If someone walks in on you while watching a kung fu movie, they’re likely to make a remark something along the lines of “What the hell are you watching?” There’s nothing to justify such a disdainful attitude—kicking others in the face while grunting and whooping loudly is a perfectly normal activity for most people, and the depiction of it in cinematic form is as venerable an art as ballet or professional knife throwing. And really, what sort of person is perplexed by Drunken Master anyway? That’s, like, Kung Fu Movie 101 right there.
The true aficionado dives much deeper, into the arcane and indecipherable depths of a martial arts celluloid ocean, and comes gasping back up with artifacts so weird, so unnerving and incomprehensible that even a doctor of abnormal psychology might recoil and gaze into the middle distance in quiet horror. Or just shame you further by making cracks about your questionable taste in movies, assuming it’s the same person who walked in on you watching Drunken Master in the first place. Any of the following eight movies on this list is liable to elicit either response.
8. Master of the Flying Guillotine
When former Hong Kong action star (and alleged gangster) Jimmy Wang Yu began working in Taiwan to pick up the pieces of his film career, he spearheaded the production of some…interesting motion pictures. Alongside the fairly loopy Fantasy Mission Force, Master of the Flying Guillotine might be the most unusual of those.
A sequel to Wang Yu’s One-Armed Boxer, the film opens with the titular character angrily launching out the roof of a thatched hut (even though there’s probably a perfectly good door) in order to take revenge on Wang Yu’s one-armed kung fu master, currently busying himself teaching martial arts students to walk on ceilings and walls through the magic of proper breathing technique.
Things just get odder from there. Flashbacks to the previous film tell us that Wang Yu had killed two of the guillotine master’s best students, one of whom could inflate himself like a human hot air balloon (an image borrowed by John Carpenter in Big Trouble In Little China). The evil master spends part of the run time decapitating random one-armed people with his bladed birdcage-on-a-chain. It’s an understandable mistake—he’s totally blind.
Later in the story, the villain employs the help of a samurai, an expert Thai boxer, and a “yogi” who’s power of Reed Richards arm-stretching clearly influenced the character of Dhalsim from the Street Fighter video games. After dispatching these, Wang Yu takes on the villain through the use of kung fu, trip-wire hatchet launchers, and strategically placed bamboo poles.
This film has rightly gone on to become a cult classic, a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, and echoes of it have periodically turned up in popular culture since its release in 1976.
7. Taoism Drunkard
Amid slapstick routines that make the Three Stooges look stately and restrained, there is a story that involves an alcoholic martial arts master looking for virginal boys in order to win his brother’s forgiveness, a task he undertakes by systematically inspecting children’s penises. It’s important to mention he drives a buck-toothed, bamboo Fiat.
The film’s young protagonist lives with his mom, who trains him in kung fu by running him through an obstacle course that includes Death Star compactor walls, a bed of hot coals, and a black beach ball monster with feet and a chomping mouth full of sharp teeth. What else? How about a caped villain whose weapon of choice is a metal sphere full of flying Phantasm balls. He had the palms of his hands burned off on a heated playground slide/torture device, so who can blame him if he’s a little temperamental?
The fight scenes are fast-paced, visually inventive and tight, just the sort of thing one expects from the great Yuen Woo Ping. None of this makes a whole lot of sense, and it’s probably not supposed to.
6. Return of the Bastard Swordsman
It’s pretty common for people in kung fu movies to have superpowers—they fly, punch trees in half, whatever. There is a man in Return of the Bastard Swordsman who has mastered the power of the silkworm, and he uses that power to produce silk from his hands at will. Don’t laugh—he can spear enemies through the torso with solid shafts of silk, or hurl a massive cocoon at them.
Set against this formidable super-pugilist is an evil cult master with the ability to make an opponent’s heart explode, causing him to vomit blood. For some reason he accomplishes this by repeatedly puffing up his chest like a toad. Only by playing big taiko drums can one hope to counter his attack.
This film, released by Shaw Brothers in the mid-eighties, is a prime example of what filmmakers can do using only practical effects, with just a smattering of ILM-style visuals, particularly during a major fight scene midway through the story. Breakneck old school personal combat combines with wirework, flying boulders, whirling silken cocoons as big as an Oldsmobile, and general magic martial arts craziness to make a viewing experience that is delightful, compelling, and visually one of a kind.
Although this is a sequel to the Shaw Brothers film Bastard Swordsman, it isn’t necessary to have seem the first film to thoroughly enjoy this one.
5. Chinese Super Ninjas, aka Five Element Ninjas
Workaholic director Chang Cheh was probably best known for his seminal epic Five Deadly Venoms, where characters have frog, lizard and centipede-based martial arts abilities, but that’s far from the weirdest thing he ever did.
Chinese Super Ninjas (as it was known in the States) is a head-spinning celebration of the garishly bizarre, a story involving a kung fu clan that defeats a group of Japanese martial arts experts in what was intended to be a friendly demonstration of skills, but naturally ends up being a minor blood bath.
In retaliation, an order of ninjas representing the five elements (water, earth, fire, wood, and gold) seek revenge on the kung fu experts, nearly wiping out their whole school. The only hope is for the remaining students to seek out a Chinese master of ninjutsu who can teach them the techniques they need to know to destroy their antagonists.
What sets Super Ninjas apart is its total devotion to fabulous imagery and visual splendor (within the limits of a typical Shaw Brothers budget). The ninjas are wholly fanciful creations, attacking in gold lamé outfits armed with umbrellas that shoot knives, camouflaging themselves with red smoke bombs and spearing opponents from underground like angry gophers.
The stagey appearance of the sets gives one the feeling of watching an especially violent, kaleidoscopic play, performed by actors dressed like members of a 70’s funk group.
4. The Seventh Curse
Not a kung fu movie per se, but with enough martial arts lumped in with myriad other elements to give it a pass. This is a little bit of everything: kung fu, comedy, sexploitation, shoot ’em up and horror gorefest, with just a little bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark and James Bond thrown in for good measure.
A young archaeologist travels to southeast Asia and accidentally witnesses a supernatural ritual forbidden to outsiders. As punishment, he is struck with a blood curse that causes bloody boils to explode on the surface of his skin. If this happens seven times, he’ll die, so he embarks on a journey to get the spell reversed, part of which requires him to swing around like Spiderman on a giant Buddha statue while fighting hostile monks, to grapple with a skeleton that knows karate (a funny nod to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), and avoid being eviscerated by a flying baby-monster.
It’s hard not to be a little charmed by the nutty, kitchen-sink approach the filmmakers take to this project, even going so far as to have the villain crush a bunch of children in a big stone juicer to collect their blood, then later turn into a bat/alien hybrid that Chow Yun Fat, in a cameo as a professor of the supernatural, blows up with a bazooka. Great R-rated fun for the whole family.
3. Nine Demons
Largely considered to be director Chang Cheh’s worst film, this is still an immensely fun, completely off-the-wall movie that is hard to describe to anyone who’s never taken psychoactive drugs.
Joey (yes, in the English dub there’s a Chinese man living during the Ming Dynasty named Joey) falls through a crack in the earth after a band of thugs murders his master’s family, and meets the Devil, who like everyone else in the cast is dressed like a 70’s-era Vegas magician. He makes a deal with Lucifer/Doug Henning that grants him special powers including, but not limited to, a necklace of tiny skulls that transforms into acrobatic vampire children.
These are the movie’s most interesting—if very low-budget—visual, accompanied by psychedelic rave lighting and the sort of sound effects one normally associates with a kids’ show about extraterrestrial robots. A swordsman named Roland (again, this is the Ming Dynasty) tries to stop him, ultimately confronting him with the help of some friends and a magical priest, on the surface of a “pond” that is really just a big soapy puddle on a sound stage the actors are obliged to scoot around on like four-year-olds skating across a linoleum floor in their socks.
In spite of the WTF premise, it’s hard to fault a movie that tries to do something so unique, even if it doesn’t quite succeed on all points.
2. Encounters of the Spooky Kind, aka Spooky Encounters
Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan’s elder classmate in the Peking Opera School and the co-founder of the comedic kung fu movie genre, also helped create the genre of martial arts/horror, often featuring traditional Chinese vampires called jiangshi who hop around instead of walk and hold their arms extended in front of them like the old Universal Studios Mummy.
Sammo plays a man whose wife is cheating on him, and her lover decides to have him bumped off by hiring a sorcerer to con him into spending a night in a haunted cemetery. There he does battle with a jiangshi under the sorcerer’s control, fighting it with a combination of kung fu, eggs, and dog’s blood.
The sorcerer’s estranged apprentice tries to help him, culminating in a showdown wherein Sammo and an opponent are compelled to fight while possessed by a series of war gods, and the two wizards preside over the combat from towers of scaffolding.
Hung, who was director as well as fight choreographer, puts together some weird, unforgettable set pieces, particularly in the final fight and during a scene where he and a reanimated corpse engage in a skewed recreation of the Marx Brothers mirror gag. Genuinely worth repeat viewing.
1. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky
It was probably inevitable that we would come to this, one of the most outrageous and over-the-top martial arts movies ever made.
As ridiculous as this film is, it’s also strangely prescient: Ricky is sent to a privatized prison in a 1991 version of 2001, which isn’t too far off base from where the actual US prison system is going. However, nothing else bears even the slightest resemblance to reality.
Ricky, through the apparent power of qigong, is virtually immortal, enduring gunshot wounds, powdered glass to the eyes, and a mouthful of razorblades, among other indignities. Fights include a disemboweled man attempting to strangle Ricky with a length of his own intestine, a humongous thug getting his jaw punched off, and the evil, opium-cultivating prison warden turning into a demonic Hulk monster in the middle of the final fight, only to be dumped into a giant meat grinder. The gore is every bit as disgusting as anything in the filmographies of George Romero or Lucio Fulci, but many times funnier.
Riki-Oh is based on a manga, a fact that is most apparent in the bizarre scenarios and character designs, which have a kind of Fist of the North Star flavor. Highly recommended to anyone who likes to laugh while watching someone take a board with nails in it to the face.
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.