By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Those of us from the real “first” American generation of kung fu cinema watchers, you know who you are, will remember tuning in every Saturday 1:00 pm or 7:00 pm Eastern time to Kung Fu Theater on the fledgling USA network to watch those poorly English-dubbed, cheaply made kung fu flicks. You’ll recall that the show began with a spinning yin yang symbol perched atop a dragon stand with peacock feathers hugging the symbol.
Then you’d hear the delectable guitar lick began…dun, dun, dun, dun…HOO HA (fight sound effects)…dun, dun, dun, dun…followed by stills of Bruce Le, Jiang Dao, a flashing dragon head and that famous droning “Haiiiiiiiiiiii” heard among flickering images of those well-known poster art shots of Bruce Lee’s famous flying sidekick postures from The Chinese Connection (aka Fists of Fury) and Fist of Fury (aka The Big Boss).
Well tomorrow night, Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at this year’s 2013 Pacific Arts Movement Spring Showcase, there’s a special head trip back to the 1970s with their Mystery Kung Fu Theater presentation at the Digiplex Mission Valley. Yes, they’re back, a special mystery English-dubbed kung fu film from the 1970s will be there awaiting your 8-track flashback mind, or if you don’t know what that is…let’s just say that a mysterious blast from the past and magical piece of kung fu film history will be knocking on your bPad…brain pad.
For those that came in late, many lesser well-known martial arts films of the 1970s and 1980s quickly achieved cult status via Kung Fu Theater. How? It’s just about timing. In the early 1980s, the 1970s fervor for Hong Kong kung fu films, Bruce Lee movies and Drive-ins were wearing off in the United States. Lee had been dead for seven years, there were no viable replacement kung fu stars that resonated with Americans and theatrical distribution of these films was also dying. Yet seemingly out of nowhere came cable TV. It was rapidly growing in America, as was the English-dubbed, kung fu film video industry.
As a result, cable companies needed programs to attract audiences that network TV would never dream of acquiring. Independent networks, such as the USA Network, which premiered on September 8, 1971 as the Madison Square Garden Network and re-launched as USA Network on January 3, 1979, gambled that the kung fu craze was not really dead but on hold. And they were right. These films quickly found a new fan base, immediately attained cult status and eventually became an important part of American pop culture
So what is the film playing tomorrow night at the Mystery Kung Fu Theater presentation…..IT’S A SECRET…AND I AM NOT ALLOW TO TELL. But what I can tell is this:
2) There will be blood. (The ketchup-red, splattering out of an impaled chest kind, of course.)
3) No refunds, just as you cannot escape the ring once you realize your opponent is 400-pound Russian lady named Natalia.
4) It’s not available on DVD in the U.S. so chances are you’ve never seen it.
5) After the film you will not be allowed to reveal what you saw online or in print, though you can write it down in a secret scroll that you can pass on to your descendants.
…and last but not least…the best part of it all..
6) Characters will be speaking with their swords, but when forced to use dialogue, it will be in English-subtitled Mandarin.
Which means, there’s an outside chance that you will hear, “My kung fu is better than yours, so I will easily defeat you” voice on the big screen, “But still, you must go there to see it, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”
So how come the English dubbing in those films sound the way that they do? As it turns out, a few months after arriving in Taiwan in 1979, one of my first jobs was dubbing kung fu films into English. I would work with the same three or four voice-over artists and dub sixty films per month, two per day, for $30 US per film.
Most of the times there was not a complete script, thus creating the opening for implanting weeds of extemporaneous chatter. The producers did not speak English and all they cared about was that when the actor’s mouth on screen moved, there was a voice and when the mouth stopped, the voice stopped.
We were not professional actors or dubbers and because we each had 3 to 5 different voices to forge per film, we quickly ran out of voices after the second film. So we would develop a good guy voice, a villain voice, an innkeeper voice, etc, and that is why the films all sound alike. There were also no rehearsals. We would watch the scene in Chinese with sound, then once without sound, then dub the scene. Speed was of the essence.
Furthermore, in Chinese period piece films, Mandarin was spoken in an old-fashioned way, comparable to today’s English versus Shakespearean English, where the language has its own cinematic rhythm and certain words were dubbed in a fashion to fill in the gaps of the dialogue. So for example, the word ke shi, which literally translated, means “but,” we had to make up a two-syllable word to match the mouth movements of the Chinese actor. Thus, the birth of the ubiquitous but still in all of those dubbed films.
I never thought that the dubbing work I was doing in Taiwan in the 1970s would eventually become an interesting part of American pop culture and maybe show up on a film screened by the Pacific Arts Movement….awesommmme.