With the release of The Raid: Redemption, I’ve asked Sound On Sight contributors Edgar Chaput and Michael Ryan to help me put together a list of 15 classic martial arts films that we consider essential viewing. Here are my five choices.
11- The Blade (Doa)
Directed by Hark Tsui
Inspired by the 1967 Shaw Brothers epic The One-Armed Swordsman, Tsui Hark’s The Blade reinforces that the director is a true innovator, a visionary, a remarkable stylist and a man who knows how to direct action. In a style often compared to Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time, The Blade is a constant, steady blend of hand-held camera work, quick cuts, visual motifs, symbolic imagery and downright poetic juxtapositions. The fight scenes start out violent and blood-stained but gradually progress into grand artistic spectacles – some of the best you’ll ever see.
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12- Jing wu ying xiong (Fist of Legend)
Directed by Gordon Chan
1994 – Hong Kong
For sheer martial arts action mayhem, Fist of Legend stands as one of the most impressive entries in the genre. Three names to take notice of here: Director Gordon Chan, action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and star Jet Li, all collaborate in what is essentially a loose remake of Bruce Lee’s chopsocky classic The Chinese Connection (a.k.a. Fist of Fury)
Set in Shanghai International Settlement in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War, Fist Of Legend touches on the mutual racism between the Chinese and Japanese. But put aside the tackled on love story, the historical references, and even the political overtones, Fist Of legend is essential viewing for any fan of martial arts cinema simply for the action scenes and not necessarily the plot, which admittedly is handled poorly.
As a pure adrenaline rush, it’s the closest thing to matching The Raid: Redemption; the martial arts sequences are deftly handled, showcasing Li’s awe-inspiring fighting skills. The legendary Yuen Woo Ping (Drunken Master, Wing Chun, Kill Bill, The Matrix) choreographs the high-flying, hidden-wire martial arts madness helping positioning Li as the true successor to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The action is top-notch, opening with one of the greatest sequences of all time, in which Chen (Jet Li) takes out an entire class of Japanese fighters. See for yourself in the video below.
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13- 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Shao Lin san shi liu fang)
Directed by Chia-Liang Liu
Hong Kong, 1979
The Shaw Brothers Studio was the largest production company of Hong Kong movies and most well known producer of high quality kung fu films. In their heyday, the studio produced enough movies to rival Hollywood; roughly 40 films a year, all made in the self-contained studio town aptly called Shaw Town. When discussing their back catalogue (of an estimated 800 films), one of the first films to come to mind is 36th Chamber of Shaolin which won the Best Martial Arts Award at 24th Asian Film Festival and was a major box office success in Hong Kong.
More of a cult sensation stateside, 36th Chamber of Shaolin follows a highly fictionalized version of San Te, a legendary Shaolin martial arts disciple, here played by legendary Gordon Liu (Pai Mei of Kill Bill), who learns the “Iron Fist” technique so he can fight off menacing gangs of Chinese and Japanese goons.
36th Chamber of Shaolin is widely considered to be one of the greatest kung fu films and a turning point for both Gordon Liu and its director Chia-Liang Liu. With almost half the 115 minute running time dedicated to a nearly hourlong training sequence, Chamber might just feature less fighting than any other Shaw Brothers films. Yet that very training sequence is the stuff legends are made of. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin represents a directorial tour de force for the star’s brother (by adoption), who shoots with a unique style relying heavily on zooms (in and out), slow motion, close-ups and quick cuts to emphasize the fighting techniques. The training, in particular, is perfectly executed, allowing moviegoers the opportunity to see the true skills and talents of the cast. The action is some of the best choreographed of the era. As appose to your typical martial arts flick which is designed to set up one action set piece after another, Chamber is more interested in the philosophy and purpose of martial arts – a movie that really celebrates the excesses of the art-form and views it as both a spectacle and sport.
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14- Ip Man
Directed by Wilson Yip
Hong Kong, 2008
In this bio-pic, Donnie Yen is Ip Man, one of the earliest Wing Chun martial arts exponents and the man credited to have elevated its popularity in the early parts of the 20th century. Best known for his role as Bruce Lee’s first mentor, Ip Man is godlike amongst martial arts fans. As far as bio-pics goes, Ip Man isn’t really award winning material. The picture takes plenty of liberties with the facts of the legendary practitioner of the Southern Chinese fighting style. Even worse, it lazily sentimentalizes a complex period in Chinese history. Yes it’s slightly exaggerated and fairly straightforward storytelling, but first and foremost, Ip Man is an excuse for Yen to demonstrate his newfound mastery of the Wing Chun style – and on that front, the film succeeds brilliantly.
Ip Man is a joy on various levels due mostly to the quality of the fights and the pure charisma of Yen. Ip Man also benefits largely from the lucid fight direction by the master Sammo Hung. The battle choreography is clever and Yen makes the action intense with his incredible speed, confidence, and abilities. Yen, a veteran in martial arts, honestly presents Wing Chun for what it is; a martial art usually considered more delicate for focusing upon speed, not brute force. It’s a fighting style which often gets labelled effeminate, since Wing Chun after all was founded by a woman. Yen stays calm, cool and focused, folding in wry humour and emotional undercurrents along the way, and one can easily claim it is his best performance.
The film was a blockbuster hit in Asia, picking up Best Film and Best Action Choreography from a total of 12 nominations at the Honk Kong Film Awards, and later two sequels were produced.
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15- Shaolin Temple (Shao Lin si)
Directed by Cheh Chang
China – 1982
Shaolin Temple is Jet Li’s first movie (he was only 18 at the time), and it’s easy to see why he became a star with his dazzling athletics. The fight scenes are spectacular, and like the Shaw Bros. classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin, the film focuses on the training of an impressive group of heroes, each with a different style or specialty. The training scenes themselves are remarkable for the cleverness and scope of the techniques employed. Shaolin Temple might very well be the high-water mark of the Shaw Brothers martial arts film cycle. A must see and if you can’t track down the DVD, than watch the entire film below, guilt free.
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