Little (X)Box of Horrors: The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter.
This week we travel the silk road on Xbox and see what delightfully awful Kung Fu movies can be found.
I’d Like to Order the Wushu Platter.
Ah 2017… a year full of promise. And by that I mean we have a sociopath poised to become President and my goddamn car broke down. If I was any regular movie reviewer this might have led me to delay my quest for terribly-good (goodly-terrible?) movies. Not I, dear reader, for I am made of sterner stuff.
As Confucius counseled, I will take the proverbial lemons and make Electric Lemonade. I will also order some Chinese food. Lastly, I will turn on my Xbox, mosey on down to Amazon Prime and watch me some so cheesy it’s great Kung Fu movies! Let’s round up the fighters for our cinematic Kumite.
(editor’s note: Kumite is a Japanese term, stupid)(note to editor: I don’t care)!
Finding a truly awful Kung Fu movie can be a bit of a guessing game. There is the hilariously bad localization of the plot summary, misleading cover art, and a penchant for giving movies ridiculous names to contend with (Wheels on Meals, anyone?). So I’m just gonna throw a dart at Amazon’s list of chop sockey and whittle it down from there.
- Kung Fu & Titties (2013): HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. NO.
- My 12 Kung Fu Kicks (unknown): This is either a documentary about stylish martial arts footwear, or a story about a man who was taught 12 Kung Fu techniques by 3 disgraced Wushu Masters. Take your pick.
- The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984): A Peking Opera flavored film about a family of famous spear fighters who fight
Polish peopleMongols. I’m sure the actual Chinese name of this film makes it a bit more clear who we’re fighting here.
Which movie will show me that it’s Kung Fu is best???
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter!
Kung Fu & Titties might have sounded like a potential slam dunk in the so shitty it’s good category, but it is actually an American made comedy starring Bronson Pinchot from Perfect Strangers. Fire your agent, dude. No foreigners allowed (I’m looking at you, Matt Damon)! That leaves the two real contenders, and I have to lean towards the Pole Fighter, as it was the final film that celebrated martial arts actor Alexander Fu Sheng made before his death. Let’s see if 8 is actually greater than 12, shall we?
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
Loosely based on Chinese history, this tale is about the Yang family, a military family renowned throughout China for their skill with the spear. Their fame has made them powerful enemies, and a scheming General plots the family’s destruction. A scheme that must be as subtle as it is insidious… So in the next scene we find the Patriarch and his 7 sons fighting a shit ton of enemies in the least subtle trap I’ve ever seen. Twenty minutes later they explain that the General had pulled strings to send the Yangs to fight on the front lines of a war against the Mongols without any backup. Well, the movie says they’re Mongols, but they look like a bunch of dudes dressed like Santa and his Elves on a bender.
2 Brothers survive the assassination attempt, Brother 5 (Lui Chia-Hui) and Brother 6 (Alexander Fu Sheng). Bro 5 decides that his revenge will be best served cold, and goes into hiding as a Buddhist Monk. Bro 6 goes insane, and comedically imperils his Mother and two Sisters as they attempt to hide him. When one of the sisters gets kidnapped, Bro 5 comes out of hiding, now a master of fighting with a pole (his spear had lost its tip in the ambush, so thank Buddha he just so happened to get taken in by pole fighting masters).
How Do You Avoid a Kung Fu Punch? Peking Duck!
I was surprised that this movie came out in 1984, as it has the look and feel of much older Peking Opera productions. In the 80’s, most martial arts movies were aping Spaghetti Westerns or 1970’s American action movies. This movie is a high kicking Shakespearean tale of revenge and deceit, and the art values and directing style have a distinct stage performance aesthetic. While Jet Li and Jackie Chan were leading the charge into a new era of Hong Kong productions, this film is very much playing in the past. Not that that is a bad thing. The ballet-like choreography, laughably chintzy drama club costumes (no seriously, those fucking Mongols!) and old timey theater set pieces were all charming.
Back to Basics
It was also fun to see where tropes that took firm hold in later movies originated from. Kung Fu as comedy was perfected under Jackie Chan, who got his start in the Peking Opera, but Fu Sheng showed that breaking tension with acrobatic antics was already a staple of the Chinese Cinema. I don’t know if it was a blessing or curse that his character had to be moved to the back burner due to the whole being dead halfway through filming thing. While it was sad that Bro 6 got bumped from his historically accurate role as the protagonist, Sheng’s turn as the clown prince of Kung Fu was very entertaining.
Sister Street Fighter
The second trend is how films in this genre tend to smuggle in great performances from their female cast. Legend of Drunken Master is one of the best movies ever made, in no small part to Anita Mui’s delightful performance as the Matriarch of Wong Fei Hong’s tempestuous family. In addition to a driving maternal figure, we often see a pair of sisters with genre defined roles. This dynamic duo of a tomboyish, justice loving woman and her cynically demure sister has ingrained itself as a theme in many Asian productions, my favorite being Araragi’s “Fire Sisters” in Bakemonogatari. All of these are on display in the Yang household.
Lily Li is a gem in this movie as the Matriarch of the Yang family. She is fierce and gentle as needed, gracefully managing her insane son, bickering daughters, and the existential peril facing her household. She also kicks a ton of ass (although it’s usually poor Fu Sheng’s ass). It’s a shame that the big screen worship of strong female characters in Chinese cinema always has to come with the caveat that they show this strength while imprisoned in their own houses.
The martial arts on display are good, but not breathtaking. Every fight is a ballet of feet, fists, and weapons, but no one will go mistaking this movie for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The final fights are tense, and the early war between 7 men and the cast of Elf was as funny as it was technically proficient. We even get the obligatory Wise Old Man saving the 5th brother by causing a cave-in using nothing but his Kung Fu. Eagle Claw, meet Styrofoam Prop!
The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter is a fantastic old school chop sockey experience, but I don’t do this series to watch good movies. I was hoping to get something along the lines of The Life of Riki, something so hokey and hammy that it pokes your eyes out with it’s camp. Instead we get a movie that is just generally competent, from the directing to the acting to the action. In any other review this movie would be a winner. Instead, I must thank Fu Sheng for making his final film a great time, light some incense for his soul, and hope that the next time my caravan stops along the silk road that is RedBox (or Xbox, as the case may be) Buddha will guide me to the enlightenment I crave.