Kicks a bit harder to find
FIGHT NIGHT Theatres' closure deals fatal blow to martial-arts movie event
Jun. 18, 2006. 09:26 AM
A typical late-spring weekend in Toronto might be spent in any number of urban outdoor pursuits: A lengthy, aimless window-shopping wander, maybe, or a stroll through the lush greenery of a downtown park.
Colin Geddes is spending his underground. In the basement of the Royal Cinema on College Street, Geddes is gently readying his personal collection of more than 250 Hong Kong films of various vintages — 500-plus reels, all told — to be moved out permanently.
They are the fruits of more than a decade of scavenging. As Chinese-language theatres closed down across the city in the late '90s, Geddes would find reels abandoned on street corners, or discarded in alleyways. "I like to describe myself as the Chinatown tomb raider," Geddes said.
Since 1996, Geddes has been presenting selections from his personal archive once a month or more at a high-speed extravaganza of martial artistry called Kung Fu Fridays, one of the city's most enduring cult cinema fascinations. But now, the tomb raider's time is done.
The owners of the Royal, the Revue Cinema on Roncesvalles, the Paradise at Bloor and Ossington, and the Kingsway, at Bloor and Old York have announced they will be shutting their theatres permanently at the end of this month.
That means this week's Kung Fu Friday, a presentation of the 1978 classic Crippled Avengers (also known as Return of the Five Venoms, or Mortal Combat), will be the last.
But the theatre closures did more than leave Kung Fu Fridays homeless. It put Geddes' collection in peril.
Not long after putting the word out, the offers began to roll in. Geddes spoke with the curator of Martin Scorsese's personal collection. He also pondered an offer from Harvard's film archive to house the collection. He's currently leaning towards a Canadian university's archive, who would accept the collection as a donation.
There's money to be made here, of course, selling them piecemeal on online auctions sites, or to through the networks of martial arts film aficionados. But Geddes, who's also a film distributor and a programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, isn't in it for the money. "What would you rather do with your children — sell them, or make sure they go to a loving foster home?" he said.
There is no trace of irony in his voice. The passion is real. Truth to tell, Geddes has been one of the form's principal champions for longer than you might imagine. His story is the stuff of movies itself: In 1990, Geddes was a clerk at Suspect Video on Markham Street, a haven for alternative cinema aficionados.
At the same time, he was producing a zine called Asian Eye, about his cinematic fascination. It was prescient, to say the least. In his first issue, he had an interview with Hong Kong action auteur John Woo. His second issue featured an interview with Jackie Chan. Other Hong Kong stars no one in the West had heard of filled his pages: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeo, Ang Lee.
"No one else was writing about them, but this was my life," Geddes said. And by the mid-'90s, Hong Kong had begun to slump. All over Toronto, Chinese-language cinemas were closing — hence the abandoned reels on the sidewalk. But the distinct Hong Kong brand of highly choreographed action sequences and mythic tales of vengeance was entering the collective consciousness.
Jackie Chan was on the verge of superstardom, opening the door for choreographers and action stars like Jet Li and Chow Yun Fat. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would reach a mass audience. Big-budget extravaganzas like Hero and House of Flying Daggers would follow not long after.
But before any of that that, Kung Fu Fridays was born. In 1996, at the Metro Theatre on Bloor Street — the city's longest-running, and now only, pornographic cinema — Geddes unspooled The Snake in the Eagle's Shadow, a 1978 kung fu classic that would be Chan's breakout hit in Hong Kong.
It had all the elements that Geddes had come to love: The stilted, stiff performances actors had learned at the Chinese opera (Chan was an opera grad himself), the lust for vengeance, and Chan's frantic, high-speed combat comedy.
Some DIY promotion (eg. flyers on lampposts) had scored the inaugural Kung Fu Friday a full house. The problem: The print Geddes had procured, he learned just before showtime, had no English subtitles. Geddes turned to the audience for help, not forgiveness. He mapped out the story and the characters' names, encouraging the crowd to cheer loudly as the characters came and went on-screen.
"I was able to turn it around and make it an event," he said. Ever since, Kung Fu Fridays have been boisterous affairs, with raffles for kitschy prizes, trailers for long-gone B-grade horror and action films, and of course, no limit on audience participation. The series moved from the Metro to the Royal and then, recently, on to the Revue, but the tone never changed.
"Of all the things in Toronto there are to do, Kung Fu Fridays was always one of the most unique," said Matthew Hendrickson, a 33-year-old computer consultant who is among the series' stalwart fans.
The crowd was eclectic, to say the least, he said, from hipster twentysomethings who were "clearly there for a giggle" to families with children to hard-core fans who knew every actor, director and studio by heart.
"One guy would come made up like he'd been in a kung fu fight on the way over," Hendrickson said, laughing. And there were always new faces showing up — and they all came to take part.
"People cheer the hero, or boo the villain, add their own commentary," Hendrickson said. "You don't get that kind of crowd anywhere else."
This, of course, was Geddes goal. "Kung Fu Fridays was not a multiplex-and-popcorn thing," Geddes said. "This was a real experience. If you didn't like what Hollywood was shoving down your throat that week, you could do something completely different."
For Geddes, the arc has been long and fruitful. He's gone from cult cinema curator to a programmer at one of the world's biggest film festivals, where he's able to champion his fascination — the presence of films like Kung Fu Hustle in TIFF is all Geddes — to a mass audience.
But the theatre closures caught him off guard. "It was all so sudden," he said. "It was my glorified show and tell. I worship these films. It just doesn't do them justice to watch them at home, on your TV. For me, it's about the shared experience of seeing these films with people on the big screen."
With four screens going dark for good this month, Geddes is left to wonder if they'll be shared in the same way again.
Sunday, June 18, 2006
an article from the Toronto Star on the demise of Kung Fu Fridays...