Who Needs Story When You’ve Got Kung Fu?

by Ashley Naftule

Mystery of Chessboxing

The thing about genre movies is that you have to take them on their own terms. You can’t watch a giallo film with the same set of expectations you’d bring to an Oscar bait movie. It’s comparable to going to a concert: a jazz or noise show won’t flow in the same way that a typical rock show would. You have to learn a new set of rhythms and behaviors to appreciate it.

A case in point is foreign cinema. If you’ve been weaned on conventional Hollywood movies, it’s going to be a bit of culture shock getting used to the slower, stately pacing of a Bela Tarr or Tarkovsky film, or following the fragmented editing styles of French & Czech New Wave movies. People get too hung up on subtitles: dealing with a foreign language isn’t the hard part; it’s learning a new visual language that can be tricky.

This is something I didn’t get hip to until my early 20’s when I got exposed to the wonderful world of kung fu movies. I initially learned about kung fu the same way most kids from my generation did: via the Wu Tang Clan and Jackie Chan movies. I didn’t start appreciating the deep cuts until I got out of high school. My friends and I would meet up 1-2 times a week to roleplay (D&D and Shadowrun, most of the time). On some days, we wouldn’t have enough people or the vibe just wasn’t right, so we did the next best thing: we’d get some snacks, get high, and watch stacks of old school kung fu movies.

Master of the Flying Guillotine

Being exposed to classic martial art flicks like Mystery of Chessboxing and Master of the Flying Guillotine for the first time, we quickly picked up on a lot of the fundamental qualities these films shared: the poor acting, the paper thin characters, the half-assed cinematography. They weren’t good-looking pictures. No Serge Daney or Andre Bazin would be penning tomes about the cinematographic genius of these films.

They also had qualities that gave them an off-putting air of the “forbidden” to them. For one thing, it wasn’t uncommon to see actual animals getting killed on film in a kung fu movie. Whether it was a live snake getting its heart cut out in Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave or a chicken getting decapitated in Flying Guillotine, it was a genuine shock each time that it happened. Nothing screamed “You’re not in Kansas anymore” quite like seeing the Flying Guillotine snatch a chicken’s head off its shoulders.

A lot of the films also had impossible-to-ignore racist aspects to it. Flying Guillotine is a great example of this: almost every fighter in the tournament represents some over the top stereotype from his country (Guillotine is one of many Chinese kung fu flicks to feature a pervy Japanese fighter as a minor villain). The stereotypes are so broad and hamfisted that they’d make a Family Guy writer blush.

But there was something about those films that transcended those weird moments of real life bloodletting and bigotry, that redeemed their poor aesthetic qualities: their no-bullshit approach to storytelling.

Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave

As I mentioned in a previous blog, story-bloat is a huge problem in Hollywood films. Many modern screenwriters and directors would be doing themselves a favor by paying attention to how kung fu movies handle their plotlines.

In brief, this is the plot of 90% of most kung fu films:

1. There’s a hero and a villain
2. The villain must be stopped
3. The hero steps up to fight the villain, but is hopelessly outclassed
4. Hero trains
5. Villain kills the shit out of some other people
6. Sometimes a love interest or sidekick pops up
7. Hero fights other people
8. Hero and villain fight
9. Villain dies brutally

Those last two points are what makes kung fu movies GREAT. There is no epilogue, no long march back to The Shire in kung fu land: the films end the SECOND their villains die. The main conflict is resolved; who gives a shit about anything else? Oh, you wanted to know if the humble kung fu fighter is going to shack up with the fair daughter of his sensei? Tough break, kid: kung fu movies don’t have time for subplot resolutions.

The first time I watched Chessboxing, I couldn’t believe the credits popping onscreen moments after The Ghost Face Killer is vanquished. “That’s it? That’s all?!” I was so used to three act structures and denouements that the complete and utter lack of a “satisfying” ending was genuinely shocking. The complete disregard for paying any lip service to the way conventional stories end was almost avant-garde.

Mr. Vampire

The lightning-fast endings soon became my favorite part of kung fu movies. Sure, the fighting itself is fantastic (it has to be – kung fu movie producers are like porn filmmakers in that they know nobody is here for the story) and the occasional detours into weird Taoist supernatural story lines can be fascinating (like the freaky, breath-detecting hopping zombies in Mr. Vampire), but nothing made me pop quite like those sudden endings. When I saw Death Proof for the first time, I cheered in the theater when the film abruptly ended as the girls caved in Stuntman Mike’s head. It was a CLASSIC kung fu ending.

For a time, kung fu ruined me for most action movies. Everything seemed excessive and over-burdened in comparison. A Michael Bay film looked like a Hummer compared to the Tron bike sleekness of a classic kung fu joint.

Watching kung fu changed how I appreciated stories. Before them, I was a junkie for expanded universe lore, convoluted backstories, and MORE-MORE-MORE in the fiction and films I loved. Kung fu hammered home the power of simplicity. Kung fu taught me a lesson that Sir Charles Barkley had been shouting at us for years: SHUT UP AND JAM.

After all, who needs a story when you’ve got a killer kick to the face?


P.S. If you can only watch ONE movie that I mentioned in this post, go see Kung Fu From Beyond The Grave. The fighting isn’t great, but there’s one sequence in there that is among the most deranged WTF moments in film history. I won’t spoil it here, and for the love of God DON’T GOOGLE IT. Just watch it blind. You’ll know what it is when it happens. You can thank me later after you finish scraping your blown mind off the walls.

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