If you wish to see how real Kung Fu is trained and used, the Shaw Brothers movies from the 70s to the 80s are the best representations. In those days, special effects were not yet developed, wire-fu was not mature and commonly used. The actors have to act out fights with their own bodies. The stories were original and straightforward, teaching some important life lessons; imparting some values such as perseverance, patience and courage.
Old school 70s and 80s Kung Fu movies showcase Kung Fu techniques very well, as they were done step by step in a clearly defined manner. It’s very suitable for beginners who wish to study Kung Fu techniques in detail. Even for me, I learned a lot from Lau Kar Leung and Chang Chieh’s choreography, moves that my own sifu did not teach me.
Compared to the 90s and late 80s which is mainly represented by the Jackie Chan style stunt and acrobatic movies, and Tsui Hark’s and Jet Li’s wire-fu fantasy movies, the 70s and early 80s Shaw Brothers movies are seemingly ‘down to earth’. From my experience and perception of things human beings are more likely to fight like the 70s and 80s Shaw Brothers movies, than somersaulting around furniture like Jackie Chan and his crew, or flying around on wires and the enemy not countering the large opening of fancy acrobatic flying kicks in Jet Li movies, or the fast forwarding of the early Donnie Yen movies.
Not that I have a biased preference for Southern styles, but you can clearly see that the mechanics for quick hands, joint locking, wrestling and the Northern styles’ fighting structure, are not being shown by the actors. What we see in the contemporary movies are wushu moves, wushu jing, wushu structure. Speaking of the structure behind techniques, Sammo Hung and his famous trio showed genuine Hung Gar structure and they had the real training.
Although there is much to be desired in several areas, the clear representation of original Kung Fu moves in old school Kung Fu movies are priceless. These movies are slower paced and tells the original stories from folk novels and the origins of traditional Kung Fu styles, including Hung Gar Kung Fu. People who are used to watching contemporary 21st century movies will find that the old school movies look like art films due to the slower pace and progression of the storyline.
The prolonged fight scenes do not seem realistic, because usually getting hit in a fight will result in quickly losing the ability to fight back and get brawled down by the victor. You can’t block continuously for 4 minutes without getting hit to the point you lose the fight. Well, we see that very frequently in 21st century films too. MMA, Boxing and Kickboxing and other ring sport are also super draggy. Well what the choreographers could’ve done was to give the hero more opponents for him to defeat each of them in a shorter time, to display the effectiveness of his fighting method.
This is something that the Bruce Lee movies have done better, that’s why people always remember them for being more realistic, and Bruce Lee gets remembered as the movie star who can really fight. This is totally not true, as many of the old school Shaw Brothers actors can really fight, quite a handful were even ring fighters representing Kung Fu styles before they became actors. The directors could’ve revised the rhythm and duration of their fight scenes to make them more realistic, like Bruce Lee’s fight scenes.
Many people may be surprised; I am born after 1980, that makes me a millenial, how do I know about Shaw Brothers Movies? Actually, the furthest back I’ve watched while being a fanboy, was Sammo Hung’s Magnificent Butcher. It’s my sifu who introduced Shaw Brothers movies to me. I can still remember, the first movie I watched was Fu Sheng and Chi Kuan Chun’s ‘Boxer Rebellion’, where they used Tiger Claw and Five Elements Fists to knock the rifles out of Japanese soldiers, and kicked their butts.
Movies after the 90s suffered from a loss of training scenes. The purpose of showing people the life of real Kung Fu practitioners, have changed to solely feeding peoples’ fantasy of being a martial arts expert defeating several martial artists using fantasy techniques. It’s become disconnected from reality and the relation with the physical body is broken. The movies no longer show that a person needs to ‘train his body’ to be able to fight multiple opponents or fight skilled opponents.
It is no wonder that kung fu movie fans nowadays sign up for wushu classes thinking that as long as they are learning the same art as Ip Man or Tai Ji Zhang San Feng, they will be able to get the same abilities. The link between a newbie learner and a Kung Fu expert is no longer shown to the movie audience. People no longer desire the process of training Kung Fu. In the eyes of the fans, the process of learning Kung Fu no longer looks cool, the one that’s cool is the fighters in the movie and the actors acting as the characters, the rest are not cool.
Millenials are usually not exposed to the old school Shaw Brothers movies and the authentic Kung Fu they portray. Compared to the current generation of Kung Fu movies, the old school movies gave us a holistic picture of a Kung Fu expert’s life, from his background story and life drama, to his process of learning Kung Fu and becoming good, and finally the intense showdown with his enemies and arch rivals. I hope millenials and the Y generation can watch the old school Kung Fu movies and experience the spirit of yesterday. It’s also a good way to close the generation gap between they and their parents or even grandparents.
Article By Leroy Kwok