Filmmaker and hip-hop legend RZA made dreams come true for kung-fu fans on a recent Saturday night by programming a double feature of classic martial arts films “Five Element Ninjas” and “House of Traps” at New York’s Metrograph theater.
The original member of the Wu-Tang Clan made three appearances at the event and introduced the 1982 kung-fu titles, both of which were directed by prolific martial arts film director Cheh Chang and produced by Hong Kong’s legendary production company Shaw Brothers. “Five Element Ninjas” follows a young martial artist seeking revenge against the ninja who killed his teacher and brethren, while “House of Traps” centers on a team of skilled fighters making their way through a house rigged with deadly traps.
Both sold out screenings were packed with kung-fu cinema devotees, many of whom felt compelled to express their love for the genre during a Q&A with RZA, moderated by Metrograph’s programming director Aliza Ma. RZA was also joined briefly on stage by his friend, master and actor Shi Yan Ming, a 34th generation warrior monk, teacher and founder of the USA Shaolin Temple.
A kung-fu fanatic since he was nine years old, RZA explained that he chose the two films for their massive influence on his feature directing debut, 2012’s “The Man with the Iron Fists,” adding that “House of Traps” had never played in a New York cinema before. While working on the screenplay for “The Man With the Iron Fists,” RZA used “House of Traps” to help convey his vision for the movie to his co-writer Eli Roth.
“He wasn’t very familiar with a lot of the martial arts genre, and we went to his private screening room and I showed him ‘House of Traps’ and he said, ‘Okay, I see what you’re trying to do,'” RZA said. A composer for film and television, RZA wrote the score for Jim Jarmusch’s “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” He is currently in post-production on his second directorial effort, the musical drama “Coco,” about an aspiring hip-hop artist discovering the world of slam poetry.
During the production of “Kill Bill,” RZA spent a month on set in Beijing with Tarantino and director of photography Robert Richardson learning about directing and cinematography. “That opened my mind up to what I could potentially do,” he said. “[Tarantino] is able to look at films, dissect them and reinterpret them in his own language, so that technique is what I used. If you look at my movie, the character played by Lucy Liu is basically the ninja character in ‘Five Element Ninjas.'”
Explaining that his passion for film extends beyond just kung-fu to all of Asian cinema, RZA cited “Seven Samurai” director Akira Kurosawa’s influence on Hollywood directors from George Lucas to Clint Eastwood, adding that every Marvel movie today is also heavily influenced by martial arts. “When we watch our superhero films now, we’re watching martial art, but with characters that we also grew up with from our comic books,” RZA said. In the case of the two films that screened at the Metrograph, the kung-fu concepts incorporated in the film were real techniques practiced by true martial artists, according to RZA.
Despite Hollywood’s borrowing of martial art techniques for decades, some of the most impressive elements of “Five Element Ninjas” and “House of Traps” are the use of weapons, which superhero movies have yet to incorporate, RZA said. “We haven’t really mastered the Asian style of weaponry,” he said, adding that the acrobatics and choreography in the two Cheh films are some of the most inspiring and entertaining in any martial arts movie.
So does RZA ever see Hollywood replicating the action of “Five Element Ninjas’s” expert pole fighter versus the samurai swordsman? “I think we will,” he said.