A kung fu cinema experience

I moved to Austin in 2010 from Maryland and immediately jumped into the bustling film scene which had drawn me here. In casual conversation people will often ask about what made me relocate halfway across the country and I’ll frequently say: the film culture in Austin. I loved movies just as much in the suburbs of Washington DC as I do today, but I knew I had to not just keep reading about film festivals, film production, and breaking film news: I had to go and live it. Fantastic Fest, like all other film festivals and really any event-based organization, has struggled during COVID, going to an all virtual version in 2020 that wasn’t dubbed an “official” Fantastic Fest, and then here in 2021 having to majorly rework itself in response to the Delta variant just weeks before opening day. It’s been a rough ride for the organizers and promoters. But I dive into my own backstory and lay out the realistic context on the ground all to simply say this: Film festivals, and Fantastic Fest specifically, have an irreplicable ability to create true cinematic magic. And I’ll be forever grateful for all the forces in the world that combined to give me the chance to watch a 35mm print of Master Of The Flying Guillotine on the big screen whilst sitting mere feet away from The RZA as he provided live commentary for the film. (This was arranged by a company called 36 Cinema where RZA has partnered with Dan Halsted to present these kinds of ticketed screenings with live talent commentary in a mostly online format).

While my own kung fu bona fides are nowhere near what they could be and I’ll forever be a student, not a master, I came into the theater having seen this particular title more than once. I just wanted to focus on watching whatever action and kung fu cinema I could at the festival, and while I understood RZA would be providing a “live” commentary, I thought for sure that meant via Zoom. So it was a bit of pure magic when he showed up in the flesh to wax rhapsodic about kung fu cinema in general, and specifically this title. Jimmy Wang Yu’s Master Of The Flying Guillotine is frankly one of my favorite kung fu films because I feel it really stands out from a crowded field. A challenge I have with old school kung fu is that, while I enjoy it a lot, I regularly have trouble keeping them all separate from one another. Their stories often take a backseat to extraordinary physical brawls and battles. And while it’s great that the martial arts are the focus, I frequently find years later I can’t remember if I’ve even seen a particular title or not. Not so with this one. From the distinctive weapon, to being named after the film’s villain, to the showdown between an evil blind master and a one-armed hero… there’s just so much to love about this one. The music in particular has always been insanely badass, and it’s wild to have learned that Jimmy Wang Yu (who starred, wrote, and directed it) also just swiped music from some German band for the blind master’s theme and a Tangerine Dream track as well. I know rights clearances and sampling and all of that stuff can be dicey, but I love the music in this movie and, as the RZA said, “Cinema is hip hop”, and I’m glad this film exists as it does, among the very best kung fu films of all time.

Due to the capitalism engine that drives this country, behind the magic there’s always a little bit of something to sell. In this case, I don’t mind at all that a couple of these kung fu retrospective events such as this Guillotine screening and an upcoming Dynasty 3D screening were most likely organized in order to support the aforementioned 36 Cinema and also to sell a few brand new books. In this case one of Alamo Drafthouse’s companies, Mondo, is publishing a new book about the impact of kung fu cinema on American pop culture. It’s a large coffee table style book, printed in full color, called These Fists Break Bricks with a forward by RZA, but written by Grady Hendrix and Chris Poggiali. I’m unashamed to have purchased a copy myself, that’ll ultimately get signed by all 3 of the contributors. And while I’m not one for autographs and signed copies generally, I’ll almost certainly read the book cover to cover, and most importantly it’ll always be tied to this singular, magical experience that is only possible through me showing up to festivals, a killer team organizing these kinds of experiences, and the eternal need to support art by buying it.

And I’m Out.

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