Criterion Chan: SPIRITUAL KUNG FU
Criterion just put eight Jackie Chan films on the Criterion Channel (possibly the best looking of all the streaming channels out there). With the world being horrible, I thought a look at one of action cinema’s sweeter onscreen personas had a pleasing ring to it. I wish I could include all eight films, but there are only five days of the week.
Today’s Film: SPIRITUAL KUNG FU
Jackie Chan is one of many students at a stuffy Shaolin temple. He’s not super great at kung fu and spends most of his time being punished for childish antics and then being punished further for using more childish antics to cheat his way out of his punishments. If the film’s plot didn’t happen, he would almost certainly be a fuckup forever (I want to say “when he grows up” but they claim he’s almost thirty at one point).
Instead of being a fuckup forever, a masked fighter breaks into the temple and steals the guarded Seven Deadly Fists manual, which is just too dangerous to be out there in the world. The only chance against this style is the Five Style Fist manual, which summons five ghosts who each teach a kung fu style. Jackie Chan is just childish enough to attract these ghosts, so he gets to be the badass who benefits from their teaching. Which he does. But not, like, a ton.
Before I move on, I just want everyone to know the film never ever looks like this:
Chan’s Mental Age:
About eight. Part of that is just Chan being Chan, but another is the fact that he’s been stuck at this temple his whole life. When the female lead appears, he flirt fights with her immediately and we learn she is the first lady he’s ever seen. He’s particularly confused by the fact that she smells good.
This is still kind of early Jackie Chan so he’s more comedian than martial artist, which is a wild thing to say considering how great his moves are in this. Nevertheless, for much of the film, he’s mostly mugging and telegraphing humor broad enough for a two-year-old to laugh out. He’s matched by the ghosts, a group of dudes in ballerina outfits and Kabuki makeup who are more rude and rambunctious than anything. We do get to see and emerging form of Chan’s signature style, but only in the last half hour. Most of the fighting is done by the villain.
The pair of big fights during the climax are great. Chan’s doing a lot of cool dodging blows while lying on his back at one point, and he looks cool switching through his animal styles.
But the best fight comes earlier, as Chan’s temple puts him through some tests before letting him go off to save the day. A one-on-one bo staff fight opens up to Chan with billy clubs vs about eighteen dudes with sticks, and he just goes off. It’s fucking great. There’s one bit where he keeps dodging backwards while remaining in a crouched position like a Russian dancer that just blows my mind.
It’s 1978, and Chan’s not quite there yet. I also feel like the modern-set films automatically have better opportunity for this kind of madness. The billy clubs, while not unlikely, are pretty badass, and Chan does all kinds of creative things while dodging those big sticks.
Second Biggest Badass:
The villain mows through his opponents, but he’s not super exciting or memorable.
Other than the skill displayed in the actual fighting and its choreography, we don’t have any super wild stunts. I will say, director Lo Wei pulls off some neat tricks. He likes switching to a first-person view occasionally during fights, enhanced by a slight fish eye lense that I enjoyed a lot. It’s almost like you’re watching something designed for cheesy, old school 3D. Twice people do inhuman leaps achieved by playing a shot in reverse that are subtle but look amazing.