Hello, friends. This week I’m focusing on a pretty obscure topic: the films of Steve Wang. He’s a Taiwanese-American FX artist who worked on movies like PREDATOR, MONSTER SQUAD and GREMLINS 2, and in the ’90s he directed a few martial arts related b-movies. That makes him relevant to my interests. I remember Film Threat Magazine making a big deal about him back in the day, and writing about ’90s comic book movies inspired me to revisit his work. Yesterday we looked at GUYVER (1991), the manga-based monsterfest he co-directed with fellow makeup genius Screaming Mad George.
IMDb lists KUNG FU RASCALS as Wang’s second directorial work. According to this old interview, it was filmed right before GUYVER, mostly on weekends, over a period of about ten months, from fall of ’89 to the next summer. But post-production took place after GUYVER, thus the later video release as THE ADVENTURES OF THE KUNG FU RASCALS.
Wang himself stars as Chen Chow Mein, a name that demonstrates the movie’s “just trying to amuse ourselves with dumb bullshit” approach to humor, and that I can’t deny I would consider racist if this was made by white people. He didn’t really want to act, but for convenience had starred in the trailer he made to try to sell the feature, and just kept doing it. Chen and his friends Lao Ze (Troy Fromin, FORTRESS OF AMERIKKKA, THE PERFECT WEAPON, apparently playing characters named “Ox” and “Scud” on Saved by the Bell around this time) and Reepo (Johnnie Saiko, another makeup artist who appeared in ROLLER BLADE WARRIORS: TAKEN BY FORCE, which Wang directed second unit for) are, we assume, the titletacular rascals, who find themselves on what I suppose technically counts as an adventure after Chen steals some kind of ancient map.
Chen is the most competent of the three, and behaves like an earnest kung fu hero. The other two act goofy, a brand of broad humor not unlike some of the old school kung fu movies they’re mimicking.
Lao Ze is a chubby white dude who models himself after a photo of Bruce Lee pasted on the back of a mirror. In his first scene he self-applies latex eyelids to mimic his hero, which he soon tears off, but he keeps the wig. Other than this pop culture reference, it seems to take place in an unspecified past without cities, cars or guns. I’d like to think that he actually has a picture of Chen Zhen and this exists in the world of FIST OF FURY, but I have no reasonable arguments to support that theory.
Reepo is the most endearing. Maybe I just like his costume and his mohawk. He mugs and goofs around and every once in a while they have an encounter where they spin around and swing a scimitar at pig men or something. In one part they practice moves in silhouette. I definitely agree with that, even if it’s for a gag about Lao Ze doing a bad job.
Wang and some of the others have credible kung fu moves, and there’s an authentic Kung Fu Theater feel to this grainy footage of dudes fighting out in a bunch of tall grass, but I wouldn’t say they are strong martial arts sequences. One cool part is a stunt where Wang Spider-man climbs up a wall, demonstrating “sticky flypaper technique.”
I think this might be a non-Wang approved addition by the distributors, but I like it: the names of the characters appear on screen as they’re introduced. Not in a freeze frame Guy Ritchie kind of way, but as subtitles, which reminds me of the crazy kaiju compilation GAMERA: SUPER MONSTER that I long ago taped off of cable and used to watch over and over. If not for this technique I would not have caught the names of lead villain “Bamboo Man From Ka Pow” (Ted Smith, who is in all of Wang’s films and has various visual effects, makeup and art department credits) or his toadie “Raspmutant the Mad Monk” (Wyatt Weed, visual effects artist, miniature maker, uncredited “Boar Predator” in PREDATOR 2). These two characters scheme and plot in an evil throne room, and I can’t say they’re very exciting scenes, but I like the general vibe of them as visually darker and grimy (because of the Super-8 and bad transfer) versions of Power Rangers type villains. That genre of Japanese television, called tokusatsu (I looked it up), is clearly one of Wang’s biggest influences.
Raspmutant’s pigman makeup is particularly good, and there’s a creepy witch lady at the end that looks like something out of Harryhausen (though I think probly a regular puppet, not stop motion).
The villain who’s outside of the throne room, and actually gets to fight the Rascals, is “Sheriff of Ching Wa County,” played by none other than Les Claypool, frontman and virtuosic bass player of the band Primus. Or at least that’s what IMDb says. In truth, his name is not mud, Jerry was not a race car driver, and Wynona did not have a big brown beaver. The actor and composer for this movie is actually a different guy, Les Claypool III (no relation), who also scored Wang’s GUYVER: DARK HERO, but mostly mixes the English versions of anime movies, sometimes under the name Les E. Claypool.
This actually had me wondering if IMDb had misled me about which Claypool did the score for the horror movie PIG HUNT, but then I remembered that the actual Primus guy is in the movie. Phew. No retraction necessary. That would’ve been a pretty big blow to my credibility, because people put alot of stock in what I have to say about PIG HUNT, a movie that they know exists.
The sheriff is surrounded by other goofy characters such as the effeminate “Dar Ling” (Ted Smith again). (There’s a character that you wouldn’t do now.) His associate I liked most is the Imperial Torture Master (Matt Rose, transportation department, Water Rats), who’s dressed kinda like Ozzy Osbourne and acts like Hitchhiker-in-TEXAS-CHAIN-SAW-MASSACRE meets Chop-Top-from-part-2. I thought it was kind of funny that his ultimate torture of Lao Ze is to pull off his wig and cut pieces off of it.
The last act is definitely my favorite part. Two giant-sized stone idols come to life – maybe a reference to the Japanese classic DAIMAJIN – and battle each other on a beach. The costumes are cool looking and the perspective shots are well done.
I like when Chen throws his staff to one of them to use like an icepick to stab the other one.
Researching KUNG FU RASCALS, it seems to have kind of a cult following of people who enjoyed it back in the VHS days. I can’t remember how much I liked it back then, but now I found it to be a chore to get all the way through. In that interview, Wang says they worked from a 30 page script written in 5 days. I’m surprised they had that much figured out in advance. There’s pretty much no narrative drive, and it feels like every scene is at least twice as long as it should be. It definitely seems like a comedy, but I couldn’t point to very many jokes or laughs.
It should be noted that I think the DVD I watched is the edited-for-video version that Wang doesn’t approve of. But I already thought 1 hour and 41 minutes was at least 21 minutes too long for this material.
Still, just like with GUYVER, I’m impressed by the various crazy monsters and stuff. In this one it’s a first-timer and a few friends with a $40,000 budget, so there’s less production value and more scrappy home-made charm. There’s no “I like this story,” but there’s some “Oh, cool – they did a miniature” and even an occaional “that’s actually a nice shot there.”
In his next film, Wang would be able to combine that imagination and ambition with vastly improved storytelling and action filmmaking skills for what I consider an unheralded gem of a ’90s b-movie. Stay tuned.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.