Sunday, April 22, 2012

Check and Mate

I'm not entirely sure how I would have reacted to the cache of kung fu movies that Dan Halsted found in a shuttered Chinese movie theater in Vancouver. I probably would have had a heart attack. I like to think that I'd do what Halsted is doing and tour the country showing the movies. If you haven't heard the story, it goes like this: film collector Dan Halsted of Portland, Oregon came across an immaculate bunch of kung fu trailers. His interest was peaked by quality of the print, and he decided to trace where it came from. They turned out to have a shady provenance, and that trail turned cold. Fortunately, there was evidence with the films themselves, and he followed it to a shuttered theater that was once part of the Shaw Brothers' North American theater chain. In that theater, sequestered under the stage, was a cache of four tons of kung fu movies, most in terrific shape, many the only 35 mm prints of a given movie known to exist. Four tons of 35 mm film equates to roughly 200 movies. This was like finding the Holy Grail and Shangrila at the same time. Halsted is a film programmer who runs a series of grindhouse classics in his home town, but this was too good not to share and he took it on tour. The tour came to my home town of Columbia, MO this week, where it occupied two nights of double features.

The first night brought a collection of Halsted's collected grindhouse trailers, featuring films like Torso, Three on a Meathook, and Truck Turner. I had a good time watching these, though I was a little bit disturbed to discover how many of these films I've seen, and even more disturbed by how many of them I own. Seriously, who owns a copy of Three on a Meathook. Well, I do. Don't judge me. In any case, the experience of watching grindhouse trailers one after another is a lot of fun. Grindhouse trailers often have nothing to do with the movies they advertise. Even more often, they're better than the movies they advertise. Most of these trailers were watchable, though they show significant color fading and yellowing. This adds to the experience, I think. Seeing these with an audience that was into the experience was awesome.

The second feature was The Mystery of Chess Boxing (1979, directed by Joseph Kuo), which introduced the villainous Ghostfaced Killer for those fans of the Wu Tang Clan. Ghostfaced Killer is going around in this movie killing the people who have opposed him. He most wants to kill the Chess Master, but he can't find him. Meanwhile Ah Pao, the son of one of Ghostfaced Killer's victims seeks out training in kung fu so he can avenge his father. He cajoles his way into a kung fu school where he's the lowest student on the totem pole and where the head student is his enemy. He endures all the slights in a vain hope that he'll learn the kung fu he needs, but the only instruction he gets is from the school cook. The school cook, it turns out, is a kung fu master in disguise, and he takes Ah Pao's measure and instructs him in the martial art of cooking. When the token given to Ah Poa father by Ghostfaced Killer is discovered by the head of the dojo, however, he's expelled as a spy and an assassin, though not before he's directed by the cook to the man who plays chess in the street. This is the kung fu master he needs, and soon he's learning the arts of chess and kung fu. Meanwhile, Ghostfaced Killer gets closer and closer...

If you're like me, you grew up seeing mutilated versions of most kung fu movies. Dubbed and cropped for Saturday night kung fu theater showings on fly by night idie television stations. Don't get me wrong, I loved growing up with that stuff, but let me tell you, seeing this stuff on the big screen in its original glory is a revelation. I've never had a lot of issues with dubbing, personally, and the subtitles on this print of The Mystery of Chess Boxing is a good reason why. They're often laughable. Fans of Hong Kong action films live for this stuff, but I find it more distracting than endearing, and this movie doesn't really have any howlers, unfortunately. Watching this movie projected from film in its original aspect ratio, big as life, however, that's priceless. However crude the production values are in these films--The Mystery of Chess Boxing has pretty dodgy production values--so long as the kung fu is awesome, the rest doesn't matter. The kung fu here was filmed wide, and it is glorious. Mind you, this isn't first rank, Chia-liang Lui kung fu (and don't even mention Woo-ping Yuen), but it's good enough. The fight scenes here are like dance numbers in a musical, only with a body count. Sometimes the fights here seem more like synchronized tumbling rather than actual combat, but that doesn't matter, really. It's fun watching the bodies and feet in motion. More fun still is listening to Ghostfaced Killer laugh. Anyone who's seen a few kung fu movies is familiar with the laughs of the villains--so inauthentic and artificial--and Ghostfaced Killer's laugh is the apotheosis of this. Director Joseph Kuo, for his part, knows what he's doing with his camera. I'm surprised at the number of scenes in this movie that were shot as master shots--probably to accommodate the Hong Kong practice of editing in the camera--but he also uses a surprising number of tracking shots, too. It's a good-looking film for all its low-budget deficiencies.

As far as the presentation goes, Halsted is right to evangelize for these movies. The prints he found may not be immaculate--how could they be?--but, my god, they're good. They have good color for the most part and they aren't significantly damaged. And watching a film projected on actual film is still superior to watching a digital version, either on television or a movie screen. The clarity of the image was superb.

That all said, this was just a warm up. The second night of the event was the fireworks.

If you're looking to see The Mystery of Chess Boxing, good luck. It's harder than most kung fu to find in a good edition. The best choice might be this YouTube video, which looks to have been made from Halsted's print, though I might be wrong. Hard to say. It's equally hard to find good screencaps from the film, so the ones I've included here are from this video. They're the best I could do. Anyway, enjoy.

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