Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks–Netflix film tracks the pop culture reach of Hong Kong kung fu movies

Review by C.J. Bunce

From Hong Kong to the U.S. and Australia to Uganda, Australian director Serge Ou and writer Grady Hendrix track the scope of the Hong Kong kung fu movie industry and its pop culture influence on the world in the documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks, now streaming this month on Netflix.  Splicing interviews with kung fu legends of the past with new discussions with martial artists and actors influenced by them, Ou offers up a surprisingly rich look at how and why kung fu movies gained an international following that continues to this day via Jackie Chan comedies, the Matrix movies (with a sequel due in theaters next year), and new television series like Wu Assassins and Iron Fist. 

Beneath what is in essence an overview of the genre is a smart mixture of social and cultural commentary on a global phenomenon centered on an artform mixing athleticism, dance, and grace.  Kung fu made its way to American audiences with Tom Laughlin in Billy Jack, and into millions of homes via the Kung Fu series.  This was paralleled by Bruce Lee movies and lesser films (they call them Bruce-sploitation) from China and U.S. studios, direct-to-video crotch-kicking and “squirrel-grabbing” action on VHS tapes in video stores, heroines leading the way as a sub-genre, eventually moving to black and inner city audiences embracing the culture, starting with martial artist and actor Jim Kelly (who co-starred with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon), re-emerging later as an influence on hip hop music.  The genre got even bigger boosts with Jackie Chan heavy-stunt comedies, followed by The Matrix and the Academy Awards arrival of the genre with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.  Chinese co-productions with other nations, and actors of Chinese background in the mainstream outside of Asia would eventually come along.

Viewers meet (or revisit) early kung fu icons Cheng Pei-Pei and Sammo Hung in new interviews, along with Billy Banks, who would turn the genre into his own fortune via the creation of the Tae Bo workout, early American female kung fu star Cynthia Rothrock, martial artist Richard Norton, plus from the 21st century shows, Iron Fist actor Jessica Henwick, Wu Assassins actor JuJu Chan, Doctor Strange actor Scott Adkins, and Marvel stuntwoman and choreographer Amy Johnston, among others.  It’s all interspersed with great action sequences and other clips from more than 100 films.  A theme underscoring much of kung fu movie history is a distinct lack of safety standards, with more than one participant in the documentary stressing that Hong Kong kung fu movies couldn’t be made anywhere else for that reason.

A key focus is not surprisingly Bruce Lee, taking America by storm as Kato in the Green Hornet series, his rejection by Shaw Brothers back in China, and then getting skipped over for David Carradine in his series Kung Fu, before gaining legend status only posthumously.  While Chinese culture and movies in particular are still only beginning to make their way to Western audiences, kung fu films from Hong Kong began in the 1960s with a man named Runje Shaw whose studio turned from essentially soap opera productions into a lucrative action movie powerhouse, making Shaw one of the wealthiest men in China.  Viewers will find the spread of kung fu had an impact on surprising areas of culture.

The film highlights benchmarks in the genre: Come Drink With Me (1966), One-Armed Swordsman (1967), The Big Boss (1971), Five Fingers of Death (1972), Fist of Fury (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973), Police Story (1985), China O’Brien (1990), Rumble in the Bronx (1996), The Matrix (1999), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003), and The Raid (2011).  You’ll see early film footage with Michelle Yeoh, but oddly enough megastar Jet Li and his films from the 1980s through the 2000s get overlooked.  The major downside of the documentary is in its third act, stretching kung fu movies to include poorly filmed YouTube videos.  It also doesn’t enter into any discussion of wuxia and film in China outside of Hong Kong, it has few native Chinese interviewees, and provides only a brief flash of an image of director Quentin Tarantino, who is so widely noted as being heavily influenced by the genre.  Also, there’s no mention of the culture impact to American kids of the “kung fu grip.”

The film comes from Veronica Fury, the producer of the documentary about Cannon Films, Electric Boogaloo (previously reviewed here).  It has slick, in-your-face design imagery consistent with the genre and is overall informative and entertaining, bound to teach anyone something they didn’t know about Hong Kong and its pop culture creation.  It includes the obligatory talking heads, but they don’t get in the way of what is best about the film.  No doubt it has opinions that will create conversations among diehard kung fu movie enthusiasts, but for everyone else it’s an easy and fun two hours.

The documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Fists is streaming now on Netflix.

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