Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wu-Tang Style

The other day I got around to watching The Man with the Iron Fists, which is of course the directorial debut of one of the finest hip-hoppers ever to grace our ears -- one of the core members of Wu-Tang Clan, the RZA (that's pronounced rezza, by the way). Yes, indeed, RZA himself has finally directed a movie, and a kung-fu one at that! So how was it? Well . . .

The RZA as "Black Smith" taking on "Brass Body," played by David Batista.
When I first found out the RZA was directing a kung-fu movie that was being hyped by Quentin Tarantino, my immediate reaction was "gotta see that!" Well, it just so happened that for a while I forgot it existed. Then when I got back from Korea, I realized it had already been released and so I decided to seek it out. Before watching it, though, I plugged a few of my friends -- some of whom were Wu-Tang fans like myself and others who were more well versed in kung-fu films (also like myself) -- who had already seen it for information. Pretty much all of them said it wasn't all that good. Some cited issues with the narrative, some were irked by the lacklustre action, etc. etc. Suffice it to say I came in with fairly low expectations. After all was said and done, however, I was quite entertained.

Lucy Liu as "Lady Blossom," the madam of the local brothel.
Yeah, it was silly and derivative and lacked any sort of complex plot, but honestly I thought it captured the spirit of old-school kung-fu films pretty well. After all, old school kung-fu films really comprised their own genre, and in my opinion they can only be judged in relation to each other.

One of the original posters for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
For example, kung-fu films, especially the old Shaw Brothers stuff (if you've ever seen an old kung-fu movie that was dubbed into English, chances are it was produced by SB, which happens to be what the RZA is really into), are not typically compared to the monumental blockbusters of their time. Why is this? Because they were made for a fraction of the budget, had an average run time of 80-90 minutes, emphasized action over plot and character development, were shot, edited, and released in mere months, and were in Chinese or often hilariously dubbed into English. Suffice it to say you're not going to see too many people comparing The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to The Deer Hunter, or perhaps a better example would be the first Superman film. Don't get me wrong, I LOVE 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It's probably one of my favourite films, but its production process, purpose, form, and cultural context are so profoundly different from the two Hollywood films I mention that it would be inappropriate (if not senseless) to compare them.

This production still shows "San Te," played by Gordon Liu (who actually appears in Man with the Iron Fists), tackling one of his many trials to achieve Shaolin monkhood, carrying large buckets of water while trying not to get stabbed by his arm knives. 
So why mention this? Because I feel that it is these old movies the RZA was trying to emulate in his Man with the Iron Fists. Some of the complaints I heard about this film were that the characters were archetypal, unrealistic, and not very well developed and the story contained many inconsistencies and non sequiturs. But wouldn't you know it, these are the usual complaints I hear from my uninitiated friends for whom I occasionally screen classic kung-fu films. Do you see what I'm getting at? Whether or not it's a true nod to the classics or just straight-up sloppy film-making, I feel the RZA has actually managed to stay true to the film form of the old '60s, '70s and '80s classic dubbed "ghetto theatre" kung-fu films that inspired him in the first place and that he samples on a regular basis in his tracks.

Here's a screenshot of the "gold ninjas" from another Shaw Brothers classic, Five Element Ninjas, to show you just how ridiculous/awesome these films can get.  
If you watched Man with the Iron Fists and thought it was a sorry ripoff of kung-fu movies, then I entreat thee to watch some of the old Shaw Brothers films and see what I mean. It might give you some new perspectives.

Here's some box art for one of my favorite SB movies, The Kid with the Golden Arm -- likely where RZA got the inspiration for his title. 

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