9th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Interview with OSKFF 2021 Programmer Grady Hendrix

Old School Kung Fu Fest 2021 Programmer Grady Hendrix is no stranger to this site. After all, we just covered his book These Fists Break Bricks and did an entire week around his Paperbacks from Hell and interviewed him about the influence of paperbacks on the movies that we adore so much.

We had the chance to speak with him this week to discuss the Old School Kung Fu Fest, which is being co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and Subway Cinema.

This is your opportunity to see eight newly restored films and one fan favorite classic by Joseph Kuo on glorious 35mm. Four titles will be available exclusively online, December 6–13, and another five films for in-person big-screen viewing at MoMI, December 10–12. 

To see any of these shows, visit the Museum of the Moving Image online or Subway Cinema.

B&S ABOUT MOVIES: This is the ninth Old School Kung Fu festival. How did you get involved?

GRADY HENDRIX: We did the first one in 2000 and people seemed to like it, so we’ve done a bunch of them. And now, we’re back again after some time off because of the pandemic.

When we first started doing Subway Cinema back in 1999 or 2000, not all of us were huge old school kung fu fans. But then, after we did the first Old School, I discovered that there’s really something about these movies on a big screen with an audience. It changes your entire relationship with it. Suddenly, it feels not like some janky panned and scanned VHS tape, but a real movie. And that made us reconsider these movies.

The more we’ve done them, the more we’ve loved them. This is our ninth year doing it, so it’s something we’ve fallen in love with by doing them.

B&S: It’s like seeing a giallo on the big screen. It makes you more forgiving of the wooden dummy at the end of Don’t Torture a Duckling.

GRADY: There’s stuff in these movies that you only realize with an audience. There’s a gap when you watch them alone and you wonder why it’s there and you realize that with an audience, you’re like, oh that was there to give everyone a minute to react before they go on to the next thing.

It’s interesting that you mention giallo, because when you watch those at home, you think it’s a little sleepy here. It’s a little slow. Watching with an audience, you’re actively watching, like what’s at the end of this hall that she’s walking down? It’s a more participatory experience.

B&S: Like giallo, kung fu movies came to America and played the same grindhouses and drive-ins and found their audiences. Kung fu movies found an entirely different audience than they were intended for.

GRADY:  They speak in such a different way to different audiences. It wasn’t just that these movies had nonwhite stars, which is why black and Latin audiences love them in the States. They really work for working class audiences.

The plot of so many of these movies were about kids standing up to these forces of oppression — the emperor, the corrupt politicians, the gangsters, the local thugs who ruled their town and fighting them with nothing and you can imagine that as a 16-year-old black kid living in New York City in 1974, it can be really appealing. Most of their audiences felt like they had no power and that the entire structure of the city was designed to keep them down. It makes sense that these movies speak to them.

B&S: I can only imagine what it was like to be in one of those grindhouses and experience what it was like. In your book, the RZA says, “I’ll never forget the first time I watched The Mystery of Chess Boxing and hearing the entire cinema roar each time Ghost Face Killer (played by Mark Long) appeared on the screen. He was a villain killing off his enemies — in some cases in front of their wives and children — yet we walked out the theater wanting to be him, the baddest motherfucker on the screen.”

GRADY: I think that’s so important with these movies. One of the things that’s nice about screening them is you watch people after it’s over and they may have not known each other going in, but as they walk out the doors, they can’t stop talking about it. It’s not just going to see these movies to watch them on the big screen. It’s to see them with people.

B&S: Especially now.

GRADY: The movie-watching experience is at a premium now.

B&S: A few years ago, Drive-In Asylum showed three films and ended with Alice, Sweet Alice and that kind of blew everyone’s mind. They weren’t ready for the ending and you don’t get that emotional reaction watching it at home alone.

GRADY: That movie is also very grungy and bleak and just feels like New Jersey. Very 70s bleak, New Jersey, urban. l admire the commitment to doing Alice last! That last scene just gets you.

B&S: Between years of doing this festival and your book, I assume you consider yourself a martial arts fan now.

GRADY:  I started getting these movies in the 90s. Mostly Hong Kong movies and I love martial arts and I was loving some from the 80s and the 90s. Mostly the stuff that a little more wirework, a little more surreal beyond just Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung.

Going back to that older 70s aesthetic and late 60s aesthetic just wasn’t so much on my radar really until much much later. And it was a lot of it was economic snobbery. I just had a hard time watching a movie where it didn’t look a little polished.

It’s never going to be the budget of a Hollywood movie, but I felt like I couldn’t quite enjoy the budget level of an independent Taiwanese movie from the 70s or independent Hong Kong 80s movies. It took me a while to get past my own snobbery and see what’s really there.

I developed a real love of it. I mean, watching Joseph Kuo bringing out the simplest changes out of the simplest set-ups like two guys in a field kicking each other…when you watch what he’s done with that, it’s like watching a really good punk band just blast through a set. It’s simple but it’s powerful. They’re doing complex stuff within the simplicity.

B&S: I loved that These Fists Break Bricks leaves no stone unturned. Everything from the expected like the Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee, but also Count Dante, the martial arts in comics, Godfrey Ho, even deep cut Shaw Brothers movies like The Boxer’s Omen and Black Magic.

GRADY: And there’s so much stuff we missed. I mean, there was so much more we wanted to write about. Martial arts on TV because it really had a presence in the 60s. Its influence on more music. I mean, there was just so much more. We just couldn’t fit in. We ran out of room. But it’s amazing to me how it went from zero to 60 so fast in the States and when everywhere.

B&S: I loved how you bookend everything by starting with how Asian actors could barely get work in Hollywood and end the story with just how powerful Sho Kosugi became.

GRADY: What was so weird to us was to find out that Japanese guys basically only played houseboys in movies before they started getting sent to the internment camps. And then to end with the biggest action star of the 80s, one of them being Sho Kosugi and the way he really would not let people take advantage of him. He really drove his own ship. It was really kind of breathtaking to see that.

B&S: While Chuck Norris was white, he also followed his own path.

GRADY: And that’s one of the things with Chuck Norris. And I know it comes off like we’re very down on Chuck Norris. And I’m not! One of the things I really admire is how hard he works because acting does not come easy to him.

He’s gone on record saying that it took him a really long time to get it. But he keeps doing the physical stuff on screen, even though he had a hard time. And you know, his first movie, no one wanted to make a movie with him. But he did it and he hit the road for almost a year and made it a big movie. Second movie, the exact same issue and the exact same hard work. Third movie and so on, until he gets the big studio contract and he walked out because he didn’t want to do the really violent stuff. He wanted young kids to see his movies because he feels like it’s good for them.

I really admire a lot of choices he made. I like that in some of his movies, he plays a karate instructor and you can see him teaching a class and he seems so much looser. And when he’s fighting in those scenes, he’s so limber and ferocious and you’re like, whoa. This is where Chuck is most comfortable.

I went back and watched some of the old footage of him in tournaments and he was a real bad ass. I mean, he was the real deal. It’s just that the cameras started rolling and he stiffened up and had to really fight to overcome the stage fright.

B&S: My favorite Chuck Norris quote is “David Carradine is as good a martial artist as I am an actor.”

GRADY: He was always super self-aware. One of the things I always think is interesting is that he developed this obsession with Vietnam and a lot of it was about his younger brother dying so young in Vietnam.

One of the things that was really interesting is that everyone took potshots at Chuck Norris all the way back to the beginning. Even critics who liked him would be like, well, it’s like watching an English muffin act on screen. And everyone was just so mean to Chuck Norris from the beginning. And you know, he had the last laugh, but man, he worked hard.

He was the opposite of somebody like Jim Kelly. Jim Kelly had some screen presence. If his career had been a little different, he could have been a huge movie star. He was also his own worst enemy. A lot of times he was really arrogant and didn’t do the work the way Chuck Norris did. He thought it was going to come to him.

It’s really interesting to look at the two of them and just sort of contrast them because they weren’t contemporaries. Kelly was going down when Norris was coming up, but I just always find that really interesting. Those two were on such radically different paths.

B&S: He’s still doing things. Like, he shows up for a few seconds in The Expendables 2 as the Lone Wolf and people lost their minds.

GRADY: I don’t really like his movies that much and I still have a tremendous amount of affection for his movies and nostalgia for them. (laughs)

B&S: His Cannon Films are interesting because the politics are so opposite of what I believe in, but I love those movies. Like Invasion U.S.A. is a great action movie.

GRADY: It’s the movie version of an old man reading Reader’s Digest while yelling at kids to get off his lawn.

B&S: I mean, that’s how he came up with Invasion U.S.A.!

GRADY: It’s the right wing uncle at Thanksgiving.

B&S: You did a great job on the commentary on the Trailer Trauma blu ray. Any plans for recording more commentary tracks?

GRADY: I’ve been asked a few times and one of the things I find really difficult is I really take commentary super seriously. It takes me a lot of prep work. I just got asked to do one and I turned it down because it was a movie I didn’t love enough to put in all the work. I liked it but I didn’t love it. But I’m just waiting. If someone asked me for the right movie, I am so there. I think it’s really fun to have the privilege of yammering about something I love as someone’s watching.

Want to learn more about Grady Hendrix and his work? Check out his web site to read about his books like Horrorstör (“the only novel about a haunted Scandinavian furniture store you’ll ever need”) and My Best Friend’s Exorcism (“basically Beaches meets The Exorcist). There’s also the amazing Paperbacks from Hell, which you can purchase at Quirk Books or Amazon, and These Fists Break Bricks, which you can learn more about at the official site or order this great book from Mondo.

Don’t forget! The 9th Old School Kung Fu fest has four titles available exclusively online, December 6–13, and another five films for in-person big-screen viewing at MoMI, December 10–12. Check out the Museum of the Moving Image online or Subway Cinema to learn more.

Thanks to Grady Hendrix for his time and Emma Griffiths for coordinating this interview.

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