San Diego Asian Film Festival 2012: Five Fingers, Flying Swords and Far Out Painted Skins
by Dr. Craig Reid
Trivia question: What Chinese Kung Fu film first enjoyed major playing time in the United States (ignoring various chinatowns) and is responsible for starting the Kung Fu film craze in America? If you don't know the answer, that's okay, because you'll have a rare opportunity to see it at this year's 13th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival (SDAFF, November 1-9). It will be the first time this film has played on the big screen in Southern California in almost 40 years.
True-blue Kung Fu film fans will likely know the answer. For those who don't, it's FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH.
Chinese Kung Fu cinema dates back to DING JUN MOUNTAIN, which was shot in 1905. But it wasn't until March 21, 1973 that mainstream America first tasted its wild and wacky flavors. That's when Korean director Chung Chang-wha's (Chinese name Chang Cheng-ho) FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (aka KING BOXER) came stateside. It seems appropriate that the Chinese title, tian xia di yi quan, translates into Number One Boxer. How cool is it that with the 40th anniversary of this legendary film, not only will SDAFF honor Chung with a Lifetime Achievement Award? Chung will appear in person at the Friday, November 2, 2012, 6:30 pm screening at the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center in San Diego. This will be a meet-and-greet event, with an exclusive Q&A session after the film.
USA Today recently called the annual SDAFF, flagship event of Pacific Arts Movement (formerly the San Diego Asian Film Foundation), one of the 10 reasons to visit San Diego. It has grown to become the largest exhibition of Asian cinema in the western United States and the second largest Asian film festival in North America. This will mark the first time a martial arts film director has received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
First generation Korean American Lee Ann Kim, who is executive director of the Pac-Arts Movement (which she founded as the San Diego Film Foundation in 2000 with the Asian American Journalists Association of San Diego), exclusively tells kungfumagazine.com, "It's such a dichotomy in some ways, because for years our members of our community and ourselves have fought the whole stereotype that Asian film is not just about Kung Fu. It's the first thing that many people think of when they think of Asian films. So to honor somebody who helped start the Kung Fu craze here in the United States or North America, there may be some... not controversy... but some may have some issues or questions about it."
It truly is an age-old point of contention and something worth discussing on the forum: Does an Asian or Asian American actor portraying a martial arts character in Asian and American films shown in American theaters or on American TV perpetuate a stereotype?
Kim, also known as Fearless Leader of the Film Festival, stalwartly continues, "We want people to know that yes, this is a Kung Fu film, but Asian cinema goes way beyond that... there is a larger picture and a larger story to be told beyond that. Director Chung not only started the Kung Fu craze, was in the right place at the right time at Shaw Brothers (largest and foremost movie production company of Hong Kong, built in 1960-61), but he also started people's true interest in Asian culture and got Hollywood thinking that films from Asia can actually make money in the States. So it's more than just about Kung Fu, but having an affect on world cinema and opening the doors to Asian cinema as a whole in America... that's how we are presenting it... and it just so happens this is the 40th anniversary of the movie."
So what is FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH all about? Chao Chi-hao (Lo Lieh) is taught Kung Fu in order to defeat corrupt Master Ming's students at a martial arts tournament. Ming hires malicious Japanese samurai mercenaries and the horrific head-butter Chen (Kim Kee-joo) to do dastardly deeds, one being to break Chao's hands and spirit. Broken and bloodied, Chao goes into hiding, heals, learns the secret Iron Palm skill, then enters the tournament. During the tournament's ado, nobody sees Ming assassinate Chao's master. After Chao learns the truth, it's time to battle Ming and the Japanese using his Five Fingers of Death. But who will really die?
Try watching this film as if it were 1973, back when most of us were clueless as to what this "fresh" genre was all about, and we were blown away by a film that seemed a bit like an American Western except that feet, fists and swords replaced guns. It's got glowing red hands, Iron Palm kung fu , death strikes, "brothers" and "sisters" kissing (of course, we didn't know that "brother" and "sister" referred to fellow students in a kung fu school), and audio shticks from the NBC-TV show IRONSIDE (1967-1975). It was far out to learn that Iron Palm was real and you could learn it too if you dared. Now that's cool, man.
For aficionados of Kung Fu films, here are the English title variations for FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH: 5 FINGERS OF DEATH; HAND OF DEATH; INVINCIBLE BOXER; IRON PALM; AN IRON MAN; and KING BOXER: FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH. And did you know that there are 30 fight scenes in the film and that they take up more than 21 minutes of the film? Neat.
The bookend films that complete the triumvirate of Kung Fu delirium at this year's SDAFF are the Jet Li/Tsui Hark high-flying Fant-Asia flick FLYING SWORDS OF DRAGON GATE and the long-awaited second stab at the 2008 Painted Skin saga, PAINTED SKIN: THE RESURRECTION, a film that broke all box office records in China.
I spoke to one of the film's Asian American stars, Morgan Benoit, after he completed his work on the movie, and this is his account of the experience: "I played the Wolf Man, a very challenging action role. It was very hot; my costume was three layers of leather and it was mostly night shooting. I'd get to makeup at 3:30 pm, makeup took two hours, two-hour drive to set, shooting from 8:00 pm until 5:00 am, out of makeup, back to the hotel by 7:00 am, 5 hours sleep, wake up, etc. I'm the pack leader and was covered in oil. We'd capture our victims, latch on, bite and tear them up, then we're shot with fire arrows and get blown up into flames. It was a great experience."
The first cinematic version of this macabre tale was shot as a pure horror film in 1966 under the title PAINTED SKIN, followed by a cheaper adaptation made in Taiwan in 1980 under the same title. Legendary martial arts film director King Hu's account of the franchise cast the ultimate female ghost character actress in Hong Kong film, Joey Wong, from A CHINESE GHOST STORY (1987) (which was remade last year), alongside Sammo Hung, which now introduced some martial arts action. Martial arts action director Stephen Tung Wai, the kid who says, "Let me think," to Bruce Lee in ENTER THE DRAGON (1973) as Lee is teaching him to kick, added even more fights in director Gordon Chan's 2008 version of the film.
In RESURRECTION, an ancient malevolent fox spirit, Xiaowei (Xun Zhou), breaks out of her icy prison and undertakes a seeded quest to become human by seducing men and eating their hearts. If a man willingly gives her his heart, she will become mortal, be able to walk amongst the living, and finally be free from hell. In the meantime, an ominous cloud looms over Princess Jing's (Wei Zhao) kingdom. She flees the kingdom wearing a gold mask that hides her deep facial scars. Her quest is to find her former love who pines over his failure to protect the princess years ago. When fate brings Jing and Xiaowei together, all hell breaks loose in a battle for the princess' heart.
Stephen Tung Wei returns to RESURRECTION to make this sensually-charged action/adventure saga even more wild and wooly. As Lee Ann Kim laughingly relates, "I haven't seen it yet, but I've heard that there is demon sex in it. We want to see how well the film translates here at the festival, and it just makes sense for us to have a film like this at the festival."
Released in late December of 2011, FLYING SWORDS won the Best Action Choreography award at the 2011 Hong Kong Film Awards. The movie reunites Jet Li with the father of Fant-Asia film, director Tsui Hark, where Tsui's love for the mystical martial arts underworld of Jiang Hu returns to Dragon Gate Inn, a place where heroic swordsmen, vagabonds, eunuchs, treasure hunters and lovers collide with a new twist.
Kim shares, "It's in 3-D! We've never done 3-D. This movie came out in a limited release in some theaters in major cities for less than a week with limited advertising. This was the same for last year's festival hit, Jackie Chan in a SHAOLIN. But the film was packed, which speaks to the power of the SDAFF, where people want to have a collective experience and share an embrace something like a film festival. So we're okay with showing some films that may be a little bit old. I mean, come on. Let's face it. Jet Li?"
For more information on the 150-plus films from 25 countries to be shown at SDAFF, including dates, times, directions to the Ultrastar Cinemas Mission Valley Hazard Center and other cool stuff, please visit www.sdaff.org. Also, if you're up for an insanely amazing experience in health, once again, Vivalachi Alternative Health and Wellness Services (who also happen to be the sponsor for FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH) will have an interactive Qi Healing booth offering free Qi Reading to reveal any physical or emotional issue you have, whether known or hidden, and Pull Out the Pain demonstrations.
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