Dan Halsted brings five secret kung fu films to AFS
It's a long way from Hong Kong to Austin – especially if you get lost in Canada along the way. This weekend, Portland, Ore.-based film programmer Dan Halsted completes the 30-year odyssey of some rare, mystery martial arts movies as he presents Old School Kung Fu Weekend at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre. "It's two days packed with five films and trailers, and we're not announcing anything," Halsted said. "It's fun to keep it all a secret."
All five films are part of a treasure trove of 200 prints that had lain undiscovered for decades in an abandoned cinema until Halsted uncovered them. Like any unlikely savior, Halsted had an unusual path to becoming a hero of film preservation. Growing up in a small town, Halsted called himself "one of those guys who knew a lot about movies I had never seen." Pre-Internet, his silver screen education came from film books and magazines, and "it wasn't until I was a late teen that I started delving into watching stacks and stacks of VHS movies." While he loved all cinema, it was particularly tough to get his training in the ways of martial arts cinema. He said, "A lot of kung fu movies, they only played theatrically in the Chinatowns in the major cities, or for the grindhouse audiences for the inner cities. But most cities, they never even played." Even some tapes he tracked down were bootlegs, recorded from the odd UHF broadcast on Kung Fu Theater. Halsted said, "A lot of people that come to my shows now tell me, 'This takes me back to when I was a kid and watching this on TV.'"
His quest has never ended. Halsted said, "When I first started programming movies, I was pretty surprised how hard it was to find kung fu movies on [35mm], and I was also surprised at how little anyone seemed to care. That really bothered me, so I'm really going to try to track down these films, because I'm a little worried that they're going to disappear." In 2004, he founded Portland's Grindhouse Film Festival, the Rose City's celebration of all cinema sleazy and extreme, to help save and celebrate this disappearing cultural resource. Five years later, a celluloid treasure hit him like a drunken boxer: several near-pristine trailers on 35mm. He said, "Usually everything's faded, ripped up, scratched up, but these were in great shape, had great color, looked like they'd barely been played."
He went back to the Canadian dealer who had sold them, but could not cajole him into revealing his magical source. Then, a stroke of luck: "One of the trailers he sent me had a movie ticket inside it." Halsted traced the ticket to a cinema on Hastings Street in Vancouver – just outside of the city's Chinatown. It closed in 1985, but he found the owner and shared his theory with her: that the prints had been shipped in from Hong Kong and never shipped back. "She put me in touch with the right people and gave me a key, so I just flew up there with my wife." This was no pleasure trip to the Great White North. Hastings Street is pure grindhouse skid row ("There were people shooting up and doing crack," said Halsted), but his dangerous mission paid off. He said, "I tore a panel off the stage, and all the film was under there."
Over the next few weekends, he cataloged and removed all 1,000 reels. "It wasn't all kung fu films," Halsted said. "There was some more obscure stuff, off-the-wall Chinese horror, but it was mostly martial arts." But then there was the big question of what to do with them. "The owners didn't want to give them away, and they didn't want to sell them, but they were interested in a tax write-off." Enter the American Genre Film Archive. Formed in 2009 by Alamo Drafthouse supremo Tim League (see "Forgotten Films Find a Home," Dec. 25, 2009), the Austin nonprofit was intended to preserve his archive of roughly 1,400 prints. Halsted's Hastings Street haul was its first major donated collection. "We had the films legally donated to Tim, and he picked up the shipping bill," Halsted said. "We had to get a full-sized semi because of the weight."
This wasn't Halsted's only archive victory. In total, he has rescued roughly 300 full prints – many of which he keeps "here in Portland in a secret subterranean location" – and is negotiating to save another cache of 600 titles. Often what he uncovers is like the Vancouver haul – unmarked, abandoned, and maybe even lacking an English language title. According to Halsted, there's only one way to really know what you've got: "You have to run it."
AFS presents Old School Kung Fu Weekend June 28-29, at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre, 6226 Middle Fiskville. Visit www.austinfilm.org for tickets and more info.