Brighton Wok: The Legend of Ganja Boxing

As I find myself lurching into my mid-40s, I have become increasingly convinced that not habitually smoking pot was one of the greatest mistakes of my youth. As it happened, I was far too impressed by authority and far too grossed out by a poorly rolled joint to ever really get into it. It’s a shame really, as I think that if I’d been a little more laid back, gotten a little more laid and a lot more stoned, my life might have taken a very different and more benevolent course.

Watching Brighton Wok, England’s first Kung-Fu movie, strengthens this conviction enormously. For in this film, the key ingredient to success is ganja. With enough marijuana use, a young man can achieve enlightenment, become a Kung-Fu master, avenge his father, liberate his hometown and win the pretty girl.

The film is set in present day Brighton, an incredibly beautiful and scandalously relaxed city snuggled between the white cliffs of the southern coast of England. The story begins with the arrival of Vafan Cuolo (Samson Byford-Winter), an evil Italian ninja. After quickly forming a Kung-Fu militia, Cuolo moves into the Royal Pavilion (George IV’s pleasure palace), surrounds himself with Sussex sex kittens, and takes over the Brighton Pier. Brighton clearly has one Italian tourist too many.

Using the “Devils Claw” Kung-Fu style, his army of ruthless henchmen and an outrageous Italian accent, Cuolo proceeds to take over the entire city of Brighton. The city council and the police are helpless before the onslaught and for most of the movie his most formidable opponents are two indomitable old ladies (Carolyn Savidge and Moya Howard). Undeterred by ninja menaces and undaunted by a series of bloody, corpse-producing failures, they mobilize the local martial artists, gangsta’s, and an army of townsfolk to defeat the evil ninjas.

The ninjas’ most formidable opponents

Unfortunately, Cuolo mops the floor with them all and Brighton seems to be doomed. The hippies (a sizable percentage of Brighton’s population) are harassed, beaten and finally driven into exile. Shipments of weed are intercepted. All of the businesses are taken over by Cuolo, and a once fair city is littered with ugly construction sites. It’s almost as bad as having a Walmart move in.

But all is not lost since our hero, Ryu (Richard Forsyth), has finally gotten a girlfriend, a reporter named Bella Brown (Laura Byford-Winter) and has learned the location of the Ganja Master from the Crazy Old Man in a Tree (Rue Barratt). Ryu is now ready to learn the secrets of Ganja Boxing from the reclusive Ganja Master (Randolph Barrington). One smoke filled montage later we are ready for the ultimate showdown. You bring the bong, I’ll get the nachos.

The story of how Brighton Wok was made is actually a bit stranger than the plot of the film. In January 2003 three teenage friends, Gabriel Howard, Samson Byford-Winter and Richard Forsyth were sitting around getting stoned and bemoaning the fate of the West Pier, a beloved Brighton landmark that government indifference and corporate hostility had reduced to a ruin which would catch fire three months later. Being in Brighton, being stoned, and being second generation hippies as well as Kung Fu devotees, the plot line for the movie came quite naturally.

The sad inspiration for Brighton Wok

Gabriel had been experimenting with short films since he was eight so he decided to make a 15-minute short about a Ninja taking over Brighton. By the end of the year it was complete. The story might have ended there but, after seeing the short feature, Gabriel’s parents said that they would invest some money in some equipment so that he could make a full feature length film. At this point nobody knew how much more money and time it would take but in January of 2004 the shooting began.

Gabriel’s older brother Saul Howard (Producer, Asst. Director, Ninja), Oscar Freemantle (Technical Jack of Trades, Perennial Ninja Victim) and I met at The Rock Pub in the Kemp Town neighbourhood of Brighton. The Rock is a neighborhood place, equidistant from the Kemp Town Gardens where Lewis Carrol was inspired to write Alice in Wonderland, and the nude beach where inspirations of a different sort occur. (Sensitive walkers should avoid the bushes nearby.) The customers are locals from age 18 on up and students from the nearby language schools. The older blokes swear that this was where Ozzy Osborne wrote “Paranoid” back in ’70, regardless of what the Rock encyclopedias may say.

We sat in the garden at a wooden table surrounded by flower baskets and Saul did most of the talking. Oscar was (quite understandably) absorbed in his Harvey’s Best Sussex Bitter. Saul started telling me how the movie progressed, “The whole thing started to snowball, whole families were getting into it. We’d put up a few flyers asking for extras and 300 people would show up at the beach on a cold rainy morning. It kept getting bigger and every body was encouraging us.”

Enthusiastic townsfolk charge the ninjas

Not only were they getting encouragement from the neighbourhood during the shooting, but they also acquired some vital skills. “Theo Majendie knew a little about CGI when he started but he kept getting better, he’s at the BBC now. Ben Sarfas did the music almost entirely by himself, played most of the instruments — just brilliant. His sisters and brother were backup singers on some of the tracks, his whole family helped,” Saul said.

Having come from Chicago, I couldn’t help but smile at the Brighton version of gangsta’s. I asked about this. “We don’t have any gangs in Brighton, that’s all in London,” Saul said, “You remember the last guy standing (in Brighton Wok)? He works with youth offenders so his lines came from the kids he worked with. We got beer breakers though. They drink beer and break dance but nothing violent.”

Another vital skill was the mastery of Kung-Fu (or at least, some semblance of knowledge). The training was provided by Iain Armstrong who until recently ran the Namyang School of Kung-Fu in Epsom. “Sam (Byford-Winter) and Rich (Forsyth) had studied with Iain for a while. Rich invented the Ganja style moves himself but all the really tough looking Ninjas were Iain and his students. The other martial arts guys were Steven Guthrie and his students, he teaches Samurai technique.”

Saul and Oscar wouldn’t allow any of the very interesting conversation about their learned martial arts to be quoted, but I can tell you that the speed and precision with which they hand rolled cigarettes was most impressive. If my first joint had looked like their cigarettes I say again my life would have changed for the better. Oh, well.

We discussed the Internet and how it helped with Brighton Wok ‘ s distribution. “We couldn’t have done it without the Internet.” said Saul. “We took our cue from the music scene. You don’t need a big studio if you can get out there and tell people what you’re doing. I started the blog in June 2004 and we were getting support and encouragement from all over the world. We got all these messages from Texas where all these kids, 14-16 year olds, would be dressed up as ninjas and waving weapons.” I almost choke on my drink. No way. “Yeah really. It was great having all these kids in their mothers’ basements, cheering us on. It was all over the world but it seemed to be concentrated in Texas.”

Vafan vs. the hippies

So why is Kung-Fu so big in Brighton? (And apparently in Texas, too) “Well its hippy parents. We grew up Buddhist and people were always doing Tai-Chi so Kung-Fu just appealed to us.” Apparently, the great ‘80s sell out, in which millions traded their tie die Ts for power suits, touched Brighton only lightly.

What’s an Italian ninja doing in Brighton? “It just grew that way let’s make the villan Italian! Sam loves Italy. He travels there every chance he gets and he wants to start a Kung-Fu school there one day.”

The trio finished filming in December 2006 — but it took three years to make this low-budget flick. “It wasn’t three years was it?” asked Saul. Some discussion ensues as notes are compared. “Nobody was able to do this full time. Everybody was working, going to school. We’d have to get a location, and then get all the actors together. I’d be begging people, ’Please don’t cut your hair for a few months.’” I asked if ganja had anything influence in the delay and Oscar speaks up. “Probably that, as well.”

Post production proved to be difficult but they got some help. “The movie guys, not the executives but the guys who actually make the movies were great. We got lots of free help, lots of advice. They loved the craft and they’d work as hard for us as for the studios. The movie is what’s important to them. We also found out that we weren’t alone. They’re making zombie movies in Swindon, ” said Saul.

Finally, on 11 July 2008, Brighton Wok opened at the Duke of York theatre in, where else, Brighton. Most of the cast have since returned to their normal lives. Saul and Oscar are thinking of going to India to check out Bollywood filmmaking. Iain and some of his students have moved to Northern Thailand and are opening a Kung-Fu school. Gabriel Samson and Richard all plan to visit him soon. Sadly, Randolph Barrington, who played the Ganja Master, passed on in April. The film is dedicated to his memory.

Brighton Wok can be purchased in DVD-5 Pal video format at Brighton

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