That glorious product of the Hong Kong film industry, the kung fu movie, did not start – and certainly did not end – with Bruce Lee. The genre grew out of the time-honoured Chinese literary “wuxia” tradition, which in turn came to silent cinema in the 1920s. “Wuxia” basically means “martial hero”, and can refer to a great variety of heroic figures – often called knight-errants in English – who are proficient in either use of weapons (typically the sword) or traditional martial arts, and most often display attitudes of chivalry and righteousness. Wuxia movies were banned in mainland China in 1931, which is why the popular genre transferred to Hong Kong, then a British colony. Wuxia movies are not kung fu movies as such, although the two often have many overlapping elements. Actual kung fu movies, to my knowledge, started in 1949 with the legendary adventures of Wong Fei-Hung, played in roughly eighty movies by the brilliant Tak-Hing Kwan, all the way up until 1981. Sadly, most of the earliest wuxia and kung fu movies are, as far as I know, lost, or at least extremely difficult to find. Consequently, the vast majority of Tak-Hing Kwan’s movies are unavailable, but it is possible to catch him as an old but sprightly master in titles like The Magnificent Butcher (1979) and The Magnificent Kick (1980), both very good kung fu movies for those with a taste for the genre (I rate them 8 out of 10 stars).
The modern kung fu movie – the point where Bruce Lee enters the picture – once again grew out of the wuxia genre. The 1960s were rife with Hong Kong produced historical action-adventures about heroes and heroines, sometimes with mythical martial arts powers. Many of these movies were very good; they could be quite accomplished “heroic age” adventure movies, but, if you take the view that the martial arts – the kung fu – should look real and impressive, then the wuxia movies often fell short. The martial arts scenes tended to be comprised of often-bad stunts and amateurish moves, too obviously edited into an unconvincing semblance of impressive action. This started changing right around 1971, just when Bruce Lee was making his entrance. His female counterpart, Angela Mao (who plays his sister in Enter the Dragon,1973), was perhaps as crucial for this development as Lee was, simultaneously introducing a level of martial arts proficiency that was obviously expert, and several classes better than what had been seen before (except, again, for Tak-Hing Kwan), in titles like Lady Whirlwind (1972) and especially Hapkido (a.k.a. Lady Kung Fu, 1972) and When Taekwondo Strikes (1973). Another highly Bruce Lee inspired early kung fu movie was the superior Back Alley Princess (1973), starring Polly Kwan.
The rest is history. After Bruce Lee came along to show the world how it’s done, Hong Kong became unstoppable in its steady churning out of kung fu movies filled with the craziest acrobatics, often of a very high technical quality (by which I mean the quality of the kung fu fighting; not the cinematic quality). Many of the movies were comedies, though possibly not always intended to be, but they nonetheless tended to be filled with zany characters, jaw-dropping martial arts styles (upside-down horse boxing! Yay!) and more surprising story twists than you can shake a stick at. Extreme wackiness indeed, and so thunderously entertaining that a huge fan-base evolved, but sometimes there were also serious dramas, crime stories and outright fantasy movies (such as Zu: Warriors From the Magic Mountain, 1983), all under the kung fu umbrella.
Of course, the strongest stable of the kung fu movie is the revenge drama, where some bad guy who is a kung fu master is hurting the hero or his loved ones or people in general, and the hero must learn enough kung fu (or find the resolve to abandon his non-violent ways) to beat the bad guy. These movies are usually set in a past without guns, and they come in many varieties, from comedies to intense war dramas (like for instance Twin Warriors, a.k.a. Tai-Chi Master, 1993, starring genre luminaries Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh). If you watch enough kung fu movies, you get the impression that all of Chinese history, from pre-Imperial days and almost up to the present, is riddled with martial arts heroes who rooted out crime and corruption, using only their hands and feet and chivalrous morals. I often wonder what the true history of Chinese martial arts is; how it started, how it developed, how widespread its use actually was, etc., but this is very difficult to discover. I hear that those who try to trace the origins of martial arts are led from China to India to Egypt and even to Europe – because martial arts is actually something that all cultures have had at various periods of the Middle Ages. It’s a historical stable of any major culture going through martial periods prior to the invention of gunpowder, and the reason we currently find it freshest in Asia is that those cultures are still more connected to their Middle Ages than we in the West are connected to ours.
Okay, let’s get on with it. The last point I want to mention is that there are two major kinds of kung fu: shaolin and wu-tang. Shaolin is about inner power and what the human body is actually capable of. Wu-tang is about external power, transcending the normal limits of human capability. In short, when a kung fu movie is using wires to show jumps and kicks that look completely unreal, we might simply be in wu-tang territory where the practicioners are so adept that they have become super-human. In wu-tang movies, characters might be able to fly and make things explode (think Swordsman II, 1992), while the shaolin movies are rather more down-to-earth, focusing on more realistic fighting (a very nice example is Shaolin: The Blood Mission from 1984, which is however Korean and not from Hong Kong). Most kung fu fans, including myself, like the shaolin styles best, and you could do worse than watching just about any Hong Kong movie with “shaolin” in the title (there are more than a hundred of them); they rarely disappoint! There are not as many wu-tang movies, and they often cross over into fantasy territory.
There are a great many good kung fu movies, and picking out the ten best is very difficult. The choices have to be subjective, and of course I have to admit to the sad fact that I have by no means seen every kung fu movie that exists. But, I am working on it! And I trust I have put together a list containing many entries that other kung fu aficionados will acknowledge as particular high-points of the genre. No, none of Bruce Lee’s four movies (five, if you count Game of Death) made the list; they are good, but they are also too much of a mix between the eastern and western styles of movie-making to make a good and coherent whole, and they tend to have too long stretches where nothing happens.
Now, finally, the list of the best:
#10 Legend of a Fighter (1982)
This is the movie that was remade into one of Jet Li’s best movies: Fearless (2006). The original is superior. Legend of a Fighter is completely engaging and at the same time highly realistic. You don’t see somebody becoming a master overnight; at one point the movie jumps ahead 12 years to show that it damn well takes time to master a decent kung fu style! The climax is against über-cool Japanese samurai actor Yasuaki Kurata, and the entire national honor of China is at stake. The drama is intense and the fight scenes are nothing less than stupendous. This is old-school wireless fighting at its best, helmed by one of Hong Kong’s premiere martial arts choreographers, Woo-Ping Yuen, not to mention the stellar fighting skills of the great Ka-Yan Leung, a.k.a. “Beardy” (although he is actually beardless in this particular movie).
#9 The Legend of Drunken Master (a.k.a. Drunken Master II, 1994)
There comes a time in every kung fu star’s life when he will play Wong Fei-Hung, and this is Jackie Chan’s. This movie was probably prompted by Donnie Yen’s very cool Iron Monkey from the year before, of which The Legend of Drunken Master might almost be seen as a much brighter, funnier and more action-filled competitive remake. A bumbling Wong Fei-Hung is trying to both please and escape his parents’ authority, all the while (naturally) getting into fabulous and furious fights. Most self-respecting kung fu movies always have a climactic 30 minutes of almost pure fighting, and don’t hesitate to check this movie out to see what one of the best of those looks like. This movie was directed by the single best and coolest kung fu dude besides Bruce Lee, namely Chia-Liang Liu (a.k.a. Lau Kar Leung), of whom we will hear more further down this list.
#8 Ip Man (2008)
Donnie Yen made a good impression in his very first movie (Drunken Tai Chi, 1984), and although his preference seems to be for modern day action dramas, his first career high came with 1993’s Iron Monkey. But after that he didn’t really succeed in making a really big name for himself until after 2000, where he appeared in Blade II and Hero (both 2002). His next few movies didn’t cause much of a stir, but at age 45 he finally hit the big home-run with 2008’s Ip Man; a fictional but amazingly dramatic and fight-filled account of the early days of Bruce Lee’s kung fu instructor. Yen’s native genius is not for comedy, and Ip Man is indeed a very serious drama, set against a backdrop of extreme social strife. Yen is one of the fastest and hardest fighters around, and the swift pummeling he showcased in Iron Monkey is on even more effective display here, for all kung fu fans to enjoy. The 2010 sequel, Ip Man 2, was a decent action movie, but not at all in the same league as this.
#7 Mad Monkey Kung Fu (1979)
He’s relatively unknown outside of kung fu movie fandom, but he is the martial arts god at whose altar we worship: Chia-Liang Liu, a real-life kung fu master of the highest level, who would have had an amazing movie career if he had had something approaching movie-star looks. As it is, he has still had an amazing career, directing and acting in a respectable slew of great movies. His last masterpiece was Drunken Monkey (2004), which he did with Jacky Wu (see #3 below) and which I rate an 8 out of 10. His prime was in the ‘70s, though, and the best movie that he both directed and starred in has to be Mad Monkey Kung Fu, in which we are once again treated to the drunken style. Liu plays Chen, a Chinese Opera performer who can’t hold his licquor, but who just gets better and better at kung fu the more drunk he gets. His sister (played by the delectable Kara Hui, whose finest hour was in My Young Auntie from 1980 – a movie that almost made this list) is kidnapped, and Chen has to discover hitherto unknown levels of kung fu craziness in order to try and save her. He finds a young apprentice to do most of the hard work, and the sequences where they perform their intense mad monkey kung fu are every bit as technically amazing as anything Bruce Lee ever did.
#6 7 Grandmasters (1980)
The late ‘70s and early ‘80s were where most of the best kung fu movies were produced. If, like a true fan, you hanker for authentic martial arts, then 7 Grandmasters is as good as it gets. It features a likable master meeting other masters and going through a series of great fights, with his student watching and learning as he goes along, and eventually excelling beyond anyone’s expectations. Except for a few scenes where the student’s moves are obviously wire-aided (which is annoying, since this movie and these actors really don’t need it), this movie more or less ought to be the prime example and standard by which the martial arts content of other kung fu movies should be measured, because it is absolutely convincing and real-looking. To top it off, the structure of the story is excellent and there is real pathos at the end, when we have become so fond of the protagonist master that it is such a shame that an evil master is betraying all the lofty values and principles of proper martial arts heroism and serenity.
#5 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
This was the movie that introduced me to kung fu cinema in earnest – not back in 1978, but at a film festival in 2001 or ’02 – although I had seen a few cool tidbits such as Fong Sai Yuk (1993) half a decade earlier. But this movie, which stars Gordon Liu (and which is sadly also known by the title Master Killer, which is a terrible misnomer), was what real kung fu was all about: training, training, training! 36th Chamber of Shaolin, directed by the great Chia-Liang Liu (who also gave us the two great sequels), quite simply chronicles the making of a shaolin monk. The techniques he must learn; the moral attitudes he must cultivate – all deeply inspirational. This is just one of many kung fu movies that demonstrated the “wax on, wax off” principle of various forms of hard labor being beneficial to martial arts skill long before it was ripped off by a certain 1984 Ralph Macchio movie that shall remain namelessly burning in hell.
#4 The Prodigal Son (1981)
Yuen Biao, the brother-in-kung-fu-acting of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, tragically gets far too few chances to shine on his own. He has starred in several movies, but almost none of his solo vehicles have been very good (good, perhaps, but not very good) – except this one, in which Biao’s wing chun ability comes out in amazing detail. He needs to beat this other guy who’s going around challenging people, and he ends up being taught by an effeminate, eyebrow-less actor from a Chinese opera troupe, brilliantly played by the masterful Ching-Ying Lam. The final fight is very brutal and realistic, even though the combatants don’t actually hate each other but are just fighting for the honor of winning. The Prodigal Son is by far the greatest showcase for Yuen Biao and his martial arts skill.
#3 Tai-Chi Boxer (1996)
Jacky Wu (a.k.a. Wu Jing) has his first and best role in this movie, playing the obedient yet wild son of an elderly martial arts master. He has never been outside of his parents’ rural estate, until one night he decides he really needs a night on the town. Instantly, he gets embroiled in both politics and love, and despite being innocent in the ways of the world he is surprisingly adept at tackling it all using his father’s wisdom, his amazing kung fu ability, and a great sense of humor. These prove sufficient to sweep a sophisticated (and older) city girl off her feet, and expose the corruption of various city officials. The silliness is made even more delightful by the beautiful Sibelle Hu playing his doting mother with very effective comical skill. (NB: Never mind that this movie was marketed as Tai-Chi Master II; it has nothing at all to do with the 1993 Jet Li movie Tai-Chi Master a.k.a. Twin Warriors, beyond some techniques possibly based on tai-chi. It should be seen as being entirely its own movie, and referred to by its proper title, Tai-Chi Boxer.)
#2 Hero (2002)
Besides revenge dramas and comedies, Jet Li has rarely had a chance to show off his true acting chops. But he does in Hero, where he plays the title role; a complex character who pretends to be a hero, but is really an assassin, but ends up making a heroic choice. Experienced mainland director Zhang Yimou brings all of his directing skills to bear in this sublime exercise of extreme fantasy stylism, based on a political plot about the unity of China, played out in a stratagem of intelligent and Kurosawa-inspired character narration. It works beautifully on all levels and just keeps on working; the only reason it is not in the number one spot on this list is that it is an art movie more than a kung fu movie. A perfect 10 of a movie, also starring the mind-boggling talents of Ziyi Zhang, Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung.
#1 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Ang Lee’s masterpiece, based on an old literary martial arts classic and fused with a tiny whiff of a Jane Austen sensibility, is the most successful kung fu movie of all time, and deservedly so. It is a wu-tang fantasy where characters can fly across roofs and walk on walls, and there isn’t a single second when it doesn’t captivate our attention fully and entirely. We are enthralled by fantastic feats of swordplay, and no less so by the amazing looks and acting skills of Ziyi Zhang and Michelle Yeoh. The epic story has it all: love, adventure, regret, amazing action, student-teacher relationships, and an esoteric but strangely appropriate ending. Like Hero, it reigns supreme at the top of the list because it is superior to all others both in terms of visual splendor and plot substance.