It all started with my love affair with Netflix and the battle with finding good quality films that are also entertaining. They had a sudden influx of martial arts movies a few years ago, but not the modern ones, the really old Shaw Brothers ones by Chang Cheh. Simple plot lines but off the chain moves! I was obsessed!
I immediately jumped into watching all the venom mob movies and fell in love with Chiang Sheng who is sadly deceased. He was this incredible martial artist who had gone to the famous Peking Opera School. When he performed he was silly but serious, rhythmic always kind of dancing around. Supposedly he was called “Cutie Pie,” because he was also terribly adorable and had these great dimples. He was also typically the good guy though not always.
I didn’t remember him from earlier kung fu movies nor his style of kungfu which was laced with acrobatics. He could leap into single hand backflips and run up walls like he belonged there. I found out that he became an assistant director for Chang Cheh and as I researched him more, I found that he also became a choreographer for Cheh. Then I discovered that he and 2 other of the venom mob players had all gone to school together Philip Kuo Chui and Lu Feng who is still around—they were all like heartthrobs in their era. Their moves were amazing! They would do 100-300 sequence moves in one take! There was no cutting and the camera barely moved. I was awed. Then I was buying up as many DVDs as possible.
The other thing that happened in these movies as I watched more of them is that Chang Cheh was very interested in portraying a male brotherhood that was very chilvarous. Most times women in the films, did very little because they needed to be saved, but sometimes there was more there. In Flags of Iron, there’s a storyline about women being kidnapped and brought into brothels against their will. In this movie in particular, a woman that they save returns and she says something like, “Did you think you only needed to save me once?” It was something very heavy in a mostly light-hearted ketchup-blood action movie. But a lot of these films would kind of roll over some of these really dark themes having to do with women. I think the idea of Black Kungfu Chick really began to take seed there as I watched women’s roles in these movies.
Eventually I moved over to the internet and youtube to find more movies and I started rewatching movies with female leads that I remembered watching as a kid. I found a few blogs that directed me where to watch the best female martial artists— I remembered Pei Pei Cheng from the classic Dragon Inn. I also rediscovered Bruce Lee and Michele Yeoh and fell into Angela Mao Ying— she has a movie called Broken Oath where she does kung fu but also throws scorpions—she’s so badass—to avenge her murdered parents; but I had to really hunt down A Touch of Zen by King Hu whom I would compare to a Terrence Malick. The first part of the movie is all about Hsu Feng’s character being mysterious and a part of some political rebels with a very slight love plot. She ends up sleeping with this guy who is chasing her simply to fulfill his mother’s dream of having a legacy.
But she’s all business when things get a little crazy. This all felt very radical to me for the time. But the second half gets all zen—monks, sun, and forest and desert—and leaves the action plot completely behind. I was fascinated when I looked him up to discover that the industry there (like the industry here with the Malick’s) didn’t approve of his thoughtful and more spiritual expressions. King Hu’s work didn’t have the ketchup bleeding of Cheh nor the flagrant acrobatics, but his films were very cinematic and the movements were very carefully choreographed like in an opera. He also frequently worked with female leads who barely ever fell in love. They were dutiful and not playing.
All these ideas from the 70’s just felt incredibly relevant now, these issues that women grapple with— trying to find a way to protect themselves and those they care about, can a woman be strong, vulnerable, demure and sexy?, can a woman have a job and have love too? This desire to find the balance I feel is a universal female struggle. That is where Black Kungfu Chick began to form.