The Return of the One-Armed Swordsman
Growing up, I preferred Chinese kung fu films to the action movies made in Hollywood. Despite their limitations — low budgets, bad dubbing, generic plots — the best of the Hong Kong fighting flicks had a lot going for them.
The heroes, unlike their tanned and cocky L.A. counterparts, were humble. When they weren’t practicing their flying kicks and horse stances, they were prone to embarrassment, unsure of themselves in social situations and awkward around women. While the Hollywood hero appeared all-powerful on-screen, the Bruce Lees, Jackie Chans and Gordon Lius were underdogs. With determination, reverence for teachers, and even, as it might surprise us now in retrospect, an adherence to a code of social justice (see Bruce Lee’s famous smashing of a sign reading “No Dogs and Chinese Allowed” in “Fist of Fury,” his second major film), Hong Kong silver screen heroes were appealing to oddballs such as myself, prone to bookishness and preferring the stillness of secluded mountain temples to the machine guns and lobbed grenades of Stallone and Schwarzenegger.
These days, I doubt I would be able to get through an entire viewing of any but the best or most unconventional kung fu film. The reason they’re on my mind is because, in the middle of a bout with pneumonia, I watched a new Netflix documentary on the history of martial arts cinema called “Iron Fists and Kung-Fu Kicks.” The doc brings us back to an era when Times Square movie theaters screened “Debbie Does Dallas” alongside “Master of the Flying Guillotine,” and does a great job of putting the latter type of film into its social context — themes of race, poverty and societal conflict appealed to urban moviegoers and those trying to make sense of the then-recent Vietnam War.
“Iron Fists” also solves a riddle I pondered long ago: Why are the fights so much better in Hong Kong films? The answer, in part, is looser industry safety standards. Actors cracked skulls and broke backs to give us our thrills.
The child is the father of the man, and I’ve retained in some shadow of my brain a reverence for the mythic kung fu hero. While preparing this issue, which is dense with stories even by our standards, the memories called to light by the Netflix doc continued to surface. Throughout the publication cycle, I didn’t deal with pneumonia alone. I had the flu. I had colds. Everyone in my family caught something. And then I severely injured my hand in a bizarre kitchen accident. Really.
There’s a bonkers kung fu film called “Return of the One-Armed Swordsman.” Hobbled by injury and weary from prescription meds, I pecked away at my keyboard and thought of that film’s hero, Fang Kang, bloodied, beaten, his topknot in disarray, ever pushing forward. This isn’t to say what I did was heroic — only that in the midst of struggle I found inspiration from an unlikely source, and one that arose from my past just when I needed it.
With that said, next issue I promise to be more careful in the kitchen.
Contact Doug at firstname.lastname@example.org