Kung Fu Movie Starter Kit

Interested in kung fu movies but don’t know where to begin?  This list is designed to help get you started. These are time-tested classics that helped shape and define the genre over the past 50 years.  This pack focuses on introducing the newcomer to the keystone tenants of kung fu film while covering a wide variety of the stars, directors and stories.

FISTS OF FURY (aka CHINESE CONNECTION) (1972)

starring Bruce Lee / directed by Lo Wei

 

Chen Zhen (Lee), a student of Huo Yuanjia, must avenge his master against the brutal assault on his school by foreign Japanese oppressors.

Why It’s Important:

Few would argue martial arts movies would ever have become a world-wide sensation without Bruce Lee.  Bruce Lee was the first kung fu star I was drawn to, and like millions of others was the reason I started watching kung fu movies.  Though famous for his supreme martial arts skills, he was also an accomplished actor in Hong Kong since childhood.  His combination of charisma and martial art dedication made him a legend.

As a movie, it’s the engaging story that frames epic fight scenes (including the iconic dojo scene) that still resonate with fans today.  A beginner’s list of kung fu is not complete without Bruce Lee.

FIVE DEADLY VENOMS (1978)

Starring Philip Kwok, Chiang Sheng, Lu Feng, Lo Meng, Sun Chien, Pei Wei / directed by Chang Cheh

In the cult classic FIVE DEADLY VENOMS, the Poison Clan’s final student is sent on a mission to follow up on five former students.  Each is a master of a different “venom” style (Centipede, Snake, Scorpion, Lizard, and Toad).  His duty is to find out if they have turned to a life of evil, and if so, to destroy them.  The catch is that all the venoms have hidden their identity, and because the student’s skills are so lacking, he must team up with one to defeat any other.

Why It’s Important:

First, it’s directed by Cheng Cheh, one of Hong Kong’s most prolific and iconic directors.  His formula of brotherhood, loyalty and revenge became his signature as he produced hit after hit.  His films were also always drown in copious amounts of blood, which helped inspire the “heroic bloodshed” movement of future directors like (his former protege) John Woo.

Second, it’s the film that earned the Venom Mob their namesake.  Philip Kwok, Lu Feng, Chiang Sheng, Sun Chien, Lo Meng, and Wei Pei would end up doing about a dozen movies together in various combinations.  However, it’s this film that really resonated with fans for its intriguing mystery, deadly combat and violent action.

THE 36TH CHAMBER OF SHAOLIN (aka THE MASTER KILLER) (1979)

starring Gordon Liu / directed by Lau Kar Leung

The other Shaw Brothers classic on this list stars Gordon Liu as San Te, a commoner who escapes the wrath of a vengeful monk to the Shaolin Temple in hopes of learning the skills needed to exact his revenge.

Why It’s Important:

Considered one of the best kung fu movies of all time, it showcased the mystical world of the Shaolin Temple. The Shaolin Temple was known as a Buddhist monastery that actually existed, and would become a source for many stories and legends throughout Chinese history.  The arduous journey of San Te as he learns and develops his skills though each chamber set up the template for every hero’s training montage for all action movies going forward.

Director Lau Kar Leung was one of the first fight choreographers who came from a classically trained martial arts background.  Because of this, his movies were among the first to feature realistic martial arts.  This movie, like many of his others, starred his adoptive step brother Gordon Liu, who became a kung fu superstar.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA (1991)

starring Jet Li, Yuen Biao / directed by Hark Tsui

Director Tsui Hark’s masterpiece stars Wushu champion Jet Li as historical hero Wong Fei-Hong.   As Western influence is growing in Hong Kong, Wong Fei-Hung is recruited to help train the local militia in kung fu to protect them in case of an incoming invasion.

Why it’s important:

Jet Li was arguably the biggest martial arts star of the 90’s, and this movie showcases why to great success.  This was one of the first movies to re-popularize the Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung in the early 90’s, reinvigorating kung fu movies with audiences all over again.  Incredibly elaborate and stylized fight scenes are framed within an engaging story taking place in turn-of-the-century Hong Kong, making it one of the all-time classics.

RUMBLE IN THE BRONX (1995)

starring Jackie Chan / directed by Stanley Tong

Jackie Chan has just arrived in America to help his uncle sell his store and ends up accidentally getting mixed up in a feud with neighborhood gangsters.  Also, there’s diamond smugglers.

Why it’s important:

Many would put Jackie Chan as the #1 action star of all-time, and rightfully so.  His signature is his unique mixture of action and comedy, using the environment around him as one big prop and his breathtaking daredevil stunts.  I will warn you this isn’t even his best movie, but was chosen because it is a great intro to Jackie, as it mixes a lot of his strongest elements:  action, comedy and stunts.  It also is a stark contrast to many of the other movies on this list, with its contemporary setting and more family-friendly action.

His stunts are glorious.  Watch closely as there are no special effects; the camera is often at an angle that proves there are no nets.  His fight scenes are works of art:  complicated routines that are intricate, fast and dangerous.  My favorite is the warehouse fight, where everything becomes a weapon, from refrigerators to shopping carts.  Though the story and voice dubbing leaves much to be desired, all is forgiven after watching this epic collection of amazing stunts and dazzling fights.

IP MAN (2008)

Loosely based on the actual martial arts master Ip Man, the story follows the life of Ip Man (Donnie Yen) as he tries to start a new martial arts school during the Japanese Occupation of WWII.  While not very biographically sound, the story and action more than make for a classic movie.

Why it’s important:

Though Donnie Yen had been a star in Hong Kong for almost 20 years, this one got him world-wide recognition.  It’s also a great combination of a wonderful story, beautiful set pieces, high production value and top shelf choreography (by legend Sammo Hung), proving that even today Hong Kong is still the gold standard of kung fu cinema.

Conclusion

I feel terrible for not being able to include everyone I felt also belonged (No Sammo?  Or Yuen Woo-Ping?), but hopefully this will give you a great head start to my favorite film genre.  Before you start watching, you might want to read our Guide for Watching Kung Fu Movies Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 to help understand some core philosophical and pragmatic differences between Hong Kong vs. Western cinema.

Posted on August 10, 2015 in Kung Fu Movie Reviews, Kung Fu Theatre

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About the Author

Aaron Andersen is the creative director of Legendary Weapons of LA. He's a designer, animator and avid fan of kung fu cinema.

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