Hong Kong action films, a retrospective: Stephan Berwick & Mike Woods at the Museum of The Moving Image

The Moving Image musuem in Astoria, Queens runs a pretty cool monthly series called Fist and Sword which is an event that screens contemporary and classic martial arts movies from all over the globe! Last sunday, they had martial artists Stephan Berwick & Mike Woods, both pioneers from the western hemisphere who graced hong kong action films as performers/stuntmen in the 1980’s & early 90’s! The program was curated by Warrington Hudlin as they showed clips of their special guests in all their kickass glory on the screen with a Q&A session-open forum to follow. There was also a screening of Stephan Berwick’s new 15 minute short film called “Final Weapon” starring Ren Guangyi (Chen tai Chi master) & Mike Woods with a special guest appearance by Lou Reed! They were all in attendance at this event at the moving image! Take a walk on the wild side, baby!
I was getting pretty hyped up when they were introducing each guest by blaring old school hip hop joints when showcasing action clips from each of their selected filmographies! Stephan Berwick graced the screen to ERIC B & RAKIM’s, FOLLOW THE LEADER & Mike Woods got intro’d to PUBLIC ENEMY’s, FIGHT THE POWER! My bobblehead was rockin’ back & forth side to side to Rakim & Chuck D’s aggressive lyrical flow while the kung fu action jackson erupted the adrenaline to the danger zone! A quick bio from berwick & woods revealed that they both got discovered by YUEN WO PING & his crazy clan at their kung fu school in Boston with their famed teacher Grandmaster BOW SIM MARK! Miss Mark is the mom of famed HK actor/martial artist DONNIE YEN! Donnie was a bit younger than Stephan & Mike at the time when they both were studying with his mom. They describe DONNIE YEN jokingly as a wannabe b-boy when growing up in Boston! Donnie’s 2nd “break” (pun intended!) in the film industry included a break dancing-Fu eclectic movie called MISMATCHED COUPLES from 1985! It’s a fun & entertaining flick! It’s worthy of a viewing if you martians can get wind of it! When Donnie was filming mismatched couples, he had asked Mike Woods & his friends to show him a few break dance moves with some pop and lock techniques to which they happily obliged in b-boy style with that celebrated stance!
Stephan & Mike were the 1st wave of martial artists from the USA who were hired by the Yuen Wo Ping clan to guest star in fight sequences when street style HK action was getting too hot to trot so they needed some new tots to kung fu fight for real! Hong Kong directors were in the need for foreign bad boy faces & badass traces of whoopass for hire! As Stephan & Mike described, Yuen Wo Ping & his posse wanted to hire highly skilled martial artists that needed no training that did no nonsense fight sequences, & stunts to the directors raw liking and fly back to the states with no questions asked for basically a barrel of moo shu. The pros of this was that these foreign kung fu cats could get exposure to more films & guest appearances . The cons were that they basically were at the mercy of the crazed directors. Stephan & Mike endured lots of painful outtakes of action sequences & had to take the brunt of full force kicks & punches from the stars of the movie. A question from the audience peeked more interesting stories from the duo including: Did you get challenged to fights on the movie set? In general, they both said no, asians usually challenged asians on the film sets, & left the foreigners alone. (maybe because the americans were bigger and more outrageous!), but they mentioned that there were some instances when competing stuntman-martial artists from other nations like England/Australia would be a little jealous because the dynamic duo from the states were brought in by Yuen Wo Ping. Mike Woods described one encounter in the gym when a friendly challenge by an englishmen ended pretty quickly when woods executed a spinning heel kick to the young lad’s head! Stephan mentioned that his nickname on the movie set when translated to english was “vicious legs” or “poison kicks”. He was known for his outrageous kicking combinations which prompted other stuntmen to challenge him to a little kicking competition. Suffice to say, the other stunthands left him alone after they got a thrashing from the poison kicks! Stephan Berwick did most of the talking in the discussions at the moving image event, but I really appreciated the brutal honesty of Mike Woods when he grabbed the mic. He stated how defiant he was when working in the hong kong movie set & how much more work he could of gotten if he just held his voice in. Woods was not scared to express himself to protect his neck despite the harrowing circumstances beyond his control in the hong kong film industry at that particular time. Woods was a very passionate, honest, & a very headstrong guy. I respect that.

The finale of the event concluded with a screening of Berwick’s short film “Final Weapon”. It stars Ren Guangyi (Berwick’s Tai Chi teacher), Mike Woods, & a guest appearance from Lou Reed (also one of Guang yi ren’s students). There’s very little dialogue in the film, as the images & action speaks for themselves. The mood & heartbeat of some of the scenes were enhanced by Lou Reed’s vintage music (Street hassle,Finish Line,The spirit, & Set the Twilight Reeling). The film throws out the notion to the viewer similiar to weapons of mass destruction, the pondering crucial decision to take that final battle and at what costs? Master Guang yi ren answers that question in the movie with his decision, but the final answer has to be explored in each viewers mind relating to current affairs and not just relegated to combat alone. The actors of the film were also in attendance including Lou Reed as they all assembled on a panel after the screening to answer a few questions! Jose Figueroa, the producer of the film & also, one of Guang Yi Ren’s senior students joined the roundtable for a discussion.
It was a fun afternoon event at the moving image museum that left me thirsting for some action movies! It’s nice to get insider information during a period of filmmaking when Hong Kong action films were at its rawest, most beautiful, & purest form albeit that it was at the expense of the actors & stuntmen. Mike Woods & Stephan mentioned that this all changed for the good when Jackie Chan & his stunt team started to get safety equipment & procedures in place after learning from hollywood! Check out Stephan Berwick & Mike Woods in action in some of my favorite 1980’s modern HK movies in the TIGER CAGE & IN THE LINE OF DUTY series! (see video below with Donnie Yen Vs Mike Woods + Stephan Berwick in TIGER CAGE!)

I’ll leave you with the final question posed to the panel: What is your favorite martial arts movie? Jose Figueroa(Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon), Guang Yi Ren (Ang Lee movies including PUSH HANDS), Lou Reed (47 Ronin), Stephan Berwick (Kung Fu Hustle), Mike Woods (danced around the question).

Make sure to checkout the MOVING IMAGE MUSEUM in Astoria-Queens, folks! I can’t believe I’ve waited this long to check them out! They have a pretty neat archive of photos, costumes, movie sets, toy collectibles, old school arcades, and everything in between relating to american cinema! The collection of vintage production video cameras, film projectors, sound equipment, film editors, microphones, TV’s, phonographs, & radios blew me away! It was a straightup history lesson and timeline for the audio/videophile! Moving image had a few vintage & operational mutoscopes of charlie chaplin movies for you to watch, too! It was awesome! They also had a display called the FERAL FOUNT which was amazing to see in action! It was basically a series of different sculptures spinning on a wheel which created an image when strobes of light were shined on the sculptures in the dark. It basically recreated an animated scene. Definitely check out the Museum of Moving Image for other cool events! Next week, they’ll be screening KING HU’s film, THE VALIANT ONES (1975) with Sammo Hung as the fight choreographer! Represent, y’all! King Hu redefined swordplay-wuxia films with straight as an arrow storylines and non stop action…one time for your mind! The KING pretty much started the rage in swordplay films which I’m sure influenced the period piece chops & passion of TSUI HARK! We love big country films! Tsui Hark’s latest gem includes DETECTIVE DEE & THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME! Check it!

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