Martial Arts Films

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Martial Arts Films


In common parlance, "martial arts" refers to Asian martial arts—judo, karate, kung fu, tae kwan do. Though the Occident may boast of fighting techniques, both armed and unarmed—boxing, fencing, archery—the term "martial arts" retains its association with Asia. Thus, the martial arts genre is derived from Asian films that focus on the skills, exploits, and philosophies revolving around these particular fighting styles when employed by various recurring figures. Yet if the martial arts as an all-encompassing rubric has come to be applied to any number of fighting styles within and outside of Asia, so, too, the martial arts film has made its way into global film culture. If the martial arts film was originally the specific product of Chinese cinema in the late 1920s, carried over into the Hong Kong cinema after World War II, and reaching its height in the early 1970s in the former British colony, then by the 1980s one could truly claim something like a transnational martial arts genre with films from Japan, Korea, Thailand, India, and the US (among others) clearly working with motifs, character types, and choreography inspired by or derived from the Chinese originals.

The ubiquity of martial arts in films since the 1970s—in the action, police thriller, comedy, war, and science fiction and fantasy genres—makes defining a separate genre difficult. Nevertheless, the genre relies upon a protagonist skilled, generally, in Asian martial arts, whose specific skills must be put to the test in bringing about the resolution of the plot. There are typical and recurring motifs such as an early defeat or setback, receiving further training in the martial arts (usually by an older Asian master), and then testing those skills on lesser opponents along the way to the climactic duel. As a specific genre, the martial arts film has given rise to numerous stories about the training for and participation in a climactic martial arts tournament—a motif derived from Hong Kong films, but one popular in Hollywood as well.


Chinese martial arts film came to be known as "wu xia pian," meaning "films of chivalrous combat." This genre may be said to begin in the popular Shanghai cinema with Romance of the West Chamber in 1927. Derived, like many early martial arts films, from a literary source, the film was a sophisticated entertainment in every respect, relying on fairly elaborate special effects and Beijing Opera–style fight choreography. The film's success spawned immediate imitators that drew upon the swashbuckling adventures of Douglas Fairbanks (1883–1939), Chinese literary classics, and the popular martial arts fiction of the period to create a virtual tidal wave of stories of knights-errant and their derring-do. The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928) set the pattern for the true martial arts genre with its story of warring martial arts factions, liberal use of special effects, and the presence of women warriors over the course of its (alleged) twenty-seven-hour running time. (The film was released serially.) Governmental dissatisfaction with the escapist and fantastic nature of the series put a hold on the production of martial arts movies in China, a situation further exacerbated by the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during the Pacific War.

The chivalric warrior re-entered Chinese cinema in postwar Hong Kong, with the unprecedented production of dozens of films starring Kwan Tak-hing (1905–1996) as the legendary doctor–martial artist–Cantonese hero Wong Fei-hung. He is South China's national hero. A historical figure who died in 1924, his students taught students who then became many of the central martial arts directors in the Hong Kong cinema. Rejecting the fantastic, effects-driven, and Beijing Opera–style fight choreography of Republican-era Shanghai, these films featured actual kung fu fighting styles and set the tone for a certain strand of martial arts film—the trained martial artist fighting for the underdog in realistic, if unspectacular, fight scenes.

Made in the Cantonese dialect and with increasingly lower budgets, the Wong Fei-hung films of the 1950s and early 1960s gave way to the bigger-budget, high-intensity cinema developing at the Shaw Brothers studios in the mid-1960s. Turning away from their literary costume pictures, the Mandarin-language studio hit pay dirt with the New Style wu xia pian of directors King Hu (1931–1997) and Chang Cheh (1923–2002). King Hu's Da zui xia (Come Drink with Me, 1966) re-introduced the female knight-errant into Chinese cinema and, although it relied on Beijing Opera–style choreography, its level of violence and the dynamism of star Cheng Peipei (b. 1946) proved an immediate jolt to the genre. King Hu continued his career in Taiwan, making stylish swordplay movies like Long men ke zhen (Dragon Gate Inn, 1967) and Hsia nu (Touch of Zen, 1969), which slowly introduced acrobatics into the form, especially with the use of trampolines and a deft sense of eye-line matches and spatial contiguity. But it was the films of Chang Cheh, beginning with the Japanese-influenced Bian cheng san xia (Magnificent Trio, 1966), that revolutionized the genre. Japanese cinema was an important precursor to many of the motifs introduced by Chang Cheh. Akira Kurosawa's (1910–1998) Sugata Sanshiro (Judo Saga, 1943) pioneered the motif of warring martial arts factions, but it was banned after World War II by American authorities because of its nationalistic undertones. His Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) introduced a kind of wu xia—gritty, realistic, sometimes grim—to international audiences with its story of heroic, self-sacrificing swordsmen. But it was the Zatoichi films, the Blind Swordsman series beginning in 1962, that set a standard for spectacular swordplay, not to mention the use of a hero with disabilities. Chang Cheh borrowed choreographic and visual motifs from the Japanese cinema and added to this mix a group of athletic young men with martial arts training to form a core of star players who appeared together in film after film featuring violent sword fights within stories of male camaraderie, brotherly revenge, and youthful rebellion. Wang Yu, Ti Lung, David Chiang, Chen Kwan-tai, and Fu Sheng lit up the screen with their intensity, fighting skills, and nascent sense of a new China on screen.

The previously understated sense of a new Chinese masculinity became overt with the appeal of Bruce Lee (1940–1973), whose success in the Hong Kong cinema outshone even that of Chang Cheh's hugely popular films. Rejecting the King Hu style of fight choreography and the big-budget aesthetics of Chang Cheh's Shaw Brothers epics, Lee brought a down-and-dirty look and a new fighting style to films like Tang shan da xiong (The Big Boss, aka Fists of Fury, 1971) and Jing wu men (Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection, 1972). With both power and speed not seen before in martial arts cinema, and a magnetism comparable only to the likes of James Dean, Lee became an instant worldwide success that spread even to Hollywood and helped bring the genre to the fore with Enter the Dragon (1973).


Early twentieth-century America certainly had its own "martial arts" cinema tradition. Douglas Fairbanks, whose films influenced the Shanghai martial arts movies of the 1920s, virtually invented the swashbuckling, action-adventure genre featuring acrobatic stunts and demonstrations of martial arts like fencing and archery (for example, The Mark of Zorro, 1920; The Three Musketeers, 1921; Robin Hood, 1922; The Thief of Bagdad, 1924; and The Black Pirate, 1926), setting the tone for the later swashbuckling careers of Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power, and Burt Lancaster.

Yet it was Asian martial arts that really caused a stir upon their introduction into American films in the postwar era. American GIs returning from Asia and the increased Asian presence in the US following the liberalization of the Immigration Act of 1965 began the spread of martial arts across the country. Films like White Heat (1949) and The Crimson Kimono (1959) drew the connection between the GIs' encounter with Asia and the importation of martial arts into the US. But it was Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) that clearly established both the Asian connection with martial arts and the image of a one-armed man easily dispatching opponents bigger and stronger than he. One might argue that this World War II veteran, so memorably portrayed by Spencer Tracy, in turn influenced the famous disabled warriors of the Japanese and Chinese martial arts cinema. Later, Bruce Lee, teaching Hollywood celebrities his evolving kung fu style in the 1960s, memorably introduced the Chinese martial arts through his co-starring role in TV's The Green Hornet (1966–1967) and through guest appearances in film and television. While working in Hong Kong for Golden Harvest, Lee expressed interest in starring in the made-for-TV movie Kung Fu (1972), but with David Carradine in the starring role of the half-Chinese, half-American Shaolin priest may have demonstrated that if America was not ready for an Asian-American television star, it was ready for Asian martial arts. Its four-season run on network television gave American audiences a glimpse into many of the traditions of Shaolin kung fu while enabling the term "grasshopper" (the nickname Master Po gives the young Kwai Chang Caine) to enter comic parlance for a continuing source of humor across genre and media.

The independent smash success, Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971), further helped pave the way for the martial arts genre in the US. Billy Jack, a disillusioned Vietnam War veteran, is a master of the Korean martial art hap ki do, and he uses his deadly skills in the protection of a counterculture, racially mixed school. The theme of corrupt law enforcement running up against an alienated veteran highly trained not only by US Special Forces but also in traditional Asian martial arts set a pattern for a new generation of protagonists.

b. Li Xiaolong, San Francisco, California, 27 November 1940, d. 20 July 1973

Bruce Lee is to the martial arts film what Charlie Chaplin is to the silent comedy, what James Dean is to the teen film, and what John Wayne is to the Western, with something of all of them in his timeless screen persona. Decades after his death he remains an icon of international screen culture, still invoked in films the world over.

Lee's family moved to Hong Kong from San Francisco after World War II, and Bruce became a child star in the low-budget Cantonese cinema. Legend has it that he lost street brawls constantly, which inspired him to study Wing Chun kung fu from one of the local masters. Philosophy studies at the University of Washington helped Lee refine the connections between his martial arts and his way of life. His US show-business break came with the role of Kato in the 1966 television series The Green Hornet. Legend also has it that Lee's martial arts moves were too fast both for his costars to react to and for the broadcast image to reproduce. Lee also began to teach celebrity clients his evolving martial arts style. Hollywood, however, was not yet ready for him.

A trip to Hong Kong in 1971 revealed to Lee that he had become something of a major celebrity based on The Green Hornet, which was called "The Kato Show" in the territory. Former Shaw Brothers production chief Raymond Chow, building up his Golden Harvest Studio, offered Lee a much more flexible and lucrative deal than his former bosses, and they produced Tang shan da xiong (The Big Boss, 1971). More realistic, less polished, and more contemporary in attitude than anything the Shaw Brothers were making, The Big Boss was a smash success. It was quickly followed by Lee's most important film, Jing wu men (Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection, 1972). Set against the background of the Japanese occupation of China, the film expresses Lee's rebellious spirit and the best demonstration yet of Lee's flexible martial arts style—including the spectacular use of a little-used weapon in previous martial arts films, the nunchaku, or nunchuks, which came to be as much associated with Lee as his bright yellow track suit.

Lee directed Meng lon guojiang (Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon, 1972), employing former karate champion and friend Chuck Norris for the film's famous climax in the Roman Colloseum. Then Hollywood called with Enter the Dragon (1973), and Lee had his first big-budget smash, but by the time it was released he had died of a cerebral edema. Lee's Hong Kong films show his spirit far better than the slick James Bond–inspired high jinks of Enter the Dragon, though arguably the film enabled Lee to reach a wide audience that he has never lost.


Jing wu men (Fist of Fury, aka The Chinese Connection, 1972), Meng Lon Guojiang (Way of the Dragon, aka Return of the Dragon, 1972), Enter the Dragon (1973)


Lee, Bruce. Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Burbank, CA: Ohara, 1975.

——. Words of the Dragon: Interviews, 1958–1973. Edited by John Little. Boston: Tuttle, 1997.

Lee, Linda, Mike Lee, and Jack Vaughan. The Bruce Lee Story. Burbank, CA: Ohara, 1989.

David Desser

The Kung Fu film and TV series demonstrated American interest in Asian martial arts, and Bruce Lee's starring role in Enter the Dragon confirmed it, making Lee a star in Hollywood. Lee's film also set another trend

in motion: the use of multinational, multiracial casts. White, black, and Asian characters in Enter the Dragon seemed calculated to bring in the widest possible audience. That all three actors were trained in the martial arts, especially Jim Kelly in his screen debut and, of course, Lee himself, brought a level of intensity and believability to this otherwise fanciful story, which also borrowed a common Hong Kong film structure: the martial arts tournament.

Alienated Vietnam veterans, real martial artists, and the tournament structure would help build a true American martial arts genre, but not before a reliable audience could be identified. Such an audience came from the African American community, which consumed both the Hong Kong imports in the wake of the success of films like Five Fingers of Death (1973) and Lee's early efforts. Kelly's stardom (for example, Black Belt Jones, 1974) and many low-budget co-productions with Hong Kong studios featuring black and Asian stars (the career of actor Ron Van Clief as "the Black Dragon" is exemplary) show the appeal of kung fu films to black audiences—audiences who would very much help the future careers of white stars like Cynthia Rothrock (whose career began in Hong Kong) and Steven Seagal beginning in the late 1980s.

The rise of the American martial arts film genre, whether through blaxploitation or the films of Chuck Norris in the late 1970s, kept Hong Kong martial arts films off American screens compared to their stunning success from 1973 to 1975. Norris's role in Good Guys Wear Black (1978) continued the theme of post–Vietnam era images of highly trained veterans using their violent skills to exorcise the ghosts of Vietnam and to display the cinematic suitability of martial arts. By the middle of the 1980s, martial arts had made its way so far into the mainstream that Rocky director John G. Avildsen could turn his attention to a far more unlikely action hero in the diminutive form of Ralph Macchio and turn The Karate Kid (1984) into a smash success and another iconic cultural marker. Its training sequences, clear differentiation between the right and wrong way to use martial arts, and climax at a martial arts tournament clearly confirmed that a definitively Asian form had claimed an American counterpart.


The decline of Hong Kong kung fu cinema in the late 1970s turned out to be temporary. Forever looking for "the next Bruce Lee," Hong Kong cinema finally found him in Jackie Chan (b. 1954), a Beijing Opera–trained martial artist and acrobat whose everyman persona, stunt-happy performances, and Buster Keaton–like use of props returned martial arts to the forefront of Hong Kong cinema beginning with films like Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (both 1978). Chan soon after emerged as the most popular star in Asia. Aborted attempts to break into the American market by co-starring in low-budget Hollywood films in the 1980s did not work out—fortunately for him, because when he had finally established a worldwide appeal his next Hollywood forays, like Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000), were worthy of his talents.

Chan and Lee were not the last foreign martial artists to make their way into American martial arts film stardom. Jean-Claude Van Damme, "the muscles from Brussels," parlayed his karate champion background into a film career, bursting into stardom with a fairly routine yet extremely violent version of the standard tournament-style film, Bloodsport (1988). Films like Kickboxer (1989), Lionheart (1990), and Streetfighter (1994) continued to rely on the tournament structure, although Van Damme did help tie together science fiction with martial arts in successful films like Cyborg (1989) and Universal Soldier (1992). If Van Damme was a foreign import, Seagal was

an American master of the Japanese martial art of aikido, and he showed it off to good form in a series of police and military actioners, especially Above the Law (1988), Out for Justice (1991), and his best film, Under Siege (1992). Both Van Damme and Seagal saw their careers decline by the turn of the century, but that may be the fate of all aging martial arts stars—even Jackie Chan's career saw a shift away from fighting to special effects stunts.

The popularity of martial arts films in America did not go unnoticed in Hong Kong where the likes of Tsui Hark (b. 1950), Tony Ching Siu-Tong (b. 1953), Johnnie To (b. 1955), and John Woo (b. 1946) revitalized the genre. This time it was the stylistics of King Hu that inspired them in the creation of literally fantastic swordplay films like the Swordsman trilogy (1990–1992), New Dragon Inn (1992), and The Heroic Trio (1993). Women stars like Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Michelle Yeoh—who would become the most important female martial arts star since Cheng Pei-pei—also helped revitalize the genre. Kung fu was kept alive with Jet Li's incarnation of Wong Fei-hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series (1991–1997), but in a form far different than anything Kwan Tak-hing would have recognized—though the ideology remained the same. The special effects, acrobatics, and wire work (leading some to call this "wire fu") culminated in the King Hu–inspired international blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000). For audiences that disdained the likes of Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal and who knew nothing of the wonders of Touch of Zen, Lee's film brought respectability, if not originality, to the genre. World-class filmmaker Zhang Yimou (b. 1951), anxious to bring a bit more "Chineseness" back to the decentered form, released Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004)—both successful, indicating that for all its Chineseness, the martial arts genre belongs to the world.

SEE ALSO Action and Adventure Films;China;Hong Kong;Japan


Desser, David. "The Martial Arts Film in the 1990s." In Film Genre 2000: New Critical Essays, edited by Wheeler Winston Dixon. Albany, NY: SUNY, 2000.

Fu, Poshek, and David Desser, eds. The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Meyers, Richard. Great Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan—and More. New York: Citadel, 2001.

Mintz, Marilyn D. The Martial Arts Film. South Brunswick, NJ: A. S. Barnes, 1978.

Zhang, Yingjin. Chinese National Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 2004.

David Desser

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