Fantastic Fest 2019: IRON FISTS AND KUNG FU KICKS Interview With Director Serge Ou

Scott Adkins is discussed, as is Cynthia Rothrock, break dancing, gun fu, & more

It was one of those screenings where you sit down with one set of expectations and come away with a whole different perspective. Iron Fists And Kung Fu Kicks is an up and coming documentary about kung fu cinema and the Hong Kong film industry that played Fantastic Fest 2019 and will hit Netflix within the year. From the producers of such titles as Machete Maidens Unleashed and Electric Boogaloo, this documentary makes a surprisingly emotional argument for the world-changing impact that kung fu cinema has had on pop culture. With action cinema being my favorite genre, and the movie having such an impact on me, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to sit down with director Serge Ou (all the way from Australia to be at Fantastic Fest this year) and talk kung fu movies. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Ed Travis: I knew going into Fantastic Fest, “I’m going to check this movie [Iron Fists And Kung Fu Kicks] out.” When [Cinapse] did our most anticipated lists this was up there. But I really was just expecting a nice little educational film. Like I’m going to see things I love because I love kung fu movies and I’m going to learn a few things. But I just thought the film was very emotionally impactful. I was like “I’m not expecting to be feeling this emotional in this kung fu movie documentary”. So I just thought, man, let’s sit down and chat.

Serge Ou: That’s so nice of you. And such kind words. Because filmmakers just want to connect with an audience. That sort of feedback is priceless. It gives me absolute warm fuzzies. Because that’s why you do it. You know what I mean? And if you can find that, that’s so rewarding. So thank you.

Ed Travis: I looked up your IMDb and it looks like mostly Australian and New Zealand kinds of projects. How’d you get involved in this project?

Serge Ou: Pop culture is a really big thing for me. A couple of years ago I made a doc called Stranded about the influence of Australian punk on the global punk scene. That’s a big thing for me because I was a first wave punk rocker back in the day. Punk has been really important to me. But what I loved about that was the subculture thing and how it seeped into the mainstream and it’s affected the mainstream in peculiar ways. And this film… look, I’ve always loved the [kung fu] genre and this to me does a very similar thing. And that’s what really turned me on. We had this opportunity and it was like, yes, I really want to tell this story. And I kind of knew the story I wanted to tell. It was just a blessing. The stars aligned.

Ed Travis: So this was a package that was presented to you, like, “Hey, this movie’s going to be made and we’d love for you to direct” or can you talk about how that all worked out?

Serge Ou: The producer, Veronica Fury, has made several films in this space. Machete Maidens Unleashed, she produced, about the Philippines. And Electric Boogaloo, which is about Cannon films. She’s my business partner. So we talk a lot about what we’d like to do so we came up with this and the opportunity arose. We spoke to XYZed… sorry, Z.

Both: Laugh

Serge Ou: They were keen, and Netflix were keen. So we had the opportunity to kick it and to go. The Melbourne International Film Festival is also really important for us because they came in as a partner and we premiered there just about a month ago.

Ed Travis: So if Netflix were partners, does that mean this is going to be a Netflix film?

Serge Ou: Yes. In December it’s on Netflix.

Ed Travis: And is that global?

Serge Ou: Yes, I believe so. I think only Australia and New Zealand is not on the list because we’ve got a distributor in Australia.

Ed Travis: Great, so it’s going to be widely available for people to check out before too long. Very cool. In the film you follow some really interesting threads. I found the movie to be structured like “this inspired this, which inspired this, which inspired this”. It’s like never ending inspiration. That’s why I think I got so emotionally invested in it. So I’m learning some things like I assumed, but to see it all put together in this “A leads to B leads to C” structure was just really engaging. So can you talk about some of the thematic elements that, for you, really had to be in this movie? What were some non-negotiables?

Serge Ou: I really wanted to talk about the breaking scene in New York. Because the rap component of the hip hop evolution is widely known. You’ve got Wu Tang and the RZA and that whole story is out there. But I wanted to share the connection to dance throughout the whole thing. Cheng Pei-Pei (Come Drink With Me) brings dance to the action. And Bruce Lee brings dance to his schtick. And I’m not saying that kung fu cinema was, you know, the origins of breaking. But there was this amazing influence that was happening there. And that’s something I really wanted to talk about. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I wanted to talk about but we couldn’t for different reasons.

Ed Travis: What are some of those things?

Serge Ou: Gun Fu. And the connection of John Woo and Chang Cheh. And this idea of bringing that operatic influence from Wuxia to create Gun Fu. It never panned out. We couldn’t quite get that all happening. And it was a duration thing. The Last Dragon was also really important to me because it kind of wrapped up that whole African-American New York thing. And how that sort of kicks into the mainstream. I love that idea, that subculture becomes influential on the mainstream and off it goes. We take that for granted. So that was unfortunate to have to leave out. And “girls with guns” was the other thing I really wanted to talk about. What’s interesting about that is that it’s really empowering for women. Then it gets co-opted and exploited. But I couldn’t get to those things. There’s a hundred things! Where do I begin? You know the genre. You could make a six part series on it.

Ed Travis: Well… you know… please do!

Both: Laughter.

Ed Travis: You got a ton of really fantastic talent in your film. There are some obvious folks and some less obvious folks. It was really fantastic seeing people that I know and love pop up. Can you talk about some of that? Who was the toughest to track down? Who did you miss?

Serge Ou: Andre Morgan was someone I really wanted to talk to. He doesn’t do a lot of press. He was one of the executives at Golden Harvest — the American with them. He was tight with Bruce Lee. He was actually formative in Bruce Lee’s career.

Ed Travis: And he’s not someone I was really familiar with.

Serge Ou: Totally. And he doesn’t do a lot of press. He lives in the mainland now. I reached out and he said, you’re not going to believe this but I’ll come to Hong Kong when you’re in Hong Kong. I wanted that perspective because Run Run Shaw is gone. I wanted someone who was part of that Bruce Lee story and he was an integral figure in that story. So he gave us that insight into what Bruce was going through, which was really good. Another one was Alan Hofmanus from Wakaliwood. Alan is in Uganda, you know. He has electricity about one day a week. Very poor internet, you know. He tries his best. He and I were talking for ages and we met when he was coming to New York so that aligned. It was a fortuitous thing. So they were a couple of the hardest interviews to secure.

A couple of people couldn’t do it because of scheduling issues. I almost had Yuen Woo-Ping in Hong Kong. We were a day out. Which was kind of unfortunate because I would have loved to have spoken to him. But I didn’t pursue people like Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen or anyone like that because I think there’s the front of house story and there’s the back of house, sort of sloppy story. And that’s where I wanted to stay. And give some oxygen to some people who have done some incredible stuff and are doing some really cool stuff.

Ed Travis: Yeah. I’m like the internet’s Scott Adkins cheerleader. I review all of his stuff and he’s been here at Fantastic Festival.

Serge Ou: Scott is such a dude, you know? And he doesn’t get the kind of kudos he deserves. I don’t know if you agree with that.

Ed Travis: Well actually that’s a question I was going to talk to you about. I grew up with action cinema. It’s just kind of what I’ve stuck with. Part of why I’ve stuck with covering it and writing about it on my own time is that I’ve felt like since the 2000s rolled around that action cinema hasn’t really gotten its due. I’m curious what you think some of the factors are culturally that have made it to where we are today. Like if Scott Atkins was born in, you know, the 50s and he was making the movies he’s making today in the 80s, they would be opening worldwide at megaplexes everywhere. I mean he’s kicking ass and he’s incredible. But his movies aren’t opening all around the world. What are some of your thoughts on the state of action cinema today?

Serge Ou: That’s a really good question. It’s about timing. Like you said, if it was straight to video days, Scott would be Van Damme. He would be the guy. And not only that, but Scott can act. His work ethic is incredible. He can act and he’s really good at what he does. He should be a superstar. That’s what I’m hoping Ip Man 4 does for him. Because he deserves it. He so deserves it. But it’s really hard because a lot of stuff just doesn’t get any oxygen anymore with the Marvel universe out there. It’s just the sort of Marvel universe and a lot of a lot of stuff doesn’t get any oxygen anymore. That’s why fantastic Fest is the bomb. It takes risks. It shows films that are not going be able to fight in the multiplex scenario. But why isn’t Scott bigger? Why isn’t action cinema big right now? Let’s talk about John Wick. Explain that to me. Is that the most successful thing right now in action cinema?

Ed Travis: Yeah! John Wick 3 is going off. And so you never know. Is that going to reignite something?

Serge Ou: Maybe, you know, you see all these little pockets, right? It’s a kind of tough because I think in some ways it’s become more mainstream than ever. It’s always been mainstream, but it’s become more so. If you don’t get a gig in the Marvel universe, where do you go? Where do you go? Unless you’re someone bankable like Tom Cruise or Keanu, I don’t know what happens anymore. You know what I mean? Where there’s that kind of progression? Is that a bad answer?

Ed Travis: No! I’ve thought often myself about CGI. I think CGI replaced the thrill of “Hey, we can see these people doing these fantastic things with their bodies on screen”. Now we can just do anything with CG so we have swung the whole pendulum to the other side. But I feel like we’re starting to get tired of CG and so someone like Tony Jaa, or Scott Adkins, who can do incredible things, are starting to come back. Part of why Keanu is so huge is that he’s doing this stuff. Audiences are starting to crave that reality again.

Serge Ou: And isn’t that the beauty of the cinema? You look at it and it’s visceral and it’s real and it’s authentic. I really wanted to do this in the film, but looking at the Lethal Weapon fight with Gary Busey and Mel Gibson on the front lawn with the water going. It would have been interesting to dissect that, take it apart, show what the actors were doing and what they weren’t doing, and then put that against The Matrix. Why does The Matrix resonate? It’s because in Lethal Weapon they’re stunt guys half the time. Back then they didn’t have the commitment to learn that stuff. The Matrix did. There’s an authenticity that comes through. When you look back to the old kung fu stuff, they’re doing 40 moves in one shot. You can’t fake that.

Ed Travis: I’ve been burning to ask this one. You got Don “The Dragon” Wilson in your film. That was great. And someone like Don or Cynthia Rothrock are perfect examples for this question. Wilson made nine Bloodfist movies. That’s a franchise that was popular enough at a certain point in time to get 9 installments. And yet I can’t get those movies in America today on home video. It makes me crazy. I’m wondering if you have a sense of what is going on there?

Serge Ou: I don’t know. Because Roger Corman put those original films out. It’s a funny thing. China O’Brien is really hard to get.

Ed Travis: I’ve been able to track down China O’Brien but I’ve never seen Yes Madam. I see it all over the internet in terms of memes and GIFs. It looks incredible. But why can’t I buy these things legally?

Serge Ou: I think what happened in Hong Kong was a lot of these kind of films were made with shell companies. They popped up for a week for a film. And what I found in trying to license stuff was that a lot of times people didn’t know who owned what. So these companies have disappeared really quickly. They might have been made through Golden Harvest but as an independent. And they were doing 300 films a year, churning this stuff out. It kind of all got lost in the mix. I talk to some directors and they’re like “Sorry, I don’t remember that one”. For them it was just gig to gig to gig. They were into it, but that was just what they did. So a lot of those films are lost. You saw the quality of Yes Madam in our film was not great but that was the best we could get after months of searching. And the Bloodfist stuff is just rubbish quality. You need a Criterion to come in here.

Ed Travis: I know. It just seems like a piece of the market that’s DOA. I just don’t know what’s going on there. You have Shudder, this super cool curated horror channel. Where is the action version of that? Let’s treat these things like royalty. The audience is all still around. Even the actors are still around doing their thing. Did you see VFW here at the festival? All those guys are kicking ass.

Serge Ou: You’ve got some people that are picking up some bits and pieces. Isn’t Vinegar Syndrome doing some of that martial arts stuff?

Ed Travis: Warner Archive just announced like a new Mister Nice Guy that’s going to be the original cut. There’s a company I’ve never even heard of before that just released this obscure John Woo movie Heroes Shed No Tears that looks gorgeous and I was able to buy it. It’s amazing, but I’d never heard of this company.

Serge Ou: You’re right. You need a kind of curator that’s going to say “bang, we’re going to do these”. There’s a market! But it was really hard to find a lot of stuff. We all look at these films as treasures but they just made them and moved on.

Ed Travis: Another thing that was really inspiring to me was just towards the end of your film where you started getting into what’s happening today, right now… the never ending chain of inspiration. You hinted at Wakaliwood and YouTube as possible futures for where this is going. Do you have any other thoughts on where you see the kung fu influence trickling out next?

Serge Ou: It’s hard because looking at what happened in Hong Kong… it’s all moved to the mainland. The market is the mainland. And they’re very prescriptive about how things should be. So a lot of the Hong Kong filmmakers who are making martial arts films have to work on the mainland now because that’s where the money is. And so the films have kind of changed tone. They’re strangely political but in a different way than they used to be. And there’s some great martial arts in there, but it’s kind of a baton toss. We give it to you, we give it to you. What’s on the internet today is the exciting stuff.

In the nineties we had the rogue independent filmmakers, you know, the Robert Rodriguez’s and the Quentin Tarantino’s who came out of that “Let’s make a film for five grand” framework. And now we’ve got the next wave, which is “let’s make a film for 800 bucks. On our phones”. The relay is happening and people are asking, what can I bring to it? And I think that’s where it’s going. What do you think is next?

Ed Travis: That’s a great question. I love how you, in your film, communicate that kung fu is a catalyst and that it translates across any culture. In your film you had a moment talking about how there’s a fan somewhere in India today being inspired and who will make the next big action movie. And there are action guys in India doing some amazing stuff. Like there’s this movie Commando that I caught here at Fantastic Fest that featured this mind blowing guy who was doing his own stunts. So I do think it’s fascinating that this can come from any country.

Serge Ou: It’s universal. You don’t need the dialogue. The stories are simple morality tales. Everyone gets it. And it’s expressed through kung fu, which I think is awesome.

Ed Travis: Thank you very much.

And I’m Out.

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