kortina.nyc / oakland-film-club
1 Jul 2019 | by kortina

#020 // Once Upon a Time in China


Tonight, we are continuing (what will be an extended) series of “Once Upon a Time …” films. This one is a kung-fu flick starring Jet Li. ..

Once Upon a Time in China (1991).


When I selected Once Upon a Time in the West for film club a few weeks ago, I prepared some remarks that I realized at the last minute were actually about the wrong movie. I had mis-remembered the content of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly for that title.

This week, I got 90% through writing remarks about Once Upon a Time in China and realized they were all about another Jet Li favorite of mine, Fist of Legend. When we do Once Upon a Time in America, I am sure I’ll end up writing about A Bronx Tale instead.

I was going to make this elaborate argument framing Once Upon a Time in China as a sort of sister film to Rocky IV. Both are essentially action movies centered on hand to hand combat between representatives of nations embroiled in conflict that threatens to break into all out war. Both films contrast clashing cultures of the nations in conflict. And both films are fascinated with training, the lineage of different fighting styles, the modern vs the ancient, technology vs tradition.

I was going to talk about training montages, Jet Li’s one arm pullups, the Rocky IV training montage, wax-on-wax-off in Karate Kid, Jean Claude Van Damme’s splits, and of course, the one inch punch training with Pai Mei in Kill Bill.

It was tight.

But when I was looking for the clip of Jet Li’s one arm pullups, I remembered that was Fist of Legend.

My memory is kind of weird (dyslexic?) like that, where I’ll have these vivid memories filed under the wrong titles.

Growing up, a lot of the martial arts movies I knew were these eighties American action flicks, like I said Karate Kid or Van Damme or Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal. In middle school, I got ahold of Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and I was like, damn, what kinds of kung-fu movies have I been missing?

Shaolin shadow boxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous. Do you think your Wu-Tang sword can defeat me? Bring da mutha fuckin ruckus…

I didn’t come across Jet Li and Once Upon a Time in China until later, when I was in high school–I believe it was my friend Brett who first introduced me to the film, after we began studying Okinawan karate with an ex-Marine Corps pilot who was a substitute teacher at our school.

Later, in a college writing workshop based on Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, one or our prompts for the class was Joseph Mitchell’s Mazie, and we were supposed to write about a ‘character’ who had left an impression on us. I wrote about Capt. Daniel:

I remember when Captain Garrison Daniel introduced himself to [my 11th grade English] class, telling us in a sentence how he used to be a fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, but during the Gulf War had been “shot up,” and, because he had some shrapnel lodged behind his eye and in his back near his spine, he had left the Corps, to become a teacher.

My next encounter with Captain Garrison Daniel occurred early the following year. Looking over the course listings, one seminar caught my eye: “Secrets of the Shaolin Temple.” Instructor: G. Daniel.

His passion for teaching makes it easy to learn, fun—the twinkle in his eye when he teaches us a new kata or tells us another story about Okinawa or the Gulf War reveals that he is as excited about teaching us as we are about learning from him. This joy in sharing knowledge, I think, is one of the most important things I have learned from him, and, it is this trait (which separates the great teachers from the mediocre ones) that I will always try to remember when I teach others.

I remember the first class we had on the tennis courts outside my high school. Captain Daniel showed us how to make the Okinawan fist (automatic for me now), by curling the three small fingers into a normal fist, but leaving the index finger bent at only the first joint so that it touches the meat of the palm near the thumb and makes the first two knuckles protrude. Then he showed us how to do “bouncers”—knuckle pushups where you bounce off the ground and land again on these protruding knuckles—which are still pretty intense (and far from automatic) for me now. I think Captain Daniel must have a different conception of pain than I do. He walks with a cane because the shrapnel lodged at the base of his spine makes even standing arduous, but he can crank out “bouncers” without even a grimace. Often times, while performing kata, he’ll drop his cane and finish the form almost in a trance; when he finishes, I can tell by the sweat on his forehead and his stiff limp that this requires him to endure pain that would probably make me pass out.

After practice, my friends and I often go out to eat with Captain Daniel just to hear about his life, which seems to be composed entirely of a series of near death experiences. Flipping some bean sprouts into his mouth with chopsticks operated like an extra pair of fingers, he tells us about the time in paratrooper school when his parachute failed to open—those who don’t know Captain Daniel may think this is the climax of the story, but those of us know him better suspect this is only the prologue. He concludes the tale by telling us how his backup parachute also failed to open, and he had to employ the emergency tactic of pedaling his feet in order to disentangle the chute and deploy it just in time to land safely. The way he tells it, you get the idea that this wasn’t one of his closer encounters with death.

Without revisiting this essay, I would have told you how I was instantly enamored with Capt. Daniel, who was kind of like a character that walked straight out of the canon of film and literature I had grown up with… who had, against all odds, landed as a substitute teacher in my suburban high school, to lead my small band of friends and I through a cinematic training montage.

Now, when I read through this old poorly written essay, what strikes me is how Capt. Daniel would hang out with us after school, talk about kung-fu movies or books like Shogun with us, share tales from his personal / past life, go to dinner with us.

I would bet there is a ton of professional advice and folk wisdom against letting a professional / hierarchical relationship like teacher-student feel anything like friendship, authored by the same people who say you should not work with your friends, but it just feels more human to break these walls.

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