10 Questions — 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition!

The 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest is back April 21-30, 2023 with the biggest retrospective of Taiwanese wuxia (sword fighting hero) movies ever seen in New York City. Wuxia movies have a long history in Chinese cinema, but when King Hu’s Dragon Inn  premiered in 1967, it kicked off a wuxia revival that reinvented action movies. The 2023 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest celebrates the wuxia movies from King Hu’s homeland of Taiwan with 12 movies on the big screen and three more online, . The showcase includes:
– The US premiere of The King of Wuxia, an epic documentary about King Hu, the revolutionary filmmaker who re-invented wuxia movies and turned them into high art, plus three of his best films—the monumental and unmissable A Touch of Zen, and two of his most action-packed flicks, The Valiant Ones and The Fate of Lee Khan.

– All three movies in the essential Tsai Ying-jie Trilogy: Joseph Kuo’s The Swordsman of All Swordsman (US premiere of the new digital restoration), The Bravest Revenge (online only), and Ghost Hill.

– Sword-slinging heroine in four films starring actress Hsu Feng (A Touch of ZenThe Fate of Lee KhanThe Valiant Ones,  A City Called Dragon), four starring Polly Shang-kuan (Swordsman of All SwordsmenGhost HillGrand Passion,  The Bravest Revenge), and one starring the massive movie star, Josephine Siao Fong-fong (The Daring Gang of Nineteen From Verdun City) in which she’s only 12 years old. 

– Discoveries featuring three female Chinese opera stars and, yes, puppets.

Old School Kung Fu Fest is presented by Subway Cinema Inc., a New York-based grassroots nonprofit arts and culture organization, dedicated to the exhibition and appreciation of Asian popular cinema and preservation of America’s Asian film exhibition heritage, in association with Taipei Cultural Center in New York, Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan).

One of the founding members of Subway Cinema, Goran Topalovic has been programming and writing about East Asian cinema for over 20 years. He’s also one of the founders of the annual New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) and the Old School Kung Fu Fest.

In honor of the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest, Classic Couple Academy asked Goran Topalovic 10 Questions. Here’s what he had to say.

Q1:  In one sentence describe Wuxia movies.

Swordplay film genre within the martial art cinema, featuring heroic male and female knight-errants usually in historic or mythical settings.

Q2:  In the panoply of Chinese film, why must we come to know Wuxia?

Wuxia is the oldest film genre in Chinese-language cinema, with a rich history and tradition going back to the 1920s, which remains alive and relevant to this day. 

Q3:  Rank these Kung Fu moves in your personal favorite order: punch, block, kick, strike, and Dragon Claw. Any you would add?

I’m partial to Butterfly Palms, Tiger Claw, and Phoenix Eye Fist.

Q4:  What is your recommendation of best film in the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition lineup for the genre novice to see to get hooked?

There’s no better introduction than King Hu’s A Touch of Zen (1971), a true masterpiece of the wuxia genre. The central character is the fully realized modern day template for the heroic female knight-errant figure (portrayed by Xu Feng in the movie) that’s been copied ever since. It also contains the seminal bamboo forest fight sequence, which remains the high point in wuxia action choreography to this day.

Q5:  What are the most unique offerings in the 10th OSKF Fest lineup for the diehard genre fan?

At the top of the list would be The Legend of the Sacred Stone, which is a Taiwanese wuxia film from 2000 that’s all done with hand puppets. It’s based on the centuries old po-te-hi style of puppet-based storytelling that originated in China in the 17th century. Director Chris Huang (called “Ten Carts of Books” by fans for his vast knowledge) is a fourth generation puppeteer and his relative, Vincent Huang (known as the “Eight Tone Genius”), does all the voices. The film has been shot on a 36,000 square foot soundstage, with energetic, lo-fi CGI deployed at breakneck speed on vast puppet sets!

Q6:  What is the importance of opera in the film programming of 10th OSKF Fest?

Beijing Opera had a big influence on Director King Hu, and one of his innovations was to take the conventions of Beijing Opera – from musical elements to stage combat styles – and modulate and transform them for the big screen. Resulting elaborate action set pieces in King Hu’s films were unlike anything that was done before in martial arts cinema, and continue to provide inspiration to next generations of filmmakers.

Q7:  The 10th OSKF Fest features actresses Hsu Feng and Josephine Siao Fong-fong. If you had to summarize each of them in three lines apiece, what would you say? 

I will mention Hsu Feng. She has played a key part in the history of the modern wuxia cinema, starring in the majority of King Hu’s films, including A Touch of Zen, and embodying the female knight-errant archetypes. On screen, she could be described as poised, stoic, and serious.

Q8:  Name your single biggest challenge in programming East Asian cinema.

If we’re talking specifically about programming older East Asian films, the challenge has traditionally been around identifying who owns the rights – since many of the older film production companies are no longer in existence – so that the proper permission can be obtained for the screening. 

Q9:  What Kung Fu philosophy do you wish for 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest viewers to take away from the experience? 

It’s more of an underlying Zen Buddist philosophy, as expressed in A Touch of Zen: the heroes, no matter how skilled and powerful, will not save us, because, just like the audience, they are mortal, and must do their best to achieve metaphysical transcendence.

Q10:  Provide your 10 most descriptive words for this 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition.

Action-packed. Astonishing. Elegant. Fast-moving. Ferocious. Hard-hitting. Monumental. Roudy. Transcendental. Wild.

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Check out the full line up of the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Sword Fighting Heroes Edition! In theater screenings at the Metrograph. Tickets are on sale at: https://metrograph.com/category/oldschool-kungfufest/.

12 in-person screenings including US Premieres of THE KING OF WUXIA, THE SWORDSMAN OF ALL SWORDSMEN (Digital Restoration), and NIGHT ORCHID (2K Remaster).

Photos courtesy of Janus Films, Taiwan Film and Audiovisual Institute, and Pili International Multimedia Co., Ltd., and Well Go USA.

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