The secret history of kung fu movies begins in China’s Jazz Age. By the late 1920s, political factions were tearing the country apart, but the people were mad for movies. Savvy producers in Shanghai, China’s Hollywood, soon discovered that audiences love to watch martial artists. The earliest kung fu directors combined modern themes like physical fitness and feminism with traditional stories of revenge and filial piety. Their martial arts/adventure films, often starring athletic young women, dominated the Chinese box office until 1931, when the Nationalist government banned them, citing their promotion of “superstition” and “feudal attitudes.” The kung fu filmmakers moved to the British territory of Hong Kong, seeding an industry that would make an international impact by the 1960s.
From Ren Pengnian, the first kung fu director, and his wife Wu Lizhu, a cross-dressing martial artist, to opera actress Yu So-chow, Hong Kong’s “Queen of Swordplay Movies” and Jackie Chan’s “Big Sister,” to the Shaw Brothers, who founded their first studio in Shanghai in 1924 — the last surviving Brother, Sir Run Run Shaw, is 105 years old and still the Chairman of the Board, — the best action film talents in China made their way to the tiny colony. Mid-century films made in Hong Kong by these Shanghai refugees and their disciples directly inspired and influenced modern kung fu filmmakers like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Yuen Wo-ping, and Lau Kar-leung. Electric Shadows: the Secret History of Kung Fu Movies is the story of these pioneering men and women.
In 2007, Jean Lukitsh, a film historian with a background in Chinese martial arts, assisted Lisa Stokes in compiling the “Historical Dictionary of Hong Kong Cinema” for Scarecrow Press. Material from that book inspired further research into the earliest kung fu filmmakers and their era. From 2007 until 2012, Lukitsh wrote the Electric Shadows blog for kungfucinema.com, which documented her research. She also wrote the Dragon Tiger Days column for Jade Screen magazine from 2009 to 2011. She is the programmer for Boston’s annual free outdoor kung fu film festival, Films at the Gate, and teaches tai chi in the Boston area.
Electric Shadows: the Secret History of Kung Fu Movies (Vol. 1) is illustrated with images from the author’s collection of early 20th century kung fu movie memorabilia. It is available as an ebook on Amazon.