"Kung Fu Fighting: Rookie Director Battles Stereotypes,
Props, and Budget to Make Martial Arts Parody"

by Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle, 12 May 2001

It's a warm spring afternoon on the set of "Kung Phooey," a low-budget independent film by first-time director Darryl Fong. The movie will be a satire of kung fu films, with action sequences parodying "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and less exalted efforts by Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.

If all goes well, it should someday be coming to a theater near you. Or at the very least, a video store near you. In the meantime it is, like every other movie under construction, like a dismantled car engine: It seems a wonder that anyone could put together these things. It's a wonder how they're ever up and running.

On this day, on the western edge of Golden Gate Park, a man in the gray garb of a 15th century monk gets ready to fight off a pack of black-hooded ninjas. Crew members crisscross the set. The fight choreographer gets in some last-minute instructions. The seamstress works on a hat. And the director discusses camera angles with his director of photography.

With the help of a harness, Nathan Tong flew away from attacking ninjas while filming a scene for 'Kung Phooey' in Golden Gate Park.

Then the word comes to roll cameras and sound. Everything stops. All the energy fuses. Suddenly everyone wants only one thing — for it to be good. The assistant director yells, "Action!" And an entire set's tension is released through the actors. The monk is fighting off the ninjas. Swords whip through the air. The monk ducks and twirls and goes into a spin. As he does, he is lifted eight feet off the ground.

"Cut!" Off to the side, out of camera range, four guys who'd been pulling on a cable slowly release it, and the actor playing the monk lands softly on the ground. It will take several takes to get the shot just right.

Fong has been carrying around the script of "Kung Phooey" for 10 years. "I was an actor, disgusted with the opportunities for Asian actors. There were no really great parts," he says.

"So the movie points out the stereotypes. It takes the conventions of the Van Damme and Seagal films and pushes them further. But also, in an entertaining way, we have a message about prejudice and stereotypes. In the end, it's like the outer layer gets peeled back."


Director Darryl Fong gave direction to his actors and crew.

Updating the screenplay for today, Fong added sequences parodying "The Matrix" and "Crouching Tiger." "But I threw out 'The Matrix' parody because it was already done, in 'Scary Movie.' The 'Crouching Tiger' scenes take off on the scene when they're standing on the bamboo, swaying in the wind, a beautiful shot."

In Golden Gate Park, that shot is reduced to one in which the monk and the ninja face off while standing on potted plants. To get the shot requires a lot of effort. A cherry picker is brought in. Wires are rigged to the bottom of the picker and attached to harnesses worn by the actors under their robes.

They are lifted up and hang like forlorn sides of beef, while technicians work out the details. One problem is that the actors, having been lifted off the ground, don't stay facing each other. They inadvertently — and helplessly — turn in circles. So the shot has to be taken quickly. The actors have to be arranged face to face and let go, and the cameras have to roll, fast.

Days later, Fong says he has decided not to use the shot after all. "When actors do wire work, they wear full-body harnesses that go under the crotch and around the chest. On a bigger-budget movie, the harnesses are made specifically for the actors, so they fit like a glove. We were using prefab harnesses, and they pulled on the clothing. They didn't fit well enough."


Fong and has crew members, who have been putting in 12- to 14-hour days, expect to be finished filming by the middle of next week. Then there will be some pick-up days to fix any technical problems. After that, he has to find someone to distribute it.

A camera caught Nathan Tong running away from a group of attacking ninjas while filming a scene for 'Kung Phooey.'

No one makes a movie without really wanting to make a movie. Fong, who turns 42 next week, wanted this one bad enough, he says, that he wiped out his savings and "hit up" friends and relatives.

"We're trying to do something with limited time and money," says Fong. "If no one buys it, I'm stuck. I'm just hoping we're successful, so the next one we don't have to do like this."

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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