Some of my earliest movie memories are of going to the theater to see The Rescuers and Star Wars, both of which came out in 1977, just after I turned 4 years old. I remember being particularly amused by a quick shot of C-3PO tangled up in a bunch of colored wires — no idea why that, of all Star Wars moments, stuck in my tiny mind, but stick it did. Both of these films, and others that I saw around the same age, made strong, if weird, impressions on me.
But it wasn’t until a few years later that I discovered movies that were to become important to me — films that would have much to do with the establishment of my cinematic taste. Here, I must give credit to three New York City-area broadcasters: WPIX (Channel 11), WNEW (the former call letters of what is now WNYW; Channel 5) and WWOR (Channel 9). All of these then-independent stations padded out their weekend afternoon programming with old movies, and appeared to be sufficiently budget-minded to show whatever titles they could get most cheaply. Fortunately for me, that meant I got to watch a whole lot of Japanese monster movies and Hong Kong martial arts films.
I recall many a happy afternoon watching Godzilla take on such foes as King Ghidorah and the pernicious Smog Monster. (The theme song and title sequence of the eco-minded latter film are burned into my memory.) Often, as I recall, these films were programmed on double or even triple features, and I imagine it was hard for my parents to yank 8-year-old me from in front of the television. Thank goodness they allowed me to indulge, because these are great movies.
As wondrous as kaiju movies are, I had a preference for the martial arts films, just as I prefer them to kaiju films today. I find it difficult to quantify exactly what it was about these movies that I found so alluring, but I have some good guesses. They’re packed with exciting action; their stories are usually so straightforward that kids can understand them; they were, to my young sensibilities, just alien enough to be intriguing without being off-putting. These films were clearly from another time and culture about which I knew nothing — yet which was more or less comprehensible to me, even if it was filled with way more kicking and weaponry than my own culture. They were curiosities at first; soon they became one of the pillars of my cinematic taste — and education.
I’ve always had a great fondness for Hong Kong martial arts and swordplay films, and have been lucky enough to find myself in a couple situations that allowed me to cultivate that interest. When I lived in the Twin Cities after college, a friend and I learned that a local theater would show classic and current Hong Kong films every Friday and Saturday at midnight. We almost never missed going to what we called “Kung Fu Theater.” Later, in grad school, I was fortunate enough to study with a professor who literally wrote the book on Hong Kong cinema; in taking classes with him, I was able to appreciate these films in new ways.
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The opening battle in Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Those classes reignited my interest in these films, and I spent a good deal of my leisure time seeking out the wildest and weirdest in HK cinema. One film that remained my holy grail for a time was the wonderfully titled Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, directed by one of the all-time greats, Lau Kar Leung (a name sometimes transliterated as Liu Chia Liang). Watching it again reminded me that, until fairly recently, this film was surprisingly hard to see.
My friend Matt and I were thrilled when we finally discovered a ninth-generation videotape of Eight Diagram Pole Fighter in our local video store. We knew it would look crappy but rented the damn thing, anyway. Even through all that VHS static, the film’s action sequences were (and remain) extraordinary, as becomes all the more apparent when one watches the film on a well-mastered DVD, as I recently did.
The version I watched was released about 10 years ago by a company called Celestial Pictures, which was licensed by Shaw Brothers to release high-quality DVDs of many of that studio’s incredible martial arts films. Celestial did it right, remastering picture and sound beautifully on all of its Shaws DVDs. I still pick these up whenever I find them.
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Gordon Liu using giant incense sticks to give himself the mark of a monk in Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
Celestial had to step in to release these great films in part because Shaw Brothers had never regarded them as worth preserving. Made for mass audiences, martial arts films were generally regarded as a kind of disposable entertainment, even by the studios that made and profited from them. When celluloid still ruled the earth, 35mm prints of these films were shipped all over the world, garnering fans everywhere.
But Shaw Brothers (and other studios) didn’t do a great job with quality control, allowing the films to be (famously) poorly dubbed, poorly mastered for video and released in any number of subpar editions. Even though studios such as Shaws built their fortune on the distribution of these movies, the films themselves were rarely regarded as valuable objects. Once they’d made their money in the various stages of the distribution cycle, they were largely left out to pasture, so to speak.
In part, the cult surrounding Hong Kong martial arts films has to do with their former scarcity. Objects acquire value when they are difficult to obtain. For me, that only goes so far. I’d much rather see Eight Diagram Pole Fighter in a nice print from a good DVD than in a lousy print from a crummy VHS, even if the latter felt more like the end goal of a monumental quest.
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Why use just one arrow when a dozen will do?
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter itself, I’m happy to report, holds up very well, no matter its format. It’s as good now as it was more than a decade ago, when I first saw it on VHS.
It also possesses all of the elements that would have fascinated me when I was a kid sitting in front of the TV. Its story, like that of many, if not most, Hong Kong martial arts films, is surpassingly simple. Betrayed, a noble family sees its patriarch and five of its seven sons killed in battle, so one of the surviving sons (played by the incomparable Gordon Liu, the brother of the director — who himself also appears in the film) takes it on himself to hone his fighting skills and exact his revenge. The back-and-forth structure of the standard revenge plot makes the film easy to follow, as befits a work of mass entertainment.
Right from the start, the film’s action scenes are remarkable, with fighting so acrobatic that it reminded me, as I remarked to my viewing companions, of Gene Kelly’s footwork. Modern American action films could learn a great deal from martial arts films of the 1970s and 1980s, in which action scenes were typically shot in long shots and long takes, the better to see the performers do their thing. The plethora of cuts that mark many modern action films only muddy the action.
Finally, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter is deeply weird and visually striking in a way that would surely have appealed to 8-year-old me. The scenes of this kind that stand out most strongly are those in which the hero practices his fighting skills on life-size articulated wooden wolf figures with giant silvery teeth. These wolves are very strange-looking, and the way they are “defeated” — by having their teeth ripped out with the titular poles — is violently bizarre, especially when the same method is employed to vanquish a horde of villains in the film’s final scene. The film is filled with scenes and imagery that astonish and baffle. And that’s enough to make me love it no matter my age.
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A monk fights a weird, silver-toothed wolf in Eight Diagram Pole Fighter