As an enthusiastic and mostly clueless teenager in late-1990s Toronto, my introduction to classic kung fu cinema – films that would influence every major Hollywood action film from the ’80s on – came in one of the worst ways possible: bootlegged DVDs bought a dozen at a time in Chinatown.
The images were muddy, the subtitles cut off, the sound barely there. Plus there was the whole unethical and illegal thing, too. But those black-market offerings proved to be a godsend, opening my eyes to the acrobatic wonders of Hong Kong superstars Gordon Liu, Ti Lung and a baby-faced Jackie Chan. More importantly, they led me to Kung Fu Fridays, the long-running passion project of local film programmer Colin Geddes, who gave the neglected genre a proper home on the big screen.
Started in 1996, Kung Fu Fridays jumped between various venues – starting off at Bloor West’s Metro Theatre, a porn house that’s now a rock-climbing gym – and for a decade-plus offered Toronto cinephiles a regular opportunity to view impossible-to-find films the way they were meant to be seen. (I have a particularly fond memory of catching the supremely bizarre Encounters of the Spooky Kind, starring Sammo Hung.)
Now, after a brief reappearance at the Royal cinema last year, Kung Fu Fridays is this week receiving a grand and highbrow resurrection, courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s at the organization’s Bell Lightbox headquarters, where Geddes will screen films from the massively influential Shaw Brothers studio over the next 10 weeks, completing the genre’s transformation from grindhouse curiosity to art-house-certified canon.
“It’s not your average foreign film retrospective series,” Geddes says. “[TIFF] has all the masters pretty much covered, but the filmmakers and performers in this series, watching them you can understand how something like The Matrix came about, where its roots are. The films here are considered the best martial-arts films ever, and it’s fascinating to see the influence they’ve had on the greater world stage.”
This includes titles such as Chun-ku Lu’s 1983 fantasy Bastard Swordsman, which mixes superhero-style action with mystical elements, and Lau Kar-leung’s 1978 all-timer The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, whose legacy can be felt in everything from the films of Quentin Tarantino to the music of the Wu-Tang Clan.
“I get into conversations with people who easily dismiss kung fu films, but it’s because they haven’t seen the good kung fu films,” says Geddes, who notes that the Shaw Brothers studio was the leading production hub in Hong Kong, or even Southeast Asia, from the mid-1960s until the late ’70s. “It’s like someone who dismisses Chinese cuisine because they’ve only had an all-you-can-eat buffet. I say, if you like ballet, if you appreciate the opera, this is the same thing.”
With the exception of The 36th Chamber (of which TIFF owns an archival 35 mm print), the series' selections will be presented on newly struck DCPs (digital cinema packages) courtesy of the Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain in the United States. (“The problem with archiving in Hong Kong is that because of the storage facilities and climate, a lot of the films didn’t stand the test of time because it’s just so humid,” Geddes explains.)
For even the most hardcore Kung Fu Friday veteran, the films promise to be revelations. “The nature of the series is chronological, and the films are getting crazier and wilder as they progress,” Geddes says. “Many of these films, it’s the first time they’ve been screened in Toronto since their initial release.”
This new iteration of Kung Fu Fridays also marks Geddes’s further efforts to cult-ify TIFF’s year-round programming, coming a year after he introduced his KinoVortex program (billed as an “international array of gonzo cinema”) to the Lightbox.
“I pitched this at the same time [as KinoVortex], and in many ways it was the perfect storm, because suddenly our sources for prints and films had this Shaw Brothers package available. So it was, ‘Let’s strike while the iron’s hot and set this up,’” says Geddes, who spent two decades programming TIFF’s Midnight Madness program for the annual September festival before leaving in 2017 to concentrate on his production company, Ultra 8 Pictures, alongside partner Katarina Gligorijevic.
“These films do need to be seen on the big screen – it’s the only way to do justice to the daring acrobatics the actors pull off,” he adds. “Once the lights go down, you’re transported to a different time, and you’re really watching the first wave of superhero films.”
Kung Fu Fridays: Fatal Fists and Crazy Kicks from the Shaw Brothers runs Jan. 18 through April 12 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox