• Festivals

Goran Topalovic on the 10th Old School Kung Fu Festival

Co-founder and programmer of Subway Cinema, Goran Topalovic, talks about the upcoming 10th Old School Kung Fu Festival:  Sword Fighting Heroes Edition.  It’s the biggest retrospective of Taiwanese wuxia (sword-fighting hero) movies ever seen in New York City, where the festival is held.

Wuxia movies have a long history in Chinese cinema, but when King Hu’s Dragon Inn premiered in 1967, it kicked off a wuxia revival that reinvented action movies. The festival celebrates the wuxia movies from King Hu’s homeland of Taiwan with 12 movies on the big screen and three more online.

Speaking via Zoom, Topalovic talks about Asian cinema and what to expect at the festival.

Where did your interest come about in Asian cinema?

It really started when I was a teenager growing up in Yugoslavia.  My favorite pastime in the summer was to go to the movies and that’s where I was exposed to the Bruce Lee films, early Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and, primarily, Hong Kong Action Cinema. The interest just developed from there and just stayed with me.

Tell me about Subway Cinema.

Subway Cinema started in 1999, 2000. At that time it was really an outgrowth of Asian cinema subculture in New York.  There was a group of us who used to frequent Chinatown movie theaters, Chinatown video stores, laser disc shops. We’d be watching Hong Kong movies on a regular basis. As the Chinatown theaters started closing down, when they were down to just one theater left, Music Palace, a group of us started thinking, ‘Is there any way to save this theater?’ That was the only venue in the city that was showing Hong Kong films on a regular basis and there wasn’t a lot of interest in the community there at the time. Then, we said: let’s show movies ourselves. None of us had any prior experience. We just learned things by doing it. Of that original group of, maybe 10, 12 fans, five of us came together. We all cut a check for 1,000 dollars and we started figuring it out. That’s the roots of Subway Cinema.

How has it evolved?

Well, it’s not an annual event. Sometimes it would happen on two consecutive years, sometimes it would be a couple of years in between. The last one that we did, the ninth edition, was in December of 2021. We were actually at the Museum of the Moving Image, Queens. That focus was on Taiwanese independent, writer, director, producer Joseph Kuo, who’s well known for some of the classic Kung Fu movies that used to play in Times Square in the 70s, like 7 Grandmasters and Mystery of the Chess Boxing – which is a favorite film of, like, Wu-Tang Clan or Rizza. So, that was the last edition. This time we decided to focus on Taiwanese tradition.

How many films are you presenting this year?

We have a total of 15 films. Twelve out of those 15 are going to be screened theatrically over two consecutive weekends at the Metrograph. We’re kicking off on April 21st. It’s going to be the period of the 21st, the 23rd, and then 28th-30th. And there are going to be three films available online only, through Metrograph at Home, which is their SVOD platform.

The opening night film is The King of Wuxia.  What can you tell me about that particular work?

We’re really excited about this one.  It is an extensive documentary that talks about the life and career of King Hu, who was really the pivotal figure in the new school wuxia movement, a cinematic movement. He was an innovator. He’s the one who was responsible for taking the existing archetype of a female knight-errant – that was present in the wuxia literary traditions as well as in old-school cinematic traditions in Shanghai – and really refashioning it for modern audiences. That had a tremendous influence on a lot of other wuxia films that came after King Hu. He was a visionary, a true artist.

How do you feel about modern Kung Fu films versus the classics of decades ago?

Every film is of its time, and you can really see the evolution of the genre. So, if we talk about the martial arts film movement – within that we have wuxia and Kung Fu as the two cinematic genres – they have been constantly evolving and also influencing each other. So, when we say wuxia we usually mean it’s a predominantly sword-fighting action. It’s a cult sword. There would also have some fantastic elements to it. When we talk about Kung Fu movies, it’s usually supposed to represent real fighting, as real as can be presented on screen. I never get tired of watching Touch of Zen.

Are there a couple of others that you don’t get tired of watching?

When it comes to just martial arts cinema, I love Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, Jet Li, like in Fist of Legend. Also, some of the Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China trilogy is just brilliant. Also, the Shaw Brothers. And, certainly, Eight Diagram Pole Fighter, and Legendary Weapons of China. There are so many great works that have been made over the decades. The contemporary stuff is quite different in style and sensibilities. If you look at Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, it’s got a really contemporary take but it’s just beautiful. It’s more meditative, slower. It’s not action every minute. It just works. When the action happens, it has more impact.

Subway Cinema has championed some up-and-coming filmmakers and actors who are now mainstream success stories. Can you talk a bit about some of those names, like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho?

Yeah, we were among the first to show some of those early works of nuclearian cinema. In 2001 we showed Barking Dogs Never Bite, the feature debut of Bong Joon-ho, for example. You see how long it took for him to get an Oscar, right? Also Park Chan-wook, of course. Another example is Johnnie To. At the time, when we had our Johnnie To retrospective in the fall of 2000, there wasn’t a lot of awareness and appreciation for his work. Since then, there’ve been other programs and retro perspectives. Scholarly articles have been written about him as an auteur filmmaker.

With the success of Parasite, Squid Game, and Crazy Rich Asians, have you noticed a difference in the audience that attend the Kung Fu film festival?  Has it broadened?

I don’t know.  After the pandemic, it’s really hard to figure out who’s the audience now and who’s really showing up. I think our audience has always been very diverse in terms of demographics, in terms of age groups. It was really representative of New York. So, we had everybody together. It wasn’t catering to any particular group. That’s what we were always trying to accomplish. For us, if we were going to show a Korean movie and the majority of the audience is Korean or Korean American, then what’s the point? You really want to be able to bring diverse audiences so that they can appreciate all these great works that we’re showing.

With so many Asian films and TV shows now in the mainstream, would you say that this the best time for Asian cinema?

I think it’s the best time in terms of accessibility of Asian content, through streaming, and there’s a number of dedicated home video labels that have been focusing on releasing a lot of these movies. So, yes, if you are a fan of Asian cinema, this is probably one of the best times.

You won the Korean Cinema Award last year. What did that mean to you? Has that changed your career in any way?

Well, this is more like a hobby that’s gotten out of control, right? It’s not something that I do full time.  None of us with Subway Cinema do this full time. But, yeah, receiving the Korean Cinema Award was really meaningful. I was just fortunate to be there at the time when the new Korean cinema was starting, to be in a position to contribute, to bring attention to it, really, from whatever I could at that time. It was a long journey. It’s the journey that ends with Bong Joon-ho receiving an Oscar for Parasite. That’s how much things have grown and changed.