Richard James Havis
Hong Kong martial arts films fall broadly into two categories, wuxia and kung fu. Wuxia films feature armed combat, usually swordplay, while kung fu films mainly feature unarmed combat. The two types of film are quite distinct, although kung fu films will sometimes feature a scene that includes fighting with poles (also called staffs), the favoured weapon of Shaolin monks, and the villains will often use weaponry.
The word wuxia translates roughly as “martial heroes” and has its origin in the rich tradition of martial arts literature from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China.
The wandering swordsmen and swordswomen who serve as the heroes and heroines of the genre inhabit the semi-mythical martial arts world of jianghu (which translates as “rivers and lakes”, although that description is metaphorical rather than descriptive). These “knight errants” and “lady knights” come in many different shades, although they are generally chivalrous, and almost always end up on the side of good.
Kung fu is a collective term that describes a variety of Chinese martial styles. Kung fu is broken down into two main traditions, Northern and Southern, and two conceptual approaches, internal and external.
Within this, there are many distinct styles, such as Hung Gar (a popular southern style) and wing chun (the style which Bruce Lee first learned). Martial arts in kung fu films are also heavily influenced by the acrobatics of Peking Opera, which are themselves heavily stylised forms of northern-style kung fu.
Thanks to the phenomenal success of Bruce Lee in the early 1970s, kung fu films are much better known internationally than wuxia films. Indeed, most casual foreign viewers are unaware of the existence of Hong Kong’s long and plentiful tradition of wuxia films.
Before the early 1970s, most martial arts films were wuxia films. (A notable exception was the long-running Wong Fei-hung film series which ran from 1949 and to 1970.) The popularity of wuxia films declined in Hong Kong in the early 1970s and, bolstered by Lee’s success, producers switched to making kung fu films instead. Kung fu films became internationally famous in 1973 with the success of Lee’s films, including Enter the Dragon.
Wuxia films made something of a comeback in the 1990s, when filmmakers including Tsui Hark reimagined the genre with films such as Swordsman II. Conceptually, the 1990s films draw on the much older “fantastique” genre of swordfighting films, which originated in Shanghai in the 1920s.
Such films give the swordsmen and -women heightened powers which verge on the magical, and the films rely just as much on special effects as sword fighting techniques. (Although more traditional wuxia heroes and heroines can perform death-defying feats, incredible acrobatics, and leap large distances, their powers fall short of being superhuman).
The 1990s also saw a resurgence of interest in kung fu films, spurred by the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China films, which featured Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung. Swordplay migrated into the big historical action films of the early 2000s, such as Zhang Yimou’s Hero, while kung fu became popular again with the Ip Man series of films, which debuted in 2008 and concluded with last year’s Ip Man 4: The Finale.
Who are the big stars of the genre?
The big stars of kung fu films are household names – Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li Lianjie.
Bruce Lee, a bit of a philosopher in the realms of martial arts, was a phenomenon in the early 1970s. Once an outsider in the United States, the actor, who died in 1973, has grown in stature even in unexpected parts of the world over the years. Lee remains the martial artist that others aspire to be.
Jackie Chan, who started out as stuntman, became successful in the 1980s. Attempts to promote him as the new Bruce Lee failed, and he found fame when he developed his own jocular image, accompanied by acrobatic martial arts and dangerous stunts. Chan’s popularity in Hong Kong slumped when he aligned himself with the communist authorities in Beijing and attacked Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Jet Li , born in northern China, saw a burst of success in the 1980s, but established his fame in the 1990s in the films of Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. Li went on become an internationally successful star.
Sammo Hung has been a powerful force in the Hong Kong film industry for half a century, as an actor, director, martial arts choreographer and stuntman. Hung is a big guy, and part of the fun is seeing him perform acrobatic that seems to break the laws of gravity.
Along with Sammo Hung, veteran performer Donnie Yen.
Ji-dan is the biggest martial arts star today, and the success of the popular IpMan films pushed him close to superstar status.
Big names from the kung fu films of the 1970s include Lo Lieh and Gordon Liu, among many, many others. Further back in the past, the kung fu hero was defined by Kwan Tak-hing, who portrayed Wong Fei-hong in around 80 films from 1949 to 1970. Kwan generally used the popular southern fighting style of Hung Gar.
Wuxia films had their own stars, too, the most famous being cool and classy Jimmy Wang Yu, the star of early classic films by Chang Cheh. Wang later transitioned to kung fu films, and directing. David Chiang, who was hired to replace Wang at Shaw Brothers studio when he left, also became a big star under Chang Cheh’s guidance, as did Ti Lung. The charismatic Alexander Fu Sheng, another protégé of Chang Cheh, was also popular.
Wuxia films featured many female stars. In the 1950s and early 1960s, before the arrival of the New Wave of Wuxia films in 1966-1967, Hong Kong cinema was aimed at female audiences – melodramas were the popular hits – and swordfighting films always featured female heroines, even if they were not portrayed as independent women.
The new wave martial arts films of King Hu continued this trend, making stars of two Taiwanese actresses, Hsu Feng and Cheng Pei-pei. Although neither had been trained in martial arts – Cheng had trained as a dancer – both performed like experts in films such as Come Drink with Me (Cheng) and A Touch of Zen (Hsu). Wuxia films abound with impressive female fighters.
In the 1990s, Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, a dramatic actress from Taiwan, leapt to fame as the hermaphrodite martial artist Asia the Invincible in Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II. Along with Jet Li, Lin became the biggest star of the new style of martial arts films. Lin brought a charisma and dramatic intensity to her roles which transcended her lack of martial arts technique.
In contrast, the “female Bruce Lee” Angela Mao Ying, the greatest female kung fu star of the 1970s – and probably of all time – had trained in martial arts. Mao knew hapkido, a Korean style, and could really fight. Mao achieved fame in the US during the kung fu boom of the early 1970s, and was second in popularity abroad only to Lee himself.
Since the mid-1980s, Michelle Yeoh (billed as Michelle Kwan in her early films) has been a popular female action star, although she has spent much of her time working abroad. Yeoh appeared in films such as Fong Sai Yuk and The Tai Chi Master, both with Jet Li, and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Yeoh, another former dancer, does all her own stunts and learns the martial arts styles required for each martial arts film she makes. A durable actress, she recently starred as Captain Philippa Georgiou in the Star Trek: Discovery series.
There used to be numerous martial arts schools and masters in Hong Kong, and these provided a steady stream of talent for moviemakers. For example, martial arts director/choreographer Lau Kar-leung was the son of Hung Gar master Lau Cham, who taught Gordon Liu, who later appeared in Lau’s 36th Chamber of Shaolin. With the decline of such schools, the pool of potential martial arts actors and actresses has decreased.
Who are the most famous martial arts film directors?
The two towering giants of the wuxia genre are Chang Cheh and King Hu.
The prolific Chang Cheh, working at Shaw Brothers, redefined the genre in the mid-1960s in numerous ways. He made the action more realistic and used modern cinematography and editing techniques to make the fight sequences more cinematic. He brought gore and violence to the genre, and developed the idea of a rebellious masculine hero who was in tune with the times.
When the wuxia genre faded, Chang moved successfully into directing kung fu films, although the quality of his output became patchy.
King Hu was equally important. Hu drew on literature and Peking Opera to make aesthetically pleasing, literate and literary historical works which featured graceful and powerful martial arts choreography. He also made innovative use of editing techniques. Hu’s A Touch of Zen transcended the genre to become a masterpiece of world cinema.
One important facet of martial arts films is that most directors are not experts in martial arts, and consequently hand over the martial arts scenes to specialised martial arts choreographers. By and large, the choreographers take full control of the action scenes, choreographing the movements of the performers, and deciding the camera movements.
This level of autonomy does not exist in Hollywood. Chang Cheh, for instance, worked with choreographer Lau Kar-leung for the first part of his career.
Some martial arts choreographers go on to become directors in their own right. Lau Kar-leung went on to become a powerful force in kung fu films as a director, with a mission to showcase the purity of the southern styles of kung fu in his films.
Another famed martial arts choreographer who has also directed is Yuen Woo-ping, whose colleagues once called him “the greatest martial arts director under all of heaven”. Yuen also choreographed the action scenes in The Matrix.
Ching Siu-tung, who worked with Tsui Hark on some of his 1990s hits – such as A Chinese Ghost Story – as director, is also an expert martial arts choreographer.
Bruce Lee didn’t have much luck with directors, falling out with the veteran Lo Wei, who directed his first two martial arts movies, and directing most the martial arts sequences himself. Lee also directed himself in Way of the Dragon. Similarly, Jackie Chan has often directed himself, and he always designs the fight sequences in his local work, whether he is the film’s director or not.