20 Essential Films For An Introduction To The Wuxia Genre

14. Butterfly and Sword (1993)

butterfly and sword

A light piece of humorous action fantasy from the Nineties ATH period (After Tsui Hark), Butterfly and Sword utilizes many of the visual tropes common to the time—sustained human flight, magical swordplay, silken robes that flow and flare during fight scenes and weaponized bolts of projectile fabric—and compresses them into a short, galloping adventure centered around two stories of unrequited love, with the four participants played by Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen and Joey Wong.

The plot involves Yeoh as an assassin working for a strange eunuch (evil eunuchs are a common sight in wuxia pictures) who seeks to do away with an ambitious general. In her downtime she pines for her martial brother Leung, who is himself in love with Wong. Yen’s character is so distraught over the fact the Yeoh barely notices him that he spends his days drinking (when he’s not engaging in lethal combat).

Later it takes the three of them to take down the general and, in a mild twist, the eunuch himself, whose own ambitions make him a greater danger, and whose weapon of choice is an Edward Scissorhands-like claw that fires blades.

The fight scenes are speedy and well-shot, and will please fans of violent action and gore—blood spurts, heads and limbs are sliced away, bodies literally disintegrate and Leung’s character bores straight through the torsos of his opponents. A fun example of wuxia from a highpoint in the history of Chinese action cinema.


13. The New One Armed Swordsman (1971)

The New One Armed Swordsman

The title for this is very literal indeed—rather than following the further adventures of the character originated by Jimmy Wang Yu, we now watch the trials and tribulations of an entirely different swordsman who has been shorn of one arm, in this case a skilled young martial hero (David Chiang) who loses a duel with a master of the three-sectioned staff and as a matter of honor lops off his own limb.

The staff expert is trying to eliminate any other masters of the martial arts who might prove a threat to him later on down the line, and so dupes them into fighting him so they will fall to his undefeatable weapon style.

The one armed man, retired from fighting out of shame, works as a waiter at a local restaurant where he suffers the taunts of the less well-mannered customers. Ti Lung plays a wandering swordsman who comes along and tries to coax him out of retirement, but it’s only after the two become friends, and Ti Lung is killed in a duel with the same master of the staff, that the one armed swordsman once again takes up the blade.

As with the original One Armed Swordsman, this film is directed by Chang Cheh, well on his way to adopting the basic template that would come to dominate most of his later martial arts films. He spends far less time on character development, deciding instead to up the quotient of armed combat and bloodshed. It’s also a crueler film, placing it alongside many other titles in Chang’s often mean-spirited cinematic oeuvre (as terrific as his movies are, the guy really liked to show people getting seriously hurt).

Story and morality are significantly streamlined compared to the earlier work, taking a much more direct path to vengeance and eye-for-an-eye (or arm-for-an-arm, as the case may be) justice. Some fight fans will find this more gripping than the Wang Yu film, though it’s arguably not as well shot or staged.


12. Master of the Flying Guillotine (1975)


Jimmy Wang Yu, his star having fallen somewhat by the mid-Seventies and possibly having burned some professional bridges in Hong Kong, set out to create this independent feature in Taiwan as a sequel to an earlier One Armed Boxer film, itself a reworking of the classic role that had catapulted him to stardom in the late Sixties.

It’s not necessary to have seen the other films to enjoy this one—in fact, Wang Yu takes special pains to include footage from the first film to ensure there is no confusion for the uninitiated.

He also appears to have caught the special bug of weirdness that had come to infect many martial arts films in the Seventies, treating us to a pair of very strange, utterly unique characters—a blind priest who seeks revenge against the one armed boxer through the use of a collapsible beheading device on a long chain, and a Yogi fighter with the ability to stretch his arms to twice his body length.

The priest also employs the skills of a samurai and a Thai boxer, both of whom Wang Yu must best using special techniques (the Thai boxer, for instance, is killed using a heated metal floor).

These odd details, and the fact that Wang Yu can can walk on walls and ceiling by controlling his breath, are what have made Master of the Flying Guillotine a major cult classic of Chinese cinema. It has an inspired loopiness that continually brings it new fans, some of whom are quite well-known—Quentin Tarantino sampled part of the score in Kill Bill Vol. I.


11. The Swordsman Trilogy (1990, 1992 and 1993)

The Swordsman

Of the films that most strongly represent the cinematic style of wuxia in the 1990’s, The Swordsman Trilogy probably has the most highly-regarded reputation, combining the kind of whirling, flying, tightly-edited action fans came to expect with a romantic plotlines that elevate the trilogy beyond a mere cavalcade of clashing swords and airborne martial arts pyrotechnics.

Viewers have among the best Tsui Hark-style action sequences ever filmed in store for them when they take the time to enjoy these films, as well as a fascinating look at what happens when multiple filmmakers, under the guidance of a single vision, contribute to the success of a project.

The first film, called merely The Swordsman in English-speaking markets (it’s also known as Laughing and Proud Warrior), begins the story of the Highland Sun Moon Sect and their struggles to protect the Sacred Scroll from falling into the wrong hands.

The film focuses on the character of Ling(played in this film by Sam Hui), who while being manipulated by various warring factions, makes the acquaintance of the leaders of the Sun Moon Sect and learns a new sword technique that greatly helps him later in the film. Legendary director King Hu is credited with directing this initial entry in the series, but part of the directing duties were carried out by Tsui Hark (who produced the next two films).

Swordman II (called Legend of the Swordsman when released through Dimension Films), changes things up a little, recasting the role of Ling with Jet Li. Ching Sui Tung (who directed the Chinese Ghost Story trilogy and Duel to the Death) steps in as director, and handles his duties more than capably. In this film, the Sacred Scroll is being used by the Invincible Asia, a man who went to the lengths of castrating himself in order to attain the highest level of power the Scroll provides, and is in the process of turning into a woman (played by Brigitte Lin, who seems to specialize in gender-bending roles).

She threatens to take control of the Sun Moon Sect with the help of ninjas and her incredible supernatural abilities, but not if Master Wu, the formerly imprisoned head of the sect, has anything to say about it. Despite a budding romance between Ling and Asia, conflict appears to be inevitable, one that, on the surface at least, seems to do away with the Invincible Asia and bring back an uneasy stability to the Sun Moon Sect.

Swordsman III, or The East Is Red, dispenses with Ling and focuses instead on Invincible Asia herself, who after being discovered by a group of Spanish conquistadors led by a military official who little suspects the Spaniards’ true intentions of getting the Sacred Scroll for themselves.

When Asia learns that there are impostor sects operating in her name—in particular one led by a former concubine played by Joey Wong—she goes on a full rampage, destroying as many as she can with her astonishing skills. Of the three films, this one might be the most visually outrageous, combining samurai and ninjas with a wooden submarine, Asia riding a swordfish and a suit of armor operated from within by a midget.

It is also the quickest-paced, wasting very little time establishing characters and running headlong straight into its quirky, one-of-a-kind action sequences. Though all three films have a very loose connection to one another as far as story goes, together they comprise a worthy and entertaining series that will satisfy any discerning fan of Chinese action movies.


10. The Blade (1995)

The Blade

Years before the gritty reboot became a well-worn mainstay of Hollywood filmmaking, Tsui Hark remade the Chang Cheh/Jimmy Wang Yu classic One Armed Swordsman as a dark, belligerent, very angry tale of violent revenge that takes the most essential, bare-bones elements of the original and intensifies them to a jarring level.

A man named Ding-on works at a foundry that manufactures swords, knives and other cutting implements. A gang of bandits kills a Shaolin monk, spurring the foundry’s young employees to take revenge against the foundry-master’s wishes, but Ding-on only becomes involved when the master’s daughter rides out alone and becomes snared in one of gang’s many traps. Ding-on rushes to her rescue, losing an arm in the process.

He’s tended to by a crazed, half-wild girl who has bandit problems of her own, and after she discovers a damaged sword-fighting manual, Ding-on begins to practice a unique, whirling-dervish style of swordsmanship that makes him virtually invincible. The bandits, led by a bald, tattooed killer whose gymnastic agility makes him appear to fly, attempt to destroy the foundry and kill all its employees, a situation strongly related to the fact that the foundry-master and the terrifying leader have a history that involves the death of Ding-on’s father.

Ding-on returns with the master’s daughter and his father’s broken sword attached to a length of chain, intent on a final reckoning with his father’s killer.

The Blade is something of a departure for Tsui Hark, in that not only is it an unusually grim tale in which nearly every emotion is expressed at the top of the actors’ lungs, but that he also elects to play down the more magical aspects of his characters’ martial arts skills.

Though there is still the occasional use of unaided flight and impossible strength, much of what happens takes place while firmly rooted on the ground, made all the more realistic by the kind of physical clumsiness seen in real fights. Infused with a sense of edgy eroticism, The Blade is a brutal and harrowing remake that pulls the viewer in with a fast pace, stark imagery and exciting action.


9. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

House of Flying Daggers

This film, the second in Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of incredible, technically perfect wuxia stories, comes at its subject matter from the same angle as many wuxia that tackle themes of love and romance: that intimate relationships, weighed against the monolithic demands of duty and martial honor, stand very little chance of surviving, if they can ever begin at all.

Two police captains in ancient China are charged with taking down a rebel faction call the House of Flying Daggers. They do this by tracking a young blind woman (Zhang Ziyi), believed to be the daughter of the recently killed leader, through a forested landscape back to the clan’s lair.

The captain who helps her, disguised as a rebel sympathizer, comes to learn that his superiors don’t care whether he lives or dies. They later discover that his fellow officer (Andy Lau) has been in love with the girl for some time, but she only has eyes for her new companion. Her clan disapproves, and with enemy soldiers closing in, the two try to flee to freedom. Fate, however, has other plans, ones that will leave everyone involved considerably damaged in the end.

As with Hero, Zhang Yimou makes full use of a brilliant, illuminated color palette to bring his antique, dream-like world to life. In this instance he chooses more natural, earthy colors, most noticeable when the characters spend time in the bamboo forest that serves as the clan’s home, a place of such saturated green that it seems impossible to achieve on film.

In a time when movies lean more toward dark, washed-out imagery, it’s nice to see work by a filmmaker who still values bright, vibrant color on screen. You almost don’t realize how much you miss it in contemporary film until you see it done so well.


8. New Dragon Gate Inn (1992)

New Dragon Gate Inn

Released in 1992, this newer version of the King Hu classic (but not the newest—2011 saw Flying Swords of Dragon Gate with Jet Li) sticks pretty close to its source material, but digresses from it in ways that explicitly distinguish it as a Hong Kong wuxia film from the Nineties.

Fighters are powered by extreme wire-fu that permits extended, Superman-like flight, one-on-one battles are choreographed with the grace of fast-forward ballet, sets are infused with filtered lighting, and the screen on a whole is filled with a rowdier, bawdier energy. Add to that a stronger eroticism and a subplot that borrows from Sweeny Todd (the inn butchers slain bandits and serves the meat to their guests), and what you have is a radically different movie from what King Hu envisioned with the original.

The movie trades a lot on audience familiarity with the Sixties version, in that it doesn’t work as hard to explain its plot, speeds up the pace at which it introduces characters, and feels free to toss in romantic subplots where there were none before.

The innkeepers are as much perpetrators as they are victims, and have roughly the same level of martial skill as the other characters, giving the film less of the original’s feel of an American Western and more of the tone of many films released in the advent of Tsui Hark (not surprising, as he was Dragon Inn’s producer).

Starring Brigitte Lin (who dominated female roles in wuxia of this decade) as the main swordswoman, Maggie Cheung as the innkeeper and Donnie Yen, in a rare turn as a villain, as the devious, ambitious eunuch governor who gets the story rolling.