It’s no accident that Agnes Varda’s Kung-Fu Master! has two forms of punctuation in its title; it’s at once concerned with the grammar of cinema as it is the merging of different cinema tropes/styles/modes of production, putting its hyphen to use and it does it with such aplomb that the exclamation point is apt – though adding another wouldn’t seem ostentatious when considering how much energy fits into its meager runtime. And that title almost feels like some sort of cinematic nom de guerre, tricking its late 80s audience into expecting a martial arts film and getting something much more complex, sweet and altogether Varda.
Kung-Fu Master! may not be a martial arts film, but that doesn’t mean it is without action. Functioning like some sort of bastard child of the arcade focused cinema of the 1980s – Tron, The Last Starfighter, The Wizard – and the more formalist, later period entries into the French New Wave; Varda delivers a film that is not only unquestionably the product of her but also of the decade in which it’s from. When not dealing with the exuberant French arcade culture in which the titular game is from, it tells a tale of coming of age during the AIDS crisis calling together a time and place – even the arcade cafes have condoms available to their young patrons – rife with paranoia, abandon and budding romance.
The romance at the center of Kung-Fu Master! is an elongated version of a piece of its companion film Jane B. par Agnes V. in which Jane Birkin plays a middle aged woman who has an affair with a teen boy, played by Varda’s son Mathieu Demy. It’s a relationship that on paper seems aberrant – and is seen as such by the other characters in the film – yet seems almost wholesome in the face of the crisis on a global scale taking place in the background, with AIDS news coverage playing on TV sets ala a zombie outbreak or some such horrific disaster would in genre cinema.
Kung-Fu Master! finds itself in a strange place in Varda’s cannon – it comes almost directly (separated only by a couple of short subjects) after the much more serious Vagabond and (outside of the aforementioned companion Jane B. par Agnes V.) just before Jacquot de Nantes – a film based on the memoirs of Jacques Demy. Though imbued with a sense of family thanks to Mathieu Demy’s presence on screen, it feels decidedly distant especially when considering how autobiographical Varda’s work would get in the coming years with Jacquot serving as a benchmark in her family focused work going forward.
Bursting with energy – those arcade scenes are fantastic – and dealing with the AIDS epidemic in a way that may only be rivaled by Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang, Varda created something utterly unique with Kung-Fu Master! Perhaps best viewed alongside its companion film (both now available restored thanks to Cinelicious Pics), it is nearly indescribable – but with enough hyphens and exclamation points, you’ll get the idea.