My love for martial arts films started in kindergarten when I was living in Downtown Honolulu across the street from Chinese movie theaters such as Empress Theater, Golden Harvest Theatres and even the way ghetto Liberty Theater. My father and I would walk by Empress Theater every week to see if the movie poster had changed in the display window outside, which meant that they were showing a different kung fu film. As soon as we saw that the poster had changed, we were inside watching yet another soon-to-be martial arts classic. My father always told me that I’d get so excited watching the films that I’d go into the theater aisles and start showcasing my own kung fu moves, complete with “dooj, dooj” sound effects of pretend impact.
As I grew older, the theaters sadly went away, but I was still able to get my kung fu movie fix on TV. As an elementary school kid, I had nowhere to go on weekend evenings, so every Friday night at 10:30 p.m., I turned my TV to KITV to watch Black Belt Theater, a weekly showcase for Hong Kong kung fu films. Most of the films were from the prolific Shaw Brothers studios. They were dubbed in English, and I’d get a kick out of hearing the same voices and accents every week, but coming out of the mouths of different actors. At that age, I didn’t know how to check the TV guides to see what films would be shown, so it was a guessing game every Friday night. I could usually tell within the first 10 seconds which film it would be, and I’d either exclaim, “Yes!” if it was one I really liked or watched in disappointment if it was one I could merely tolerate. But I would always watch to the end, no matter what, because there was another reason besides the classic kung fu that kept me up late Friday nights.
My father worked evenings at the time and he would come home just a little after Black Belt Theater ended. So if I stayed up to watch the movie, it meant that I could see my dad before I fell asleep. Knowing I’d be waiting up, he’d often bring me food from Zippy’s or his night job to share and talk before going to bed. My mother of course would already be asleep, so these late Friday night encounters were purely for the Choi men. Black Belt Theater not only provided unforgettable martial arts entertainment, but also a reason to stay up and spend a few extra minutes with my dad and that’s why it will always be special to me.
So here’s a look at my Fab Five Black Belt Theater films. What are your favorites?
These films are all classics themselves but just missed my Top 5.
"Five Deadly Venoms"
"Death Chambers" (aka "Shaolin Temple")
This classic has a great mix of the old school Shaw Brothers actors (Fu Sheng, Ti Lung, etc.) and the new (the Venoms) and the training sequences are spectacular. You can see how simple chores such as turning paper and cooking congee can lead to spectacular martial arts skills. The end battle leading to the burning of the Shaolin Temple is unforgettable.
"Challenge of the Masters"This film is also a little light on the fights but teaches a great lesson in the philosophy of martial arts. Directed by the recently deceased legendary action director and star Lau Kar Leung, this film was the first to portray Chinese hero Wong Fei-Hung as a young adult learning kung fu. Gordon Liu and Chen Kuan Tai make a great duo as student and teacher and the film teaches a great lesson in discipline and mercy.
Another Venom film, this time with disabilities. The Venom actors return and each have to overcome a physical handicap to master a new style of kung fu to take revenge on their tormentor. One is blind, another deaf, and yet another is made mentally handicapped by a metal contraption squeezed on his head. As with all Venom films, the fight scenes are spectacular.