I would love to cite Raging Phoenix as the first awesome martial arts film with a female lead. I would love to do that. But its choreographers and writers conspire against me.
Raging Phoenix is the story of a young female rocker (played by Jeeja Yanin) who gets caught up in a ruthless kidnapping ring. Women are abducted off the streets of Thailand, drugged, and taken to a secret laboratory hidden within a Temple of Doom, which is in turn hidden within a metropolitan sewage system. Naturally, the women’s tears are harvested there, to concoct a patent medicine for eccentric billionaires.
Only one force is strong enough to thwart the kidnapper’s plans: a small group of drunken vigilantes who learned to combine Muay Thai boxing with stylish hip-hop dance moves.
From American Shaolin, a autobiographical tale of Matthew Polly’s intensive training at the modern Shaolin Temple:
With most TV programming so dull, the boys at Shaolin were kungfu movie freaks, constantly visiting Shaolin’s multiplex to watch the latest blood-spattered Hong Kong releases on VHS. Wanting to undermine the assumption that laowai (non-Chinese outsiders) suck at martial arts, I brought VHS copies of Steven Seagal’s Above the Law, David Carradine’s Kung Fu, and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Lionheart back to Shaolin after winter vacation.
The monks were used to highly fictionalized portrayals of the Shaolin temple, so they weren’t bothered by the fantasy version of Shaolin in David Carrdine’s Kung Fu. They were, however, shocked by the casting of David Carradine.
“The actor is a laowai,” I said. “He’s pretending to be half-Chinese.”
“That explains why his kungfu is so terrible,” Little Tiger said, as he ducked to the back row to avoid another cuff from monk Deqing.
For the rest of the movie I ignored the slights about Carradine’s kungfu skills, which were admittedly poor. (To be fair, however, he did capture that California New Age, faux-Zen blankness perfectly.) I was waiting for that climactic moment that nearly every American male who was alive in the early 1970s remembers: the scene where Carradine lifts a burning chalice to pass the final Shaolin test, permanently branding a dragon one one forearm and a tiger on the other. I hadn’t seen or heard anything like this legend since my arrival, but I had to know.
“Is the story true?” I asked. “Did that used to be the final test for Shaolin monks?”
A Socratic Dialogue
Master Po: Grasshopper, soon you must leave the mountain. We shall now begin preparations for the day that you accept disciples of your own.
Kwai Chang Caine: Be not concerned, master. I have committed each of your Kung Fu fighting techniques to memory.
Po: Grasshopper, these techniques are trifles. It is most important to transmit wude, the moral principles of Kung Fu.
Caine: Yes master, I have also memorized the 377 rules of virtuous conduct, and I will require my students to do the same. Rule number one: “Don’t show up drunk.” Rule number two…
Po: Stop right there. It is not the teacher’s job to recite these rules; it is the teacher’s job to embody them. They are descriptive, not prescriptive. Wude is not something you do, it is something you are.
Caine: Master, I do not understand. On the day I arrived in the temple, I took an oath to follow these rules. Are they not important?
Po: Grasshopper, that stuff is just for the newbies. It is time for you to receive the inner gate teaching on martial morality.
In 1970, a young martial arts instructor embarked upon an ambitious project. His goal: to teach America about the full potential of martial arts, as a vehicle for both physical betterment and spiritual evolution. His name: Bruce Lee.