10. Shaolin Challenges Ninja aka Heroes of the East
Let’s start off by saying this film is a triumph for Lau-Kar Leung, and is set apart from just about every other kung fu movie by being among the very few films in the genre where no one is seriously injured and no one dies. How can that be at all entertaining? With a master like Lau Kar-Leung at the helm, there’s not much to worry about.
The story concerns a young student of kung fu (Gordon Liu) whose rich father arranges a marriage with a beautiful Japanese girl. As it turns out, she’s a student of the martial arts as well, but Liu finds her style of fighting lacks a certain feminine delicacy, and encourages her to study a kung fu style more fitting for a woman. She takes umbrage at his further insistence that Japanese martial arts are less effective than Chinese ones (what he really means to say is that they’re too brutal).
She returns to Japan, and in an effort to bring her back, he sends her a letter claiming the superiority of Chinese marital arts, hoping she’ll return to China to prove him wrong. Instead, her dad reads the letter, and, being an master of ninjutsu, is a little offended by the contents. He gathers some students and heads off to China to teach the young man a lesson. What follows is an escalating series of duels contrasting Japanese and Chinese techniques, ending in an epic demonstration of ninjutsu versus similar Chinese stealth fighting styles, and an ultimate reconciliation.
As corny as it sounds, this is actually quite a sweet-tempered story, maybe the closest thing to a kung fu date movie. Setting all that aside, it’s also jammed with great fights, as well as Lau Kau-Leung’s characteristic (but never overbearing) sense of humor. What really stands out is the overall point of view of the movie, which is one of respect for Japanese culture and martial arts, quite unlike many Chinese films that portray the Japanese as one-dimensional villains. Fascinating, colorful and a refreshing change of pace.
9. The Streetfighter
Though technically a karate movie, this cult classic still belongs on this list as a perfect representative of the kind of urban martial arts thriller that came to prominence in the Seventies. Sonny Chiba plays freelance karate badass Takuma Tsurugi (or Terry Sugury in the English dub), hired to break lethal karate expert Junjo out of jail while disguised as a Buddhist monk. When the job is done, Junjo’s brother and sister go to Chiba to ask their brother’s whereabouts, and to inform him they don’t have the money to pay him what they owe.
The brother dies inadvertently while fighting Chiba, who then sells the sister into slavery. He’s later given the job of kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy oil magnate, but when he learns the Yakuza are involved he turns his would-be employers down, though not after brutally wounding many of them. He decides to find the girl, who is under the protection of a renowned dojo.
He challenges the dojo’s master to a fight, and after Chiba is beaten the old man informs him he once knew his long-dead father while living in China. He convinces Chiba to help them go after the Yakuza, a decision that culminates in a dynamic climax aboard a cargo ship in a storm, where Chiba confronts a vengeance-fueled Junjo, a fight that ends with one of the nastier wounds seen in a martial arts movie.
The Streetfighter has the honor of being the first movie given and X rating for violence in the US. There’s no mystery as to why—the amount of blood spilled, bones noisily broken, teeth knocked out and skulls smashed probably far exceeded the MPAA’s expectations for a Seventies action movie from overseas. And let’s not forget Chiba’s bloody castration of a rapist in the third act, maybe the film’s most notorious scene, or an X-ray view of a fist ramming into a bad guy’s skull.
This is a Japanese film that very much has the feel of a Chinese kung fu movie, while at the same time maintaining the unique tone of Japanese movies from the Seventies, from the swanky outfits to the funky jazz on the soundtrack.
Chiba is not just a superb martial artist and athlete but also a very stong actor, with a similar screen presence to Toshiro Mifune, and here he gives a career-defining performance as a surly anti-hero with serious problems with authority. His weirdly loping, crouching fighting style, enhanced by odd poses and hissing, is unlike anything in movie history. Fast, fun, crazy and violent, this is a film that never disappoints. Followed by two sequels and a handful of spin-offs.
8. Five Deadly Venoms
Trained in secret, five students are instructed in different animal-based kung fu styles: Toad, Snake, Lizard, Centipede and Scorpion. Fearing that one or more of them might have taken to a life of crime, their teacher trains a sixth student in a little bit of every style, knowing that by himself he will be no match for the others. He tells him to team up with any member of the Poison Clan who has not turned to evil and might be enlisted to help eliminate the others.
This is the film that created the reputation of the Venom Mob ( Kuo Chi, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lo Mang and Wei Pai), a group of largely opera-trained actors with the skills to pull of the complex, highly acrobatic fight scenes that helped solidify the late-period reputation of prolific director Chang Cheh.
Compared to some of his other films the fights are somewhat spare, with the focus instead on intrigue and dastardly plotting. This isn’t to say the fights aren’t great: in the end, all five styles compete for dominance, as alliances and double-crosses fly like deadly kicks, and the sixth student, with the help of the Lizard, handles the skills of the scheming Poison Clan disciples.
This film probably has one of the finest opening sequences in any kung fu movie, as each student is shown in a separate training room lit with torches, going through the basics of their styles while wearing masks and often dressed in black. The film slips into slow-motion photography to show the finer details of their destructive movements while wooden posts, clay pots and plates are smashed to pieces.
One can’t underestimate the cultural influence this unique cult film has had, from references in hip hop and video games to elements popping up in other martial arts films and TV shows. And it isn’t even the weirdest movie Chang Cheh made in that decade.
7. Ip Man
This list has two films based on the life of Wing Chun kung fu expert Ip Man, a man perhaps best known for having spent time instructing Bruce Lee.
This story precedes that bit of history by many years, set as it is in 1930s Foshan, where the gentleman martial artist (played by contemporary action megastar Donnie Yen) practices his art at his palatial estate where he lives with his wife and son, taking on friendly challenges every now and then from other kung fu experts around town (and at least one unfriendly one leveled by a tough from another province). But everything changes when the Japanese army invades.
All local men, including Ip Man, are put to work processing coal, and a sadistic Japanese general amuses himself by staging fights between captured masters and a group of karate fighters. When Ip Man accepts the challenge, he proves his superlative ability by defeating ten opponents at once. This leads to a dangerous game of wills, as the general insists that Ip Man face him one-on-one in a ring to show publicly the superiority of Japanese martial arts. With the odds stacked in his enemy’s favor, Ip Man weighs his own fate against those of his family, friends and fellow townspeople.
Ip Man’s greatest strength, apart from a charismatic performance from Donnie Yen, is its utterly mind-blowing martial arts scenes. Of these, the match between Ip Man and a multitude of karate black belts is the standout, a spinning, bone-cracking celebration of exquisitely composed action. Director Wilson Yip does an incredible job of capturing Sammo Hung’s fight choreography, as well as the 1930s period feel of the story. This is one of several Ip Man films from recent years, including a sequel to this film and a prequel with a different lead, as well as a proposed third film starring Donnie Yen and shot in 3D.
6. Drunken Master
Almost immediately after the release and success of the comedy/kung fu breakthrough Snake In the Eagle’s Shadow, director Yuen Woo-Ping and star Jackie Chan got to work on a follow-up that takes all the elements that worked in the first film and cranked the levels as high as they would go, staging more fights infused with a greater proportion of acrobatics and physical humor, a more assured sense of filmmaking technique, and more of the whimsical inventiveness Yuen is prone to.
Jackie plays what is very likely one of the least historically accurate portrayals of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, who is probably best known as he was played by Jet Li in the first three Once Upon A Time In China films.
Here, he learns a type of kung fu that effectively blends alcoholism with a tortuous training regimen after first being condemned to the rough tutelage of Beggar So (once again played by Yuen Woo-Ping’s dad Yuen Siu Tien) by his father when he tires of Wong’s flamboyant, careless ways that routinely lead him to get in fights with rude strangers and even result in his trading blows with his own aunt (after making a pass, unwittingly, at his own cousin).
To make matters worse, there’s a vicious hired killer loose in the land (taekwondo expert Hwang Jang Lee, the villain in Eagle’s Shadow) who, in the third act, is tasked with killing Fei-Hung’s dad. Beggar So shows him the styles of the eight drunken gods, though Fei-Hung ignores the goddess because the feminine fighting style embarrasses him. This becomes a problem in the final fight where, as he becomes plastered on 100-proof wine, he’s forced to combine the other seven styles into something new.
Jackie shows why he’s as well-known as a screen comedian as he is a stunt man and martial artist, the Keaton/Chaplain/Lloyd influences clearly on display in every scene where he performs. As with Eagle’s Shadow, there’s no wire work, not much in the way of special effects or visual cheats, just great athleticism and a lot of hard work.