Review: Kung Fu Stuntmen

Perhaps because it was produced by a guild of Hong Kong-based stuntmen, this documentary about the evolution of their craft since the 1950s is both exhaustive (quite a feat at 92 minutes) and wonkish. Every legend you can think of and a few you probably haven’t heard of either comments on that history or is commented upon, and thanks to the relative looseness of the industry’s attitude toward copyrights, there is a wealth of valuable action footage on hand to illustrate each and every point fully. 

Starting out in the era of the Shaw Brothers, whose films dogmatically revolved around action scenes that lasted ten minutes, director Junzi Wei recounts how most of the men recruited to do stunt work were trained in Peking Opera, which helped define kung fu on the screen as being more balletic than violent, and therefore stylistic rather than realistic. The turning point was the development of the Drunken Monkey form of kung fu, which consisted of a standard set of movements that juxtaposed certain strikes to the opponent’s body with tumbling actions. And while the careers of stars like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (who essentially perfected the drunken monkey style with his Drunken Master series) receive attention because their distinctive screen personalities helped heighten the popularity of the genre, it was the stunt men who filled out their action scenes that get the lion’s share of attention in the doc, and they have a lot on their minds. In particular, they talk about health issues, the rise and fall of the apprentice system, and decades-long efforts to recognize their craft as one that the industry needed to address more responsibly in terms of payment. After Lee died, for instance, there was no big star to anchor movies for the main kung fu studio, Golden Harvest, until action choreographer Lam Ching Ying, formerly Lee’s assistant, revived and refined the art working with the great Sammo Hung, and often was featured onscreen since he was so good at what he did. His work helped transition kung fu into the more comic form championed by Chan in the late 80s, and which helped usher in the genre’s greatest era with stars like Donnie Yuen and Jet Li. 

The doc’s most interesting assertion is that, while the HK stuntman’s skills were proudly “low tech” and completely physical, the stuntmen themselves, understanding that advanced post-millennial film technology was putting them out of business, readily worked with this technology to sustain both their careers and the art itself. The important thing to them was not the technology itself, but rather the human element on screen, because that is what made the action so relatable to the audience. Miraculously, kung fu is even more vital than ever thanks to this progressive mindset, which now welcomes women and foreign actors/athletes into the guild’s ranks. Kung Fu Stuntmen is one of the most educational docs ever made about the movie industry since it obsessively focuses on an essential component of a particular style of filmmaking in order to explain how films in general have evolved over time. 

In Cantonese and Mandarin. Now playing in Tokyo at Shinjuku Musashinokan (03-3354-5670).

Kung Fu Stuntmen home page in Japanese

photo (c) ACME Image (Beijin) Film Cultural Co., Ltd.

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