Some of the Best Martial Arts Movies You’ll Ever See
If you’ve visited our site in the past, you may have come across our weekly column focusing on Shaw Bros. movies and/or our other column titled, Fist Full of Film Fury. Many of our writers here at Goomba Stomp are huge fans of martial arts cinema and so we decided to put together a list of fifteen classic martial arts movies that we recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the genre. In addition, we’ve also embedded fifteen of our favourite scenes from these films. Enjoy!
36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang)
The Shaw Brothers Studio was the largest production company of Hong Kong movies and the most well-known producer of high-quality kung fu films. In their heyday, the studio produced enough movies to rival Hollywood; roughly 40 films a year, all made in the self-contained studio town aptly called Shaw Town. When discussing their back catalogue (of an estimated 800 films), one of the first films to come to mind is 36th Chamber of Shaolin which won the Best Martial Arts Award at 24th Asian Film Festival and was a major box office success in Hong Kong.
A cult sensation stateside, 36th Chamber of Shaolin follows a highly fictionalized version of San Te, a legendary Shaolin martial arts disciple, here played by legendary Gordon Liu (Pai Mei of Kill Bill), who learns the “Iron Fist” technique so he can fight off menacing gangs of Chinese and Japanese goons.
36th Chamber of Shaolin is widely considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films and a turning point for both Gordon Liu and its director Chia-Liang Liu. With almost half the 115-minute-running time dedicated to a nearly hourlong training sequence, Chamber might just feature less fighting than any of the other Shaw Brothers films. Yet that very training sequence is the stuff legends are made of.
36th Chamber of Shaolin also represents a directorial tour de force for the star’s brother (by adoption), who shoots with a unique style relying heavily on zooms (in and out), slow motion, close-ups and quick cuts to emphasize the fighting techniques. The training, in particular, is perfectly executed, allowing moviegoers the opportunity to see the true skills and talents of the cast. The action is some of the best choreographed of the era. As appose to your typical martial arts flick which is designed to set up one action set piece after another, 36th Chamber of Shaolin is more interested in the philosophy and purpose of martial arts – a movie that really celebrates the excesses of the art-form and views it as both a spectacle and sport. (Ricky D)
Above the Law
I cheerfully acknowledge that Under Siege is the better film, but Above the Law is the film that established Steven Seagal as a bad-ass. No one has ever broken arms on film quite like Seagal. The injuries always looked (and sounded) painful and permanent. Steven Seagal’s run as the baddest man on the planet started here and arguably ended with the success of Under Siege in 1992.
Early in this film, Seagal faces multiple opponents in the middle of a Chicago street, coolly evaluating who he can take and how quickly and then executing his plan, dropping opponents like so much kindling.
Put together by one of Seagal’s aikido pupils, Michael Ovitz, who was convinced that he could make anyone a star, Seagal was surrounded by a great, young director and teamed with Sharon Stone as his wife and Pam Grier as his partner, perhaps hoping that Sharon Stone finding Seagal loveable and Pam Grier believing him to be a bad-ass would achieve for Seagal the same effect as what Ingrid Bergman did for Humphrey Bogart.
“If a face like Ingrid Bergman’s looks at you as though you’re adorable, everybody else does too. You don’t have to act very much” -Humphrey Bogart (Michael Ryan)
Ashes of Time
Not many directors are supplied with the time and funds necessary to release a second cut of one of their projects several years following its original theatrical release. Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now), William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner) are three such examples, as is Wong Kar-wai with his 1994 effort,Ashes of Time.
Taking place in a desert landscape in ancient China, Ashes of Time somewhat follows the story of a semi-retired swordsman (Leslie Cheung) called upon by various clients to assassinate certain targets. The hitch is that the protagonist calls upon the help of other bounty hunters to do his clients’ bidding. The term somewhat is employed because nothing about the picture’s plot is simple. Multiple stories of loves lost, a curiously muffled narrative flow, and oddly edited fight sequences are cobbled together to create what looks and sounds like a movie but left most people baffled back in 1994. Cut to 2008, when Wong released a digitally remastered cut, Ashes of Time Redux. Looking more brilliant than it had in almost 15 years, the film was only slightly more coherent the second time around, yet the pleasures remained the same as they do today. Even after multiple viewings of Wong’s romantic wuxia opus, several key plot-related queries will undoubtedly be left hanging loose.
The secret to enjoying the picture lies in the word romantic. Despite that Wong’s narrative structure in Ashes is obstinately confusing, there are more than enough moments of poetically tinged exchanges, gazes of longing and desire, musical cues, and sumptuous shots of the desert vista that help hammer home the swell of emotions to found and cherished. Ashes is the sort of film that, to engage with it on any level, has to wash over you, in its sights, sounds, and unabashedly and classical romantic moments. Trying to decipher the throughline linking the revolving door of characters and motivations is virtually the worst manner in which to engage the picture, although first-time viewers will be forgiven for trying. Almost purely through visual and aural stimuli, Wong invites viewers to feel melancholic, mournful, and impassioned. Even considering his stunning propensity to accomplish just that in his other films, he does so with remarkable aplomb in Ashes of Time. (Edgar Chaput)
The Big Boss (Fists of Fury)
For whatever reason, when people think about Bruce Lee, the first film which springs to mind is Enter the Dragon. I have no idea why since that movie is a sham. The second obvious pick is Fist of Fury, (not Fists) eventually remade in the early 90s as Fist of Legend, the latter which starred Jet Li. That is a great movie, make no mistake about it, but it is The Big Boss, the movie that shot Bruce Lee into stardom which seems to win my heart the easiest. It’s a bit cheaper, a bit rougher around the edges and a bit more on the exploitation side of the spectrum of film genres.
Lee stars as a poor young man from mainland China who, at the behest of his uncle’s council, moves to another town for work in an ice block carving factory. Unbeknownst to them at the start of the film, their boss is using the factory as a front for his drug smuggling operations. Lee gets to know some of his cousins and make new friends who also work at the same plant, but when they start suspecting something is amiss, a few of them die (surprise!). Of course, it is up to Lee to save the remainder of his family and stop the ‘big boss’ from getting away with his scheme.
This movie is amazing, but amazing in that ‘wow, this movie is kind of on the cheap scale but still manages to be brilliant in an early 70s kung fu style sort of way’. You know what I mean, right? It is perhaps the Lee film (among his major films at least) which features the least amount of action, but it is there and it is pretty cool What’s more, The Big Boss is what started the entire running joke about Bruce Lee growling like a dog joke and yelling ‘Whhoooooaaaahhhhh!’ whenever beating the living daylights out of opponents. The first-ever appearance of the legendary sound effects occurs about halfway through. Lee is staring off against another man. Slowly, they circle one another, their glares burning. Suddenly, Lee shifts his head ever so slightly (presumably to unsettle his opposite) and the soundtrack booms with ‘Oooah!’, only to be followed with ‘Ggggrrrrrrrr…’ When the kicks and punches start flying, Lee is the quickest of the bunch, a formula-1 car in the shape of martial artist next to everybody’s ordinary Nissan. (Edgar Chaput)
The Blade (Doa)
Inspired by the 1967 Shaw Brothers epic The One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark’s The Blade reinforces that the director is a true innovator, a visionary, a remarkable stylist, and a man who knows how to direct action. In a style often compared to Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, The Blade is a constant, steady blend of hand-held camera work, quick cuts, visual motifs, symbolic imagery, and downright poetic juxtapositions. The fight scenes start out violent and blood-stained but gradually progress into grand artistic spectacles – some of the best you’ll ever see. (Ricky D)
City of Violence
Watching this movie, it is rather evident that director Ryu Seung-wan was directly inspired by Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill from 3 years prior. There is something about the style, the marketing campaign and most certainly about the blood lust induced climax which echoes Tarantino’s film. The story is about a group of four long time friends, now adults, who have gone down different paths. One is a mob leader (Lee Beom-su), one is a former gang member (the director himself) one is a cop (Jung Doo-hong) and another is a math professor (Jeong Seok-yong). After the murder of one of their friends who worked for a gang (which is a rather obvious hint as to what is going on), the differences between the once close friends become increasingly stark, forcing them to eventually confront one another once the truth behind the matter is fully revealed.
City of Violence is one of the rare Korean martial arts films to have made it big in recent years. Truth be told, ‘martial arts action’ is not the first thing that springs to mind when asked to think about major Korean cinema of the past dozen years. Director Ryu is known for his action films however, with City of Violence being a wonderful example of his lively, energetic direction and mastery of badassery. The film makes some attempts at creating a sense of mystery, although anyone who has seen a couple of films with a similar plot can figure out who the culprit behind the murder is about halfway through, probably even earlier than that even. No, the selling point for this film is the set pieces. There are no intimate fights in City of Violence, only three or four elaborate set pieces, but what the movie lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality, trust me, the most audacious set piece (as well as the funniest) being when the detective and former mobster characters are wandering the streets alone one night and are suddenly confronted by what looks like hundreds of teens and young adults from four clearly different factions (one of which likes baseball! Swing batter, batter!). 2 against a couple hundred. In the world of City, it actually ends up being a pretty fair fight. (Edgar Chaput)
The minds behind The Protector came bake three years later with another over-the-top martial arts film. This one at least had a slightly more comprehensible story, about a young autistic girl (Yanin Vismistananda) who lives with her sickly mother. Her father, a Japanese yakuza, is not longer around. The girl learns martial arts through, what else, watching television. When she incidentally becomes privy to knowledge about her mother owing some terrible gangsters serious cash, the latter who are threatening to take action…let’s just say the heroine decides to take action first.
Chocolate may not have as many truly ‘wow!’ moments as The Protector, but it is more than a worthy follow-up to the previous film. In movies such as this one, it is nice to know that the action is derived out of some sort of plot which makes sense on a minimal level, although after a while, it is natural for the viewer’s interest in the so-called drama to wane while his or her thirst for more combat grows. That is maybe the one fault that can be aimed at Chocolate: it does try to go for genuine emotion in the latter stages, just prior to the huge finale, but by then we really want to get to the huge finale right away. That being said, the action is top-notch, performing a careful tight rope walk between comedy and hardcore fighting. After all, this is but a young girl, an autistic girl for that matter, who is going about, warning big tough gangsters to stay away from her mother, and when the latter laugh it off, she absolutely thrashes them by the dozen. That can’t possibly be taken too seriously, but at the same time, a lot of the action is pure bone crunching and intense. The finale of this movie may just top that from Protector in fact, as the protagonist is both chasing after someone through a series of balconies and ladders outside a building and fighting off hordes of thugs. (Edgar Chaput)
Drunken Master II (Legend of Drunken Master)
Trained for the Peking Opera along with his “brothers” Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and Corey Yuan, Jackie Chan is the martial artist as dancer and comedian.
“Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers.” -Donald Westlake
Jackie Chan’s first big success was playing Chinese folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Drunken Master (1978). One of Wong Fei Hung’s students Lam Sai-Wing, also known as The Magnificent Butcher, settled in Hong Kong after his master’s death and trained the first generation of kung-fu actors and directors. In other words, the history and legacy of Wong Fei Hung is the history and legacy of kung fu films.
The first Drunken Master film was a comedic lark. The second film is all about the clown learning that there comes a time when the laughter must end. The last twenty minutes of the film, directed by Jackie Chan, is the finest set-piece in the history of martial arts cinema as Wong Fei Hung fights a series of increasingly more dangerous foes through a factory, like a kung-fu Charlie Chaplin in a martial arts version of Modern Times.
The secret power of this version of Wong Fei Hung is that he practices Zui Quan or drunken boxing. While real masters of Zui Quan fake being drunk, Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei Hung learns that he can become invincible by straddling that fine line between sobriety and drunkenness. While he continues to act the drunken fool, Wong Fei Hong is incensed by the crimes of his opponents and willingly sacrifices his future health to bring them to justice. In the climactic fight scene, he finds that to beat his opponents, he must drink increasingly strong alcohol until he is literally breathing fire. (Michael Ryan)
Fist of Legend (Jing wu ying xiong)
Director Gordon Chan along with action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and star Jet Li, all collaborate in what is essentially a loose remake of Bruce Lee’s chopsocky classic The Chinese Connection (a.k.a. Fist of Fury). Set in Shanghai in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Fist Of Legend touches on the mutual racism between the Chinese and Japanese—but put aside the tackled on love story, the historical references, and even the political overtones, Fist Of legend is essential viewing for any fan of martial arts cinema simply for the action scenes and not necessarily the plot, which admittedly is handled poorly.
For sheer martial arts action mayhem, Fist of Legend stands as one of the most impressive entries in the genre. As a pure adrenaline rush, it’s the closest thing to matching The Raid: Redemption as the martial arts sequences are deftly handled, showcasing Li’s awe-inspiring fighting skills. The legendary Yuen Woo Ping (Drunken Master, Wing Chun, Kill Bill, The Matrix) choreographs the high-flying, hidden-wire martial arts madness helping positioning Li as the true successor to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The action is top-notch, opening with one of the greatest sequences of all time, in which Chen (Jet Li) takes out an entire class of Japanese fighters. See for yourself in the video below. (Ricky D)
Heroes of the East
The inimitable Gordon Liu plays the Chinese husband to his Japanese wife (Yuko Mizuno), both of whom practice, love and espouse the virtues of the fighting styles of their respective nations. This, of course, leads to a marital rift by which the wife heads back to the homeland, makes her sorrow known to her former sensei and all of the latter’s most skilled pupils, each of whom has mastered a specific Japanese style: esoteric arts, karate, samurai sword fighting…you know, the works. Liu has to defend his pride by beating the crap out of each one.
Not only is Lau Lar-leung one of the undisputed masters of action filmmaking, handling his camera with constant graceful control to maximize clarity of the fights, but Heroes of the East literally has about a dozen fighting styles compacted into about 90 or 100 minutes. I mean, virtually everything is here for the viewer’s pleasure. Not only that, but each Japanese opponent is given one memorable character trait, thus making them stand out a little bit more than otherwise could have been the case. It is a martial arts film fan’s dream come true on film. It also works because it is a darn good story about how blind pride can hurt more than it can help, about opposing ideologies and eventually, something that is not present enough in films like this, understanding and respect between adversaries. (Edgar Chaput)
In this bio-pic, Donnie Yen stars as Ip Man, one of the earliest Wing Chun martial arts exponents and the man credited to have elevated its popularity in the early parts of the 20th century. Best known for his role as Bruce Lee’s first mentor, Ip Man is godlike amongst martial arts fans.
As far as bio-pics goes, Ip Man isn’t really award-winning material. The picture takes plenty of liberties with the facts of the legendary practitioner of the Southern Chinese fighting style. Even worse, it lazily sentimentalizes a complex period in Chinese history. Yes, it’s slightly exaggerated and fairly straightforward storytelling, but first and foremost, Ip Man is an excuse for Yen to demonstrate his newfound mastery of the Wing Chun style – and on that front, the film succeeds brilliantly.
Ip Man is a joy on various levels due mostly to the quality of the fights and the pure charisma of Donnie Yen. Ip Man also benefits largely from the lucid fight direction by the master Sammo Hung. The battle choreography is clever, and Yen a veteran in martial arts, makes the action intense with his incredible speed, confidence, and abilities— honestly presenting Wing Chun for what it is; a martial art usually considered more delicate for focusing upon speed, not brute force. It’s a fighting style that often gets labeled effeminate since Wing Chun after all was founded by a woman. Yen stays calm, cool and focused, however, folding in wry humour and emotional undercurrents along the way, that one can easily claim it is his best performance. (Ricky D)
Ip Man 2
Continuing the narrative from where the first film left off, Ip Man 2 sees our titular hero (Donnie Yen) reprising his role in the sequel, following the further adventures of the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Just before the end of the Sino-Japanese war, Ip escapes the wrath of the Japanese prison camp by fleeing to Foshan with his wife and son. In desperate need of income, he begins to teach Wing Chun to a group of pupils only to discover that martial arts schools in Foshan are operated like triads. Conflicts brew and tempers flare when Ip meets resistance from Master Hung (Sammo Hung), a fellow kung fu master, and the British authorities who bully the local fisherman. Somehow, he finds himself in an East vs. West martial arts tournament where he has to fend for his country and countrymen against a racist boxing champion named Twister (Darren Shahlavi), who wreaks havoc on their national pride.
Ip Man 2 suffers mostly from its all-too-familiar screenplay. Think Rocky 4, The Karate Kid and any early Jean Claude Van-Damme film. Less dramatic arcs, little character development, and the usual themes of integrity, ignorance, and prejudice populate the screen. Yet somehow, the sequel triumphs in terms of sheer entertainment value, mostly because of the screen time shared between Hung and Yen. With Hung joining the cast as a rival master, Ip Man 2 raises the bar of martial arts performances even higher than its predecessor. Seeing Hung and Yen on-screen, side-by-side, is nothing less than magic and is only exceeded by a showdown atop a wobbly table, in what would be the art of Wing Chun versus the style of Hung Ga Kuen. The action choreography, once again designed by Hung, continues to amaze, improving on the previous film. Even more importantly, unlike the first film, Ip Man meets his match not once, but twice. Perhaps the biggest letdown in the original was that Ip Man was clearly better than everyone else and never in any danger of losing a battle. The suspense here is unbearable at times and watching the gut-wrenching action inside the ring is just as painful as it looks. The production values are top-notch. Every swirling camera movement, every distinctive angle, every extreme close-up makes for brilliant cinematography and pitch-perfect editing, and while the kung-fu vs. boxing battles sequences have little to do with reality, they cinematically explode, bringing to mind Raging Bull.
Dynamic, relentless and funnier than its predecessor, Ip Man 2 is the flashier, hipper, and better-looking of the two. If you’re looking for a no-brainer martial arts flick where the fight choreography is at its best, Ip Man 2 will not disappoint.
My Father is a Hero (The Enforcer)
Jet Li won his first martial arts competition at the age of twelve competing against adults, making him a legend before he even became an actor. He would go on to win fifteen gold medals and one silver before retiring from competition at the age of 17 to go into movies. Like Jackie Chan, Jet Li has played Wong Fei Hung, although his interpretation in the Once Upon a Time in China series is a much more serious version than Jackie Chan’s drunken prankster.
In a sense, teaming Jet Li with Tse Miu was teaming the adult Jet Li with himself as a child – teaming the legend with the birth of the legend. They actually made two films together. The first, a historical film called The New Legend of Shaolin, was a commercial success but made a bad use of the combination as the directors Corey Yuen and Wong Jing wanted Jet Li to play the hero as so traumatized by tragedy that he has become emotionally aloof even to his own son.
Their follow-up film solved that problem by casting a Jet Li as a modern cop, forced by his bosses to take down a crime-lord despite his sickly wife and his young son. Instead of being emotionally aloof, this time Jet Li is a guilty father trying to find ways to connect to his family without endangering them as a result of his investigation.
In one of the rare unions of subtext and fighting style feeding off each other, at one point in the film Jet Li ties a rope around Tse Miu and uses him as a human yo-yo, made of elbows and knees, to attack criminal goons with. It is breath-taking and disturbing, as Jet pulls his son close and sends him away, pulling him in and out of harm’s way, both bonding with his son and endangering him simultaneously. (Michael Ryan)
The Protector (Tom yum goong)
This is not a film with a terribly good story or characterizations. In fact, even its original theatrical cut (it was somehow trimmed by about 27 minutes for the North American release. Don’t ask me how they pulled that off), the script is pretty much all over the place, with a plot about elephant traffickers who go after the material in the bones and horns, Vietnamese gangsters, the plight of a call girl who used to work for one of the gangsters, corruption in Sydney’s police department, and maybe even something else, I don’t exactly remember all that clearly. The point is Tony Jaa has is elephant stolen back in rural Thailand during a festival of sorts and heads over the Australia to get his pet back and, if need be (and it will), bang the heads of those who stole it.
Talk about a movie for which the story is secondary to the action. At least the director tries to insert some comedy with the appearance of a vile, foul-mouthed cop of Thai descent who wouldn’t know how to actually arrest a thug if one pleaded to be thrown into jail. Everything else in the film is supposed to be taken with deadly seriousness. Tony Jaa is what I like to call a maestro of martial arts. Some actors and performers are good, some are very good, some are even great and then there are the few maestros. The Protector is a perfect example of why Jaa skyrocketed into popularity in the early to mid-2000s with precious few yet exemplary action films. This man can seemingly do whatever the bloody hell he wants, physically speaking. The way he dispatches his foes caused my jaw to drop on multiple occasions, which itself is a powerful reaction, but he also made me do something else. Whenever I see something so crazy, so impressive, so cool, so weird, so awe-inspiring, my reaction will often be laughter. Not because what a character does is funny in the literal sense, but I laugh because of the joy I take in watching some clever and awesome transpire on screen. Tony Jaa made me laugh hard, especially in that one take when he breaks the bones of about 20 other guys in the span of 3 minutes (I’m talking about the scene after the stairwell sequence, which itself is a wonder to behold), with my personal highlight being when Tony places some poor sap’s arm between his thighs and just twists his hips to his left to break said arm. I mean, what the hell… (Edgar Chaput)
Raging Phoenix (Deu suay doo)
Why Raging Phoenix?
DRUNKEN. MUAY THAI. HIP-HOP. PARKOUR. KICK-BOXING.
My work here is done!
Oh all right.
Raging Phoenix features the best female martial artist since Michelle Yeoh, namely JeeJa Yanin aka Yanin Vismistananda/Yanin Vismitananda. What makes her special is that she hits people like Tony Jaa (that relentlessly physical Muay Thai style); she combines martial arts with dance like Jackie Chan only adding break-dancing to the mix; she uses team martial arts choreography like Jet Li and Tse Miu in My Father is a Hero and she has more emotional range than any of the men. She is also completely willing to get dirty and look unglamorous.
The plot of Raging Phoenix (such as it is) sees JeeJa playing Deu, a morose alcoholic who has lost or alienated everyone in her life with her combative ways. When slavers try to kidnap her, she is rescued by a troupe of drunken Thai kick-boxing break-dancers (I can hardly believe that you can list those words one after the other into a phrase that exists on film), named Pig-Shit, Dog-Shit, Bull-Shit and Sanim. All four men have lost someone in their life to slavers and have dedicated their lives to drinking and beating up slavers while drunk.
To be exact, they practice the art of Meyraiyuth, a combination of drinking, Muay Thai, breakdancing, and parkour. There is a bit more philosophy here than in Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films. As Bull-Shit explains to Deu, “Meyraiyuth is about pain. Alcohol is just the way that pain becomes violence.”
In other words, when Jackie Chan practices Zui Quan, the drunker he gets, the better at Kung-Fu that he gets. Which is why Drunken Master II ends with Jackie drinking alcohol so strong that it sets his breath on fire.
When Jeeja Yanin practices Meyraiyuth, the more emotional pain that she is in, the better at beating people she is. Which is why Raging Phoenix ends with a heart-broken Jeeja flat-out killing people with knees and elbows.
While melodramatic, the film does have villains who create Jeeja’s emotional anguish and deserve her wrath. They are slavers, so it would seem obvious that they are kidnapping girls for forced prostitution, but that would be too simple. (One almost feels like the change was made at the behest of some official in Tourism Thailand worried that horny tourists might see the film and feel guilt over their sex trips.)
Instead of simple sexual slavery, the Jaguar gang in the film kidnaps women to create an expensive perfume so intoxicating that its wearers become addicted to sex. The perfume is made from human pheromones and when this is announced it conjures thoughts of some hideous rendering factory which feeds beautiful Thai girls screaming into its gears to be ground down into tiny perfume bottles.
Again, too simple an idea. The slavers make their perfume from the rarest substance know to man: the tears of genuine sorrow from beautiful women.
There will come a time and soon, when Jeeja Yanin is given a script worthy of her amazing talents. Until that time, we can enjoy the immense guilty pleasure of watching her in action. (Michael Ryan)
Shaolin Temple (Shao Lin si)
Shaolin Temple is Jet Li’s first movie (he was only 18 at the time), and it’s easy to see why he became a star with his dazzling athletics and undeniable charm. The fight scenes are spectacular, and like the Shaw Bros. classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the film focuses on the training of an impressive group of heroes, each with a different style or specialty. The training scenes themselves are remarkable for the cleverness and scope of the techniques employed. Shaolin Temple might very well be the high-water mark of the Shaw Brothers martial arts film cycle. (Ricky D)
The Streetfighter (Gekitotsu! Satsujin ken)
Tony Scott’s True Romance (written by Quentin Tarantino) opens with Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) spending his birthday watching a Sonny Chiba Streetfighter triple feature. This was a reintroduction to Western audiences of a man so dangerous that his first international success, The Streetfighter, was the first film to earn an X rating for violence.
One of the innovations of The Streetfighter was showing X-Rays of exactly what Sonny Chiba was doing to the bad guys when he hit them including a much censored, rarely seen sequence, where Chiba castrates a rapist with his bare hands. (Michael Ryan)
Hong Kong’s queen of action cinema, Michelle Yeoh, headlines this martial-arts film, a period piece with an unusual feminist twist, and a unique stylistic approach to violence and sexual politics. Wing Chun weaves a romantic subplot that relies on mistaken identity and gender confusion, something rarely seen in Hong Kong cinema. Yeoh stars as the titular character, derived from a historical legend about a female Shaolin warrior who founded the titular style of Chinese hand-to-hand combat. This film was made at the height of Michelle Yeoh’s comeback, having retired for many years, before making her return to Hong Kong cinema when co-starring alongside Jackie Chan in Supercop: Police Story 3.
Wing Chun was also made to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of the more modern styled period martial arts films, a trend that really took off with the success of such hits as the Once Upon a Time In China and Fong Sai Yuk series. Truth be told, Wing Chun isn’t a landmark kung fu film, and even the martial arts style named after the titular character is hardly employed throughout, but Wing Chun has three saving graces: veteran martial artist and director Yuen Woo-ping (the man who not only popularized the new style but almost singlehandedly invented it) choreographs some truly breathtaking scenes of martial arts magic. Secondly, Yeoh’s fighting technique will leave audiences flabbergasted. Finally, Donnie Yen stars opposite Yeoh in a surprising offbeat comedic performance that is worth the price of admission alone.
Martial arts movie aficionados will feel right at home with the beautifully choreographed action sequences, most of which carry a feeling of urgency, something often missing in martial arts flicks. The highlight of the picture is a stunning set-piece where Wing Chun fights while balancing a tray of tofu in the air, just out of reach of her assailant. A second classic fight scene involves Wing Chun and Flying Chimpanzee balancing on top of a long spear lodged into a stone wall. Also worth noting: Hong Kong movie legend Waise Lee, turns in a rare comic performance, and Cheng Pei Pei cameos as Wing Chun’s mentor.
Wing Chun may lack the visual polish of The Grandmaster, and probably ranks among Yuen Woo-ping’s lesser efforts, but nevertheless, it gets by with a winning mixture of dainty humour, flying wirework, swordplay, creative action, and colourful characters. Even a lesser Woo-ping effort is well worth a watch. (Ricky D)