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10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Chat with Programmer Goran Topalovic

We interview Goran Tavolavic, co-founder of Subway Cinema and programmer about Taiwanese Wuxia movies in the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest and its major lineup of premieres.

Subway Cinema's annual Old School Kung Fu Fest is back in New York City this April with the biggest retrospective of Taiwanese wuxia (sword-fighting hero) movies ever seen in New York City. With 12 movies on the big screen and three more online, they're showcasing everything they could find at the Metrograph Theater in Downtown New York City—this one of the major movie events of the year.

10th Old School Kung Fu Fest 2023 in New York Touts Wuxia Classics
Still from "A City Called Dragon" in the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest

We managed to interview Subway Cinema co-founder and programmer Goran Topalovic. He has been programming and writing about East Asian cinema for over 20 years. He's a c0-founder of Subway Cinema, a New York-based grassroots nonprofit arts and culture organization dedicated to exhibiting and appreciating Asian popular cinema and preserving America's Asian film exhibition heritage. Goran also co-founded the annual New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) and the Old School Kung Fu Fest. He has written for cinema magazines such as Film CommentNANG, and Cine 21 (Korea). He has appeared on BBC's Talking Movies. He has been invited to speak at New York University, The Nam Center for Korean Studies at the University of Michigan, and CUNY Hunter College. He has served on the juries of several international film festivals. In 2022, he was honored by the Busan International Film Festival with the Korean Cinema Award, which is presented to cineastes that have made a notable contribution to the globalization of Korean cinema.

Goran, we're very happy to see a major festival highlighting the classics of Taiwanese wuxia films. They were hugely influential at the time and sometimes more complex and sophisticated than the Hong Kong wuxia movies. How did you get interested in wuxia films?

I have always been interested in martial arts cinema as a whole, including both wuxia and kung fu genres, and for me it all started in the 1980s, as a teenager growing up in Yugoslavia, being exposed to the films of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao at the local movie theater. After moving to the U.S. in the early 1990s, I then had access to New York's city vibrant film culture scene, including Manhattan's Chinatown movie theaters and video shops, and the rest, as they say, is history.

10th Old School Kung Fu Fest 2023 in New York Touts Wuxia Classics
Still from "Night Orchid," the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest

For many people, these movies will be a major discovery and will fill a major hole in their knowledge of the history of Chinese language movies and the wuxia movie. How did Subway Cinema decide to highlight Taiwanese wuxia movies this year? 

Our last edition of the Old School Kung Fu Fest was held in 2021. It was dedicated to the films of Taiwan's independent producer-writer-director Joseph Kuo, who worked in many genres but is mainly known for his 1970s kung-fu classics, such as 18 Bronzemen, 7 Grandmasters, and The Mystery of Chess Boxing (one of Wu-Tang Clan's favorites). We wanted to show Kuo's hard-hitting wuxia, The Swordsman of All Swordsmen, but it was not available to us then. In 2022, we learned that the digital restoration of The Swordsman of All Swordsmen was going to premiere in Taiwan, which was reason enough for us to focus on Taiwanese wuxia. It was also a happy coincidence that a new King Hu documentary, The King of Wuxia, also came out last year, so the timing for our Taiwan wuxia event could not have been better.

10th Old School Kung Fu Fest: Chat with Programmer Goran Topalovic
King Hu's "A Touch of Zen" in The 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest, still from Criterion

There are several rediscoveries in the lineup, but to me, the real highlight of the festival is King of Wuxia, the epic documentary about the career and life of King Hu, which looks like it's going to be the definitive document about him as well as the history of the wuxia genre. Can you tell us a bit more about the documentary? 

The first part of the documentary covers the works of King Hu in chronological order, with the analysis provided by film critics and scholars, and features interviews with King Hu's collaborators, including actresses Hsu Feng (A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan, The Valiant Ones) and Cheng Pei-pei (Come Drink with Me), as well as filmmakers John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Sammo Hung. Among other things, we also get to follow one of Hu's favorite actors, Shih Chun (A Touch of Zen, A City Called Dragon), as he takes us to the actual locations where many of Hu's classics were filmed. In the second part, the focus is more on King Hu's life journey and how him being a "solitary hero" wandering from Beijing, Hong Kong, Taiwan, to the United States was reflected in his works and career. So yes, this is the definitive documentary about King Hu and a true testament to his greatness.

Do you have any favorite King Hu movies?

It's really hard to pick just one. I would encourage folks to see all three of King Hu film's that are part of our lineup – A Touch of Zen, The Fate of Lee Khan, and The Valiant Ones – they are meant to be seen on the big screen!

Virtually every film at the festival is a must-see. Do you have any personal favourites and recommendations? 

In terms of discoveries, I would like to highlight Vengeance of the Phoenix Sisters. It's a 1968 Taiwanese-language black-and-white action tornado that sometimes feels like the French New Wave doing wuxia, with great handheld camerawork, swish pans, and kinetic editing. It's all the work of first-time director Chen Hung-min, who had already edited several movies, including King Hu's Dragon Inn. It features Taiwanese opera stars Yang Li-hua, Liu Ching, and Chin Mei as the titular Phoenix Sisters, who were separated as children after villains brutally murdered their parents. Fifteen years later, they reunite on a path of revenge!

Thank you for talking to us, Goran.

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Adi TantimedhAbout Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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