After the deep, dark, dank winter of discontent in So. California, with two tornadoes in Los Angeles and snow falling on San Diego beaches, the home city of the director of who most believe his film Five Fingers of Death (1972; aka King Boxer), was the first English-dubbed, wide-released Chinese kung fu film, Alakazam The Great, shown in the USA in March 1973.
Yet the reality is, there’s a film of similar vintage with a different backstory that has changed this agenda, the real first English-dubbed Chinese kung fu/wuxia film that featured the voice of the teenage heartthrob Frankie Avalon in the wider released Alakazam the Great (1960; aka Saiyuki) that arrived stateside in 1964.
Life stories can be wrapped in fate, destiny, God and/or so many other existential facets that we as humans knowingly or unknowingly confront daily. In life, we look for reasons as to why we’re alive, what is our purpose, how does our past shape who we become? A popular sentiment is that what we have in life, we didn’t find it, it found us. Alakazam is all of this to me, and it took me half a lifetime to figure it out.
How do I compare the first movie I saw at five…where my dad, a hard-core sergeant major in the British Army, who trained troops for World War II, must have struggled with his PTSD in order to take me to see the film…with me watching it 62 years later on my March 30, 2023, birthday? And why half-a-lifetime to make the connection?
Alakazam the Great
I’ll begin by sharing that I believe in fate and destiny where we learn that coincidence is not a coincidence. Alakazam is also the first martial arts movie that I ever saw. It’s a Japanese anime adapted from a Chinese kung fu novel about the Monkey King, Swuin Wu-kung, from Journey to the West (mandarin title: Xi You Ji), and it was playing in a theatre in the middle of nowhere, England, in 1961, in a country still living in the past and distrusting Japan via WWII. Yet this Japanese film was in the wee village of Tadley.
Coincidence or not? I was also born in the Year of the Monkey and when it comes to cinema today, Fant-Asia and martial arts films are my shtick.
Here are my childhood memories of the film. Alakazam was a wee monkey who fights with a pole and zips around the sky on a cloud. He had three friends: a pig with a rake; a cannibal who wielded a pole with a half-moon blade that he used to burrow underground; and a Prince. I vividly recall an impish, child-like villain dressed in shorts with a horn on top of his head, which he used like a telephone to call a raging bull who had a witch wife that owned a giant feather. Alakazam eventually returns home to save his sick monkey girlfriend and they lived happily ever after. It had a huge visual impact on my memory.
Coincidence or not? At 16, my doctor said I’d be dead from the deadly lung disease cystic fibrosis (CF) in five years. Some folks know that two weeks later with my death by suicide at hand, I saw what I thought was my first Chinese kung fu film, Bruce Lee’s Big Boss (1971). Lee changed my mind to ignore spitting out pieces of broken lungs and to fix my health by doing what he does. Yet how could I possibly know what he was doing?
Due to CF, the only way I could keep up my weight and energy levels was by eating a lot of candy, where I would often buy at wee local stores. The CF medication I was on fogged my brain and because of it, studying schoolwork was tough and I hated reading. Thus, what happened the day after my Lee-induced, life epiphany is such a remarkable event that I’m still bewildered as to how what was about to happen, happened.
The Big Boss
I was on a candy run at an Upstate New York store and for reasons unknown, when I walked past the magazine rack as I had done for the past five years, I suddenly stopped, and felt compelled to look up at the top rack. I reached toward a Teen Beat magazine with a David Cassidy cover and grabbed the magazine hidden behind it, to reveal the Secrets of Bruce Lee's JKD Training Techniques with an attached bonus magazine called Kung Fu, which detailed that Shaolin monks train not to fight, learn to heal rather than hurt, and use chi gong to save the lives of children dying from unknown diseases.
Within a day of crucial need, something answered my call, made me see Big Boss, which convinced me to fight to live, have me find two hidden magazines on a rack that I’ve never looked at before, in order to help me create a cunning plan to save my own life!
Also, what are the odds of overcoming my fear of insects by changing my major at Cornell from environmental engineering to entomology and my undergraduate research thesis was learning praying mantis kung fu from a mantis, a style that uses monkey style footwork and I just so happened to be born in the Year of the Monkey. And oh, that’s what Alakazam is about, the adventure of kung fu monkey, a film that I saw at age five.
This story gets even wackier. In Part II, I’ll cover Alakazam, and how it and the rest of the wackiness comes to a climactic fruition of even a more bizarre critical moment in my life that also became a vital part of my existential paradigm.