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A pile of kung fu movies will make this a kickin’ summer

Martial arts movies playing at Kendall Square this summer include “Dragon Inn.”
Martial arts movies playing at Kendall Square this summer include “Dragon Inn.” Janus Films

For longtime attendees of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s midnight movie series, next month’s selection of martial arts features from the ’70s and ’80s will represent a return to form. The series made its reputation on wuxia films and other Hong Kong genre movies around 15 years ago. Audiences even came to associate that cinematic tradition with the Brookline movie palace, which was more than just a pit stop for kung fu cinema, it was home.

“We would have a pile of film prints as long as this office,” explained Andrew Thompson, the operations director at the Coolidge. The prints themselves were exhibited and then stored with thanks to local collectors, who have since relocated the wares. “It was mostly martial arts films, with some other exploitation films. Sometimes it was hard to even figure out which movie they were. It’d say one thing, and I’d be pretty sure it was actually something else.”

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Thompson has the expertise required to tell the difference. Being a lifelong enthusiast of kung fu cinema, he worked with program manager Mark Anastasio to select the films in the latest series. Three come from the famed Shaw Brothers movie studio. Two are from the revered director-star tag team of Lau Kar-Leung (“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin”) and Gordon Liu (Kill Bill”). And each of them exemplifies at least one of the genre’s most singular trademarks. “Mystery of Chess Boxing” (June 17-18) has more prolonged action set-pieces than any Marvel movie. “Return to the 36th Chamber” (June 24-25) is a spoof of an earlier Shaw-produced success that makes jokes at the expense of “chop-socky” stereotypes. And “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” (June 10-11) features choreography that would put your favorite musical to shame.

Gordon Liu in “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.”
Gordon Liu in “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter.”

The leadoff film shows off the subgenre’s fantastical side. “Bastard Swordsman” (June 3-4) begins with a typical setup: There’s an oft-humiliated underdog protagonist, warring factions of martial arts practitioners, and storied fighting techniques that demand mastering (here, it’s “silkworm style”). By the finale, though, the film has left our own physical reality in favor of flashing lights and flying bodies.

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The theme of warring traditions carries on into “Pole Fighter” and “Chess Boxing,” which are both marked by combat sequences that are more grounded and more graceful. In “Chess Boxing,” chief villain Ghostface Killer travels from town-to-town while killing off all of his rivals, until one scorned victim grows up to strike back (with punches and kicks inspired by the movements of pawns and knights.) And Liu features in “Pole Fighter” as the last surviving son of a familial dynasty — once cast away from his birthright, he trains in the eponymous style, then hunts down his family’s enemies in search of revenge. Liu and Lau reteam to make jokes out of all these archetypes in the parodic “Return to the 36th Chamber,” where the actor plays an imposter posing as a martial arts master. But its the balletic energy of “Eight Diagram” — where limbs and poles fly at high speeds within Lau’s densely composed long takes — that provides the highlight of the whole program.

“ ‘Pole Fighter’ is my personal favorite kung fu movie,” notes Dan Halsted, head programmer at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon. He’s the other man who helped the Coolidge duo curate their program. And thanks are due to Halsted for more than just his programming; he’s the reason that these film prints continue to exist.

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“The Shaw Brothers films came from a massive stash of prints that I found in an old Shaw theater in Vancouver,” Halsted explained in a call from his own movie theater. “I had done a bunch of detective work and tracked down some people in Run Run Shaw’s family who had lived here. I got in touch with them, and had the films legally donated. There was over 1,000 pounds of film that came out of that theater. It was an amazing score.”

Given the rarity of the collection, theatrical exhibition is not the end game. The adventurous programmer facilitated the donation of the prints to the Austin, Texas-based American Genre Film Archive, citing a cultural void that needed filling. He’s tight-lipped on the details, but Halsted is currently working with the archive to expand the distribution of these films in one manner or another. “I quickly found that old-school kung fu movies didn’t seem to exist any more on 35 millimeter,” he said.

Hsu Feng in “A Touch of Zen.”
Hsu Feng in “A Touch of Zen.”Courtesy of Janus Films

Other institutions are working to preserve the canonical works of this form, but they’re precious few. Two Taiwanese films by the pioneering wuxia filmmaker King Hu recently received digital restorations, for instance, and Boston moviegoers will get chances to see both this summer. “Dragon Inn” will open at the Kendall Square Cinema this Friday, the same day that the Coolidge begins its midnight program. “A Touch of Zen” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection on July 19, and will also screen at the Brattle Theatre sometime soon. Both Hu films are seminal works, though they play out on radically different scales. “Dragon Inn” stages political conflicts and physical combat among various classes within the minimal confines of a single building, while “Touch of Zen” is a spiritually-minded epic that splits the intersecting arcs of numerous primary characters across two feature-length chapters.

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That’s not the only program that the Brattle is contributing to this unofficial Kung Fu Summer. The theater will also be exhibiting a series of Jackie Chan films in the near future, with a focus on his work in the Hong Kong martial-arts cinema scene. Creative director Ned Hinkle expects the search for exhibition materials to be challenging but worthwhile.

“In the early 2000s, because everything was available on disc, you could get whatever you wanted digitally — whether it was pirated or some legitimate release with bad dubbing,” Hinkle said from his office at the Brattle. “Sure I can go to Netflix and watch ‘Supercop’ if I want to. But seeing it in a theater with a whole bunch of people? I actually want to do that, even if it is a not-very-good dub with 20 minutes cut out.”

“I’ve been saying this for 20 years, but it is getting more and more popular,” concurs Jean Lukitsh, the curator for the Chinatown-based Films at the Gate series. The event — which will begin on Aug. 26 this year, and run for three days — showcases a selection of films, usually in the Cantonese or Mandarin dialect, at outdoor locations. “Our goal has been to provide the community of Chinatown with the chance to enjoy Chinese-language films again, in the way that they did in the old Chinatown theaters. It was a major community event back then. It was a chance to reconnect with their culture.”

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That all of these films are playing here during the course of a single season — despite the fact that most are infrequently screened, and that many have proven challenging to obtain — might signal an increasing interest in the preservation and exhibition of films from the golden ages of Hong Kong genre cinema. It might also be a coincidence. But Halsted, who runs a successful series of kung fu screenings at the Hollywood Theatre, knows what he’s working toward. He wants to make that hypothetical resurgence a reality.

“There has been a lot more interest in the last couple years,” Halsted observed. “I think that kung fu movies were like the bastard children of cinema. A lot of the cooler movies will slip through the cracks. And then at certain points, they get rediscovered. I think that’s what’s happening.”


Jake Mulligan can be reached at jake.mulligan2@gmail.com.