Maybe you don’t know about Films at the Gate, but you’ve probably walked through its space. The outdoor film program makes its home just a few blocks away from our city’s most prominent multiplex, with screenings held at the Chinatown Park on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, right past the gate itself. This weekend brings the 11th iteration of the festival—events are scheduled for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, all at 7 pm—which has made its reputation by exhibiting Chinese-language films to a primarily Chinatown-based audience. The movies themselves are hardly obscure, with past choices featuring stars like Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan. But if you’ll indulge an anecdotal observation, it seems that much of the Boston moviegoing scene has yet to hear much about Films at the Gate anyway. It’s hiding in plain sight.
The series was founded back in 2006, when it was hosted by an empty lot on Hudson Street. Its creators were representatives of the Boston Street Labs (whose project has since relocated to New York), the Asian Community Development Corporation (who still present the screenings), and curator Jean Lukitsch (who continues to program the events themselves.) Lukitsch has long studied and worked at the intersecting point between martial arts and cinema: She is a film scholar who has written prolifically about the martial arts genre; she is a former projectionist who worked at two of Boston’s long-gone Chinatown theaters; and she is a tai chi teacher at the famed Bow Sim Mark Tai Chi Arts Association (which has a cinematic tradition of its own, given that Bow Sim Mark is the mother of Donnie Yen.) Her programming has been remarkably diverse throughout the years, featuring everything from forgotten silent films to contemporary blockbuster comedies, with the one common point being that the chosen films are usually representative of the cultural value of martial arts training. Lukitsch has written often about the development of kung fu cinema—and her past decade of programming has put that same history on display.
The trio of feature-length films playing this year continue that study: One is a documentary about a martial arts grandmaster, another is a period piece with numerous martial arts sequences, and the finale is an underseen favorite from a golden age of the genre. Pui Chan: Kung Fu Pioneer  is the leadoff, and it profiles the current grandmaster of the Wah Lum Kung Fu Association, a Chinese immigrant who helped to popularize martial arts in the United States, in part by starting a school in Boston during the 1960s. His influence will be on display before the movie begins—Friday’s event will begin with a performance by a team from Wah Lum Kung Fu, who will stage a traditional Chinese lion dance as part of its demonstration. Saturday’s event features The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake , which dramatizes the historical record of Chinese revolutionary and proto-feminist Qiu Jin. And Sunday concludes the weekend on a lighter note, via The Kid with a Tattoo , a lesser-known entry from the legendary Shaw Brothers catalogue, which reveals itself to be one of the genre’s more formally exuberant and exquisitely choreographed comedies.
That these films are being screened under the stars is not necessarily the main attraction, because you can barely walk through a park in Boston without finding an advertisement for a different free-to-the-public outdoor film screening program. Another notable standout of this format is the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s nearby Coolidge at the Greenway series, which screens at the Wharf District Park and distinguishes itself by managing the herculean task of exhibiting high-quality 35mm projection (all other programs rely on digital formats) in a space that’s surrounded by neon lights and honking cars (it’s got one more screening set for this season, Vertigo , which is scheduled for Wednesday, Sept 14). The films that both programs select must be family-friendly and suited to the environments—Lukitsch recalls a moment where she realized Films at the Gate couldn’t play John Woo’s movies, because doing so would result in high-volume gunshots ringing out through downtown Boston for two straight hours—but most of their peers select films from an even narrower set of criteria. The rule is to rely exclusively on the sort of movie that’s presold to the preteen crowd. Ambitious programming and emphatic presentations make Films at the Gate and Coolidge at the Greenway into exceptions.
“Family Film Festival at the Prudential Center” screened Minions , The Good Dinosaur , and Inside Out  this summer, and will continue with Mary Poppins  this Saturday. “Free Friday Flicks at the Hatch Shell” screened Minions, The Good Dinosaur, and Inside Out, and will continue with Ant-Man  this Friday. “Summer Movie Series at Assembly Row” screened Minions, The Good Dinosaur, and Inside Out, and will continue with Ant-Man this Saturday. “Mayor Walsh’s Movie Nights” played host to Minions and The Good Dinosaur, and will play Monsters University  at Harambee Park in Dorchester on Monday. And this list is barely complete, as it leaves out various other public screening programs in nearby municipalities, most of which also have schedules that function as Dreamworks/Pixar box sets. One such program is “Movies on the Common,” which will kick off a three-week run on Sept 9 with—you fucking guessed it—a screening of Minions.
Meanwhile Films at the Gate features curation that stretches beyond the features, with short films and martial arts demonstrations scheduled for each night of the weekend. After Wah Lum on Friday, the Daoist Gate Wudang Arts team will perform on Saturday, followed by the Bow Sim Mark Tai Chi Arts Association on Sunday, and the contributions of these local institutions advance the stated goal of the series—to recapture the indescribably-communal moviegoing quality once created by those Chinatown theaters. “I know a lot of people would come every week to see the movies,” Lukitsch remembers from her projectionist days, “to be at a social gathering where their culture was celebrated.” What she’s recalling is an alternate corner of film culture—one that has proven itself inimitable and irreplaceable, despite its continued erosion—one that’s entirely separate from what’s represented by the multiplexes and outdoor screenings found elsewhere in Boston—and one which Films at the Gate aspires to bring back, if only for one weekend per year.
FILMS AT THE GATE RUNS FROM FRI 8.26 THROUGH SUN 8.28. ALL EVENTS BEGIN AT 7PM. CHINATOWN PARK ON THE ROSE KENNEDY GREENWAY, BOSTON.