When I was 13, a friend of mine enrolled in Tae Kwon Do classes, and he immediately began trying to convince the rest of us to join him. At first I was resistant to the idea, which is weird because I enjoyed watching martial arts action movies. I loved Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee and the hugely popular ’80s ninja films. I also liked the idea of knowing how to do those fancy moves, and being able to defend myself. There were a lot of bullies roaming the halls of my junior high school – and they often roamed in packs, which made standing up to them seem like a bad idea for for anyone who didn’t savour the thought of taking on seven or eight guys at once. Chuck and Bruce and Sho Kosugi would do it in the movies, and it seemed kind of magical to me. It was almost like those guys had superpowers.
In light of all this, I’m not sure why I said no when my friend Doug urged me to sign up for Tae Kwon Do classes. Maybe because I knew that guys like Chuck and Bruce spent years studying martial arts, and I didn’t want to do that. So instead I took books out of the public library – books about karate and judo and generic “self defence” – and I hoped to learn some tricks from them. They tended to have comic-book-like panels of photographs showing the reader how to do the various moves. I remember looking at those pictures, but I’m not sure if I ever tried to copy the moves.
My other friend Doug had exactly the same reaction as me (minus the books). We talked about the pros and cons of taking classes with Doug and somehow agreed that we didn’t want to do it. I also talked to my Dad about it. I said really smart things like “Why would I need to take classes when I can simply watch the movies and read the books and learn how to do things that way?” My Dad explained to me in a very polite and reasonable way that I was an idiot. I don’t remember all of then finer points of his argument, but it included things like: “There’s a difference between reading about something and actually doing it.”
After a few weeks of deliberation, my friend Doug and I both decided to join our other friend Doug in studying Tae Kwon Do.
One of the weird side effects of studying a martial art was that it made me see the movies differently. I no longer thought that the spectacular moves of Chuck or Bruce looked magical. I started to understand and recognize what they were doing. Even though Tae Kwon Do was different than Karate or Kung Fu, I still felt like I was seeing some of the same techniques that I was learning reflected back at me from the TV/VCR and the big movie theatre screen. In some ways it was great. It made learning from the movies actually seem a little more possible. It also made me feel like I knew stuff; like I had inside information, or that I had joined an exclusive club that included people like Chuck and Bruce and Sho –
Okay, Sho was a little different because he was a ninja, and ninjas used all kinds of fancy weapons like throwing stars and nunchaku sticks (more commonly referred to as numchucks or nunchucks by the bullies at my school who would try to make them in shops classes). Weapons were not a part of our Tae Kwon Do training, and our instructor had no use for them whatsoever. When I saw them employed in a movie, they still seemed somewhat otherworldly to me.
On the downside, learning a martial art in real life made watching the movies a little less exciting. The magic was gone, and I could only see the science or the art of what the performers were doing. I could still be impressed by the years of training and the amazing skills on display, but it was kind of like I had been allowed to peek behind the curtain and I now knew what was going on back there.
Fortunately, as school started to demand more and more of my time, and I got involved with things like playing in a band, my years of martial arts training came to an end. By the time I was immersed in film and theatre at university, going to those brutal hour long workouts three times a week was a distant memory to me (and unfortunately, it was starting to show in my level of fitness). This meant that the magic of movie martial arts started to slowly creep back into my life. It was probably the North American rise of Jackie Chan in the latter half of the 1990s that finally cinched it. I loved Jackie and I watched every film of his that I could put my hands on. There were others, too, but Jackie was my new hero.
I may have seen Jimmy Wang Yu in a movie at some point, but it was most likely back in the really old days of renting crazy martial arts films on VHS and Beta. He was not someone I really knew much about in my adult years. I had heard of some of his films, but had no memory of ever seeing them. When I stumbled onto a nice set of four Jimmy Wang Yu films somewhere in my movie buying travels, I knew that I had to pick them up.
One-Armed Boxer (1972) is the first movie in the set, and I decided to give it a go last #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn. It brought back so many wonderful memories of the old school martial arts films that I used to rent with my friends when we were kids. It begins with a rivalry between two schools of martial artists, one of them honest and good (Jimmy Wang Yu’s) and the other one nasty and criminal at heart. I can’t name all of the other movies that feature this “rival schools” plot device, but I can tell you that my friend Ian and I spent many hours playing a video game called Rival Schools back in the ’90s – but that’s another story. Suffice it to say that this is a fairly compelling storytelling choice, and it works particularly well in One-Armed Boxer.
Also known as The Chinese Professionals, this movie features another wonderful (and somewhat familiar) plot device: the “bad” school, unable to defeat their rivals in an honest manner, bring in martial arts masters from all over the world to help them – each one from a different martial arts tradition. There is a Yoga master from India, two mystic Tibetan lamas, two Thai boxers, Judo and Karate experts from Japan — AND a Tae Kwon Do master! As someone who has a particular interest in Tae Kwon Do, I can tell you that it’s pretty rare to see it depicted in an old school martial film (at least in my experience). I do have one movie in my collection called When Taekwondo Strikes (1973), which I’m pretty pumped about – but that’s another story.
I can’t really call myself an expert on martial arts movies, or Hong Kong movies – certainly not on Jimmy Wang Yu movies – but for my taste, One-Armed Boxer (1972) is old school martial arts action at it’s finest. The fact that it includes so many different styles of martial arts makes it particularly wonderful to behold. I haven’t even touched on the whole “one armed” aspect of this movie, but suffice it to say that it’s a big part of what makes The Chinese Professionals a #NotQuiteClassicCinema classic. If you’ve seen any of the “one armed” movies out there, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t seen any of them, then this is the perfect place to start. There is a sequel of sorts called Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) which is considered to be even better, but I would still say start with this one. It will punch up any #FridayNightAtTheHomeDriveIn, and possibly kick-start a whole new cinematic obsession.