Monday, October 23, 2006

Episode 3: Blood Brother

"Blood Brother" was a great episode in that it relies not on Caine's fist- and footstifcuff ability but on his cleverness. Also gets into his ninja-like stealth abilities. "A Shaolin priest can walk through walls," says one Chinese character. "It is said that listened for he cannot be heard. Looked for he cannot be seen. Felt he cannot be touched." (Thanks, B.E. Warne.)

The plot is a great one, one I've seen employed before, mose memorably in a movie that was pretty significant for martial arts in western film, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955). That film starred Spencer Tracy as a one-armed man who comes to a small Arizona town looking for an old Japanese acquaintance, Kokomo. It soon becomes clear that something gruesome happened to Kokomo, and Tracy karate-chops his way to justice, exposing the black heart of the whole town. (There's actually only one Asian-fight-type scene, not like Tracy gets all Billy Jack on Ernest Borgnine.)

"Blood Brother" utilizes the same plot. Caine arrives in a town to discover his friend from the Temple, his blood brother, Lin Wu (I hope I'm remebering the name right) has been there, but seems to be missing. His search for Wu brings back memories of their days at the Shaolin Temple together, and reveals that Wu may have been targeting by a gang of toughs. Instead of wrecking Bruce Lee-style vengeance on everyone, however, Caine tricks the toughs into leading them to Wu's body, hidden in an outlying swamp. Caine now has the evidence he needs to turn the toughs over to the law.

There's a somewhat heavy-handed court scene at the end where Caine has to encourage the local, scared Chinese population to take the witness stand but also gives a speech defining humanity for a bigoted courtroom. One of the things I love about this series is when Caine is overshadowed by the other characters, and that doesn't really happen here. But a fun episode nonetheless, with some notable fight scenes, good flashbacks, and a good plot. Three out of four yin-yangs.

By the way, you can see a trailer for Bad Day at Black Rock here.

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I also read.

It's not all Kung Fu these days. I read quite a bit anyway, but, as I explained, since I spend a lot of time with an infant on my chest, I have had a lot of opportunity to read. I read a lot of novels. Recently, I have been on a streak reading a bunch of kinda fluffy, uneven flotsam. Decided I needed a John D. MacDonald to reset my equilibrium. MacDonald's Travis McGee novels were written forty years ago, but they are still zingers, and I am only recently discovering them and working my way through them. Currently on The Quick Red Fox. If I were to make another blog, a companion to this one in that I want to shout my enthusiasm for something from "the rooftops," I would make a Travis McGee blog. What I'd do is, I'd make a post every time I read some bit of MacDonald's prose that made me exuberant with joy, that made my heart ache at the beauty of it. Only, I'd be posting, like, every three seconds. The man did things with words that makes me jealous, and I'm not normally jealous of other writers, or at least haven't been since I was a kid.

Best thing on MacDonald and his creation I have ever read is here.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

But the most interesting thing in TV these days... not even Kung Fu. It's the MLB playoffs, and my team is in it for the first time in years. In fact, it looks like we're going to the World Series! GO TIGERS!

Yes, the baby and I were up watching the Tiges put away the A's in game 2 of the series. I was on the edge of my seat. (Okay, not really. I was, as usual, on my back with the infant on my chest.) I still remember watching the Marlins play in the series when my first son was a baby. Anywho, great series, last night's game was wonderful - talk about plot, character and drama, it's all right here! My heart actually went out to the A's when they stocked the bases in the 9th and then popped out, ending their hopes with a whimper. Sports in general and baseball specifically doesn't get much better than that!


Episode 2: Dark Angel

This one was deliciously weird and featured powerful performances by David Carradine as Caine, his father John Carradine as scallywag preacher Serenity Johnson, and his brother Robert Carradine as Serenity's mute assistant, Sonny Jim. (Keith Carradine also appears in a role he frequents throughout the series, a younger version of Caine, that is, Caine between Radames Pera and David Carradine.)

The plot is that Caine comes to the aid of a prospector who has been wounded in an Indian (there's that word again) attach. Caine fights off the warriors in a wonderful sequence filled with taut action and little dialogue, then learns that the prospector has evidence of a claim in the wilderness. Caine is too late to save the man from succumbing to his wounds, so he takes the body into town. He is apprehended by a mob but his neck is saved by Johnson.

Again, we have a supporting character in the series that is just as interesting as Caine, even more interesting in some ways. Johnson is an enthusiastic and sincere preacher. He takes care of the town's vagabonds and is sincerely affectionate to all around him, including his deaf mute valet, Sonny Jim. But Serenity is also a whiskey-sipper and a gambler, always on the look out for a buck. He is eloquent, and uses his powers just as often to bilk rubes as to save souls. Still, he tells Caine, he dreams of building a church – that's what he needs the money for, really. And when he learns about the claim Caine has preserved, he teases it out of Caine and goes after it.

Bad move by Serenity. The natives find him and bind him to a tree with his eyelids forced open so that his eyes are burned by the sun. Serenity is now blind. The plot of this episode takes an interesting turn here in that Caine – inspired and instructed by, of course, his old blind teacher, Master Po – begins to encourage Serenity and then to teach him, teach him to continue his work despite his blindness.

It works, spectacularly. That's the main plot of this episode, and the most interesting, to me. The sub-plots are: Some local toughs try to take the prospector's claim from Serenity by force, a move which Caine thwarts, and, meanwhile, Caine's grandfather lives at the edge of town and Caine is trying to learn more about the roots. The grandfather is an ice-hearted racist and refuses to acknowledge Caine, but the newly empowered, Po-like Serenity Johnson intervenes, and at least gets the man to help Caine with information about Caine's half-brother. At the end of the episode, Johnson is building his church – the Church of the Inner Vision (I can't help but think of Stevie Wonder every time I picture that) – and Caine is moving on to learn more about his half-brother, Danny.

As I said, to me the most interesting character is Serenity Johnson, crusty on the outside, quick with a wink and a quip, genuinely spiritual and strong on the inside. Caine sort of remakes him in Po's image; actually, it's more accurate to say Caine helps him remake himself (something he will do often in the series, not often as effectively portrayed as it is here). The strength of the Serenity Johnson character is borne out by John Carradine's magnificent performance. If you see this one, look at the deep lines in Carradine's face but especially at his hands. The guy walked right out of a Eugene O'Neill play. Some interesting factoids about him at IMDB here, and here is the IMDB info for this episode. Four out of four yin-yangs.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Episode 1: King of the Mountain

This was an excellent episode. It was the first episode to appear after the successful pilot for the show. Watching it now, right away it let's its audience know that this is going to be a different kind of western. It presents familiar westernandcarradine, kung fu, them on their ear by letting Caine interact with them. In this case, the themes are death and peril on the frontier, survival, revenge, and crime/apprehension/punishment.

I'll give a spoiler warning here. Also, instead of listing the names of actors, writers etc. in parentheses, I'd like you to refer to one of the episode guides in the blogroll for more information.

In "King of the Mountain," Caine discovers a young boy, Peter, whose family is wiped out by an Indian raid (I say Indian rather than Native American simply to use the parlance of the setting). Peter is the only survivor. Caine agrees to take the boy to some kin in another town. Peter is now alone, frightened, but determined to survive, clutching his dad's rifle – a quintessential western hero, really, who must accept violence and death as part of the price of frontier life and stand alone to impose order on the chaos, often through strength. On the way to the next town, Peter and Caine are accosted by some ruffians. The boy is appalled that Caine yields to them, letting them search him and potentially rob him. He doesn't yet see that Caine keeps his strength hidden and doesn't contend until he has to. This interesting dichotomy juxtaposes not just an eastern/kung fu ethic against a western one, but that of an older man against a younger. Peter could grow up to be Shane, John Wayne, Wyatt Earp or any tough out of a Louis L'Amour novel. He hasn't yet learned when to fight and when not to, as Caine has.

Once in the next town Caine drops Peter with his kin and finds work at a ranch. These characters exemplify what to me is one of the best aspects of the show – the supporting and minor characters, when sketched well, are as interesting or more interesting than the others, including Caine himself. In this case, Peter's extended family are ugly, disgusting people expressed with Snopesian accuracy. Upon seeing the boy and learning that his family has been killed, there's no empathy, no hugs or tears – they only want to know how much money or valuables he salvaged, and they want to take it. They're also indignant that a "Chinaman" may have helped himself to some of the family's stuff. So they pick him up by the ear and take him to see the Chinaman.

Caine, meanwhile, has befriended Amy, a woman who, against all odds, is running a ranch by herself. Caine agrees to work for Amy, who is kind. But while he's getting things straightened out in the stable here come the Snopes', the evil paw and some uncles. They accuse Caine of robbing Peter and attack him. Caine kicks all their asses in a wonderful sequence. (At some point I will riff on what I see as a worrying trend in action movies, that of chopping up the fight sequences into unviewable splinters. This being an old-school action film, that doesn't happen here. We may get treated to a scene of a Carradine foot in a bad guy's face, but the camera pulls back and let's us see the action in all its glory. Modern film-makers, please take note!) Caine turns to Peter when the fisticuffs are over and, with a disgusted sneer than even he cannot restrain, says, "Do you want to stay with these people? No? Then come with me." Peter joins Caine at Amy's ranch.

Peter, Caine and Amy settle in on the ranch. It's here we also see that Caine has a special ability, born of his Shaolin training, with animals (he calms a frightened and angry horse, and also has a great line, asking what "broken" means when referring to horses). Meanwhile, a black moustachio'd bounty hunter, Raven (played by our pal John Saxon of Enter the Dragon fame) shows up looking to collect the bounty on Caine – 5K dead, 10 alive. Caine's old enemies in China still want his head.

To make a long story short, a semi-romantic and possibly sexual relationship blossoms between Caine and Amy while Caine also begins to teach Peter valuable lessons about manhood. (There are some good Shaolin flashbacks that prompt deeper questions about the role sexual love plays in a Shaolin monk's life.) It's Raven's presence that now introduces the crime and punishment theme. After all, Caine is, in one context, a criminal, and Raven a righteous arm of the law. But we quickly see that Caine is spiritually and ethically more righteous while Raven is a blunt instrument of imprisonment and death, a nasty, self-centered and ultimately self-serving person who worships reward money, not any real sense of justice. Caine agrees to turn himself in but, manacled, fights Raven (another pretty sweet kung fu sequence). In the struggle, Raven loses his footing and plummets to his death. In the end, Caine must move along, knowing he still has to find his roots and that more bounty hunters and other agents will come gunning for him. He hopes he has empowered Amy and Peter enough to stand on their own.

An excellent episode and an excellent beginning to the series. Already, some of the things I love about the series – themes re-examined, characters, and of course great kung fu sequences – are present. Four out of four stars.

Here is the IMDB entry on this episode. which also contains an interesting bit of trivia. (Also says George Takei was in the episode, but I don't remember seeing him.)

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Thursday, October 05, 2006

From Grasshopper to Caine on YouTube

Someone has uploaded, in several sections, the documentary "From Grasshopper to Caine." Worth a watch, I think this may be one of the extras on the DVD set. Sound bits from the creators, Ed Spielman and Howard Frielander, producers John Furia and Jerry Thorpe, Carradine, Peres and others.

Part One



And, just for fun, one version of the famous intro (this one from an episode entitled "The Brujo"):

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The Journey of a Thousand Miles

I don't blog.

I mean, I read blogs. I spend a lot of time on the internet, personally and professionally. But I don't blog myself. I'm starting this blog completely on impulse. Why? Kung Fu.

Kung Fu, the TV show. How do I begin to explain? I'm a man in his mid-30s and a father of two, a delightful three-year-old and an infant, eight weeks. I have been a lifelong fan of kung fu movies, of the martial arts, comics, literature, film, art, etc. I even practice martial arts myself, kendo.

I loved the show Kung Fu as a kid. You all know what I am talking about - Kung Fu, starring David Carradine as the man, Kwai Chang Caine, who comes walking out of the east into the old west, meeting people, having adventures, getting involved in micro-dramas, kicking ass when he has to, spiritually and mentally as well as physically. Always with a flashback to his old days at the Shaolin temple with Master Kan (Philip Ahn) and Master Po (Keye Luke). (Radames Pera played the young Caine in these flashbacks.)

Well, recently I borrowed the complete 3-season set of Kung Fu on DVD, all the episodes that aired from 1972 to 1975 when it ended. If you have an infant you know that you spend a lot of time with said infant sleeping on your chest. So my youngest son and I have been steadily making our way through all the episodes. Usually, this is after my oldest son has gone to sleep. Sometimes, it is at three or four or five in the morning, when my youngest can't sleep.

When I set about to watch this show, it was with great enthusiasm, but a distanced perspective. I had loved these shows as a kid but thought perhaps they wouldn't be as entertaining to me as an adult. Further, I figured that since the show came out in the 70s it'd probably be pretty hokey and uninformed - it was in part responsible for the "kung fu craze" that enchanted the U.S. at that time, which eventually blossomed into the full silliness of the late 70s and 80s - Sonny Chiba, Gymkata, Sho Kosugi ninja films - all enjoyable, to be sure, to the aficionado, but not always the highest caliber of entertainment, and certainly not as accessible to a broader audience. I mean, we're not talking Kurosawa's samurai movies here.

But when I started watching these shows, I was happily surprised. The show was not only as good as I remembered, it was BETTER. It was propelled by chiseled characterization, great writing, innovative film-making and mis en scene - it was so unique, so enjoyable, so insightful, not so much ahead of its time as, honestly, out of its time, because, and I may be wrong, but I think they're still not making TV as good as this today. (To tell the truth, I don't watch a lot of TV, although there's a lot I would watch if I had time.)

Anyway, the long and short of it is I have been enjoying these episodes so much - I'm maybe halfway through the first season - and have been reading a bit on the history of the show (including Herbie Pilato's The Book of Caine and Carradine's autobio, Endless Highway) that I have become increasingly interested in finding out more about how this show was made. I'm particularly interested in the writing and the cohesiveness of the writing, which I think probably has something to do with executive story consultant John Furia, and in the depth of each episode.

In clicking around the internet for its Kung Fu resources, I have found a few good ones, and I will link to them here (soon as I figure out how to make a blogroll), but none that satisfy me. That's not to take away from the other Kung Fu episode guides out there that I have found or not found. It's just that most writing about the show usually involves a plot summary and a few nuggets of wisdom from Masters Caine, Po and Kan. I think the show was so much more than that, and I'd like to discuss that, episode by episode, as time permits.

So that's my rambling introduction to this blog. What I hope to create out of it is:
  • A place where I can direct others to Kung Fu resources on the net
  • A place where I can go into greater depth about my feelings on the show, creating a companion episode guide in blog format
  • A place to encourage greater discussion of the show (either here in comments or a message board environment to be created later - if anyone knows of any, let me know)
And that's pretty much it. I'll close for now with one other caveat: as I said, I am a working, married father of two who also has hobbies; I may not be able to update this blog as often as I'd like. But I hope to do so dilligently and thoughtfully and I hope any readers I may attract will help me in creating this resource.

Now, as Caine might say, I have to be moving along.