CCAD adjunct’s films get restoration, distribution deal
Columbus College of Art & Design Film & Video Adjunct Faculty William Lee is a prolific filmmaker whose early martial arts films are set to be restored, preserved, and released by the American Genre Film Archive in 2021.
Lee’s films set for theatrical release through the archive, known as AGFA, include Dragon vs. Ninja, The New Chinese Connection, and Treasure of the Ninja. (Read a review of Treasure on the blog Bleeding Skull here.) Lee’s movies will be restored to 4K Ultra HD and released on blu-ray.
“Each film is action-oriented, as martial arts is my specialty. As an example, Six Feet Below Hell was released four years ago and spent an unprecedented three years at Redbox. It was a mixture of action and horror and became one of Redbox's most successful indie releases,” Lee says.
AGFA, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit, counts among its advisors a number of film-world luminaries, including Alamo Drafthouse founders Tim and Karrie League; filmmakers Paul Thomas Anderson, Anna Biller, Frank Henenlotter, and Nicolas Winding Refn; musician RZA; exploitation film preservationist Lisa Petrucci; and genre film experts Zack Carlson and Lars Nilsen. AGFA houses more than 6,000 film prints, a 4K film scanner, and theatrical and home video distribution arms for Shout! Factory, Arrow Films, Vinegar Syndrome, Xenon, and many others, as well as distributing titles on home video and to theaters. It has represented such low-budget exploitation/horror films as Phantasm, Dolomite, Re-animator, and Ringu, and has a client base of more than 300 theaters.
Bleeding Skull noted the diversity of Lee’s cast in Treasure of the Ninja, as well as its strong women characters, neither of which were typically found in 1980s DIY cinema. “Treasure of the Ninja has to be one of the most inclusive no-budget films to come out of the 80s, and William Lee is among the woefully small handful of Black filmmakers to come out of this golden DIY era of filmmaking,” says reviewer Annie Choi.
Lee’s approach to making films is “one of diversity, adversity, and by any means necessary,” he says. “I cast according to talent, not color or gender. I always face adversity in terms of access or money, but find ways around those obstacles. And I get films done regardless of the circumstances.”
Lee, who also served as Martial Arts Film Curator for the El Rey Network for a time, is a prolific filmmaker, producing two or more features each year. Most are self-funded, he says, and all are in major distribution. His current projects include Black Wolf, an autobiographical film about his childhood experiences with bullying. Bayview Entertainment and The Bosko Group are releasing ten of his theatrical titles this year on DVD and streaming outlets. AGFA’s retrospective of his early martial arts films will be released through Shout! Factory/Vineger Syndrome next year.
Lee says he hopes his film students learn “to break the rules, avoid over-analysis, and have persistent dedication to the completion of a project.”
“Filmmaking,” he says, “is my life. I’ve been doing it since I was 14. I anticipate at least another 40 years of this madness!”
We asked Lee to share an influential film, his favorite movie scene, and a piece of writing he recommends to film students. Here’s what he said:
What has been an influential film for you?
M by Fritz Lang. German Expressionism is my favorite film genre, next to martial arts films.
What is your favorite movie scene?
The Godfather, when Michael rushes to the hospital to protect his father.
What piece of writing do you recommend to film students?
A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
Read more about Lee and his work in this blog post on The Last Dragon Tribute, an online community for fans of the cult classic The Last Dragon.