Forty years ago, the cinematic landscape was undergoing a seismic shift. Young Turk filmmakers such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and Terrence Malick were exploring unique and challenging themes. The black exploitation film was not only thriving but also enjoying crossover appeal.
But probably no one in Hollywood was prepared for the martial arts mania that erupted the summer of 1973 whenWarner Bros. released the kung fu epic “Enter the Dragon,” starring the legendary Bruce Lee, who died at 32 shortly before the U.S opening. “Enter the Dragon” was the first kung fu film produced by a major Hollywood studio and heralded an influx of kung fu films from Hong Kong — several starring Lee clones such as Bruce Li, Bruce Lai and Dragon Lee.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ exhibition, “Kick Ass!: Kung Fu Posters From the Stephen Chin Collection,” captures that time when movie audiences had an insatiable appetite for the nonstop action, breathless pacing and astonishing stunts depicted in these films.
“There was an intensity, realism, dynamism and energy to this stuff that no one had ever seen before,” said Chin, a producer and screenwriter who donated his collection to the academy in 2011.
That influence continued into such contemporary films as Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” martial arts thrillers and the animated “Kung Fu Panda.”
Academy curator Ellen Harrington noted that the martial arts genre “burst into peoples’ consciousness. It was a real cultural moment. And the posters are an incredibly important part of the way these movies were publicized. The art is incredibly dynamic, full of action.”
The 80 pieces in the exhibition — Chin’s collection numbers more than 800 — includes U.S. and international posters from martial arts films such as 1978’s “Enter the Fat Dragon” with Sammo Hung. There’s also martial-arts-related skateboards, kung fu manuals, lunch boxes and even a bottle of Hai Karate cologne (“Be careful how you use it,” was the ad slogan).
The academy is opening the exhibition with a 40th anniversary screening of “Enter the Dragon.”
Bruce Lee, who choreographed and staged the dazzling fights, plays a martial arts expert who, in his quest to seek revenge on the gang that killed his sister, enters an exhaustive martial arts competition sponsored by the gang’s kingpin. John Saxon and Jim Kelly also star in the fast-paced film that includes martial-arts superstars Jackie Chan and Hung in early roles.
Saxon and Bob Wall, who also appeared in the film, producers Paul Heller and Fred Weintraub, cinematographer Gil Hubbs, screenwriter Michael Allin and Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, will be on hand to discuss the charismatic actor.
Weintraub, who knew Lee, was told that if he came up with a script, Lee would be open to doing the movie. Lee was impressed with Allin’s first draft and flew to Los Angeles to meet with him and the producers.
“I had a lot of story conversations with Bruce and I did a rewrite according to his notes,” Allin recalled. But later the two had a falling out while they were on location in Hong Kong.
Despite difficulties with the legend, Lee was “very good at what he did,” said Allin. “He was an angel in terms of his skill. Warners thought he was going to be a really big deal.”
Lee was certainly a really big deal to Chin, who grew up in Toronto. “When I was a kid, I was constantly bullied and beaten up for being Chinese,” he said.
But Chin’s bullying days were over when Lee entered the cinematic landscape.
“It was a profound transformation,” said Chin. “For me as a kid, to go from being mocked to being admired was amazing.”
Among the highlights of the exhibition, which continues through August, are a U.S. six-sheet poster of “Enter the Dragon” and an oversized Italian poster for “Five Fingers of Death.”