Yung Chang is the multi-award-winning director of Up the Yangtze《沿江而上》(2007), China Heavyweight《千錘百鍊》(2012), The Fruit Hunters (2013) and Gatekeeper (2016). In 2015, Chang was a Fellow at the prestigious Sundance Institute Directors and Screenwriters Labs, where he worked on his first dramatic feature, Eggplant.. Chang’s films have screened at international film festivals including Sundance, Berlin, TIFF, and IDFA, and have played theatrically in cinemas around the world. His latest feature documentary, This Is Not a Movie, which follows the controversial Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk, is now screening virtually and at select theaters around the country. (Photo by Richmond Lam.)
When I was a kid, growing up in the 1980s, my dad was the culture filter in our household. He’s Shanghainese, so he learned English by watching old movies. Before we had a VCR, he would go to the library and borrow silent Super-8 movies of abridged films such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The Adventures of Robin Hood. We’d sit in the basement, staring up at the flickering screen and watch these movies with the whirring projector at our ears. He inadvertently turned my brother and me into movie buffs.
When the VCR arrived — a clunky, heavy metallic construction with VHS top-loader that ejected like a DeLorean gull-wing door — our family experienced a paradigm shift in our cinematic advancement. Suddenly, we were consuming contemporary Hong Kong and Taiwanese entertainment borrowed from friends or rented from video stores in Chinatown. Epic kung-fu soap operas with comedic blood-spurting decapitations, ridiculous high-flying acrobatics, and bad-ass swordplay. Intermixed with this, a couple of movies stand out as exceptional: Five Element Ninjas (1982) and Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids (1986). And, what the hell, I’d add Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids II (1986) and Young Dragons: Kung Fu Kids III (1987). Five Element Ninjas is about a martial arts student who seeks revenge against ninjas trained in the five elements (fire, earth, wood, gold, and water). In order to defeat them, he must learn the elements himself. It’s insane and outlandishly violent. The ninjas have almost magical powers, but water beats fire, if you catch my continental drift. Eventually the evil ninjas die a gruesome, bloody, campy death. And it’s fucking awesome. Especially for a Chinese kid growing-up in boring small-town Canada.
Then there were Kung Fu Kids I, II and III. My brother and I became obsessed with this series of films around the time we spent a summer in Taipei. We felt like we were actually the Kung Fu Kids. It’s about these three countryside youngsters, all expertly trained in martial arts, who go to the big city to look for their grandfather’s missing bird. It’s a comedy. Hijinks ensue, such as an epic showdown in a boxing ring against a giant white wrestler. And they kick his ass. FUCKING AWESOME. I feel like I’m reliving scenes from those movies right now as I’m typing this. Hi-ya!
Which leads me to Turbo Kid, directed by RKSS Collective (made up of François Simard, his girlfriend Anouk Whissell and her brother Yoann-Karl Whissell), a lovingly crafted ’80s throwback to the films of our childhoods or, more specifically, an ode to those schlocky, crazy films with all sorts of cool shit going on like discovering underground worlds, and weird-looking people with crazy hair who wear crazy costumes and spooky masks and ride tricked-up BMX bikes. And lots of blood-spurting. Tons of blood-spurting. Turbo Kid is a culmination of those ’80s movies that we were fascinated and freaked out by and daydreamed about all the time. The movies that were so inspiring to us, we’d relive scenes from them and then recreate them at the jungle gym in the park or in the creek behind the house. We’d fashion weaponry out of cardboard and dress-up in our parents’ clothing, build fortresses out of mattresses and cushions, and outfit our BMX bikes with any ol’ doodad we’d find in the basement that looked cool. Did we all once find a cool-ass ski-glove, attach a Game Boy to it, and imagine it was a laser-shooting weapon? Are we that predictable in our collective ’80s nostalgia? Or rather, are we shaped and defined so influentially from our juvenescent pop-cultural references that walking into a screening of Turbo Kid is like a communal reliving of the fucked-up suspended subconscious of a thirtysomething audience who’ve lived through the dirty ’80s?
In this sort of filmmaking, we’re at the theater to see the inventive bloody violence. Bodies explode hilariously left and right. In particular, one scene has a spliced body flying in the air, the top half landing on a bad guy and the bottom half landing on another bad guy. It looks ridiculous, in all the right ways. Turbo Kid embraces an innocent and naïve violence that could only exist through the minds of kids who grew up in the gap between the Vietnam war and 9/11.
I’ve read that the Quebec filmmakers were influenced by The Goonies, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, BMX Bandits, The NeverEnding Story, Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive), Cherry 2000, and a 1984 Quebec classic called The Dog Who Stopped the War. You don’t need to have seen those films before diving into Turbo Kid, just embrace the whole bloody mess. Your younger self will relish it all. And you’ll fucking slurp it up like a Mr. Freeze on a 90-degree hot, summer day.