Kung Fu Theater

When I was a kid, I used to live for Kung Fu Theater. It was a show that popped up from time to time on one of Farmington’s minimal stations, usually at odd hours and oftentimes without warning. Kung Fu Theater wasn’t a show so much as a clearing house of old Kung Fu movies. This was where I first met Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Sonny Chiba and experienced the horror of The Master of Flying Guillotine.

They were all old school Kung Fu movies, written, produced, and filmed in China. They were all also overdubbed, usually poorly.by voice actors who were phoning it in to get a quick paycheck. To be fair, though, most of those movies were big on talking. The golden rule of classical Kung Fu theater meant fists flew and kicks smashed things. It was world of animal styles where Tiger Style and Crane Style clashed with monkeys and dragons in a cataclysmic orgy of fighting prowess.

I’ll confess, I still have a deep and abiding love for watching a good fight scene and there’s some pretty amazing stuff out there right now. The Raid, the current crop of amazingly artistic kung fu cinema, Tony Jaa’s elbows and knees putting Thai boxing firmly on the cinematic map, and Donnie Yen’s ability to calmly destroy his opponents (even if they’re stormtroopers) are all good stuff.

The only thing that’s lacking now is my ten-year-old imagination and blind faith that with enough training I, too, could jump thirty feet in the air or master the Buddha’s Palm technique.

Unfortunately, the more I’ve trained in martial arts, the more I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing magical about them. The martial arts, as a collective, tend to be about practicality more than flash. That doesn’t mean modern martial arts aren’t worth studying, they very much are and I heartily recommend that everyone try out one of the many arts lurking around out there.

Martial artistry is a fascinating study – and damned good exercise – but it bears so little in common with the Kung Fu Theater I grew up with it can be hard to reconcile what I’m learning with what I thought I’d learn.

Oh, ah. What are you gonna do?

The answer, it turns out, was to write my own martial arts book: Greetings From Sunny Aluna and write in plenty of fight scenes and general badassery. It’s my love letter to the old-school Kung Fu movies I grew up with.

And the cool thing is it’s on sale right now and for the next couple days.

Go get a copy!

Experience the Magic of Wuxia

The Clock Man – the story, not the whole book – is a wuxia story set in another world and wrapped with a detective noir bow. Normally I hate referencing what I’ve written as it relates to something else but in this case it’s okay because reasons.

“What is wuxia?” you might be asking. For that matter, what is detective noir? We’ll save detective noir for another time because it’s much more common in the United States and focus on your new best friend: wuxia.

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Wuxia, pronounced wu-she-ah, is a primarily Chinese genre of fiction and movies that incorporates martial arts and sorcery. Think of it as a Chinese version of the classical knights and magicians of the West. Perhaps the best examples in the West would be movies like A Chinese Ghost Story, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle. To a lesser extent, but no less important, would be Big Trouble In Little China.

Like most genres, wuxia has rules that define it. The protagonist must have certain characteristics.

  • altruism
  • justice
  • individualism
  • loyalty
  • courage
  • truthfulness
  • disregard for wealth
  • desire for glory

Wuxia stories tend to follow those rules, but the key point is the martial arts side of things. Anyone who’s ever seen a Kung Fu movie and enjoyed has enjoyed wuxia, even if all they were paying attention to was the martial arts side of things. The best Kung Fu movies had a solid plot that was chassis for the martial arts. The movies that were fairly plot-less were really nothing more than martial arts porn. Think of the differences between a pair of Van Damme classics: Kickboxer and Hard Target. Kickboxer was essentially martial arts porn – there was a story but it was really only there so Jean Claude could do the splits. Hard Target was a different beast entirely – there was a story and, over-the-top as it was, the story carried the movie rather than the martial arts carrying the movie. Hard Target was also special in that it was directed by the master of Hong Kong action cinema: John Woo. Woo’s movies tended to emphasize gun play, but he got his start directing some classic Kung Fu cinema.

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The movies are fairly common in America, but the books are far less available. Most of the titles are written in Chinese and there’s simply not enough of a market to translate them and print them for a Western audience. There is, however, a group on the Internet that’s made it their goal to find, translate, and bring these stories to those of us who don’t read or speak Chinese.

And, of course, there are those of us who are taking the classic wuxia genre and importing it into the West. Oddly enough, it’s incredibly difficult to write and have it make sense. The action sequences in particular are tricky to block out in any kind of sensible way. I actually wrote a blog post about what it takes to put the martial arts into text. It’s a very different style of writing from gun play. With a gun the bullet hits someone and that’s pretty much it. With fighting the writer has to be very cognizant of positions, types of strikes, and the general outcome of those strikes. In other words, it’s either going to take a lot of research or a lot of experience.

What started out as Chinese swords and sorcery has expanded over the years. I’d actually argue the works of John Woo – even the gun play heavy movies like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, and Hard Boiled – are modern twists on classic wuxia tales. It’s the flexibility of the genre that makes it appealing to me as a writer. Well, that and a general love of martial arts. But it allows room to navigate and write a swords and sorcery fantasy story without having to rely on the common stories in the West. It also allows for some flexibility in the characterization. Much like Woo takes Chow Yun Fat’s character Ah Jong in The Killer and turns him into a kind of anti-hero, I took Felix Crow and turned him into a kind of anti-hero.

There’s also the magical side of classical wuxia that is ripe for play. I’ve used magical elements – well gods and demi-gods more than magic – in Henchmen and Arise – but never really referenced them as magic. In The Clock Man, I actually got to explore magic and make some use of it. In Greetings From Sunny Aluna I’ll get more of a chance to create a wuxia world. In the interim, The Clock Man was my take on wuxia and my first shot at blending martial arts and magic.

The result: kwan daos, magic, martial arts, a snarky dragon, and a hint of Steampunk make up the world of Felix Crow and Chan. Wuxia – Eric Lahti style.

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