About me

I am quite addicted to martial arts fu movies, which is odd when you consider that I hate violence. But when I declaim my love for these films my offline friends start back in horror and make warding motions with their hands. I am quite, quite alone in my obsession.

A million years ago, I worked as a freelance dancer and choreographer. I love martial arts films for many reasons – they are dynamic, stirring, fun, creatively audacious, and I learn a lot about a culture that isn’t my own. I love the choreography and the way the choreography is performed in these films – it’s often superb and this is a theme I often blog about.

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Donnie says: “This is action filmmaking”

Hand Study 1

Hand Study by Rebecca Stewart Instagram.com/gallopingskirt

Since March 2016, around the edges of my day job, I have been writing a book about Shaw Brothers studios and some of their directors, framed against the theme of innovation. As you can imagine, this has been a lot of hard work but also highly enjoyable. It has been particularly interesting to track down various sources of research. As well as various books and papers and what not, there are, as fans of the genre will know, some terrific interviews and documentaries to be found as DVD extras.

At one point in writing the book, I was trying to illustrate a point about screen fighting, and how it’s practically an art form of its own. Fortunately, I remembered I had, sitting on my shelves, an interview with Donnie Yen where he talks about this very thing. The interview is on the Hong Kong Legends 1995 DVD release of Once Upon a Time in China 2 – one of my favourite films, and one in which Yen distinguishes himself in his performance as the film’s villain, Commander Lam. Come to think of it, the Once Upon a Time in China films were among the first films I saw in the martial arts movie genre, and I reckon I was lucky to be introduced to it via such beautifully made movies. Anyhow, if you happen to be watching this DVD, be sure and check out the interview with Yen as he’s a very articulate subject with some interesting things to say.

Here is a short excerpt from my current draft in which I use a quote from this interview:

“… it takes more than just being a good kung fu technician to look like a good screen fighter. Performance is different to real life pugilism. The kung fu moves that will win you a street fight will not necessarily look good on screen. Donnie Yen, also a (brilliant) performer with a genuine martial arts background, has this to say about the difference between onscreen fighting as a performance compared with off screen pugilistic technique:
‘However, this is action film making, this is martial arts film making. It’s not about how great you are throwing all those punches and kicks. It’s how great you look in front of the camera. It don’t matter if you can do all that if at the end of the day you look horrible on film, you look like shit on film, nobody wants to watch you so throw that martial arts BS, the years of whatever you’re claiming, out of the window. You’ve come into the film industry. This is film making. Can you kick across that camera without even touching the lenses, like 20 takes, same precision, can you do that?’

Donnie Yen can, Lau Kar Leung could, all the great martial arts performers can. Oddly enough, I simply hate violence and am probably the most pacifistic person you could come across, but what I think excites me about martial arts filmmaking is seeing this technique transformed, choreographically and performatively, into an expressive art form.”

Donnie Yen as Commander Lam

Image sourced from martialartsmoviejunkie.com

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‘Monkey’ – Kung Fu Movie Podcast

Hello dear reader! I see that the last blog I posted was 3 April. Yikes!

I have sort of been caught out, with my lack of blogging progress this year now being highlighted, but in the very best and nicest way, by the Kung Fu Movie Guide’s latest podcast.

The reason for this is that I am the guest on this podcast, which very generously directs people to this blog. So I had better get my skates on and post some more blogs (I have been writing, by the way, just not posting).

Ben Johnson, the editor of Kung Fu Movie Guide, had this to say about our podcast:

“For episode three of the Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast, I have a nice chat with the Australian blogger Meredith Lewis, who runs the rather excellent kung fu movie blog, Dangerous Meredith’s Fu Thoughts. I managed to spend a bit of time with Meredith over Google Hangouts just before a talk she was doing at a Melbourne festival on the topic of Monkey – the popular Japanese TV show from the 1970s, known to international audiences as Monkey Magic. She afforded me a bit of time during her research to talk about the show’s origins, which is based on a 16th century Chinese novel, Journey to the West, and tells the story of the mythological figure Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King.

There are many films, animations and stories featuring the Monkey King, and countless variations on the Journey to the West story, and we discuss some of our favourite adaptions in this podcast. Meredith is also an ex-dancer and choreographer, so we discuss our favourite action directors and performers – people like Yuen Woo-ping and Lau Kar-leung, who as well as being martial arts masters, were also able to capture great sequences of intricate movement, much like a musical or dance number. We also discuss the role of women in martial arts films, particularly in wuxia literature and cinema, and we look at why we have both turned to blogging as a way of sharing our mutual passion for the genre.

You can keep up to date with Dangerous Meredith on Twitter by following @FuThoughts. This podcast also features a snippet from the awesome Monkey TV theme, called Monkey Magic, by the Japanese rock band Godeigo.”

I was beyond honoured to be invited to do this podcast by Ben, as I have the greatest respect for what he is doing with Kung Fu Movie Guide. Doing the podcast was a lot of fun too; always so lovely to chat with other fanatics of the genre.

So please: give the podcast a listen (and enjoy!).


Image from Tsuzoku Saiyuki by Yoshitoshi Tsukioka (1800s)

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How Princess iron Fan Burnt Down the Heavenly Gate (1959)


Image sourced from hkmdb.com

You can find a list of cast and crew on the Hong Kong Movie Database here.

This old black and white film hasn’t aged well, I am afraid – compared to the lively and lovely animations of the Wan Brothers about the same set of characters, and compared to the live action kung fu films that would start gracing the screens of Hong Kong and elsewhere less than a decade after this was made, its action looks static and stagey.

The later films inspired by Journey to the West in the Shaw Brothers canon, directed by Ho Meng Hua and released in 1966 and 1967, are far more dynamic and obviously benefit from the Shaw Brothers production model and its ability to resource directors and art departments.

The two things about this 1959 film that did intrigue me are:

  1. That there are musical numbers inserted into the film (this also happens in the Shaw Brothers Journey to the West movies). This may well be a nod to the influence of Chinese Opera on the development of kung fu movies (please feel free to comment and disagree if you have a better theory or know otherwise) and is also an indication as to where the reliance on episodic plot making in kung fu movies may have come from.
  2. Lam Ka Sing in the lead role of Sun Wukong and glimpses of his abilities as an acrobat. The Hong Kong Movie Database lists him as starring in over 300 (yep – 300!!!) films, and that alongside and busy and successful career as a Cantonese Opera performer. I enjoyed watching his acrobatics – I wish he had been able to do more, but I guess if he was rushing off to make 300 other films he didn’t have time to hang around and film long detailed action sequences.

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The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven (1961, 1964)

UIH pic 2

Mainland China. Directed by Wan Laiming

(Northsiders in Melbourne:) available to loan from City of Darebin Libraries,

Everyone else: can be bought on YESASIA.

Made by the same brothers who made Princess Iron Fan in 1941, this film features absolutely beautiful animation – the colours are glorious and the shapes and lines are graceful and vivid. It is a rollicking adventure tale depicting the adventures of Sun Wukong before he joins Tripitaka’s quest to fetch the scriptures from India. In this story, as the title suggests, he creates a ruckus in heaven itself.

UIH pic 3

I do not watch anywhere near as much animation as I do live action. What intrigued me especially in this film were the ways in which the fight scenes were depicted – the movement is extremely fluid and dynamic, which suggests to me that the animators of this film saw martial arts as performative and beautiful, something aesthetically exalted as well as fun to watch. As is par for the course with a movie set largely in the heavenly realms and / or featuring deities fighting each other a lot of the action happens while the characters are flying or hovering in the air – does this anticipate the heavy use of wire-fu later on? Perhaps wire-fu was already being used in live action movies made by the time this film was being developed – does anyone know?

An excerpt from the film can be seen here.

Below is the trailer:

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Princess Iron Fan (Mainland China, 1941)

I dutifully watched this old animated film revolving around the Journey to the West stories about Princess Iron Fan in the interests of research, allowing for the fact that the film is so very old and such an early example of animation from Asia*. Before watching I assumed that I would find the film dated and that I would find it – at best – of curiosity value but somewhat old fashioned. To be sure, the print I watched online was of terrible quality, but this could not deter my enjoyment of the animation itself. I was surprised and delighted by how watchable this film still is (despite the crappy quality of the print).

PIF poster

According to the Wikipedia article about the film the directors, brothers Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming**, were inspired by Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and, to be sure, a Disneyesque influence does seem to be apparent. This sits beside more traditional looking Asian images; the juxtaposition didn’t jar on me. I felt that there were a lot of beautiful looking images that combined with a fun story and nice touches of humour to create an entertaining film.

If you want to watch this movie you can find it on youtube or on the US Library of Congress website***.

*“This animated adaptation of the Princess Iron Fan story from Journey to the West was apparently the first animated feature film to be made in China and the 12th worldwide (although it is only the 9th that still survives, as the films of Argentina‘s animation pioneer Quirino Cristiani are thought to be lost).”  – wikipedia

**The brothers Wan also directed another Journey to the West animation – Uproar in Heaven – which is gorgeous and which I will rewatch as part of my Monkey Magic project.

***Don’t you love how these big libraries are digitising all of this great content?

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In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned…

“The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

Remember the Japanese TV show ‘Monkey’?

Did you know that it was an adaptation of an ancient classical Chinese novel; or that the story has been remade oodles of time as Chinese Opera, theatre, animation and kung fu movies?

I am working on a talk about this most enduring of stories to give at a private event at the end of the month. To celebrate the lunar New Year – the year of the monkey, no less – I am posting the text from the opening narration of that old Japanese TV show, along with a clip of the theme song.

Enjoy! And happy new (lunar) year!

“In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned.
Heaven sought order.
But the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown.
The four worlds formed again and yet again,
As endless aeons wheeled and passed.
Time and the pure essences of Heaven,
the moisture of the Earth,
the powers of the sun and the moon
All worked upon a certain rock, old as creation.
And it became magically fertile.
That first egg was named “Thought”.
Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said,
“With our thoughts, we make the world.”
Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch.
From it then came a stone monkey.
The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!”

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My new project: Journey to the West

The main cast of Japanese 1970s TV series Monkey

The main cast of Japanese 1970s TV series Monkey

“Dangerous Meredith’s rapturous rant about cult classic Monkey Magic…”

So raves a small part of a promotional blurb about an event being held at the end of February at which I am pledged to give a talk.

Some long time and very dear friends are organising this event. Over the years they have been exposed, probably too often, to my “rapturous rants” about kung fu movies. When they were putting together a collection of performers and presenters for their event I volunteered a talk about chopsocky and, more fool they, they accepted.

I decided to talk about ‘Journey to the West’ and its many interpretations into film. I decided to do this for a few different reasons:

  • Many people my age and a bit younger / older have fond memories of the Japanese TV show ‘Monkey’ (which we used to refer to as ‘Monkey Magic’) when it was screened here in Australia in the 80s. If you want to know why, read this blog where I described the impact it had on me.
  • Despite the fact that ‘Monkey’ was popular when it aired I doubt if many of the people who watched it have any idea of the importance of The Journey to the West in Chinese culture. I thought they might be interested to know that it is a classic piece of Chinese literature, originally dating from the 16th century, that it has been adapted for Chinese Opera and film many times and that it continues to be a source of inspiration in Chinese culture even today.
  • This year is the year of the monkey! And I was born in the year of the monkey myself, so how could I resist doing a talk about something monkey related.

One of the organisers, Erin Ender, is a fantastic artist who, years ago, created a giant inflatable sculpture of Sun Wukong. When I reminded her of this, and described my reasons for choosing Journey to the West as the topic for my talk she decided that she would install the sculpture during the Love Fest.

I will be spending February creating my talk and to do this I have to choose movies to speak about. Which of the Sun Wukong / Journey to the West movies do you find the most interesting? If you are a Gen X Aussie like me, which of the Monkey Magic TV show episodes was your favourite? Please leave a comment below.


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