Kung Fu Guide
Top 5 in all genres
I have chosen my top 5 films in each sub-genre, these films are the crème de la crème in their class, if you watched all of these you would have a superior and comprehensive tour of the genre and if you have seen none of them before, you are in for a treat!
Old Skool Kung Fu
This roughly encompasses films made in the 1970s and are the purest form of Kung Fu film; they contain the most action and the plot is heavily focused around the martial world. They were famously dubbed for western audiences, with ridiculous voices adding to the comical value. The original subtitled versions can now be found on Netflix and You Tube though, so you can decide how you view them. Shaw Brothers was the most popular and prolific studio at the time and usually featured heroic characters rebelling or caught up in a corrupt Chinese dynasty. Naturally there were smaller film studios like Seasonal Films, which kept it local usually featuring a village or Kung Fu school being terrorised by a larger than life villain.
Fatal Flying Guillotine (Raymond Liu 1977)
A stalwart of this era; Carter Wong plays a desperate martial artist whose mother is dying. He must pass a tough Kung Fu initiation at his local Shaolin temple to be granted access to a healing book. However sinister forces are at work including a hermit with a deadly weapon that will make you lose your head. An incredibly entertaining story complete with double crossing, evil monks and that titular weapon that has to be seen to be believed.
Five Venoms (Chang Cheh 1978) aka Five Deadly Venoms
A Shaw brother’s classic features a dying master instructing his remaining student to investigate his old pupils as he feels one has turned evil. The fun twist is that no one knows each other’s true identity as all they all wore masks. They can only be identified by their poisonous animal Kung Fu styles; Snake, Scorpion, Toad, Centipede and Lizard. Like the best of this era it contains great characters, unusual Kung Fu styles and a mystery. A fine watch.
36th Chamber of Shaolin (Chia Liang Liu 1978)
A simple story of a man joining the Shaolin Temple to escape oppression and protect himself, this is the most famous movie about the temple. This is because it hits all the right notes exceptionally well, with a great central performance by Gordon Liu. We have the crazy training regime, the wise monks, the transition from angry young man to enlightened person and of course great Kung Fu that is needed to dispatch the villains. Anybody who likes Kung Fu, likes the Shaolin Temple (its spiritual home and the start to many great tales whether fact or fiction) could do a lot worse than starting here.
Drunken Master (Yuen Woo Ping 1978)
Jackie Chan’s breakout role, playing a more rambunctious version of the real life Wong Fei Hung character. Due to his rebellious ways he is sent to train with his sadistic Uncle: Beggar Su, who teaches him the Drunken Fist, just in time to tackle a deadly assassin who has been paid to kill Wong’s father. Jackie Chan bounds, sways and smashes his body all over the screen showcasing his commitment and athletic ability. Some sections may get a little silly for some but the music, action and unique drunken style are hard to beat.
Super Ninjas (Chang Cheh 1982) aka Five Element Ninja
Director Chang Cheh is known for his love of gore and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Rival Kung Fu clans organise a tournament but the losers take it badly and decide to hire Japanese Ninjas to eradicate their enemies once and for all. They manage to almost complete the task using the five elements and nasty weapons to stab slash and literally spill the guts of the Kung Fu experts. The surviving members must learn to defeat this deadly five element style to gain revenge. So much extreme fun to be had with this film, The Ninjas themselves are great; wearing the colours in the style of the five elements, hiding in various brilliantly dressed sets from a forest to a deadly bridge. This film is outrageous and bloody with hilarious dialogue whether you have the dubbed or subtitled version.
The New wave 1980’s
The New wave period of Hong Kong cinema incorporated a large number of new directors and creative freedom across all genres. Within the martial arts genre it was dominated by the coming of age and creative power of several alumni of the China Drama Academy. Through the rigorous 10 year regime of learning Peking Opera, which involves Kung Fu, acrobatics and singing, stars such as Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and many others began to dominate the industry during this period. Their unique take on action choreography and stunt work created a fresh and sometimes brutal take on the Kung Fu film. The raw talent, fresh ideas and work ethic of these filmmakers dominated the 1980’s creating some of the greatest action ever seen.
Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung 1981)
Sammo Hung bridges the gap between old and new with this classic which sees his muse Yuen Biao as the greatest Kung Fu master in his local town, only to find out that his rich parents have been paying everyone to lose to him. Once the deception is uncovered he studies Wing Chun with an effeminate Peking Opera actor, who unfortunately is targeted by a spoilt member of the royal family, determined to be the finest martial artist in the land. This sets the stall for everything Sammo; from comedy to brutal set pieces with a hark back to his Peking opera days. Yuen Biao is great as the Prodigal Son who transforms from a joke into a fine fighter and the depiction of Wing Chun, rare in these early days; is top drawer.
The Shaolin Temple (Hsin Yen Chang 1982)
Jet Li’s first movie sees him as an orphan who is taken in by the Shaolin temple after the Manchus destroy his village. It is a straightforward plot about training in the Shaolin style and whether a monk should take revenge, however it stands out due to the quality of the martial arts. Jet and his fellow cast members are all champion Wushu fighters and they display all their skills through speed, acrobatics and weapons work. Some of the finest traditional forms caught on camera and the introduction of a true great.
Project A (Jackie Chan 1983)
Jackie Chan plays a coast guard in turn of the century Hong Kong, who is reluctantly forced to merge with the police force after their funding is cut. Pirates rule the surrounding water and the rival forces must work together to combat the threat. The three dragons: Chan, Sammo and Biao are at their peak here playing with a unique setting, bouncing off each other beautifully and delivering awesome set pieces. The action is more rough and ready, defining the era with more of a Kickboxing style. Chan is heavily influenced by the silent film stars here, especially with a clock tower scene which pays direct homage to Harold Lloyd, just with a nastier fall! The evil Pirate is genuinely menacing and tough requiring the efforts of all 3 of them to being him down. Simply a must watch.
Police Story (Jackie Chan 1985)
Chan is a maverick cop, who gains popularity in the media for taking down a drug kingpin. However things start to unravel for him as the drug lord is set free and consequently frames him for murder. Probably Jackie’s finest hour, despite some comedy the film has a more serious tone and uses his long suffering girlfriend well. Its dramatic beginning has not one but two outrageous stunts and the end battle in a shopping mall is arguably the finest choreographic action montage, ever committed to celluloid.
Tiger on the Beat (Chia Liang Liu 1988)
Chow Yun Fat stars as a reckless womanising Hong Kong detective who teams up with a straight laced Kung Fu cop played by Conan Lee. Together they are tasked with taking down a group of powerful drug dealers. The dynamic works very well between the two mismatched detectives, one being great with guns and the other with his fists. It has all the hallmarks of a Hong Kong classic with car chases, bawdy humour and plenty of action- plus it ends with a chainsaw fight, how many films can claim that?