Kung Fu Royal-ty

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By Matt Kwong

FedEx carriers working at Boston’s Logan International Airport in 1996 may have handled an oversized cardboard box and wondered, perhaps out of shippers’ tedium, what was inside. Upon sliding into the cargo compartment, the double-walled box rattled like any other load, but its contents were tucked away safely in Styrofoam peanuts.

The shipment was for local film programmer Colin Geddes, said to be North America’s pioneering champion of martial arts cinema. In the box was rare footage of the 1978 kung fu classics The Master Killer.

When the box reached Toronto, Geddes screened that uncut print for some 150 ticket-holders at the Metro Theatre, an adult cinema on Bloor. Most in attendance has seen the film before, but it was the first time any of them would be viewing it as it was meant to be seen – in cinemascope and on a big screen.

Now with Kung Fu Fridays, anyone with $8 (or $6 if you’re a member) can watch old martial arts films in the same grind-house tradition.

Currently in its fourth year under that name, Kung Fu Fridays consistently draws the Royal Cinema’s biggest numbers. Every other week, Geddes is able to get anywhere from 150-300 people (most of them “gwei-los”, or Caucasians in Cantonese) to line up for a film with a title they likely can’t pronounce.

Tonight, it’s Sonny Chiba in 1974’s Cokugeki! Jigoku-kenm, or as it’s known in English, Direct-Hit! Hell Fist: Big Reversal.

Cold projection light bounces and blinks on rapt faces. There are film geeks, university students, teen girls, hipsters, and curious novices. Some bring friends. One regular (an 80-year-old Eastern European woman) brings her walker.

Forty feet above our heads, Koga – one of the last descendants of his ninja clan – gesticulates wildly. Eyes dart. Brows furrow. The tacky disco bassline and skittering beats build to a dramatic crescendo.

“YOU MUST LEARN THE NINJA ART,” the old master advises, his words noticeable choppy under a sheet of crackling reverb.

A hand fumbles in a paper bag and crinkles in harmony with the scratch picture.

The quality of this print isn’t so sharp, but Geddes likes to see the wear and tear in some reels. “It means it was loved,” his philosophizes.

Geddes is a pedant of the best type – the kind who knows, and loves what he’s talking about.

To Geddes, A scratch print is “loved,” just as a trash bag brimming with Hong Kong movie posters at the corner of College and Augusta is “treasure.”

But the real treasure is buried in the basement of the Royal. There, in the bowels of the theatre, you’ll find hundreds of Asian films and thousands of long-forgotten Hong Kong posters and lobby cards.

Stacks of reels line the walls – the six canisters that comprise Master Killer among them.

Geddes began promoting those films after the East forgot about them and years before the West has even heard of them. Braving the Toronto winter, he would hit the streets with his marketing gear: A trusty staplegun, a can of glue, a brush, a stack of flyers and his walkman.

Today, Geddes is widely attributed as the one-man army that brought Hong Kong action stars like Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-Fat, and Jet Li into mainstream North American culture. (His screening of Jackie Chan’s break-out American hit Rumble in the Bronx was actually the North American premiere, shown the same day as it was in Hong Kong.)

Back on the Royal’s screen, six of the drug kingpin’s cronies saunter into frame, ensnaring our bushy-sideburned hero in a circle of death: “WAAAAAHHH…YEAWW!!”

With a mighty blow, Koga punctures through a henchman’s chest and rips out a fistful of blood-spattered ribs.

“Holy fuck!” someone in the crowd cries, as the goon crumples to the dust. At once, 182 voices howl in delight. Laughter and approval from the audience is met with the ribless opponent’s screams of agony.

From his usual spot along the left sightline, Dave Ferris dissolves into the plush seat. Three hours ago, he was in an office administering insurance information. Now he’s watching Sonny Chiba perform on-the-spot autopsies.

Old-school fans like Ferris migrated with Geddes in the days when Kung Fu Fridays was still a floating show. At $300 a night (half the cost of the Bloor), the Metro’s tawdry Riviera room was the cheapest rent Geddes could find. Below, there might be a simultaneous viewing of a blue movie on Super-8.

Ferris still remembers lining up outside the Metro and bearing disapproving stares from the neighbourhood.

“Some of the (porn movie customers) would look furtive, like they wanted to be alone,” he reminisces. “But there we were – the kung fu crowd – chatting in line. We were proud to be there.”

The evening Geddes first showed that print of Master Killer in ‘96, the audience had no idea they would be in the company of an indie legend. Ferris recalls the annoyance of having two late arrivals wander in only to obscure his view.

“I thought it was so funny how oblivious I was. I said to my friend, ‘God I wish that guy would just get the hell out of the way.’”

Shuffling along, the two late arrivals – director Quentin Tarantino and then-girlfriend Mira Sorvino – promptly shifted down the aisle. Ferris entertains the notion that they must have heard his comment and obligingly sat away from him.

Geddes laughs about something else: “Quentin Tarantino just dragged his girlfriend to see a two-hour kung fu movie in a porn theatre.”

Like the other audience members, it would be the first time Tarantino would see Master Killer in the cinemascope format. But if he only had better luck, the print might have been his.

As the story goes, the Master Killer reels were unearthed from an abandoned drive-in theatre in Texas.

The discover placed an ad to sell the reels, and American friend of Geddes’s expressed interest and, for $150 US, he purchased what the seller described as “some old kung fu movie.”

Hours later, the seller would receive another call – this time an offer from Tarantino. But he was too late; the film had already been claimed as was soon on its way to Toronto.

When the notoriously foul-mouthed Tarantino was to visit the city for the filmfest in 2001, he would affectionately refer to Geddes as “that motherfucker with the print from Texas.” For Geddes, it was a small honour to be recognized.

When he started Kung Fu Fridays, Geddes sacrificed having a stable career to revive an old cultural obsession. It could have been a disaster, but from that first screening of Master Killer, there was a buzz that lasted the whole season.

Still, Geddes admits hosting bi-weekly Kung Fu Fridays isn’t the most lucrative line of work.

Box-office proceeds are split with the theatre, and once he factors in the hours spent researching films, preparing press releases for the Web site, postering in the cold, passing out raffle tickets and cleaning up, Geddes might net a measly $125 – enough for him to sustain his collection.

“That’s why I’ve always referred to it as a hobby,” he says. “It started that way and it still is that way.”

In October 2003, Tarantino bought a disused L.A. theatre with plans to become the second fan in North America to show the public his favourite Chinese martial arts films.

There’s little doubt Tarantino’s King Hing Theatre project will enjoy success in L.A. Tarantino, after all, has both the star-power and the resources to undergo a big endeavour like this.

“Maybe he should hire my services as a consultant,” Geddes muses. But it’s only a fleeting thought.

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