'Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks': Film Review

Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks
Kung-fu fighting, fast as lightning.

Australian director Serge Ou tracks the far-reaching influence of Hong Kong kung-fu movies in this feature-length documentary.

Bruce Lee fans still smarting about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood would do well to seek out Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, a documentary that gives the icon his proper due as the man who popularized martial arts in the West. Lee is one of several bold-faced names to appear in director Serge Ou’s fast-moving account of Hong Kong’s film industry and the outsized impact it had on American and therefore global culture. Veterans such as Pei-Pei Cheng and Sammo Hung remember the good old days, while DTV staples Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins and many more testify to having their young minds blown.

Premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival, this is a romp through film history very much in the vein of fellow Australian Mark Hartley’s Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, with which Iron Fists shares a producer. A seemingly endless procession of talking heads — film historians, programmers, actors and musicians — trace the influence that kung fu movies had on music, gaming, Hollywood, dance and, of course, on VHS sales. An opening montage which likens the genre to a rapidly spreading infection perhaps doesn’t quite convey the tone of giddy celebration that follows, but we get the idea.

Shaw Brothers is described as “the Death Star of Hong Kong movie studios,” and their transition from romances and spy movies to fight extravaganzas in the 1960s set the template. Fusing Peking opera with ballet in a rich technicolor swirl, films such as Come Drink With Me (1966) and One-Armed Swordsman (1967) reflected the times, featuring angry young rebels with nothing to lose. Editor Chris Bamford intercuts footage from those films with black-and-white newsreel of the 1967 Hong Kong riots that were fueled by labor disputes — which is ironic, given the wretched conditions and ungodly working hours experienced by actors and technicians in the Shaw factory system.

The studio’s films struck a chord in an America roiling with anti-Vietnam sentiment, and Hollywood soon came out with variations of their own (see: 1971’s Billy Jack, about a part-Navajo Vietnam vet). African-American audiences particularly identified with films such as Fists of Fury, in which Lee overcomes Japanese racism by whooping ass. Lee’s career occupies the film’s middle section, covering his early rejection by Shaw and his work for rival studio Golden Harvest after a sojourn in Hollywood. Lee returned to Hong Kong after The Green Hornet, stung by the casting of David Carradine on Kung Fu. (Don “The Dragon” Wilson amusingly sums up Carradine’s approach to the accent: “Talk. Very. Slowly.”)

Warner Bros. decided to distribute Shaw’s Five Fingers of Death (1972) to test the domestic market’s appetite for martial-arts movies, and its boffo returns led to a buying frenzy among American distributors. The film’s success also cleared the way for Enter the Dragon (1973), a co-production between Warners and Golden Harvest that posthumously turned Lee into a global superstar. Ou cycles through the knockoffs that followed him, and the avalanche of films that attempted to cash in on his legend by stitching together old footage. Terry Levine, a distributor who owned several theaters on 42nd Street, recalls that he was involved in six Bruce Lee pictures, and that half of them actually featured the real Bruce Lee.

Iron Fists is at its most interesting when it’s tracking the way influence flowed between Hong Kong cinema and American culture, particularly in the nascent world of hip-hop. Alien Ness based his drunken style on 1977’s 7 Grandmasters, he says, and the breakdancing scene in turn shows up in Hong Kong, as in the popping and locking hero of 1985’s Mismatched Couples, starring Donnie Yen. But Ou’s doc sometimes overplays its hand, at one point suggesting that the training montage in Rocky “finds its original DNA” in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin — which came out two years after John G. Avildsen’s Oscar-winning classic. 

The innovation and sheer bravery of Chan and Hung is properly heralded, but Jet Li’s Hong Kong films are skipped over entirely; an omission all the stranger for what the filmmakers have decided to spotlight instead. Nobody will quibble with the inclusion of The Matrix and its choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, the man who brought wire work to Hollywood. But the doc’s last third feels rushed, skittering over Ong Bak (Thailand) and The Raid (Indonesia) before looking at the backyard movies of YouTube sensations around the world, from Adelaide to Uganda. There’s no circling back to Hong Kong cinema today, or even to Hollywood: Wither Gun Fu? And the region’s current instability, echoing some of the resentments that played out onscreen in those early films, goes unmentioned.

No doubt long-in-the-works, Iron Fists perhaps can’t be dinged for that. Before the fadeout it serves as an illuminating, passionately argued tribute to the beauty of martial-arts cinema and its continuing evolution. Andre Morgan, an American producer who worked with Golden Harvest, likens the whole thing to “one never-ending jam session at a jazz bar” — transcending the language barrier to unite us all with long unbroken takes of arterial mayhem.

Production company: Wildbear Entertainment
Director: Serge Ou
Screenwriters: Serge Ou, Grady Hendrix
Producer: Veronica Fury
Cinematographer: Geoff Ellis
Editor: Chris Bamford
Music: Rajan Kamahl
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival

108 minutes