Martial Arts in Movies: A History

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database


"The martial arts picture was the vanguard of all that was creative and unique in Hong Kong cinema. At its peak of popularity, it influenced all of Southeast Asia and it even broke out of this region to influence Europe and America. Hollywood has been greatly influenced by the genre. Regretfully, just as Hollywood has absorbed Hong Kong cinema influences and its talents, the local film industry is in decline. The reason for the decline lies in the failure for Hong Kong cinema to retain its balance and integrity in the mixing of Eastern and Western cultures and lowbrow and highbrow tastes. Instead, there is a polarisation. In some cases, only local layman's tastes are satisfied; in other cases, Western culture is imitated at the cost of the Hong Kong flavour. There are pictures that cater only for the "minority audience" -- pictures that are enjoyed by the few. Then there are pictures that are glossy but shallow. To learn from the past in order to know the future, there is only recourse to achieve the integration of eastern and western cultures, the lowbrow and the highbrow. Only this way can we renew our energy and rebuild the film industry so that it may enter a new age of prosperity." - Director Chang Cheh

Bruce Lee

The Origins

The term "kung fu films" came into general use along with the films of Bruce Lee and was used to refer to unarmed combat films. While wu xia pian is Mandarin, "kung fu" is from Cantonese vernacular. The kung fu film is thus unique in Hong Kong cinema - with the term itself in the local dialect, the genre was named as the territory's very own. Even on this cultural level, Bruce Lee can be credited with bringing the martial arts film and Hong Kong cinema to international prominence.

About The Martial Arts

The use of Chinese martial arts for military strategy and as a subject for scholarship dates back at least as far as the Zhuzi Baijia (the various schools of thought from pre-Qin to early Han Dynasty), and is recorded in military texts of the Warring States period.

Traditional Chinese theories of natural science and religion, along with legends, customs, and pictographic symbols, have been incorporated into Chinese martial arts, extending their range beyond mere military or self-defense purposes into a form of knowledge.

Throughout the evolution of martial arts, emphasis has been placed on self-strengthening, therapeutic exercise, and performance. Music, dance, and acrobatics combined with martial arts occupy an important place in Chinese theater. Even non martial arts actors have been required to train in martial arts in order to develop and refine their body movements. The martial arts have also been adapted into ceremonial Chinese celebrations, such as lion dancing and dragon dancing, and are common elements in street theater performance

Wang Yu, Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu Films of the 70s

Jimmy Wang Yu

In the 1970s, the wu xia pian (chivalrous combat film) changed its emphasis from bloody swordplay to unarmed combat. Fighting styles therefore came to depend less on cinematic technique and more on plausibility. While this represented a return to more credible, authentic martial arts, the terms were much different than in the early Wong Fei Hong films. Training, victory, and vindication were new themes. In The Chinese Boxer (1970), directed by and starring Wang Yu, torturous training leads the hero to a victory over Japanese judo and karate experts. Lo Wei's 1971 film The Big Boss portrayed the struggles of a Chinese individual in a foreign land (Thailand) and focused on the theme of asserting personal respect, dignity, and identity. The Big Boss marked substantial changes to the genre - set in the present rather than the historical past, the presentation of martial arts incorporated many different forms including Thai and Western boxing, and judo. This mix would be standard for subsequent films. Most importantly, The Big Boss introduced Bruce Lee to the martial arts genre.As an exceptional martial artist, Lee's ability to synthesize various national martial techniques sparked a new trend in unarmed combat martial arts films. His talent shifted the focus from martial arts director to martial arts actor. Lee went on to make the Warner Brothers/Golden Harvest produced film Enter The Dragon in 1973, which was Lee's most popular film. It was subsequently released after his death which made Lee even more of legend in popular culture. Other Bruce Lee films include: the unfinished Game of Death (1978), Way Of the Dragon and Fist of Fury aka The Chinese Connection (1972).

The Mandarin Style

The Mandarin term wuxia pian originally referred to the genre of martial arts films. "Wuxia" means chivalrous combat, and "pian" means film. While the Wong Fei Hong films, with their righteous values and moralistic messages, typify the classic wu xia pian, the term would eventually, through popular usage, include post Wong Fei Hong films that contained gratuitous violence and non-chivalrous combat. The unarmed combat film would not be distinguished from swordplay and armed combat films until much later, with the advent of the kung fu film in the 1970s.

Cheng Pei-Pei

Hong Kong's Mandarin-dominated cinema had traditionally disdained the violence of the wu xia pian (including the Cantonese Wong Fei Hong films) and prided itself on the wen yi pian, or "literary arts films," melodramas or adaptations of novels and plays. By the 1960s, Hong Kong society had become a hybrid of new and old ideologies and East/West cultures. Filmgoers demanded fresher subjects - demands to which Mandarin filmmakers responded by creating a new kind of martial arts film that incorporated special effects and other innovations.

The new genre was launched by films such as Li Hanxing's Enchanting Shadow (1960), which included blaring sound effects to create suspense, and Yue Feng's The Swallow (1961), which used a trampoline to impart the illusion of weightless leaps by actors. This film also utilized a number of shots printed in reverse motion.

By 1966, this genre had reached maturity with King Hu's Come Drink with Me, made for Shaw Brothers Productions (the Shaw Brothers were part of the Mandarin-speaking Shanghai filmmaking talent that relocated to Hong Kong). This film captured the elegance of ancient Chinese martial artistry through inventive cinematic techniques. Chang Cheh's The Magnificent Trio, appearing the same year, showed the influence of Japanese Samurai films. By 1967, the martial arts genre dominated the cinema of Hong Kong. King Hu and Chang Cheh continued to excel as directors of the genre with, respectively, Dragon Gate Inn and The One Armed Swordsman.

The Mandarin martial arts films set the tone for much of Hong Kong's present-day historical and fantastic films, using settings far removed from today to provide an uninhibited romantic vision of the world of martial arts. In addition to their cinematic innovations, King Hu and Chang Cheh provided new codes of behavior for their characters. Moving away from Wong Fei Hong's Confucian attitudes, the films tended toward the Buddhist and Taoist. While earlier wu xia pian presented complex relationships and a careful causality of events, the Mandarin martial arts films emphasized sword-based combat, romance, and the fantastic, with fights erupting on the slimmest excuse. Full of bloodshed, the presentation of the duel was the highlight of the films, and the martial arts swordsman hero was a key element in the formula.

The Northern Style Kung Fu of Woo Ping Yuen

Woo Ping Yuen

The Northern style kung fu comedy developed about the same time as its southern counterpart. More acrobatic and performance oriented, Northern style fighting originated in the Peking Opera. Although the first film to utilize comedy elements in the Northern-style stage tradition was Sammo Hung's directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk (1977), it was Yuen Woo Ping's films that marked the true birth of this style. Like Lau Kar Leung, Yuen Woo Ping's early work was on the Wong Fei Hong films; also like Lau, he was a martial arts instructor-turned-director. Yuen combines Northern-style fighting with other major fist forms to create new forms for the kung fu comedy film. His debut Snake in The Eagle's Shadow (1978) broke box-office records. With the even more popular Drunken Master (1978), Yuen helped launch Jackie Chan's career. The versatile Yuen also wrote, directed, and starred in The Fearless Hyena (1979) and The Young Master (1980).Yuen went on to train the actors and choreograph the fight sequences in the sci fi action thriller The Matrix (1999) and the mythical action drama Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000). In 2001, kung fu fanatic/director/producer Quentin Tarantino brought Yuens's latest directorial outing Iron Monkey to the US (not uncut, though).

The Southern-Style Kung Fu of Lau Kar Leung

Lau Kar Leung

Lau Kar Leung began martial arts training with his father at age nine, and at sixteen began playing roles in the Cantonese Wong Fei Hong films. Lau pioneered the exploration of authentic martial arts techniques and training procedures, and he became the first instructor to make the jump to director. With the growing popularity of the comedy genre in television and the films of the Hui brothers, comedy seemed an inevitable addition to martial arts. Lau's Spiritual Boxer (1975), which showcased Southern techniques, followed by Karl Maka's The Good The Bad and The Loser (1976), heavily influenced by Western cinema, are regarded as the first kung fu comedies. The Shaolin-derived kung fu styles in Lau's films are prime examples of the practical combative aspects of Southern style kung fu. Executioners From Shaolin (1977) showcased some of Lau Kar Leung's best work.

After Bruce Lee...

While the Cantonese cinema directed its energies toward television and comedy, Mandarin cinema sought new ideas for the genre after Bruce Lee's death. One development was the exploration of traditional Chinese martial arts techniques. Films in this vein drew heavily on Guangdong heroes and the Shaolin tradition, enriching them for the cinema with Northern opera techniques and acrobatics. The series began with Heroes Two (1974) and continued successfully with Men from the Monastery (1974) and Shaolin Martial Arts (1974), among others. These films introduced martial arts techniques in vivid detail; Heroes Two began with a brief documentary explaining the three fist styles introduced in the film, an innovation attributed to martial arts director Lau Kar Leung.


Bruce Li

After Bruce Lee's tragic death in 1973, many film producers wanted to capitalize on his memory. One actor who was called Bruce Li, sort of took over for Bruce and became the new kung fu hero. Coming from a gymnastic background rather than martial arts, Li was able to perform the broad range of action moves Lee created for the camera. He even looked like Lee. One of Li's most notable films was the sequel to Lee's Fists of Fury called Fist of Fury II. It was later revealed that Bruce Lee and Bruce Li would have actually teamed up for several films had Bruce Lee not died.

The Japanese Karate Films of Sonny Chiba

Sonny Chiba

Although Sonny Chiba is not Chinese, his "Japanese karate" films are some of the best ever put out. Particularly The Street Fighter series (The Streetfighter, Return of The Streetfighter and The Streetfighter's Last Revenge). Chiba was a dead ringer for Lee, except he was Japanese. His fighting styles were more cartoonish and exaggerated, but the films he made were very entertaining. Some call Chiba the "Anti Bruce Lee". This could be accepted as truth. Wheras Lee was on the side of good and had a certain likeability in his films, Chiba's 'Terry Tsurugi' persona was known as a "real mean bastard", often ripping flesh from his victims, cracking skulls, punching out teeth and having his way with women.

The Martial Arts Instructor as Film Director

Most professional directors were not actually familiar with martial arts techniques, and even the great films of director King Hu and Bruce Lee required the help of martial arts directors such as Sammo Hung and Han Ying Chieh. With the emphasis on martial arts techniques as the new backbone of the genre, contributions from actual martial artists became increasingly significant. Martial arts instructors soon not only arranged fight scenes, but planned shots, essentially taking over the role of director in some cases.

Jackie Chan

The Kung Fu of Jackie Chan

In the late 70s and throughout the 1980s and 90s, Jackie Chan infused new life into the kung fu film with movies like Drunken Master, Snake in The Eagle's Shadow, Project A and Project A II, followed by the Police Story and the Armour of God series. With their breathtaking mix of authentic martial arts techniques blended with comedy and adventure elements, Chan's films represent the high point of the modern kung fu cinema.

In 1994, Jackie Chan released Drunken Master which takes audiences through martial arts film history by revisiting the 1979 kung fu comedy. The film was directed by Lau Kar Leung, who pioneered the comedy kung fu genre in the 1970s. It was released in US theaters in 2001.

Hollywood and the Martial Arts

Kill Bill

In the 1980s and 90s there was quite a surge in kung fu action films. Chuck Norris (Missing In Action), Jean Claude Van Damme (Bloodsport), Steven Seagal (Hard To Kill) and Jeff Speakman (The Perfect Weapon) were the latest stars in popular martial arts cinema. Bruce Lee's own son Brandon was on the road to following in his fathers footsteps with action films like Showdown in Little Tokyo (1990) and Rapid Fire (1992), until he was accidentally killed on the set of his final film The Crow (1993). Chinese kung fu star Jet Li has also gained popularity in several films that have crossed over into Hollywood. Li made his Hollywood debut in the 4th Lethal Weapon sequel in which he played an assassin. His other films such as Black Mask, The One and Romeo Must Die did relatively well at the box office. While Li lacks the personality of a Jackie Chan, he is an accomplished actor and martial artist who has made many entertaining films.

The martial arts film has had an enormous impact on many genres of Hong Kong film with its influence extending into internationally popular action thrillers like The Matrix trilogy. American directors such as John Carpenter, Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Dracula), and Quentin Tarantino (Kill Bill) have expressed tremendous enthusiasm for the genre, and while its influence has extended far beyond the physical boundaries of Hong Kong, the genre remains a unique creation of Chinese history and culture.

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