Long before he made his name as sensei of the sprawling Wu-Tang Clan universe, RZA, aka Robert Fitzgerald Diggs, was an obsessive fan of kung fu cinema. Moved by the theme of uprising against oppression prevalent in many of the stories, RZA used to skip school with his now late cousin Russell Jones (fellow Wu-Tang member Ol' Dirty Bastard) to catch as many grainy showings as possible in a seedy Times Square movie theater. Diggs was particularly moved by Hong Kong director Lau Kar-leung's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin—so much so, in fact, two of Wu-Tang's albums were named after the 1978 landmark film. The tributes continue this weekend, when RZA performs the soundtrack to three sold-out screenings at the Hollywood Theatre.
"We were originally going to be the first venue RZA performed the live score at a few years back, but things just didn't line up until now," says Hollywood's head programmer, Dan Halsted. "We've been dying to get him here for over two years and are ecstatic it finally worked out."
The Hollywood, with its wildly popular Kung Fu Theater series and extensive film archive, is the perfect spot for such an event. The genre is Halsted's favorite, and he's made it his mission to collect every movie devoted to that form of martial arts, combing the globe for prints, some of which he owns the only known existing copy. That passion for preserving kung fu footage caught the eye of Quentin Tarantino—RZA's friend and collaborator—and a relationship between the two soon formed. Not only has the Oscar-winning screenwriter borrowed several of Halsted's films to show at the historic Los Angeles theater he owns, Tarantino even made a surprise appearance at the Hollywood during a 2015 screening of The Hateful Eight.
Beyond the Hollywood's glorious film library, Halsted has his own kung fu-related story of oppression. In 2008, he was brutalized by Portland police who mistook him for a vandal, leaving Halsted with serious injuries, including facial fractures. When he sued, the city tried to blame his movie archive by saying he'd used kung fu to resist arrest. That tactic failed and Halsted was eventually awarded a hefty settlement by a federal jury, which he then used to expand the kung fu collection.
"It's so ridiculous, and to think of it now you have to laugh, but obviously, at the time, I didn't think it was funny," Halsted says of the incident. "It ended up really helping both the Hollywood and Kung Fu Theater series greatly since it gave me more money to seek out and purchase rare kung fu prints, ironically enough."
Halsted considers The 36th Chamber of Shaolin one of the greatest films of all time, and having its most famous champion accompany the screening with a live score feels like the culmination of years of dedicated hard work.
"Honestly, I have been truly blown away by Portland's amazing response to the kung fu series and our dedication to film in general," he says. "And what's great is, it's been successful not because of marketing, but because of people telling their friends. And I don't burn the audience—I feel like people trust me enough now to come see something they've never heard of before, and that feels great."
Viewers will most certainly find themselves in rarefied air with RZA's upcoming performances. Being lucky enough to see him live in any capacity is amazing. Witnessing his talents in a venue the size of the Hollywood is an unbelievably rare treat. From Halsted's perspective, however, it's simply a chance to nerd out with the rare human who loves kung fu cinema as much as he does.
"Honestly? I'm just excited to meet him and discuss kung fu movies. I'm super excited to see his face when I show him the archives," Halstead says, beaming like a kid discussing Christmas. "I'm sure it'll light up just like Quentin's."
SEE IT: RZA: Live from the 36th Chamber screens at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org. 3 and 9 pm Saturday, 1 pm Sunday, April 27-28. Sold out.
RZA's Top Five Movie Moments
1. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
This enigmatic Jim Jarmusch film about a hit man (Forest Whitaker) who lives by the samurai code was the first time RZA provided the original score for a film, and he absolutely knocked it out of the park. RZA created an aural environment as mystical and haunting as the movie's visuals, and it's nearly impossible to think of one without the other.
2. Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)
RZA's first real acting role sees him paired with fellow Wu-Tang member GZA in Jim Jarmusch's ultra-meta series of vignettes. The duo discuss the pros and cons of caffeine with their waiter, "Bill Groundhog Day, ghostbustin'-ass Murray," as GZA so accurately describes him in the semi-surrealist clip in which no one seems to find it strange that Murray is working as a server.
3. The Man With the Iron Fists (2012)
RZA's first time in the director's chair saw him lead a cast that includes Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu after shadowing Quentin Tarantino on the Kill Bill and Death Proof sets to learn the craft, which is probably the best film school one can experience.
4. Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003)
As with Ghost Dog, RZA's production on the soundtrack to this first installment of Quentin Tarantino's bloody martial arts epic is an integral part of the movie and matches its hyperkinetic vibe. When you picture Uma Thurman as the Bride confidently striding past her many felled enemies, victoriously splattered in blood, one does so with RZA's beats accompanying her.
5. Cut Throat City (2019)
RZA's latest project as director comes in the form of a heist film set in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, post-Katrina, and features names like Terrence Howard, Ethan Hawke and Wesley Snipes. Due out later this year, the movie could signify a new era in the artist's career as he pivots away from kung fu cinema.