Review: ‘Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks’ is a wildly entertaining snapshot of the beloved genre

Review: ‘Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks’ is a wildly entertaining snapshot of the beloved genre

Words by Luke Carlino

One minute you’ll be on the edge of your seat, the next you’ll be in fits of laughter.

We all know about kung fu movies, but for most of us, they probably just conjure up thoughts of excessive blood splatters, out-of-sync lip movements, and maybe the odd Wu-Tang track. Australian director Serge Ou is looking to educate us about the far-reaching influence of the genre in his new documentary Iron Fists and Kung Fu Kicks that has premiered as part of Melbourne International Film Festival.

From the humble, local beginnings of the genre in Hong Kong, to Bruce Lee’s popularisation of the art form and films in the West, Ou dives into the Hong Kong film industry and how it spread throughout global culture (and still does today). 

The film features interviews with industry legends like Sammo Hung, and more well-known names of today like Michael Jai White along with various other film buffs and actors who recount the influence that Kung Fu movies have had. One of the more interesting points raised in the film is how kung fu was essentially birthed out of the Peking opera and ballet with one of the most popular movies in the genre, the 1967 classic One-Armed Swordsman. This film connected with audiences as it came out around the same time as the Hong Kong riots, which weirdly relate to the Shaw Brothers setup, a studio that dominated Hong Kong cinema at the time while forcing its workers into factory-like conditions.

The documentary takes a deep-dive into how Bruce Lee tackled Japanese racism, the rise of the Golden Harvest film studio in Hollywood, David Carradine and Warner Bros’ take over of the genre while nodding to classic films like Five Fingers of Death and Enter the Dragon. 

The most interesting elements of this film, however, are the explorations into kung fu’s influence on American culture, specifically on hip hop and breakdancing; further to this, the current-day influences which reach as far as Adelaide and Uganda. The film is well-edited, fast-paced (much like kung fu itself) and covers some in-depth kung fu rabbit holes that you likely would never have known about. Sure, there is plenty of stuff left out, but including the entire expanse of kung fu cinema history in a couple of hours is merely impossible.

If you are a fan of Hong Kong cinema or even kung fu in Hollywood, Iron Fists is an informative tribute to martial arts that cannot be missed. It’s worth a view purely for the section on stunts alone, which is borderline insane.