They say that if something in a western action movie blows your mind, a film from Hong Kong probably did it 12 months before. Whether it’s landing a motorcycle on a moving train or staging a fistfight while floating through the air, martial arts cinema has always served as the original source for great action, marrying age-old theatrical techniques to dynamic, modern film styles. Despite its importance, it’s a genre that many of us still know only in passing – a flaw which Edinburgh’s Summerhall has taken it upon itself to fix.
When the suggestion of a martial arts film festival arose, Summerhall programmer Tom Forster realised he himself had “only seen one or two kung fu films despite their vast, rich history”, so decided to build the festival around this desire to “figure out where this genre came from”.
The Kung-Fu Film Festival, running from 16 to 22 September, will see Summerhall’s Red Lecture Theatre play host to martial arts classics of all kinds, drawn from across the last five decades. From the star-making turns of pop cultural icons such as Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee to Ang Lee’s elegant, Oscar-winning epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and two of Stephen Chow’s Looney Tunes-esque extravaganzas, the festival showcases the range and depth of martial arts cinema.
Hero is a balletic tale of political power and personal responsibility. Wolf Warrior II has underwater pirate battles. If you were ever inclined to write off martial arts cinema as one-dimensional, Summerhall’s showings will set you right.
Now might also be the perfect time to become better versed in a film tradition that reveres death-defying stunts and feats of unworldly athleticism. As the Oscars struggle for relevance, there has been growing popular support for a “best stuntwork” category to honour those that risk their necks to set our hairs on end.
At the same time, much of the genre-defining action cinema coming out of Hollywood recently has come from stuntmen/martial artists such as David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. For anyone interested in film culture, now would be a good time to know your wuxia from your gun-fu.
This became particularly apparent after one of the major stories from this year’s blockbuster season concerning the willingness of today’s action stars to take a beating. After the latest instalment in the Fast & Furious series, starring WWE legend Dwayne Johnson and high-kick hero Jason Statham, reports emerged that both men had clauses in their contracts that protected them from losing an on-screen bout too badly.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood – itself the centre of a Bruce Lee-related mini-scandal – Hollywood wise man Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) advises Leonardo DiCaprio’s ageing action star Rick Dalton not to let the audience see him on the wrong end of too many punches, otherwise they’ll come to associate him with failure. “Ping! Pow! Choom! Zoom! Down goes you, down goes your career as a leading man!”
Stars such as Johnson and Statham are clearly wise to this idea and have taken pains to protect their personal brands.
While this might read like an Instagram-age phenomenon, Forster points out that it is really nothing new.
“You can tell from the extras in Drunken Master and Enter the Dragon at the fight schools that they are underplaying their one-on-one’s in the backdrop, probably so that they don’t outshine the heroes,” he said
“It’s just basic theatrics. With Hobbs & Shaw, I think it’s just a very clever PR stunt to draw attention to it and make folks go and try counting.”
The Kung-Fu Film Festival runs from 16 to 22 September, www.summerhall.co.uk