Tag Archives: Bruce Lee

Friday finds

A geological team looking for oil in the western desert of Egypt may have discovered the remains of some Mass grave50,000 Persian soldiers swallowed up by a sandstorm in the sixth century BCE. The “lost army,” mentioned by Herodotus in the fifth century BCE, has long been considered a myth, though that hasn’t prevented generations of adventurers from looking for evidence of the soldiers, sent by King Cambyses and (according to Herodotus) last seen at the oasis of Siwa. Maybe George Lucas should take note of this: Indiana Jones and the Lost Army could be a dynamite title for a movie. And, if memory serves, didn’t Robert E. Howard write a poem about Cambyses?        

Continuing in this mythological vein, Owen Sheers talks about White Ravens, his retelling of a story from the Welsh myth cycle The Mabinogion. The book sounds pretty good, but I still swear by Evangeline Walton’s retelling of the same story in The Children of Llyr

Get out your best gray flannel suit and work your way through “Books to Read Mad Men By,” listed by The Neglected Books Page in two installments here and here.  

Here’s the perfect stocking-stuffer for the Hayao Miyazaki fan in your family.

Robert Stone, author of Dog Soldiers, A Flag for Sunrise and Bay of Souls, is coming to Princeton University for a reading.  I am so there.

Everything’s turning up hobbits.

Bruce Lee or Jet Li? All I can tell you is that when I was a kid and The Green Hornet was on the tube, nobody ever pretended to be Britt Reid. Everybody wanted to be Kato. Pretending to use the Hornet’s Sting was a distant second.  

“This video is fantastic and highly educational. It teaches you how to whittle your own 19th Century dictionary, using only string, a turnip, and a clamp. But first you have to make your own Linotype machine.”

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Him with his foot in your mouth

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.

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The panda’s connected to kung fu, and the kung fu’s connected to nunchaku, and nunchaku’s connected to Bruce Lee, and . . .

This business of explaining cultural signifiers to your children . . . after a while, you can feel like you’re playing the starring role in If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

Let me explain.

Dances With Mermaids is on her sixth or seventh viewing of Kung Fu Panda, and when she noted my amusement at the fact that the hero is named Po, I ended up explaining the Seventies vintage TV series Kung Fu, and the role played by Master Po. This in turn led me describe the Kung Fu film craze that erupted when Five Fingers of Death and Deep Thrust started playing in drive-ins, which in turn led to me explaining the brief life and extended fame of Bruce Lee, which in turn led me to this clip of Lee playing ping pong with a nunchaku. Along the way, I also had to explain the concept of drive-in movie theaters.

Of course, that was nothing compared with the amount of explaining I had to do when Dances With Mermaids saw her first james Bond movie. But that’s another post.

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