Sometimes when you were reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book you would come to a fork in the road and after what you picked didn’t work out so well you would back track to the fork and try the other choice… Only to find out that the other option lead you right back to the exact same place. It didn’t matter which one you chose; fate was going to push you to the same resolution either way.
The more I watch these old school Kung Fu movies at the Hollywood Theatre, the more I realize how they operate like a Choose Your Own Adventure. Which is to say that they always have a semblance of a plot, but they events could be juggled around and it wouldn’t matter in terms of how sensible the overall story was. Also, the films tend to convey the same sort of feeling, even though some of them are fairly realistic and some of them involve quite a bit of supernatural tomfoolery. But the main thing that makes me think of them as being like Choose Your Own Adventures is that more than any other genre I can think of you get the sense that it doesn’t matter what choices the protagonists make, their paths are pre-defined for them.
Take the hero of Five Fingers of Death. He’s a noble guy, slow to anger, and he won’t use his super disciplined hands to answer for petty insults to his ego. In that sense he’s the total opposite of a lot of Kung-Fu protagonists, who are often hotheads who have to be trained in the proper way to be a man after they pick a fight and suffer humiliating defeats. But it doesn’t matter that he’s a peaceful man – he’s still going to end up getting into the same number of brawls as the hothead.
Or, to pick another example: at first our hero has an enemy with Klingon eyebrows, and after the good guy defeats his awkwardly coifed foe in battle a few times the villain recruits some Japanese mercenaries to help him out. However, towards the end of the movie the Klingon realizes that the Japanese mercenaries have no honor and that he doesn’t want to win using their methods. But his redemption doesn’t mean anything in terms of the narrative – I’ve seen enough movies where the coin toss went the other way to know that there isn’t much difference between seeing our hero versus the mercenaries or the Klingon versus the mercenaries. In fact, if you removed his minute long contrition speech I’m not sure that I would have noticed.
Of course, none of this takes away any part of the technical artistry that these fighters display. Paying attention to the plot in these movies is like admiring the river barge that fires off the fireworks instead of the explosions: it might be a marvel of modern engineering, but it isn’t the show. And on that level Five Fingers of Death works fairly well – the Klingon’s awkward hairline seems to be a byproduct of his habit of headbutting things and there’s some pretty solid headbutts in this movie. But it is an observation about why the novelty of Kung Fu cinema is maybe wearing off on me after going to it steadily for a few years. It’s not that Choose Your Own Adventures aren’t fun, but there’s a certain point where you get what they have to offer and you can move on.