by Released : 2023-09-20
7 Gateway Movies to get into Kung-Fu Cinema
Enter the Dragon (1973)
What better way to begin your immersion into kung-fu cinema than by watching maybe the most popular martial arts film ever made? In this Warner Bros classic, you got the ever so iconic Bruce Lee in peak physical form alongside Jim Kelly and John Saxon attempting to bust the evil ex-Shaolin monk Han (portrayed by Shih Kien) on his island where he is hosting the world’s biggest martial arts tournament. The film is stylish, flashy, and visually inventive as it’s the first martial-arts film to ever be produced by a major Hollywood studio. The plotline and character archetypes have been recycled to death in pretty much every single fighting video game and the Lalo Schifrin score adds that groovy yet mystical layer to the film that provides Enter the Dragon with its unique look and feel. And of course, Bruce Lee’s electrifying magnetism on the screen just cements it as a must-watch. Good ol’ early 70s fun.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
Entering the “golden age” of kung-fu cinema (late 70s through to the 80s), we have the Shaw Brothers epic that follows a college kid portrayed by Gordon Liu whose entire school and family is wiped out by the Manchus who are led by the ruthless General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh). He seeks refuge at the Shaolin Temple and hopes to learn Kung-Fu to avenge his friends and family. What ensues is one of the greatest training montages ever put to film as director Lau Kar-Leung puts us in the shoes of the protagonist as he progresses through each chamber of the temple. As a result, he matures not just as a phenomenal master of kung-fu but as a principled, disciplined, and upright man altogether. An unconventional kung-fu film and an absolute staple of the genre — expect to hear this movie come up a lot if you ask kung-fu fanatics what their favorite kung-fu flicks happen to be.
Drunken Master (1978)
Although released in the same year as 36th Chamber, Drunken Master takes on a completely different tone from the more stoic and serious 36th Chamber. This action-comedy stars Jackie Chan as Chinese folklore legend Wong Fei-Hung — but instead of having Jackie portray the respectable, honest, and honorable hero Wong Fei-Hung is known to be in China, the film flips the script and makes Fei-Hung a hilarious, smart-mouthed, and trouble-making rascal. His mischief actually ends up causing his father to bring him to the hands of his merciless uncle Beggar So portrayed by Yuen Siu-Tien, the father of the director of the film Yuen Woo-Ping (the same Woo-Ping that would go on to choreograph The Matrix and Kill Bill in the States). Beggar So ends up teaching Fei-Hung Drunken Boxing, which will of course come in hand when goons, rivals, and eventually the main antagonist end up creeping into the picture. Drunken Master alongside Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (same release year, same director, same cast) basically invented the kung-fu slapstick comedy that would go on to saturate the HK movie market in the years to come. This movie also ended up making Jackie Chan a superstar all over Asia, earning him the fame and respect he was seeking since his early stuntman days in the early 70s (FUN FACT: Bruce Lee ends up fighting an uncredited teenage Jackie Chan in Enter the Dragon for 2 seconds before brutally snapping his neck).
Police Story (1985)
Now going into the mid-80s where, at this point, the HK kung-fu film industry as a whole dropped the traditional “shape-style” period kung-fu films in favor of more fast-paced martial arts films taking place in the modern day. Many of these films would define the genre forever like Project A (1983), Wheels on Meals (1984), and My Lucky Stars (1985) — but none of them would hold the weight of Jackie Chan’s Police Story. At this point of his career, Jackie is the most popular movie star in Asia and is given total control for all of his projects, so in directing Police Story, he goes all out. While the film still has its fair share of gags and Jackie-style slapstick, it’s impressively balanced with car chases through shantytowns, brawls with blistering fight choreography, courtroom drama, murder, framing, and some of the most unbelievable stunt work ever committed to the big screen — that is stunt work from Jackie himself and his stunt team. Expect a lot of broken glass in this one. Without a doubt one of the most exhilarating film experiences kung-fu cinema has to offer.
Iron Monkey (1993)
As we enter the 90s, we see Hong Kong regain an appreciation for period kung-fu flicks, and one of the best ones to come out of this era is Iron Monkey from Drunken Master director Yuen Woo-Ping. The film is essentially a Robin-Hood tale with a Qing Dynasty twist as the masked outlaw “Iron Monkey'' robs corrupt officials to help feed and sustain the common folk in the village. Weaved into this tale is a 12-year-old Wong Fei Hung (convincingly played by a girl!) and his father Wong Kei-Ying played by the iconic Donnie Yen. What ensues is martial arts mayhem as Kei-Ying and the Iron Monkey end up pitted against the evil Manchus. Don’t blink watching the fights in this one because you are liable to miss at least three manoeuvers since the choreography is so swift and lightning fast. Stellar wirework, marvelous camerawork, enthralling set-pieces, and laugh-out-loud moments of comic relief is what makes this film the revered classic it already is.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Going into the New Millenium, we have one of the most recognized titles when it comes to international cinema — Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. This Wuxia (Chinese fiction concerning the supernatural adventures of martial artists) epic boasts all-stars all across the board — Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Cheng Pei-Pei — all here to showcase their extraordinary swordplay skills in the most fantastical and breathtaking of fashions. The themes struck in this film are deep and moving as sometimes it feels like the fight sequences themselves take on some thematic arc that successfully propels the narrative forward and majestically develops our characters. Being one of only two non-English films to boast 10 Academy Award nominations, this film did a great job putting the stars and the genre itself back in the international limelight. And, mind you, it’s not just the guys fighting in this one either, as the female action stars in this film remind us how to kick ass and look good doing it.
Ip Man (2008)
Finally, just as we began our list with a Bruce Lee film, it would probably be best to end it with another film that at least touches on the Bruce Lee lore. In this biographical movie, Donnie Yen portrays the titular Ip Man who was the real life teacher of Bruce Lee and it recounts his life as he taught the Wing Chun style of kung-fu in China during Japanese occupation in the 30s and 40s. The Chinese vs Japanese trope has been popular in kung-fu cinema since the 1972 Bruce Lee classic Fist of Fury, and Ip Man doesn’t hold back when portraying this conflict, whether it’s through the brutal fight scenes or the more subtle nationalistic nods to China’s pride. Sure, it’s not the most historically accurate film of all time, but who cares when you can watch Donnie Yen take on 10 black belts in a dojo all by himself? This genre-defining film ended up sprawling three blockbuster sequels and made Donnie Yen a household name all over the world, so you’d be remiss to not watch this groundbreaking martial-arts masterpiece.