In American Shaolin, his highly entertaining account of months spent studying martial arts with the actual Shaolin monks of China, Matthew Polly describes the monks’ puzzlement when he showed them videotapes of the old Kung Fu TV series. Watching David Carradine klutz his way through slow-motion routines, the monks demanded to know if this laowai — white guy — was deliberately making fun of the art with his shoddy technique:
The monks were used to highly fictionalized portrayals of the Shaolin Temple, so they weren’t bothered by the fantasy version of Shaolin in David Carradine’s Kung Fu. They were, however, shocked by the casting of David Carradine.
“How can he be a Shaolin monk?” Little Tiger asked. “He’s a laowai.”
“Actually in the story he’s half-Chinese, half-laowai,” I said.
“He doesn’t look like a hun xui,” Little Tiger said. “Mixed blood.”
Deqing cuffed Little Tiger across the back of the head again. “Don’t use bad words.”
“The actor is a laowai,” I said. “He’s pretending to be half-Chinese.”
“That explains why his kungfu is so terrible,” Little Tiger said, as he ducked to the back row to avoid another cuff.
For the rest of the movie I ignored the slights to David Carradine’s kungfu skills, which were admittedly poor. (To be fair, however, he did capture that California New Age, faux-Zen blankness perfectly.) I was waiting for the climactic moment that nearly every American male who as alive in the early 1970s remembers: the scene here Carradine lifts a burning chalice to pass the final Shaolin test, permanently branding a dragon on one forearm and a tiger on the other. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like this legend since my arrival, but I had to know.
“Is this story true?” I asked. “Did that used to be the final test for Shaolin monks?”
“No,” Deqing said. “Why would we want to burn our arms like that? You might end up a cripple, never be able to make a fist again in your life. What kind of kungfu test would that be?”
“Americans have excellent imaginations, however,” Little Tiger offered as a consolation. “Don’t you agree, Deqing?”
“They make good movies,” Deqing conceded.
I mention all this not to disparage Carradine, who was in many ways an underrated actor when he wasn’t pretending to be a kung fu master — a man doesn’t get roles with Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman and Hal Ashby if he’s spent his years mastering the art of suck. It’s just ironic to think that while last week’s news stories about Carradine’s death inevitably brought out references to Kung Fu and martial arts, the same week saw the death of Shek Kin, a legitimate martial artist in his own right and a film icon for generations of moviegoers throughout Asia.
As Jean Lukitch points out in this extremely knowledgeable and detailed appreciation, Shek made some 500 movies in a career that stretched from 1940 to his retirement in the mid-Nineties. Only a fraction of them are available on video, and with many of them — quickie chop-socky flicks with miniscule budgets — that’s probably just as well. With his crinkly brow and sneering mouth, Shek (sometimes identified as Shieh Kien) was invariably cast as “the evil kung fu master, scheming in a throne room dominated by a giant mural of a skull or demon,” though when given the opportunity to show some range, Shek always came through with some interesting character touches.
Shek had the distinction of playing opposite the genre’s two bona fide international superstars: Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. Shek’s turn as the Ginsu-fingered Mr. Han in Enter the Dragon was a memorable bit of villainy, and even though he was Lee’s senior by some thirty years, Shek held his own quite nicely while filming the climactic fight in the mirror maze.
. . . later in his career, Shek showed he was able to effectively play against type, using his devilish smile and eyebrows to charm. In fact, over the decades “Bad Man Kin” changed into “Uncle Kin” for Hong Kong film audiences. He became the ideal “cool” grandpa. Jackie Chan played off this persona when he cast Shek as his comic nemesis in The Young Master (at top). By 1980, Chan could get a laugh from the local audience by obscuring Shek’s face in their first shot together: he prattles innocently to the “old uncle” before letting the audience see the sinister smile on Uncle Kin’s face.
Let it be noted that Polly also screened Steven Seagal’s Above the Law and Jean-Claude van Damme’s Lionheart. Though they were impressed by Seagal’s fierceness and Van Damme’s flexibility, they concluded that neither man as truly playing a hero because neither man’s character dies. I’ll leave it to you to discover their reasoning on this point.