As described in The New Hollywood Martial Artists on this very site, a plethora of other countries have taken up the mantle of skilled Kung Fu filmmakers since 2010 (the term should really be martial arts filmmakers, due to the mix of nationalities displaying different styles but let’s stick with Kung Fu for consistency with the rest of the article). As you will see from the below, only a couple of Chinese movies stand out from the crowd, after teaching the world what they knew, it was time to stand aside, as China is now on a path of nationalistic, sterilised myth-making. The students have become the masters.
The Man from Nowhere (Lee Jeong-beom 2010)
Korean filmmaking has its own unique place in the pantheon of fine filmmaking. They have produced a few good Kung Fu films, usually concentrating on their favoured Taekwondo and Hapkido, styles that favour kicking. This tale of a mysterious man who pursues a nasty group of drug dealers after they kidnap the little girl he has befriended, would have been great without its awesome action scenes. It is a fine drama, with great performances and a brutality and beauty that only Korean cinema can deliver. Its star; Won Bin is perfect as our unlikely hero, utilising close combat techniques, knife work and a perfect no-nonsense style. Strangely he hasn’t made a film since, maybe he thought he couldn’t do better than The Man from Nowhere, he was probably right.
The Raid (Gareth Edwards 2011)
The film that introduced us to the unusual pairing of Indonesian action star Iko Uwais and Welshman Gareth Edwards, is a tour de force of visceral action. Iko stars as Rama, part of a police taskforce whose mission is to take down a drug kingpin housed in the penthouse of a block of flats. As things inevitably go wrong, he must fight his way to the top. A simple but effective set-up is enhanced by Iko’s unusual style of Pencak Silat (an Indonesian martial art that uses weapons, striking and grappling). The action is free flowing, bloody and uncompromising. Welcome to the world of Indonesian martial arts.
Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chan 2014) aka Kung Fu Killer
Donnie Yen is back, playing his cliched ‘man with anger issues’ in this often missed classic. He plays an incarcerated martial arts instructor who offers to help the police when someone starts killing martial art experts. Despite the plot being the same as the Cynthia Rothrock vehicle; Tiger Claws, it is done extremely well. The killer, an interesting character who overcame a disability to become an expert himself, has a series of great fights with an expert kicker, puncher, grappler and of course finally Donnie. Despite a few uses of wirework to boost the set pieces, it contains fine action, a few twists and turns, plus a love letter to Kung Fu itself. Isn’t that all we want?
John Wick (Chad Stahelski, David Leitch 2014)
The first true modern American Kung Fu movie featuring jiu-jitsu, aikido and plenty of gunplay, which only complements the ageing Keanu Reeves. A straight to video release quickly garnered attention for its violent and beautifully choreographed action sequences. This is no surprise as director’s Chad and David had been working for years behind the scenes as stunt performers and choreographers, eventually creating their own team: 87eleven, who are becoming the gold standard in action filmmaking. The story of retired assassin; John Wick, tracking down the fools who killed his dog, which was a gift from his dead wife, is basic to say the least, however the themes and fight scenes captured audiences’ imaginations, minds that were ready to be stimulated once again.
SPL 2: A Time for Consequences (Cheang Pou-soi 2015) aka Kill Zone 2
No Donnie Yen this time but an awesome cast feature in this thrilling but bonkers movie, which classically features some of the themes of the original but has no real relation. Tony Jaa needs a bone marrow transplant for his dying daughter, and by the magic of serendipity, the donor is an undercover Hong Kong policeman (Wu Jing) who has been thrown in the Thai jail that Tony works at. Unfortunately for both, the warden, fantastically portrayed by Max Zhang, is running a black-market organ business from the prison. It is a joy to have three great action stars together in one film, and they deliver in the fight scenes, especially in an end fight, which sees Tony and Wu face off against Max’s sadistic and highly skilled warden. The idea of fate and connection between individuals is brilliantly portrayed here and even though the more fantastical elements, such as a CG wolf representing impending death to Tony’s daughter, may confuse some, the film ultimately dazzles, delights and delivers.
A note about Tony Jaa
Some may notice that Tony only features on the list in a Chinese produced film. Jaa sensationally announced himself on the scene with 2003’s Ong Bak, impressing with his brutal Muay Thai and innovative acrobatics. Although the action in his first run of films is unquestionable: the single-take staircase battle in Tom Yum Goong (2005) or the mix of weapon work and unusual styles that make-up a long end sequence in Ong Bak 2 (2008) are both fantastic. However, when you revisit the films themselves you may realise that they are barely passable as coherent narratives. Tom Yum Goong plays out like a computer game, with ‘bad guys’ appearing out of nowhere to fight one after the other. Complete with atrocious acting and another grating performance from Petchtai Wongkamlao (who would become the comic relief in Jaa’s films) and the only option is to skip to the fights. Add this to the head scratching plots of the Ong Bak sequels and it is impossible to recommend the films themselves. As proven with SPL 2, give the man the right material and he is mesmerising, but I would catch his prior moments on YouTube only.