7. The One Armed Swordsman (1967)
Among the most famous of wuxia films from the Sixties, Chang Cheh’s classic tale also represents something of a turning point in the genre. Although there had been Asian martial arts films that featured physically challenged heroes before (the blind swordsman Zatoichi being one famous example), this is an instance where the main character’s disability is shown to be the inspiration for his heroism.
Jimmy Wang Yu, in the role that made him a star, plays the adopted student of a sword-master whose skill creates friction with his fellow practitioners. Lured into the woods by a trio that includes the petulant young daughter of his master, Wang Yu loses an arm when the girl angrily lashes out at him.
Nursed back to health by a farm girl who encourages him to spend his life helping her raise crops, he can’t help but kindle thoughts of regaining his skill, especially when he learns that an old rival of his master’s is killing off students from the school with a new weapon designed to defeat the school’s sword style. Wang Yu recovers an old fighting manual and re-teaches himself swordsmanship, suiting it to his new physical condition, and sets off on a path of righteous justice.
Made at a time when Shaw Brothers films were as technically competent as any in the world, One Armed Swordsman shows off much of the colorful flair that distinguished their films of that period, and a lot of what appears on screen is gorgeously lit and composed.
The story takes great pains to play up the idea of triumph over adversity, from Wang Yu’s handicap to the broken sword he uses as his main weapon and the burned, half-obscured manual he refers to in order to train himself. The message is clear—those who must struggle to overcome seemingly impossible odds are the most heroic individuals of all.
6. Come Drink With Me (1966)
Another installment in Chinese film legend King Hu’s trail-blazing filmography, Come Drink With Me stars a young Cheng Pei-pei (who would co-star in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon almost 35 years later), as the notorious Golden Swallow, master of a duel short-sword fighting style who must try to negotiate the release of a general’s son who has been kidnapped by bandits in order to force the release of their imprisoned leader—a task made all the more important by the fact that the general’s son is also her brother.
She confronts the bandits at an inn, proving to them that she is not to be trifled with, and follows them to the Buddhist temple they use for their hideout. Without her knowledge she is accompanied by a man known locally as Drunken Cat, an apparent beggar who is also a kung fu expert and the secret leader of a hidden kung fu society.
Leading the bandits is Drunken Cat’s brother, an abbot whose martial powers are possibly even greater than Drunken Cat’s. The younger is reluctant to kill his amoral brother out of a sense of obligation, but after Drunken Cat thwarts the completion of a prisoner exchange, the two are inevitably drawn to a confrontation that may end in one or both of them being killed, while Golden Swallow and her sister fighters struggle to keep the bandits from freeing their condemned leader.
Come Drink With Me is not only one of the most highly regarded wuxia films in the history of the genre, but appears to mark a transition point of sorts from stories focusing on chivalrous knights to later films that concentrate on martial arts experts with arcane powers pitting themselves against similarly skilled foes.
While certainly not a brand new idea, the presentation here fits the model of what would come to dominate Chinese martial arts films in the coming decades, many of which owe a debt to King Hu’s visionary storytelling. Often cited as a chief influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Come Drink With Me is actually very different film, with nary a romantic subplot to be seen, a quicker pace, and a good deal more violence—there’s no shortage of bloody sword-work and cruel weaponry.
There are also a couple of musical numbers that take place at the inn (a pre-adolescent Jackie Chan has long been rumored to be somewhere in these scenes), a more common element of Shaw Brothers films in the Sixties that only helps to add to the movie’s charm and sense of magic. Come Drink With Me more than earns its status on the short list of the best in the genre.
5. A Touch of Zen (1971)
The first Chinese-language film to garner special recognition at the Cannes Film Festival, this King Hu story is a little different from the other two titles by the same director on this list. Following the simple story of a timid artist (Shih Jun, the main hero from Dragon Gate Inn) who becomes involved with a young woman’s quest for revenge against the Imperial agents responsible for her family’s death, A Touch of Zen is not a martial arts movie in the strictest sense—at least not in the sense that will most please fans of manically choreographed fights that break out every five minutes.
King Hu in this case is coming from the Sergio Leone or Stanley Kubrick school of filmmaking, putting together a story that takes its time to build the feel of its location and the relationships between its characters, interspersing the action with beautiful footage of the natural surroundings and quiet moments of contemplation, a fact that touches on the film’s overall theme of Buddhist enlightenment as a means to rise above the petty, violent concerns of the world.
Thoughtful and gripping throughout, A Touch of Zen is best known for its last half hour, during which the characters do battle in a bamboo forest and receive essential help from a group of monks who act as an incorruptible force of good.
Although Come Drink With Me is sometimes sited as a key inspiration on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this is the film that probably had the strongest influence on the Ang Lee classic in terms of both setting and tone. A gorgeous movie that deserves every bit of its praise, and should immediately be seen by anyone who hasn’t already (and watched again by those who have).
4. Ashes of Time (1994)
Wong Kar-wai, one of Chinese cinema’s quirkiest filmmakers, tackles wuxia in a manner so far off the beaten track taken by so many directors before him that Ashes of Time eventually comes to challenge the idea of what a “magical swordsman” movie can be.
He does just about everything he can to subvert audience expectations, showing swordplay only very briefly (in scenes choreographed by Sammo Hung) and shooting it in a disorienting, blurry style that underscores the point that this is not a movie about martial arts, in which lives are altered through physical violence, but about the emotional violence people wittingly or unwittingly inflict on one another, the damage of which can linger more permanently than a wound made at the edge of a sword.
He also refuses to tell a linear story, opting instead to present a fragmented, recursive narrative that follows the fates of several loosely connected characters. Acted and shot in a low-key, naturalist style, Ashes of Time concentrates on people swallowed up in obsession and longing. Brigitte Lin plays a woman, disguised as a man, who pretends to be her own fictional sister in order to win the love of a wandering swordsman.
When he rejects her, she approaches the hermit broker of a murder-for-hire operation (Leslie Cheung) to ask for the swordsman’s death. Later, dressed as her “sister”, she asks the same broker to have her “brother” killed—a roundabout way of committing suicide. Meanwhile, the swordsman she loves advocates the drinking of a special wine that erases memory, the real enemy of almost every character in the movie.
Cheung’s character has run off to the desert after the woman he planned to marry wound up marrying his brother instead—this same woman, played by Maggie Cheung, delivers a heartbreaking speech near the film’s conclusion expressing her own regret for her actions, which have left her in circumstances she’ll have to live with for the rest of her life.
The only character in the movie free of regret, a powerful swordsman-for-hire who charitably takes on a job for a young woman who can’t afford to pay, finds his purpose in life only after coming very close to dying. The rest are stuck in a terrible limbo, grappling with emotions that will plague them until memory is finally, mercifully, wiped away.
The movie demands patience on the part of the viewer, but ultimately rewards that patience. In keeping with the theme of passion and regret, what magical abilities are shown take the form of intensely explosive symbols of emotion. Entire cliffsides collapse in an avalanche of boulders, water skyrockets as if propelled by hundreds of pounds of dynamite. The effect, though fleeting, is to support the idea that the forces that govern human life are more those of the heart than those of the fist.
3. Hero (2002)
Zhang Yimou, a director known up to the release of this title as the maker of quiet, visually stunning art films, brought his unparalleled eye for composition and color to this story based on an assassination attempt on the King of Qin over 2200 years ago.
With an all-star cast that includes Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and, in a brief role, Donnie Yen, the director launched the opening salvo in what would go on to be a trilogy of cinematically resplendent wuxia that includes House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower. It was something of a surprise for people familiar with earlier works such as Raise the Red Lantern and Shanghai Triad.
This isn’t just a wuxia film—it’s the wuxia film, possibly the highest artistic pinnacle of the genre. The story, though rooted in actual history, does not neglect the traditional supernatural aspects this kind of movie requires. On the contrary, it revels in them, showcasing martial arts skills and poetic human movement as beautiful as anything in the history of film.
While we’re on the subject of beauty, colors pop with such intensity they practically jump off the screen, and the director often utilizes them in ways that enhance the narrative. As part of the film’s Rashomon-like story structure, wherein Li’s character tells the incipient Emperor-to-be of China one version of events and the Emperor contradicts him with another, the coloring of the characters’ costumes changes, a startling and effective way to dramatize the variable nature of human memory and the tendency of attitudes and points of view to tint our perception of reality.
Hero, not surprisingly, came under some criticism from Western critics for its depiction of characters yearning for Chinese unification (though the same critics might not have batted an eye at a Western film expressing the same sentiment). Such criticism stems from the long-held political mistrust of the East from Westerners, and because of that it falls a little bit on the specious side.
Many film industries around the world display a nationalist streak, and artists are as susceptible to patriotism as anyone else. The idea that audiences should be wary of a movie like Hero because it is “pro-Chinese” is a trite one at best, and at worst discourages international film-goers from enjoying the incomparable achievement of such an amazing work of art.
2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Easily the best-known wuxia film west of the Pacific Rim, Crouching Tiger is also the most successful, a result that is due in part to the fact that it was produced largely with Western audiences in mind, funded as it was through the cooperation of Chinese and American production companies and directed by the internationally acclaimed Ang Lee, who works most often in the US. Lee’s artistic sensibilities as a filmmaker, as well as his strong sense of the emotional lives of his characters, go a long way toward giving Crouching Tiger its incredible dramatic potency and staying power as a widely esteemed work of Asian cinema.
A summation of the plot would get a little too long-winded, so it might be more productive to explore a couple of the themes introduced through the film’s characters. Most martial arts movies use the idea of martial pride as the main driving force of their plots, but here loyalty to fighting traditions serves as a vehicle for the exploration of personal relationships of both the romantic variety and that of the teacher and student.
Masters of swordsmanship, Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh have spent their lives mutually admiring one another, but also feel an unexpressed love that neither of them thinks it is appropriate to give voice to. It’s only when Chow’s Li Mu Bai is at the very edge of death that he finds it in himself to tell Yeoh’s Yu Shu Lien how he feels about her, suggesting that a life spent in the pursuit of martial perfection and austerity is not, in the long run, as worthwhile as one might initially think.
The issue is further explored in the master/student relationship between Jade Fox (played by Cheng Pei-pei of the classic Come Drink With Me) and Zhang Ziyi’s Jen Yu. Jen has secretly surpassed her teacher in the martial art style Jade Fox as pursued relentlessly throughout her entire life, and rather than feel elation at her student’s mastery, she experiences only jealousy and hate, a condition that pushes her to destroy lives other than just her own.
Crouching Tiger’s maguffin is Li Mu Bai’s sword Green Destiny, an object that symbolizes nobility and superlative style, but that Li Mu Bai comes to recognize only brings friction and conflict, and toward the end he tries to do away with the weapon, an action that, taken along with the rest of the film’s themes, implies that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a rare creature indeed—a pacifist martial arts movie.
It goes without saying that the film looks fantastic, and showcases several fight scenes choreographed by none other then the legendary Yuen woo Ping (the tagline “By the action director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was added to many of Yuen Woo Ping’s own films when they were released to American video).
It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and was based on the fourth novel in a series of five by Chinese author Wang Dulu. A sequel, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon II: The Green Destiny, with Yuen Woo Ping in the director’s chair, is now in production.
1. Dragon Gate Inn (1967)
Though not all of his films may be famous in the West, King Hu has crafted several works that are considered seminal in the wuxia genre, lauded by critics and audiences that don’t even regularly watch Chinese martial arts movies. His film A Touch of Zen (which we’ll look at in another entry) was the first of its type to receive an award at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film we’ll touch on here, Dragon Gate Inn, is such a wuxia classic that it has been remade twice (one example of which will be shown in another entry on this list).
Dragon Gate Inn follows what could be considered a standard American Western storyline: a group of hardened killers lying in wait for (supposedly) helpless victims. The vicious soldiers of the East Agency commandeer a remote inn on the outskirts of the China border, informing the innkeeper that he is not to allow any more guests to enter.
A lone swordsman arrives and settles in for lunch anyway, quickly establishing his martial arts credentials by besting several of the agency’s men after they attempt to poison him. Not long after a brother and sister show up (though the sister is disguised as a man), and make it obvious after likewise coming to blows with the agency that they have no intention of leaving.
They intercept a message to the agency giving orders to kill all members of the Yu family, relations of a great general opposed by the evil governor of the region. Banding together, along with two members of the East Agency who decide to defect, they fight to protect the Yu family from assassination by the eunuch governor—who possesses incredible martial skill—and his men.
Much of what is essential to the wuxia genre is present here: gifted fighters righteously defend the innocent, operating far above concerns of monetary reward—a special consideration in light of the fact that the main hero is a hired swordsman—and combating with a combination of real-world tactics and blatant magic (there is a great deal of exaggerated leaping and snatching arrows and knives effortlessly out of the air).
King Hu’s camerawork has an easy grace and flow, and many of the fighters’ more supernatural abilities are realized through the clever, innovative editing techniques that he was known for. While the martial arts sequences lack the tight intensity of similar films a couple of decades later, it should be pointed out that people who watch early wuxia films for the fights alone are kind of missing the point. This is a movie of political intrigue, suspense and storybook fantasy accomplished with the deft touch of a master of the form.
Author Bio: Scot Mason lives in Tucson, AZ. He is the author of the blogs Hawaii Timewarp, Eastern Trails, Scotty’s Movies N’ Tunes, and Tucson Only Kind Of Sucks. He once lived in a shack in the middle of an abandoned sugercane field full of giant spiders and rats, because YOLO.