one heroic stranger be ready to take on the evil slayer of fathers? Not quite. First they must battle 100 conscripts, as they fight their way through the Hall of Poison and Hall of Fire, before they can even face almost certain death at the hands of the Big Baddie. It’s a movie stuffed with non-stop action, climaxing in a final half hour that’s a bruising throwdown, making this the ultimate matinee flick.