By Rebecca Kao, Contributing Writer
Fluorescent lamp tubes yanked from the ceiling of a dim sum restaurant serve as sabers in a duel; a dingy pedicab carriage hurling through the streets is the 1950’s Macau equivalent of knight-in-shining-armor valor.
This is the world of “Pedicab Driver,” a Hong Kong kung fu film directed by and starring the legendary Sammo Hung. Hung, a martial artist, actor and director, was one of the most pivotal figures in the Hong Kong New Wave, a movement of Chinese cinema in the 1980’s. Hung is often praised for helping redefine the martial arts genre of film, and for inspiring its ongoing popularity. He portrays the role of Lo Tung, nicknamed “Fatty” by both friend and foe, the titular cab driver who barrels his way through local gang fights and bakery shop romances alike. In this tale of swashbuckling rickshaw drivers, where no antics are too outlandish and no fight sequences too extravagant, Fatty is our hero.
The wild, rollicking world of “Driver” is one of many that was showcased in the Sixth Annual Old School Kung Fu Fest, which ran April 8-10 at the Metrograph Theater located in Chinatown. This year’s Fest celebrated the works of Golden Harvest, a studio in Hong Kong that ushered in the vibrant era of action cinema in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Many of these old films have been long unavailable and out-of-print, but are fortunately being brought back to public spotlight through Warner Archive. The lineup included Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in “Enter the Dragon” and “Rumble in the Bronx,” as well as Tsui Hark’s masterpiece “The Blade.” Dubbed a “kick-ass fest” by Time Out New York, the film festival featured humor and tragedy in equal doses, amidst flying fists and vicious displays of heroism.
The festival is a tribute to a deeply significant period in Hong Kong arts culture, marking Chinese cinema’s transition into the global spotlight in the late 1900’s, a shift that continues today. During the several decades of success of Golden Harvest films, martial arts movies were becoming more and more appealing to international audiences. It isn’t hard to see why: in the mishmash of now-familiar tropes and sometimes choppy editing, these old school films hold the lasting charm of good entertainment.
Look too hard for real thematic substance and you will be likely be met with disappointment: touted martial arts masterpieces like “Driver” are not works to be taken very seriously. But whether you are a martial arts movie enthusiast or not, rest assured that anyone can enjoy a laugh at the craziness that is old school kung fu. Clever quips (“Fatty, you’re crafty!”) are traded between blows, maidens are wooed, big-shot gang bosses are crushed with gratifying finality, and the whole film is set to a frantically upbeat soundtrack. Movies such as “Pedicab Driver” come down to gritty action with more than a splash of ridiculousness; so sit back, relax, and enjoy the fight–likely with a good toilet joke mixed in.