Check the Gate is a recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with the RZA about the kung fu cinematic essentials and what it means to have an Alamo Drafthouse newly erected on the Mysterious Land of Shaolin, Staten Island.
Pack your bags. It’s time to make a trip to Staten Island. The New York City borough and the birthplace of the Wu-Tang Clan just opened a magnificent Alamo Drafthouse devoted to kung fu movies, complete with The Flying Guillotine bar. The walls are smattered with wushu movie posters, props from the various Master of the Flying Guillotine films hang behind glass, and the lobby features arcade classics like Street Fighter II and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Tim League, the Alamo founder, christened the grand opening by screening The Man with the Iron Fists. Joining him for the party was the film’s director, RZA. Throughout the night, the two men wandered among the guests, partaking in the Shaolin-themed menu, raucously celebrating the mini-miracle the theater represented.
Kung fu movies unlock something in the viewer that most other action films don’t. Thrumming below the flurry of limbs and blows is Buddhist philosophy. Perfection of the body demands perfection of the mind and the soul. Through practice, the movie hero doesn’t become a better fighter; they become a better person.
These lessons clung to RZA at a very young age and were critical during the Wu-Tang Clan’s formation. The protagonists who led flicks like King Boxer and Challenge of the Masters were righteous badasses, and they offered tools for their audience to follow. RZA never stopped using those tools.
“There’s Buddhist philosophy; there’s Shaolin philosophy that’s in these movies that resonated with me,” he says. “It made me look at things differently as an American. I’ll give you one line that changed my whole perspective. It was in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. ‘The five tones deafen every ear. The five colors blind the eyes. Without wisdom, there is no gain.’ I said that shit makes a lot of sense to me. If the five colors blind the eye, we have to see past color to start seeing the trueness of who we are. You know what I mean? And I got that from a kung fu movie, and it helped me on my journey to become a better man.”
Movies create emotional immediacy. When plunked in front of a screen, RZA still absorbs the stories and characters as reality. Kung fu flicks provide a path for him to follow, a way to broaden his perspective and understanding.
“You watch a movie; you believe it, right?” continues RZA. “You believe that Superman could fly. [In kung fu movies] you watch a man, through his own training, from doing pushups or carrying bottles or jugs of water up steps and all this, he builds himself up to go and defeat an enemy. These movies also displayed a lot of brotherhood. Two guys meet each other and become brothers. That’s why I emulated that in Man with the Iron Fists when Jack Knife meets the Blacksmith – he molds his arms for him! ‘Hey, I got some new arms; I’m gonna give you the mold.” That kind of chivalry always resonated.”
My buddy Darren Smith and I chatted with RZA and Tim League in the Alamo’s theater two before walking to theater five, where The Man with the Iron Fists was set to screen. Before we entered the interview, we debated the essential kung fu films. My nephew Max recently discovered a passion for movies, and I was looking for the best kung fu flicks to kickstart an obsession with the genre. Of course, we had to take the question to RZA.
“I think he goes with two,” he says, “but back to back. He goes 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and he goes Five Deadly Venoms. Because this way, he gets the grounded historical concept of kung fu, the Shaolin temple, and the spirituality, but then at Five Deadly Venoms, he gets the fantastical version of kung fu. A guy can actually walk up a wall using a lizard style or have iron skin using the toad style. I think those two are good ones.”
For some, kung fu flicks land in ways other films don’t. Once hit, that particular viewer is forever altered, and a desire to live in the genre solidifies. The artist delights in seeing young ones discover Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers. He doesn’t think their work trumps all other work, but he knows that folks like him will get from their work something that other popular cinema cannot provide.
“One of my friends told me,” he says, “that their kid had watched Star Wars, and they really enjoyed Star Wars. But he said he showed his son The Kid with the Golden Arm the following weekend, and man, there was some good competition right there.”
With RZA in front of him, Darren had a nerdy question locked and loaded. Many fans spend their waking hours contemplating what kind of kung fu movie they would make. Few actually have the opportunity to do so. RZA’s The Man with the Iron Fists represents a lifetime of contemplating the genre’s best finishing moves. What were some of RZA’s favorites, and what was important to him when constructing the Blacksmith’s fighting technique?
“I like a nerdy question,” he says. “One blow that surprised me? Fists of the White Lotus. It was in his fucking hand the whole time! I mean, that’s a big question. [The Mystery of] Chess Boxing, when he ripped the fucking arms off. That’s one of my favorites. Seven Grandmasters, ‘Walking on air!'”
For his film, RZA reached beyond his own skills when assembling the Blacksmith’s kill-strike. A certain actor operated in a style that felt necessary for his hero’s singular condition. Upgraded with those iron fists, the Blacksmith exuded strength and power. He’s a heavy hitter.
“I would say one thing about Man with the Iron Fists,” says RZA. “Lo Meng is the actor who plays the Toad in Five Deadly Venoms, as well as The Kid with the Golden Arm. And for some reason, his mantis style of kung fu resonated with me, even though I trained Hung Ga and I trained Shaolin. He trained mantis, and the strength is always in the arms, and it really did inspire my character. So, this is why in [Man with the] Iron Fists 2, when the guy had the sword, I tried to emulate Lo Meng and break it.”
The Alamo Drafthouse on Staten Island was a topic of conversation for several years between RZA and Tim League. With the theater finally open, RZA is giddy at the possibilities. Especially the Saturday programming, which promises a new kung fu movie screening every week.
“It’s a blessing to meet a man like Tim,” says RZA. “Almost twenty years ago. He’s a lover of film, martial arts film, a collector of it, a guy I could talk to about it, and he would be like, ‘You seen Superman vs. Bruce Lee?’ Or some shit. It’s an honor that there’s a place on Staten Island, the home of Wu-Tang Clan, that has a theater that’s basically almost like a museum to martial arts films. Right here. It’s a blessing.”
RZA’s Saturday Shaolin Theater officially kicks off on August 20th. The first film scheduled is Master of the Flying Guillotine. Naturally, Enter the Dragon, The Heroic Trio, The Mystery of Chess Boxing, The Invincible Armour, and Fatal Flying Guillotine follow. Then, you’ll get a full month of Jackie Chan with Drunken Master, Police Story, and their sequels.
No matter how many times RZA has watched these films, they never get old. When discussing their might, he lights up. His enthusiasm radiates even brighter when considering how the uninitiated will react to these films. It doesn’t matter whether that’s his friend’s Star Wars-loving kid, my nephew Max, or the Alamo’s audience.
Before The Man with the Iron Fists played last weekend, Tim League asked how many in the crowd had seen the film. About a third raised their hands. RZA rubbed his hands together, anticipating the other two-thirds’ future. Some minds were about to melt. When they picked their puddled gray matter off the floor, new kung fu fanatics were undoubtedly formed.