Fu fighters

Martial arts - Stephen Smith gets a kick out of a kung fu video retrospective

The life of a kung fu monk is a demanding one, as those of us who have lived it know to our cost. That's right, gentle reader, I once trod the unforgiving shingle of the path to enlightenment. I strove for the ineffable oneness that comes through meditation, and through being able to fight in the style of a snake or a tiger. But I proved unworthy and fell prey to dishonourable emotions.

It all happened more than ten years ago now. I found myself on a remote island reached by boat from Hong Kong. It was dominated by a great golden Buddha, and the only accommodation available to weary travellers was provided by monks. But callers at their gate had to pass an exacting initiation test. Demonstrating humility and candour, we had to prove that we had the price of a bunk bed and buffet-style breakfast on us. It was my destiny to fulfil the task without error. As I entered the temple compound, I could sense the monks thinking: "This young man has everything it takes to live among our elite brotherhood. When he takes his wallet out, his quicksilver hands speak for themselves. He is a natural in the ancient western art of parting with money on holiday."

My chance to learn the monks' secrets came before the night was out. The tolling of a bell roused me from the spiritually nourishing discomfort of my bunk. I slipped into my clothes and hurried through the darkened grounds in the direction of candlelight and chanting, which issued from the temple itself. The forbidden mysteries of kung fu would be mine! But all at once, my way was barred by a snarling dog; then another, and another. They had been set loose overnight. I turned on my heel and fled back to the dorm, realising to my shame that I had been set a challenge and had failed.

I had long resigned myself to remaining uninitiated in the mysteries of the Orient when I heard about Kung Fu Connection. A new video label that has just released its first films, it specialises in "pure kung fu", according to the label's promoter, Richard Larcombe. "No gunplay, no faking, no wires," he promised, perhaps recognising in me the younger man who had set himself the impossible goal of mastering the discipline at its most rarefied. Larcombe was not lying. Shaolin vs Lama (18) and Born Invincible (15), the first titles in the series, are a double bill of double-jointed action. As well as boasting perhaps the best fight sequence featuring a whole roast chicken ever filmed, Shaolin vs Lama spotlights a peppery old abbot with an industrial vocabulary. (It is on account of his lines, I think, and not the innumerable but sensitively handled cracked heads, that the film has an 18 certificate). With the character of the abbot, the new imprint can be said to take us into the inner sanctum of the temple. Older readers may recall the 1970s television series Kung Fu, which starred Keith Carradine as a two-fisted nomad who was sustained on his wanderings by the nostrums of his wizened master. This elder, who addressed his protege as "Grasshopper" and was afflicted by cataracts, became an impressionists' staple for a time, and could be impersonated by means of two halves of a ping-pong ball worn as contact lenses. Master was given to gnomic utterances, the gist of which was prototypical New Age, unmistakably benign. By contrast, the abbot of Shaolin vs Lama teaches us that profound spiritual insight may coexist with very human lapses.

That aside, what can a kung fu retrospective offer the action fan, in the days of PlayStation and video games, especially now that several of these have themselves been turned into films? Well, the old titles are, in effect, prequels to the games, templates from which they have been cribbed, right down to the combat sound effects, which were apparently recorded in a tool-making factory in the Black Country. All this, with the bonus that (as Larcombe, the high priest of kung fu video, told me) the fights were shot exactly as you see them, without the use of tricksy editing or computer simulation, and very often in real time, too.

Even the most garlanded entertainments owe something to the back catalogue of the canon. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon borrows a plotline involving a stolen martial arts manual. (It is abundantly clear in this genre that, without a "how to" book, you are doomed to kowtow.) Collecting on this debt, a comprehensive kung fu video library is now on the market, amid the buzz that followed Ang Lee's Oscar-winner. Iron Monkey (12), in the Hong Kong Legends range, is freshly stickered with a guarantee that Yuen Woo-ping, Lee's action director, or "fight choreographer", directed the film.

With the unforced authority of his calling, Larcombe tells me that many titles have been restored to "world-beating quality" for DVD release. As gently as I could, I have had to explain to him that my ascetic lifestyle, a legacy of my youthful quest for inner growth and lethal feet, does not permit me to have in the house anything that was invented later than the tragic early death of Bruce Lee in 1973.

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures