For the past six months, I haven’t done much of anything outside of watching Kung Fu films. Either because I missed martial arts (I was once a practicing second-degree black belt in a Korean style of self defense known as Tang Soo Do), or because I take in new interests like an addict, but anyone who asked me “what’s new?” in the past half-of-a-year can attest to the fact that I most definitely brought up that I had just been watching Kung Fu movies with titles such as “Five Fingers of Death” and “Shaolin Hellgate.”
As I watched these films, I noticed that there was a simple and mesmerizing formula that still really popped whether it got broken in interesting ways, or was followed down to an absolute tee. Kung Fu films are pure spectacle of martial arts fighting and choreography, and in the simplest of terms–they just fucking rule. These guys are hot and they fight damn good. It’s easy to root for the hero, and it’s entertaining to watch them succeed. It’s easy, enjoyable, and it feels strong to take in.
My journey isn’t over, but if you would like to indulge with me, below you’ll find a hand-picked list of the fruits of my labor. The 40 best Kung Fu films of the over 100 that I’ve watched, in close-enough chronological order to fit the story of Kung Fu cinema history that I want to tell:
One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
Produced by the Shaw Brothers, the studio that would rule Hong Kong martial arts films for the next two decades, One-Armed Swordsman was the first Hong Kong film to make HK$1 million at the local box office. The film turned Jimmy Wang into the first Kung Fu film star and helped define the genre. I won’t give the ending away, but the sequel, One-Armed Swordsman vs. Nine Killers, has one of the craziest twists of all time.
A Touch of Zen (1971)
Following the success of Come Drink With Me (1966), one of the highest praised Hong Kong films of all time, director King Hu moved to Taiwan and made Dragon Inn (1967), a film centered around the drama of characters staying at a desolate inn, which was heralded for its blend of Chinese and western film techniques. While both excellent films worthy of the list, A Touch of Zen (1971) is his masterpiece, and with a three hour runtime, the story of a clumsy painter that gets mixed up in a plot involving fugitives, romance, and a haunted house, went on to become the first Chinese-Language film to win an award at the Cannes Film Festival.
The Chinese Boxer (1970)
Less complicated plot-wise than the previous films, The Chinese Boxer (1970) follows a more familiar story: the Kung Fu student fights Japanese thugs from a rival school. One of the first films of its kind (you’ll see a whole bunch in just a sec), it was directed by and stars Jimmy Wang of One-Armed Swordsman, as well as produced by the Shaw Brothers. If you want to watch a guy dress up like he’s going into surgery just wail on people for an hour and a half, then this is your film.
The Big Boss (1971)
The first film to star Bruce Lee in a leading role, The Big Boss sees Lee as a factory worker who has sworn off fighting. He must bring his skills back into the world however, when the overbearing foreman is discovered to be involved in drug smuggling. The film outsold HK$1 million in just three days, and propelled Bruce Lee passed his appearance in The Green Hornet television series into one of Hong Kong’s most legendary stars.
Fist of Fury (1972)
Like many films post-The Chinese Boxer, Fist of Fury is not the first to follow the martial arts student revenge plot, but it’s probably the most well known. Like Jimmy Wang, Bruce Lee’s skills are miles ahead of everyone else’s in the film. His second major starring role, Bruce’s over-exaggerated and emotive fighting style is center-stage here, and he shows his opponents no mercy while also looking cool as hell.
King Boxer, a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death (1972)
Released around the exact same time as Fist of Fury, and following a similar plot, King Boxer, a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death, stars Lo Lieh, one of the most prolific Hong Kong martial arts actors of all time. His hands glow red once he acquires the Iron Fist, and while the film is a little slow, the fight scenes are more than worth it. View it as the Shaw Brothers version of Fist of Fury. It’s another Shaw Brothers The Chinese Boxer clone, but this time more smartly designed.
The Boxer from Shantung (1972)
Directed by Chang Cheh and guest starring David Chiang, the star team of Shaw Brothers Studios in the late ’60s/early ’70s, The Boxer from Shantung has one of the most unique plots of any film on this list. Chen Kuan-Tai plays a man who moves up the criminal influence ladder from poverty by fighting, gaining followers, and competing against the other crime bosses in the city. Unlike most of the righteous students fighting for justice at the time, The Boxer from Shantung is more of a tragedy, told through the lens of a martial arts film.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
Released one month after Bruce Lee’s untimely death due to cerebral edema, Enter the Dragon is the film he is most remembered for, alongside fighting Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon. Produced by Warner Bros., Lee plays a James Bond-type character who has to enter a martial arts tournament hosted by a crime lord in order to get revenge for his sister’s death. While filming, Bruce Lee was also directing his own film, Game of Death, and although it was released five years later with stand-in’s for Lee, it was never finished. The only part he filmed was the original ending scene, where he fights his way up a pagoda and goes toe-to-toe with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It’s there that he wears the iconic yellow jumpsuit.
One-Armed Boxer 2: Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)
Returning again to Jimmy Wang of The Chinese Boxer, this time both starring and directing again, he continues his portrayals of one-armed fighters in One-Armed Boxer 2: Master of the Flying Guillotine. Though a sequel film, you really don’t need to know anything about the first One-Armed Boxer. In Master of the Flying Guillotine, the namesake is the major draw and the focus on the assassin’s weapon, a hat with blades for rims that decapitates victims of a martial arts tournament. Jimmy Wang, the only one with the skills to stop him, must do it with only one arm.
Invincible Armour (1977)
A truly insane low-budget kung fu film, Invincible Armour pits a Pai Mei stand-in character with skin as strong as armor against a fighter who must learn the technique of the “iron finger” in order to pierce him. Invincible Armour is the best of the absolutely absurd Kung Fu film craze, and you can tell right off the bat when a guy practices the invincible armor technique by smashing giant pots against his head.
these are the only films that matter pic.twitter.com/9829NlxfkV
— josh (@Roseandblog) January 30, 2020
The Five Deadly Venoms (1978)
Over the course of the next two decades, the Shaw Brothers and director Chang Cheh produced an insane amount of films with pretty much the same cast. They were known affectionately as “the Venom Mob,” due to their first appearance in the cult classic, The Five Deadly Venoms. Each Venom plays a master of a different style of deadly martial art: snake, scorpion, toad, centipede, and lizard. The opening sequence demonstrates each technique, and the plot centers around a sixth “hybrid” venom that must discover the identity of the traitorous Venoms.
The Best Venom Mob Films:
While none of the films have anything to do with The Five Deadly Venoms, or each other, they do feature the same rotating cast, as different actors take turns playing the heroes and the villains. Like a theater troupe, the magic of the Venom Mob films is how much fun they were able to have, and how many stories they were able to tell, in just six years.
Crippled Avengers (1978)
Possibly the greatest of all the Venom Mob films, the cast is crippled by a villainous magistrate, and they eacb most overcome their blindness, deafness, or complete lack of the use of their legs, in order to get revenge.
Life Gamble (1979)
The cast tries to outsmart one another to get possession of a massively expensive piece of jade.
The Kid with the Golden Arm (1979)
It’s all in the name, but The Kid with the Golden Arm has some of the best character designs in the Venom Mob’s career.
Two Champions of Shaolin (1980)
A major release that showcases the famed “flying daggers,” as well as some of the greatest fighting.
Masked Avengers (1981)
Devil-mask wearing assassins kill people with pitchforks. What more do you need?
House of Traps (1982)
Like most Venom Mob films, the sometimes convoluted plots are often able to fly right over your head without any damage to your understanding of the film. The Shaw Brothers had a five-film franchise called The Golden Archer and the main character never even picked up a bow once. In House of Traps, many people die trying to steal treasure hidden in the perilous “House of Traps.” It’s simple, and it’s genius.
Ode to Gallantry (1982)
The final Venom Mob film, the cast is at its wackiest when a martial arts wizard grants a simple homeless man incredible strength before being mistaken for the lost warlord of the the town’s most viscous gang. More of a comedy of errors than a martial arts film, there’s still as much fighting as gags, and a purely out-of-nowhere ending.
Shaolin Hellgate, a.k.a. Heaven and Hell (1980)
If you want to talk wacky though, there is no film wackier than Shaolin Hellgate, where an angel cast into hell must find the Venom actors and fight his way out. Part musical, part dance-fighting, and part torture, it’s a rare enough Venom film that I could only watch it by finding the physical DVD, but it was more than worth the purchase.
Five Elements Ninjas (1982)
Though not a Venom Mob film, this Shaw Brothers/Chang Cheh picture stars Lo Mang, star of The Kid with the Golden Arm, and probably the most famous continuing actor of the Venom Mob era. Having to fight a ninja assassin clan with a group specializing in each of the five elements, a martial arts company must overcome and adapt to defeat their unique styles and deliver gold to a famine stricken town.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Jimmy Wang and Bruce Lee paved the way, legends in their own right, but the ultimate Kung Fu film star is none other than Gordon Liu, and his reign in the early ’80s is truly the golden age of Kung Fu movies. The Shaw Brothers had Venom Mob films coming out at around four to a year, but the studio didn’t stop there. Providing inspiration for the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album of the same name, The 36th Chamber follows a Shaolin monk who must pass 35 martial arts tests to become a Kung Fu master… but what is the 36th Chamber? Potentially the greatest Kung Fu film ever made, The 36th Chamber paved the way for a new era of martial arts films in Hong Kong.
Heroes of the East (1978)
Directed by The 36th Chamber‘s Lau Kar-Leung, this time Gordon Liu plays a Kung Fu master in an arranged marriage to a woman who studies Japanese karate and the ninja arts. Unlike most films that mirrored the rivalry of the real world by pitting the Chinese against the Japanese, Heroes of the East walks away with a respect for both styles of martial arts, a kind of resolution that may only exist in this film.
Clan of the White Lotus (1980)
Like most of Gordon Liu’s side of Shaw Brothers films, instead of the strongest student wreaking havoc to get revenge, the student in these films must usually learn Kung Fu from the ground up in order to defeat their much-stronger opponent. Lo Lieh of King Boxer directs and portrays the legendary Pai Mei and his invincible armor, as Liu and his partner must work together to take the Eagle Claw master down.
Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang (1983)
A film about childhood friends who must compete to preserve the honor of their respective martial arts schools, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang is a great film about the different styles of Kung Fu, although mostly made up for film. By now you’ll notice that it is nowhere near the first time Wang Lung Wei would play the General/villain, as he does in countless Shaw Brothers and Venom Mob films, but Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang was also the first time Gordon Liu stepped into the director’s chair, and he did not disappoint.
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984)
One of the most dramatic films of Gordon Liu’s career, and the last one of his on the list, The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter depicts a family of spear-specialized martial artists get absolutely wrecked by a rival dynasty’s army, only to rely on the skills of their last remaining son to get revenge on the ambushers. The most savage moment: when the villain kidnaps Liu’s sister, places her in a stack of coffins, and responds to “where’s my sister?!” by announcing “I’m standing on her!” from the view at the top.
— josh (@Roseandblog) January 8, 2020
The Mystery of Chessboxing (1979)
Rewinding back just a couple of years, we turn to The Mystery of Chessboxing, an independent film that balanced both comedy and Kung Fu technique in a more heartwarming way than pure slapstick foolery. Defending his master from the villain known as the Ghost-Faced Killer (where the Wu-Tang Clan rapper got his name), the main character’s performance resembles the kind of acting that would be perfected by another rising Hong Kong star…
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978)
The greatest example of Jackie Chan’s early career, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, who wound go on to direct Drunken Master (1978) in the same year, a film also starring Chan that followed a nearly identical plot. Despite the success and notoriety of Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow really tells the same story better. Drunken Master, and it’s sequel directed by Lau Kar-Leung of The 36th Chamber, however, is the film that initially thrust Jackie into the spotlight.
The Karate Kid (1984)
The success of Hong Kong’s martial arts films eventually made their way over to America, especially due to Bruce Lee’s work in Hollywood and Japan’s karate films starring Sonny Chiba. In its simplest form, The Karate Kid is the story of a teenager who learns karate to get revenge on his bullies, but it’s also a film of respect for martial arts and humility. Pat Morita was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and The Karate Kid is best known for popularizing Japanese karate, and martial arts in general, in the United States.
Wheels on Meals (1984)
Starring Jackie Chan and fight choreographer Sammo Hung (of The Prodigal Son (1981) and Project A (1983)), Wheels on Meals is their greatest film together, and it’s probably because they both directed and controlled every aspect of the film together. Playing a food truck worker who gets mixed up in a kidnapping plot, Jackie kickstarts his modern career past typical kung fu films. Having all gone to school together, the chemistry of the actors is undeniable.
Police Story (1985)
The greatest example of Jackie Chan’s blend of action and comedy, Police Story takes the best of American cop films like Eddie Murphy’s Beverly Hills Cop and combines it with the kung fu action of Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss. Directing the film himself following a disappointing experience in the American market working on The Protector, the simple and explosive Police Story is Jackie Chan at his most unrestrained.
Police Story 3: Supercop (1992)
That is, until Supercop, where the assignment has higher stakes, is packed with even more danger, and co-stars Michelle Yeoh, who would later star in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). Though not directed by Jackie, with Stanley Tong sitting in the director’s chair, Supercop contains some of the greatest stunts of Jackie’s career, such as dangling from a helicopter and fighting on the top of a train.
Rumble in the Bronx (1995)
Directed by Stanley Tong of Supercop, Rumble in the Bronx sends Jackie Chan to the Bronx, in New York City, where he’s once again comically wrapped up in highly illegal business and is the only one capable of stopping it. Using some of the most unique settings in this film, such as fighting people in a kitchen appliance warehouse with arcade machines, this period of Jackie’s work is highly inventive: famously using a ladder in Police Story: First Strike, and collaborating on American film franchises such as Rush Hour with Chris Tucker and Shanghai Noon with Owen Wilson.
The Matrix (1999)
The Wachowskis knew what they were getting into when they had Keanu Reeves announce, “I know Kung Fu.” Hiring well-known Hong Kong fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, director of Snake in the Eagles Shadow and Drunken Master, (as well as early 90’s family-oriented Kung Fu films such as Iron Monkey (1993) with Donnie Yen, Tai Chi Master (1993) with Jet Li, and Wing Chun (1994) with Michelle Yeoh), the action in The Matrix sells the film as much as its dense science fiction. An iconic film about breaking free from living in a simulation, the fight scenes in The Matrix also demonstrate how cinema outside Hong Kong was adapting and moving toward the new millennium when it came to fight choreography.
Jackie Chan adapted and America adopted, but the Hong Kong Kung Fu films post 1990, such as Once Upon a Time in China (1991), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and House of Flying Daggers (2004), either leaned into the drama and took themselves too seriously, or relied too heavily on romance. That’s not to say that Jet Li wasn’t an amazing martial artist, or that they weren’t still massive commercial successes (with Crouching Tiger winning Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars), but the updated model just didn’t fit the stories and structure quite the same as they did for Gordon Liu or the Venoms. Hero fixed all of that, and not only is Jet Li amazing to watch, but Hero is truly one of the most beautiful films ever made. Told in three parts as a soldier’s story of defeating the world’s greatest assassins is revealed and revised, every setting is uniquely designed and every fight is more intense than the last.
Kill Bill (2003)
Though borrowing from American Westerns and Japanese samurai films (like Lady Snowblood), as much as Hong Kong cinema, Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is bursting at the seams with samples and references from over three decades of kung fu films, such as King Boxer‘s use of Quincy Jones’ “Ironside” theme, Fist of Fury‘s brutal and bloody dojo scene, Bruce Lee’s yellow jumpsuit from Game of Death, and the character Pai Mei, played by Gordon Liu from Clan of the White Lotus, where he fought Pai Mei as the hero. David Carradine, who plays the main antagonist “Bill,” was also the star of ABC’s Kung Fu television series in the ’70s. Uma Thurman stars as a woman out for revenge against the assassination squad that attempted to kill her in a film over three hours, and separated into two parts.
Introducing the world to Tony Jaa, “The Muay Thai Warrior,” Ong-Bak follows a country boy sent into the big city to retrieve the town’s stolen buddha statue. One of the greatest feats of Muay Thai martial arts on film, Jaa’s athletic performance and skill was easily lauded in comparison with Hong Kong greats like Bruce Lee and Jet Li. The film knows it as well, often slowing down scenes to watch Jaa’s impacts, or even going so far as to show the hits multiple times.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
After starring in and directing the idiotic sports comedy film Shaolin Soccer (2001), which won Best Picture, Director, and Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, Stephen Chow thankfully returned for Kung Fu Hustle, which in 2004 was the highest grossing domestic film in Hong Kong, right ahead of Shaolin Soccer. A comedy Kung Fu film unlike any before it, Kung Fu Hustle is one of the most unique films on this list, and during Jet Li’s time of serious martial arts epics, or Jackie Chan’s big budget action stunts, the return to slapstick and outlandishly funny characters was a breath of fresh air.
Ip Man (2008)
Since Ip Man premiered, there has really only been Ip Man. It should not be understated just how great the franchise truly is, and the duo of director Wilson Yip and actor Donnie Yen. Plucked from appearances in Iron Monkey and Jet Li’s Hero, the two first worked together on Sha Po Lang (2005), which pitted Yen against the Sammo Hung in a modern cop tale that couldn’t completely highlight his skills. Returning for Ip Man, the dramatized story of the legendary Wing Chun fighter who taught Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen gives one of the most amazing and technically sound martial arts performances on screen, and the film birthed a franchise of four more films (all here on the list).
Ip Man 2 (2010)
In the sequel, not only does Donnie Yen get to redeem Sha Po Long with an amazing fight against Sammo Hung, but he also gets to take on an aggressively racist American boxer, and actor Lo Mang, one of the original Venoms. The sequel was becoming so popular, that everyone started making Ip Man films, with 2013’s The Grandmaster even going as far as hiring a lot of the same actors that appear in the Ip Man franchise.
Ip Man 3 (2015)
Traveling to live in Hong Kong, Ip Man must save his son from the town’s gang while also dealing with the challenge of a rival Wing Chun master, played by Zhang Jin. That’s not all however, as the gang leader is none other than American pro boxer Mike Tyson. If you’re a fan of the Ip Man films, everything you love is here, and Zhang Jim would later get his own spinoff film in Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (2018), another film very worthy of the list. Master Z also featured an all-star cast of Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Xing Yu of Kung Fu Hustle, and Ong-Bak‘s Thai warrior, Tony Jaa.
What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments below.