Why US distributors used sex to sell martial arts movies, and other twists

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New York-based librarian Chris Poggiali's expansive collection of martial arts posters tells an alternative history of kung fu films.

Poggiali's posters show how American distributors, sometime unscrupulously, tried to attract US viewers to Hong Kong films by adding liberal dashes of sex and violence to the posters, changing the names of the films, and even lying about the content.

Poggiali's collection has been 40 years in the making - he started collecting back in the 1980s, using the money he earned from his newspaper delivery round - and also features many kung fu newspaper advertisements culled from microfilm in various libraries and archives.

Some of his collection can be seen in the film history book These Fists Break Bricks . Poggiali talked the Post through his alternative, poster-driven history of Hong Kong kung fu films.

There's an amazing poster tagline for The Dragon's Fatal Fist that says, "New York's got Harlem, but no ghetto in America can compare to the rat-hole slums of Shanghai." Did distributors often try to localise the film's marketing like that?

The US distributors had figured out pretty quickly that the main audience for martial arts films were the minorities. To connect with urban viewers - mainly African- Americans - they would change the titles of the films to things like Soul Brothers of Kung Fu, or Black Belt Soul Brother. They would find some connection to an American urban audience.

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Some of the posters take a salacious, sexy angle on the films

There's a reason for that. In the summer of 1973, when the kung fu craze was at its height, the US Supreme Court's decision regarding obscenity in films came down. So a lot of the distributors who had been dabbling in hard-core pornography got out of it.

They wanted to get into something that wouldn't land them in prison, so they immediately switched to action rather than X-rated hard-core material. Overnight, a lot of the theatres that would have normally run adult films started showing martial arts double features.

The distributors even renamed Angela Mao Ying's Lady Whirlwind as Deep Thrust and gave it a sexy poster. What was that about?

That was a tip of the hat to the porn movie Deep Throat, as that film had become a sensation that year. They tried to cash in on two different fads - pornography and martial arts - with one movie!

PHOTO: Twitter/classic_film

After seeing the salacious posters, were audiences disappointed that Hong Kong martial arts films were generally chaste affairs?

Unlike the posters, the trailers would make it clear that they were action movies. If there was nudity in the film, that would be cut into the theatre trailer, so you knew what you were getting. [Legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman's production company New World Pictures] put all the nudity and violence in the trailers - that was the selling point.

Is it true that Roger Corman asked for a sex scene to be filmed for a Shaw Brothers movie specially for the US release?

Yes, Corman had a sex scene filmed for The Water Margin . He requested that Shaw Brothers filmed a scene with some nudity. It was an R-rated scene which featured topless girls, and that footage went into the trailer.

PHOTO: Twitter/ IMDb.com, Inc.

How about the posters for the Bruceploitation films, the lookalike films that cashed in on Bruce Lee after his death?

The official - for want of a better term - Bruceploitation films had the lookalikes like Bruce Li, and with those guys, just their presence on the posters with their names was enough to push the films.

But some of the movies, when they came to the US, had their titles changed to things like Blood Brothers of Lee. They just made the titles up - Blood Brothers of Lee had nothing to do with Bruce Lee.

A couple of years later, when ninja films were popular, it was re-released as Snake Fist Versus Ninja. So it was the same movie with two deceptive titles!

Also, it seems like if there was a cast member in a film who had been in a popular movie, the posters would link them together.

Yes, for instance, Lo Lieh was in Five Fingers of Death, and so a distributor who had another film he was in renamed it The Return of the Five Fingers of Death. Any time the actor who played Han in Enter the Dragon [Kien Shi] was in something, they would put him on the poster, saying, 'Here he is, you remember him, he was Han in Enter the Dragon .' That was done three or four times.

PHOTO: Twitter/donwinslow

Most people think merchandising is a modern way of parting fans from their money, but it seems like there was a big trade in martial arts merch back then. Any of that in your collection?

I have the Kung Fu television series View-master. [A View-master was a small, binocular-like toy which showed still pictures in 3D.] You could also get Super-8 film reels for Shaw Brothers films.

Magazines like Black Belt Magazine would always have ads for merchandising like posters and swords. In the 1970s, it was all was Bruce Lee posters and decals. That was all mail order stuff, you'd find it in the classified sections.

PHOTO: Twitter/zakiscorner

There were even kung fu comics in the US, like Shang-Chi and Iron Fist …

I have a few of the comics. There was a crossover between martial arts movies and comic books, because a lot of the artists who drew comics, like Dick Giordano [famous for inking a moody Batman for DC Comics], did the kung fu posters.

They would do posters, paperback book covers all kinds of commercial art - there was a lot of work for artists back then. Artists were attracted to kung fu films, as there were no live-action superhero movies then, only animated shows.

Martial arts movies, and then the ninja movies, were the closest you got to superhero movies in those days.

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved genre.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.