Listing Movies: Vintage Martial Arts

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

Do you like movie lists as much as I do? They seem to me to be a great way to explore movie history — perhaps even the only way. A fledgling movie buff could do a lot worse than starting with the results of the recent “Sight & Sound” poll, or Roger Ebert’s list of “Great Movies,” or Jonathan Rosenbaum’s 1000 essential movies, or even this nice little book, and then using them to develop a working knowledge of cinema history, one viewing experience at a time. In fact, if you don’t do something like this, and then develop your tastes further by exploring your own peculiar interests, you’ve pretty much consigned yourself to whatever’s being promoted as a “classic,” and that’s no fun at all, especially considering some of the turds that have come to be regarded as classics. And it can often be pretty daunting tackling an unfamiliar genre or tradition without first acquiring some kind of starting point or syllabus.

With that in mind, I’ve put together the below list of vintage martial arts films. It’s a mix of personal favorites and stuff that’s just plain notable. I take “vintage” to mean pre-1990, which might be arbitrary but whatever. Are wuxia and kung fu movies worth paying attention to? Well, I don’t know. For some they’re great. Others find them kind of boring. If you’re primarily interested in tonal and narrative sophistication, sexiness, and Western-style suspense, you probably won’t find much to love on my list. But if you’re interested in choreography, set and costume design, daredevil performers, and innovative film style (not to mention roundhouse kicks and funny facial hair), you might take a lot of this stuff as inspiring. Hey, I see the noted film scholar David Bordwell takes the Hong Kong action tradition to be “as historically important as Soviet Montage [and] German Expressionism.” Instant credibility!

If possible, I recommend starting with the early material, especially the groundbreaking work of King Hu, whose graceful, picturesque stuff was the primary inspiration for the arthouse wuxia pictures made by Ang Lee and that guy who directed all those films starring Gong Li. The other principal pioneer is Chang Cheh; he’s a punchier, more masculine presence, and he was responsible for many of the Shaw Brothers’ most well-known products, films like “The Five Fingers of Death” (the Chinese title, “King Boxer,” just doesn’t have the same zing). But my personal favorite director on the list is probably Chor Yuen. He began by directing melodramas, and it shows: his decorous, hyper-stylized images sometimes remind me of the work of Sirk or Sternberg. I especially recommend his “Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan,” which has lesbians kung fu-ing each other to death between bouts of passionate girl sex. What more do you want?

The Twin Swords (Teng Hung Hsu, 1965)
Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966)
Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)
The One-Armed Swordsman (Cheh Chang, 1967)
Vengeance (Cheh Chang, 1970)
Heads for Sale (Chang-hwa Jeong, 1970)
The Heroic Ones (Cheh Chang, 1970)
The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1970)
A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
The Five Fingers of Death (Cheh Chang, 1972)
The 14 Amazons (Kang Cheng/Shao-yung Tung, 1972)
Boxer from Shantung (Cheh Chang, 1972)
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Yuen Chor, 1972)
The Chinese Connection (Wei Lo, 1972)
Blood Brothers (Cheh Chang, 1973)
Enter the Dragon (Robert Clouse, 1973)
Shaolin Temple (Cheh Chang, 1976)
Killer Clans (Yuen Chor, 1976)
Master of the Flying Guillotine (Jimmy Wang Yu, 1976)
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar Leung, 1978)
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979)
Full Moon Scimitar (Yuen Chor, 1979)
Fist of the White Lotus (Lieh Lo, 1980)
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar Leung, 1983)
Zu Warriors (Hark Tsui, 1983)
Police Story (Jackie Chan, 1985)
Peking Opera Blues (Hark Tsui, 1986)
A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-Tung Ching, 1987)

If any readers have additional recommendations, please share ’em in the comments.

Related:

  • Bordwell’s terrific essay on stylistic innovation in Shaw Brothers films.
  • A nice piece by Chuck Stephens discussing some of the films and directors included on my list.
  • Terrence Rafferty on martial arts films.
  • PDF document dealing with martial arts films. It was edited by the terrific David Chute, who was one of the earliest Western critics to pay serious attention to this stuff.
  • Website of Dragon Dynasty, a DVD company that has released a few of these films in the U.S.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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3 Responses to Listing Movies: Vintage Martial Arts

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Fabrizio’s List of Turds That Have Become Classics is another list I’d like to see.

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  2. Excellent public service, tks. I think I’ve watched about 7 or 8 of the movies (hard to know, given how hard I find it to remember Chinese action movie titles. Most of them seem to be named some variation on “Five Fingers of the 36th Chamber of the Temple of the Zen Boxer”). Since Asian action isn’t generally my kinda thing, I manage to watch only one or two a year. But when I do, I’m often amazed by how inventive, high-spirited, witty and sometimes beautiful they can be.

    A separate thing that amazes me: when I’ve watched these films with Asian audiences, people in the audience are often very moved by them. Given how comic-booky and two-inches-deep they seem to me, I’m always surprised that they can elicit more than (as in my case) wide eyes and the occasional “Wow!” I have no idea how to explain it, do you? I guess that the stories and characters (so many of which seem to have some kind of basis in fairy tales, legends and archetypes) have such immense resonance for many Asian people that they reach down deep into them and stir them deeply.

    Have you ever found yourself deeply moved by a martial arts films? And not just in a “Holy crow, that Bruce Lee was really great, wasn’t he?” kind of way, but in a crying-in-sympathy-with-the-protagonist’s-dilemma kind of way.

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    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Asian audiences are moved by them? In a getting-misty-eyed sort of way? Seems almost hard to believe, though in Tsai Ming-liang’s “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” he has viewers of King Hu’s “Dragon Inn” weeping as they watch the movie. But in that case he’s explicitly connecting it to the past and mourning old-time movie making and times gone by. Maybe the audiences you mention were marinating in nostalgia, and that’s what moved them? It occurs to me that nostalgia has been a big theme for recentish Asian directors. Wong Kar Wai especially, but also Tsai, Stanley Kwan, Jia, Hou, and Edward Yang.

      Also, when Ang Lee made a wuxia, he made it a weeper with nostalgic overtones. But then that’s Ang Lee — that’s what he does.

      I mainly admire these movies for their straight fowardness, ingenuity, and brevity, as well as for the grace and verve of the performers. There is generally no irony in them, no big messages, weighty themes, or fusty pretenions. That can be delightful when you’re in the right mood.

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