Although it has its roots in Chinese literature, wuxia as a genre has grown to prominence worldwide almost exclusively through the medium of film. Starting as far back as the silent era and continuing to the present day, wuxia films tend to have certain aspects in common.
They are always period, pre-20th Century stories, dwelling on the exploits of martial heroes (the words “wu” and “xia” are often translated into English somewhat along these lines, with “wu” indicating the martial skill of the character and “xia” meaning honorable or chivalrous, though it also implies a life lived by a moral code not altogether unlike the bushido code of the samurai).
These heroic knights, often armed with swords though they are sometimes proficient with more unusual methods of combat, sometimes also possess skills that can only be described as supernatual—they may fly, focus their chi to such an extent that they can destroy an enemy from a distance, or perform even stranger feats. Wuxia films are not exclusively fantasies, but more often than not fall into that category, even when the story is grounded in some historical reality.
Because wuxia tend to take place in locations and times when law and order is less than reliable, these films concentrating on lone swordsmen and swordswomen (who usually have to go about disguised as men) righteously taking on causes for the sake of justice bear a much greater resemblance to American Westerns than Japanese samurai films, which tend to be grounded in a much more rigid cultural hierarchy. The studio best known for producing classic wuxia would, of course, be Shaw Brothers, but we won’t only be looking at their output.
What you’ll find here starts in the Sixties and goes pretty much up to the last few years, with several entries focusing on the work of such renowned filmmakers as King Hu, Tsui Hark and Chang Cheh. Though certainly not exhaustive, it should give the curious reader a good overview of some of the more significant titles in the genre.
20. 14 Blades (2010)
Right on the cutting edge of contemporary wuxia is this star vehicle, one of many over the last few years, for martial arts film giant Donnie Yen.
Watching this provides a perfect window into how much the genre has changed in the last few decades, going from the pristine, brightly-lit, heavily-armed fantasies of the Sixties and Seventies to the darker, brooding, Nolan-esque tone proffered here, taking the old kung fu movie notion of “the deadly weapon of ingenious design” to inspired heights with the titular 14 blades, each created with a specific purpose in mind, stored in clockwork wooden box that shoots darts and fires Batman-style grappling hooks for scaling walls.
Yen plays Qinglong, a member of the Jinyiwei, an elite military corps in 19th century China staffed entirely by orphans trained from childhood to tasked with performing covert operations for the Emperor. A vengeful prince (played in a brief cameo by Sammo Hung) steals the Emperor’s seal so he can use it to gain access to the Imperial City, bringing his army with him. Qinglong is betrayed by the Jinyiwei, one of whom plots with the prince to get the seal, and must hit the road incognito to try to thwart their plans.
He takes up with a beautiful young woman named Qiao Hua (played by Zhao Wei), a member of the Justice Escort Agency, who agree to transport him. He also involves himself with desert bandits led by a man called the Judge of the Desert, and agrees to help them rob the prince’s caravan to retrieve the seal. His chief opponent is a female super-assassin armed with a metal razor-whip and the ability to seemingly teleport her body as a means to confound her enemies.
In contrast to earlier wuxia films that feature heroes who are virtuous from the start, Yen’s Qinglong begins as a heartless, almost robotic killer who acquires a conscience and a sense of virtue as the story progresses. Fairly engaging for the most part, the film makes frequent use of CGI to augment the action and fill in the background of some scenes, a move that might annoy some purists.
If the movie has any real weakness, it’s in the presentation of the action, which falls prey to the modern tendency to shake the camera around too much and zoom in too closely during fights, making it hard to tell what’s going on. When a movie stars a dynamic performer like Donnie Yen, it’s never a good idea to de-emphasize his physical grace or that of his co-stars.
19. The Invincible Fist (1969)
Chang Cheh, a director better known for his later Shaw Brothers films starring a group of actors commonly known as the Venom Mob (Five Deadly Venoms being a very popular example), had also spent a large chunk of his career making wuxia films for the studio. Of these, One Armed Swordman might be the most famous, but he lent his hand to many other noteworthy projects as well, and The Invincible Fist certainly ranks high among these.
The title is a bit misleading—there is little bare-handed combat in the film, dwelling instead on the kind of crazy, borderline surreal weapons that Chang’s films became famous for. As two bounty hunters (played by Lo Lieh and David Chiang) pursue a group of robbers who’ve made a fortune stealing gold from rich families, they encounter such people as the Golden Abacus, a man who uses a tool more popularly applied to mathematics as a shotgun-like projectile weapon that, when empty, converts to a handy three-section staff, and another man who hurls goose-shaped throwing knives.
The bandit leader is an aging physician, master of the bladed chain, who has a blind daughter. The bounty hunters follow leads, interrogate prisoners, and begin to close in on the leader. But will his innocent daughter, who is ignorant of her father’s activities, also become a victim?
Amid the furious action and grim storytelling, there is the interesting inclusion of more complex characterization for the film’s villain, showing that Chang was in this case not willing to take the easy road and have the antagonist be a typical one-dimensional bad guy, as was often the case in his other films.
There has been speculation that this owes to the influence of Chang’s assistant director Wu Ma, who went on to become a respected filmmaker in his own right, but it’s impossible to say for sure. What is certain is that Chang’s terrific eye for colorful detail, pacing and action is fully in control here, and The Invincible Fist stands as further testament to the fact that Shaw Brothers output in the Sixties was as good as anything in theaters throughout the rest of the world.
18. The Bride With White Hair (1993)
Those with a taste for the grandly operatic and romantic in their swordsman films will find much to enjoy in Ronny Yu’s The Bride With White Hair, a movie that paints with very broad strokes a portrait of forbidden love, betrayal, and regret. Leslie Cheung is a master swordsman in the house of the Wu Tang who, despite constant remonstrations from his elders, makes trouble everywhere he goes—though usually for the right reasons.
As he attempts to halt the massacre of a village, he makes the acquaintance (after trading a few blows) with a strange beauty (played by the prolific Brigitte Lin) whose mastery of the fighting arts makes her a crack shot with a bullwhip. They begin a torrid love affair, complicated not only by the fact that the Wu Tang see her as an enemy, but because she is the slave assassin of a powerful set of wizardly conjoined twins who rule a tribe of fanatical religious zealots.
Lin is expelled for refusing the advances of the male half of the pair, and the situation worsens when the Wu Tang are slaughtered, leaving her as the most likely suspect, and propelling the story toward a tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions.
Next to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, Bride is the most romantic film on this list, and has a similar agenda in not allowing the love shared by its protagonists to flourish without a lot of frustration and pain. The story plays very much like a fairy tale, using a condensed short-hand to establish the relationship between Leung and Lin, and providing no other explanation but folkloric logic when Lin’s scorned character suddenly becomes a frightening witch with flowing, grasping locks of snow-white hair.
Full of strong imagery, realized through colorful backdrops and effective photography, as well as bursts of bloody, graceful, high-flying action.
17. Duel to the Death (1983)
The contrast between Chinese and Japanese martial arts, and the moral codes that they embody, is a common trope brought up in many wuxia and kung fu films. Of the movies that have explored this idea, the two most potent are probably Lau Kar-Leung’s Shaolin Challenges Ninja and this film, the directorial debut of Ching Sui-Tung (who also directed the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy and co-directed much of the Swordsman trilogy).
With each decade, there comes a competition to show whether Japan or China has the strongest martial arts. Two swordsmen are pitted against one another, but in this case the swordsman from China (played by Damian Lau, who was also in John Woo’s Last Hurrah For Chivalry) has some serious misgivings about the whole idea. This is too bad, because not only does his Japanese opponent feel duty-bound to go through with the competition, but his superiors are using ninjas and treachery to try to slant the odds in his favor.
On the Chinese side, an old swordsman is scheming to kidnap every eligible martial artist in China to ensure that only his daughter, and by extension his household, will have the honor of representing China in the duel. In the end, both swordsman fight on a shoreline amid crashing waves and coastal rocks, but along with there being no decisive winner, both horribly wounded fighters are left to contemplate the pointlessness of their fate.
A movie jam-packed with expert Chinese martial artists and ninjas can hardly go wrong, and Ching Sui-Tung demonstrates why he went on to helm some very high-profile action titles for Tsui Hark by putting together several impressive set pieces that make use of the type of wire work and rapid-fire editing that would go on to dominate in wuxia cinema in the coming years.
It’s worth pointing out that, although the movie takes pains to show both swordsmen regretting the circumstances that brought them to such a violent impasse, the Japanese fighter is still portrayed as relentless in his pursuit of martial honor and rigid in his beliefs, while the Chinese swordsman is far more humane and sensible in his outlook.
While this fact doesn’t hurt the story, it does betray a certain bias that comes up an awful lot in Chinese cinema (the Donnie Yen film Ip Man being a good recent example of this phenomena). A lot of fun, a little weird, and worthy of being regarded as a classic.
16. Last Hurrah For Chivalry (1979)
If the sentence, “A martial arts movie directed by John Woo” causes you to start salivating, your anticipation will be pretty well rewarded on a viewing of Last Hurrah For Chivalry, a film starring Damian Lau and Wei Pai that Woo also wrote and produced. Woo fans who’ve not seen this will be delighted to see many of the director’s favorite themes and visual motifs on display, particularly in the form of a mutually-admiring bromance between two hired swordsmen paid by a vengeful nobleman to go after the evil kung fu master who murdered his family.
Everything is there: the jokey companionship, the heartfelt sacrifices, the struggle for personal honor in the face of betrayal. This is the true precursor to The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Hard-Boiled.
But is the movie actually any good? Apart from indulging in broad physical humor, Last Hurrah For Chivalry has all the elements of a true top-tier martial arts film. It relies on a solid revenge plot, stirs the pot with double crosses and dirty secrets, and comes stacked with terrifically staged and fabulously performed fights, which run the gamut from old-school swordsmanship to full-on hand-to-hand combat.
As this is a John Woo film, the action gets a little gory at times, due possibly in part to the influence of Woo’s mentor and idol Chang Cheh, for whom Woo had worked as an assistant director.
15. Judgment of an Assassin (1977)
After the Golden Axe clan sees 21 of its members murdered by an unknown masked assailant, a traveling swordsman is apprehended and brought to trial as a suspect, held captive in a casket lined with huge nails until his court date.
Meanwhile, an evil martial arts master called Bloody Devil returns after a 20 year hiatus to take over the martial world, including in his scheme two expert fighters hired by his nephew. These two men, in time, come to realize the nature of the plot they’ve gotten involved in and try to stop Bloody Devil with the help of one swordsman’s master, an aging man nicknamed Old Hedgehog, and a venerated old woman named Madame Fa.
A fairly complicated story of revenge and unchecked ambition finds its main strength in its amazing martial arts scenes, populated as they are by a man wielding a golden metal whip, David Chiang’s tonfa-loving badass, an indestructible villain and a mode of execution that makes use of an iron statue that shoots blades out of its chest.
Big, lavish, acton-packed and quite entertaining once you manage to piece together the ungainly plot over the first half-hour, director Sun Chung’s impressive tale of legal intrigue will satisfy diehard and passing wuxia fans alike, and is yet another great example of why Shaw Brothers studios mattered.