With shows like Into the Badlands, Warrior, and Wu Assassins renewing a love of martial arts on television, Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks offers a history of the genre. The documentary spans Chinese cinema, American cinema, exploitation films, and more. By using anecdotes, interviews, and footage since the 1960s with the establishment of the Shaw Brothers studio, Director Serge Ou not only tracks a history of the influential genre but proves why it has had such a strong presence in pop culture.
While presenting a timeline of Kung Fu on film, Ou also explores how the genre evolved. What might surprise some, is that a genre dominated by ripped men and amazing athleticism was once defined by women displaying feats of amazing athleticism. Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks documents the growth of the genre and its female leads through a narrated history and interviews, including with the iconic Cheng Pei-Pei herself.
Beyond Pei-Pei, other interviews include experts like Grady Hendrix, the famed martial arts actress Cynthia Rothrock, as well as choreographer/directors like Yuen Woo-Ping who’s work on the Matrix revolutionized the action genre both in and out of Kung Fu films. Through these experts, witnesses, and actors Ou tracks the journey of martial arts by covering the greats of the genre like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, while also defining the timeline of the genre through periods.
By breaking down the history, Ou divides the sections of the film into topics such as wire-work, Lee’s revolutionary choreography, Hollywood’s use of Yellowface with actors like David Carradine, the mixture of martial arts and dancing in the New York b-boy scene, and even to thriving martial arts cinema scene out of places like Australia. By defining different sections of the genre as well as notable characteristics and contributions, Ou is able to dive deeply into the history while presenting his audience with cultural touchstones to latch onto as they learn.
One of the highlights in the film comes when Ou dives into the success of martial arts films in the United States and Hollywood after Bruce Lee’s rise to stardom. As Ou points out, the incorporation of martial arts in exploitation cinema and in the cultural production of Black communities in the US was tied to Lee’s explicit use of martial arts to fight oppressors, allowing Black communities to see a story in which someone who is oppressed triumphs. The film explains how martial arts has formed a deep connection with hip-hop and how martial artists like Michael Jai White have made a name for themselves in the genre.
The strength of the documentary lies in chronicling the entire history of the genre from the 1960s to today, in there also lies its faults. While segments of Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks like the ones focused on Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan shine, there is a quick pace in the opening and closing of the film that doesn’t seem as comprehensive as other parts. That being said, with a long history to cover, this can be expected since the film looks to detail the whole of history.
The film ends with a look at the future of martial arts cinema. Where Hong Kong and Chinese martial arts once defined the genre, Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks explains the rise of Thai, Indonesian, and Wakaliwood productions that work to diversify the casts of martial arts films while also diversifying the kind of martial arts we see. “Kung Fu” as we know it in traditional martial arts films is different from Thailand’s Muay Thai, which is different from Indonesia’s Pencak Silat.
Ultimately, there is a bright future for martial arts cinema both on the silver screen and the small screen, but to truly appreciate what the genre is now, we must understand how it got here.
Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks is currently available on YouTube Movies.