Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Deadly Sounds of Kung Fu

May you live in interesting times.

For quite a while now we’ve been living in an age where, if you can imagine it, someone else can make it. Or, at the very least, fake it. Technology makes it possible for visual storytellers to show us a convincing Middle Earth or a plausible Narnia. Robots turn into cars, aliens invade on a seasonal basis, and a raging green behemoth can punch a Norse demi-god across a room to rapturous applause. But the ability to realise anything on screen almost somehow makes it less impressive. I’m not dismissing these significant achievements in visual effects at all - I’m just saying that the extraordinary has become a little bit ordinary. The effects aren’t quite as special as they used to be - it’s just Standard Operating Procedure for another summer at the movies.

And so I tend to retreat from the uncanny valley and return to my beloved old-school bone-crunchers. The stuff you can’t fake. It may all be meticulously choreographed, but fists still connect with jaws and heads still collide with walls. Anyone who has ever sat through a Jackie Chan gag-reel knows that they are looking at real blood, real bruises and real teeth scattered on the ground in puddles of fresh mouth gore. I’ve been watching a lot of this stuff this year - my idea of comfort viewing is wincing in sympathy as someone gets kicked in the face. A cry of “Ow! My balls!” is a clarion call to attention for my jaded CGI-weary eyes. Whether it’s Gina Carano in Haywire, Iko Uwais in The Raid, Saoirse Ronan in Hanna or Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung or Jackie Chan in pretty much anything, nothing beats the primal thrills of two people artfully beating the ever-loving shit out of each other in the name of cinematic entertainment. As Werner Herzog once said: “Someone like Jean-Luc Godard is for me intellectual counterfeit money when compared to a good kung-fu film.” And it would be madness to disagree with Werner Herzog.

Which is an incredibly circuitous way of saying that I was watching the great Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow recently. The directorial debut of Chinese martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, starring Jackie Chan in his first breakout hit and co-starring the director’s father Yuen Siu-tien as Jackie’s sifu, if you’ve seen Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, then you know how magnificent the physical contortions on display are. But this isn’t a review. If you want that, I’d suggest clicking through to Robert Makin’s piece here.

As I was enjoying the original Chinese language print of the film, I was somewhat distracted by the incongruous sounds of Space’s Magic Fly over the opening titles. It sounds like this:

But that’s not all. There are more anachronistic synths in the form of Jean Michel Jarre's Oxygène (Part II) over a couple of training sequences later on in the film.

And so after the film, I decided to fire up the MagiGoogle Portal of Wisdom & Tax Avoidance to see what else I could find. And I discovered that there were a lot of other unusual music cues that I’d missed. (Credit where it's due: Most of the heavy-lifting here has been done thanks to the Martial Arts Music Wiki.) In addition to the original score by Chou Fu-liang, there were snippets of scores filched from Hollywood movies. This sort of musical pilfering was common in Hong Kong cinema back then. This is what I learned.

There are slivers of the epic bombast of John Williams from Star Wars dotted around at various points. (And when I say Star Wars, I mean what people now insist on tediously referring to as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. There are far too many colons in movie titles these days. Mumble grumble.)

So. Yeah. Star Wars. An excerpt of The Battle of Yavin appears in two places - at the end of the opening titles (which would mean at the end of the Space track, for those keeping track of all this stuff), and again just before a fight sequence towards the end of the film. (For people like me who don’t worship at the altar of the George Lucas Toy Factory, The Battle of Yavin is the bit when the Death Star blows up. If I’m wrong, no doubt someone will pop up in the comments to point out the error of my ways about something I don’t give a shit about).

What else? There’s supposed to be a bit of Ennio Morricone from A Fistful Of Dollars, but I can’t find it or where it appears. There’s a cue from Marvin Hamlisch’s The Tanker from The Spy Who Loved Me right after the opening credits. The “Something Dramatic is Happening!” music cue to denote things like character deaths in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is the piano crash at the start of Jerry Fielding’s The Rape from The Outlaw Josey Wales. (This piano crash right here).

The memorable and distinctively Bondian A Drop In The Ocean by John Barry from You Only Live Twice also crops up in one scene. (Side note: I did not know before now that John Barry's full name was John Barry Prendergast. This amuses me far more than it should):

There are also two Johnny Harris tracks from Bloomfield - Love Theme and Closing Love Theme. Nothing says “training sequence” like a love theme...(Also: was the name "John" a prerequisite for having your tunes pinched for inclusion in a kung fu movie back then?)

When the film was distributed in America in the 1980s as The Eagle’s Shadow, producer Serafim Karalexis ensured that it appeared with a new score to dodge the copyright pitfalls there would have been with the original unlicensed soundtrack, replete with a cover of the Space track amongst the library tracks thrown into the mix.

And I’m done. I willingly concede that I may be the only person remotely interested in this stuff. If you’ve read this far, you deserve some kind of reward. Here, have an amusing screengrab:

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