Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Kung-fu movies
Why it’s daunting: On the surface, there’s nothing simpler than the kung-fu movie: It’s just dervish-like Chinese kicking each other in the face, right? But once you actually start watching them, you realize how complex they can be: A single film may be released under different names (and feature directors and stars with similarly changing names), they’re often badly translated, and even the fights depend on arcane martial-arts styles that can make the action hard to follow. Their narratives are often packed with cultural and historical references easy for mainland audiences to pick up, but impenetrable to most Westerners. Devotees share with fans of other media an exclusionary secret-club code, and even the name of the genre is in dispute: Are they kung-fu pictures, wu xia films, martial-arts movies, or chop-socky flicks?
Possible gateway: The 1978 Gordon Liu classic The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin, also widely known as Shaolin Master Killer.
Why: While Bruce Lee’s limited output truly galvanized the medium, and his charismatic demeanor and unique, lightning-quick moves won the hearts of Western fans, his movies are atypical if only because he’s in them, and his presence and creativity set them apart from most Hong Kong product of the day. The films of Chang Cheh (starting with Five Deadly Venoms) form an impressive body of work that must eventually be seen by any fan of the genre, but in terms of style, pacing, and story, they’re more intermediate work. For a beginner, few films are more electric than The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin: Directed by the always-impressive Liu Chia-Liang and starring the intense, acrobatic star Gordon Liu, it became a classic of the genre. Part of what makes it a perfect starting point is that it features plenty of typical elements (from stock characters to recognizable historical settings) to prepare new viewers for the conventions of the genre, but it’s also of very high quality, so it’s always exciting, and it delivers on the bad-ass promise of the kung-fu epic.
36th Chamber is set in the in the 1700s, and it tells the story of San Te (Chia Hui Liu), a passionate young student who is inspired to rebel against the oppressive Manchu government when they destroy his school. Fleeing to the Shaolin temple, he begins an arduous training process, eventually mastering the temple’s arcane kung-fu skills and returning to his village, where he helps defeat the Manchu puppet governor and begins training his people in the same skills he learned. It isn’t an especially complex story, but it’s well told with the emotional Liu at the helm, and the action scenes—from a riveting opening-credits sequence (set to the same incidental music as heard in Monty Python And The Holy Grail) to the unforgettable training segments—are top-shelf. Best of all, by telling the origin of San Te (a legendary figure in wu xia), and drawing viewers in by showing how the martial techniques are learned and how some of the legendary weapons of kung-fu were developed, 36th Chamber imparts vital knowledge that will be useful in watching later examples of the genre. In effect, it plays like an origin story for the whole field of Chinese martial-arts movies.
(And yes, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is indeed the primary inspiration behind the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album—it’s the “Killer tape” that Ghost is asking about at the beginning of “Wu-Tang: 7th Chamber.” They loved it so much that the RZA himself provides a very fine audio commentary on the Dragon Dynasty DVD re-release of the film from 2007. It’s considered such a classic that Liu went through a period of being typecast as a Shaolin monk; his shaved head, with dots of incense ash, was a signature look for years.)
Next steps: After 36th Chamber, viewers should have sufficient background to plunge into the oeuvre of the genre’s most legendary director, Chang Cheh. Start with the groundbreaking and highly entertaining Five Deadly Venoms (1978) and move on to Flag Of Iron (1980) or the foundational The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). After that and a few other classics, like Jimmy Wang Yu’s Master Of The Flying Guillotine or the outstanding Legendary Weapons Of China, you should be ready for Jackie Chan’s period work. (Drunken Master is a must-see.) Cap it all off with Bruce Lee: watch The Big Boss, Fist Of Fury, and Enter The Dragon, and you’ll understand how totally he changed the game.
Where not to start: Newer kung-fu movies (from around 1988 on) have better production values and more polished cinematography, but films like Swordsman II and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon should be the end of your journey, not the beginning. (Jet Li’s 1994 semi-remake of Fist Of Fury, titled Fist Of Legend, is a good transitional film.) Jackie Chan’s later work moves pretty far afield of traditional wu xia and into the realm of contemporary action. And it’s best to avoid cult favorites like Beach Of The War Gods and Cat Vs. Rat until you’re fully steeped in the genre’s traditions; they tend to contain cultural referents that are impenetrable to even the biggest Western devotees of kung-fu films.