If your interest lies in Hong Kong Cinema of old, the new documentary “Chop Socky: Cinema Hong Kong” is what you’re looking for. “Chop Socky” is an hour-long, made-for-TV documentary that has assembled quite an impressive history of Hong Kong’s “chop socky” past, from the early days to the present, covering every single innovation and innovators of the genre with impressive speed and detail. If you’re a diehard fan of the genre, the film’s brisk 55 minutes may not be quite enough for you; then again, if you’re a diehard fan of anything, nothing is ever quite enough, hence the term “diehard”.
For me personally, “chop socky” refers to the kung fu films of the ’70s and (to an extent) the ’80s, where a lone, valiant hero faces off against countless foes and, once he’s dispatched of the main baddie, is himself killed in glorious, heroic fashion. Granted, this is a very limited view of the genre, but for the purpose of this review, it will suffice. “Chop Socky” enlightens us to the birth of the genre as somewhere in the early 20th century, starting with, as all cinematic creations tend to do, with black and white films derived directly from the operatic stage, whose own plays were derived from cultural folklore. The hero of these pieces was invariably Wong Fei Hong, the favored Chinese national hero who has been played by just about every Chinese movie star of note, from Jackie Chan to Jet Li.
“Chop Socky” spends the first 30 minutes detailing the birth of the genre, from old stage plays to still images of the first Wuxia movie ever made (the film footages having been lost many generations ago). It then traces the evolution of Wuxia, to the films of King Hu, to the bloody vendettas of Cheng Che, the man most responsible for the movies that would initially spur my interest in Chinese kung fu films. David Chiang, a favorite muse of Che along with Ti Lung, were my earliest memories of the genre; Chiang, especially, was incomparable in my mind. (For those interested, both of these early heroes have recently appeared together (albeit never in the same scene) in the mediocre Danny Lee film “Star Runner”.)
As with all documentaries, “Chop Socky” is filled with footages from films of the past, which is a helpful tool considering that sometimes the narration is steep in Chinese culture. The works of King Hu, Cheng Che, and the coming of Bruce Lee gets most of the screentime, which is as it should be, as the three men gave prominence to the industry the most. Later in the documentary, some time is reserved for the kung fu Tomfoolery of Jackie Chan, as well as how the theme of the Wuxia genre has been passed onto the Heroic Bloodshed of gangster films, most notably that of John Woo’s.
We also learn about Jet Li’s much discussed (and heralded) ladder fight in “Once Upon a Time in China”, which includes a humorous retelling by Li about how he and the filmmakers came up with the idea for the sequence. The climactic fight took 8 weeks to shoot, and apparently the idea was based on a video game from the ’80s, where a character had to climb ladders to do battle. It’s little background moments like that that keeps “Chop Socky” from being a dry history film.
There’s also an honest appraisement by a lot of the interviewees about Bruce Lee’s earlier films, which presented the idea that foreigners were all bad, and the Chinese were all good. And perhaps most important of all, there is an admittance of something I’ve always suspected about many of the early kung fu movies, namely the confirmation that, Yes, they do make up the movie as they go! See? I told you so.
Another thing that stands out is how well some of the selected scenes from early movies still hold up today. Some of the older David Chiang films in particular bring back a lot of good memories from my elementary school days, when we would watch Chiang’s films on Saturday mornings, then run outside to try to kung fu kick each other in the head and face. (We were very impressionable back then. Impressionable, and more than a bit stupid.) As well, King Hu’s movies look almost as good today as Ang Lee’s recent “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, which itself gets a lot of airtime in the documentary. Curiously, although the documentary features interviews with directors like John Woo and Lau Kar Leung, Ang Lee is noticeably missing.
Unfortunately the documentary proves lacking when it tries (rather clumsily) to show how Hong Kong films have influenced the Western movies of today. You don’t have to look far to see the obvious inspiration, from “Charlie’s Angels” to “The Matrix” trilogy. Very surprisingly, the documentary decided to focus on “The X-Men” as its major case in point. And just a single scene from the film, too. A scene, I might add, that barely registers as being Hong Kong-inspired. I could have picked 100 films off the top of my head that has Hong Kong influences all over it, but “X-Men” is nowhere on that list.
“Chop Socky” is a great documentary if you’ve ever wondered how the Hong Kong martial arts genre started, evolved, and where it’s currently headed (right back to the beginning, apparently, following the old rule that art is cyclical). As a casual fan of the genre, I already knew a lot of the history going in, but was surprised to learn that I didn’t know a whole lot more. Despite the fact that director Ian Taylor seems to have no clue about how these chop socky films influenced their Western counterparts (as can be surmised by his constant usage of “X-Men” and “Kill Bill”), “Chop Socky” is nevertheless a very good look at the genre.
Ian Taylor (director) / Ian Taylor (screenplay)
CAST: Jackie Chan …. Himself
Jet Li …. Himself
John Woo …. Himself
Michelle Yeoh …. Herself