Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (26th January 2020).
The Film

"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" (2019)

Looking at any choreographed fight scene in any modern film whether a big budget Marvel production to amateur videos on YouTube, the influence that martial arts films from Hong Kong are undeniable. Not only cinema, but looking at breakdancing techniques, video games, and other artforms, the influence has spread wider than what most people think about. "Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" is a documentary that explores the origins of the genre, the paths it took along the years, and how accepted the genre became internationally through interviews with actors, directors, critics, and others with film clips and stills interspersed in between.

Prior to the 1960s, films with choreographed fight scenes were fairly basic to say the least. From boxing films to brawls, stuntwork was obviously involved, but there wasn't a flair for elegance and grace and more about machismo and drunken saloon chaos to say the least. Hong Kong's most powerful film studio, the Shaw Brothers Studio was the monopoly in filmmaking and distribution, with countless hits with romantic comedies, musicals, and period dramas for decades. They had the largest private film studio in the world, with contract players and staff as well as their own theater chains. In the mid 1960s, the studio looked at making grittier, fast paced action films. Combining the beauty and grace of the Peking Opera with the dance choreography with lavish sets and colorful costumes, with martial arts swordfighting in historical settings for a style and elegance that was previously unseen in cinema. Films such as "Come Drink with Me" (1966), "One Armed Swordsman" (1967) and others set box office records where the action, the violence, and the striking visuals were groundbreaking. Films such as "Chinese Boxer" (1970), "King Boxer" (1972) and others went away with swordplay and instead used fists and kicks with Kung Fu to high acclaim.

"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" doesn't only talk about Shaw Brothers and their history, but also about other major figures with Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan breaking through to the west, as well as "Billy Jack" (1971) and the television series "Kung Fu" (1972-1975) being major hits in America. It also discusses the rise of Golden Harvest films, international collaborations with films such as "Enter the Dragon" (1973) and "The Man from Hong Kong" (1975), Bruceploitation films, as well as political and social crises that Hong Kong and other parts of the world were going through.

To talk about or show the history of martial arts cinema would take quite some time to fill. "Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" does not take its time like a Ken Burns documentary. This documentary is as fast and quick as a martial arts fight sequence is, and in that way it is easy and fun to watch, but at the same time it feels quite a lot is missing and and rushed through. Shaw Brothers films pre-martial arts period is very quickly glossed over. The genesis of how it came to be to start making martial arts films as well. Some major filmmakers like King Hu, Chang Cheh and Lau Kar Leung and their contributions are only briefly mentioned. Also is the harsh working environment at the Shaw Brother Studio for the stars and staff with the incredibly demanding work schedule and constant interference by the heads. When "Billy Jack" is mentioned, it does feel like a sudden switch from east to west without much explanation. Towards the end when the documentary goes further out to how martial arts cinema branched out to places such as Thailand with "Ong-Bak (2003), Indonesia with "The Raid" (2011) as well as Uganda with "Who Killed Captain Alex?" (2010), it certainly feels like a rushed job to end the documentary rather than a fitting closure. Surely it would have been more interesting to cap it with the current ongoing protests in Hong Kong to mirror it with the 1960s Hong Kong protests.

Director Serge Ou was able to gather a very large group of interviewees for the film, ranging from staff and cast that worked in Hong Kong such as Cheng Pei-Pei, Cynthia Rockrock, Sammo Hung, Christopher Doyle, and Wilson Yip, plus current performers such as Juju Chan, Scott Adkins, and Michael Jai White, as well as critics and more such as Mike Leeder, Fab 5 Freddy, Ric Meyers and others. Each person has quite interesting things to say, and some are more talkative than others. It felt some did get the shorter end, as Doyle, Cheng Pei-Pei, and Sammo Hung did appear very briefly.

"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival on August 14, 2019. The film received streaming distribution on various platforms in differing countries, and Giant Pictures released a DVD in the US in October. Umbrella Entertainment followed with their DVD release in December.

Note this is a region 0 PAL DVD

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement in the PAL format. The interview sequences are consistent in their presentation, with great lighting and detail. Still photographs which are given slight zooms and pans rather than completely still shots are clear as well. When it comes to vintage film clips and vintage interviews, quality does seem slightly lower, with some coming from nice HD sourced remasters of films, which others look like standard definition upscales. As most of the films presented were originally in the 2.35:1 ratio, there is no issue of cropping. As for newsreel and interviews, they are obviously cropped on the top and bottom to awkwardly fit the wider ratio. Overall it is a good transfer for the newly conducted interviews, but fair for the rest.

The film's runtime is 107:56.



















Audio

English Dolby Digital 5.1
Almost all of the interviews are conducted in English, with non-English interviews being overdubbed in English. The dialogue is entirely centered, while the surround speakers are used for the music and sound effects. The track is well balanced with the music never overpowering the dialogue segments. Overall a very strong track.

There are no subtitles for the main feature.

Extras

Unfortunately no extras have been provided, not even a trailer (though one has been embedded below, courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment). There must be hours and hours of additional interview footage which none appear on the disc. It also would have been great to compile a vintage selection of martial arts trailers as well.

Packaging

The package states "region 4" but is in fact region 0.

Overall

"Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks" is a nice quick paced look at the history of how martial arts changed cinema with a great amount of contributors. Unfortunately it also feel like a cliff notes version by rushing through content and not being as in depth as it could have been. Umbrella Entertainment's DVD has good picture and audio, but not having any extras is an unfortunate point.

The Film: B- Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: F- Overall: C+

 


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