“Wuxia” is a Mandarin word that literally means “martial heroes”. It has become popular as a term for a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms such as Chinese opera, movies, television series, video games and Manhua (Chinese comic books).
The word “wuxia” is a compound composed of the elements wu, “martial”, “military”, or “armed”, and xia, “honourable”, “chivalrous”, or “hero”. A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiake (“follower of xia”) or youxia (wandering hero).
The earliest wuxia films date back to the 1920’s. In the 1960’s King Hu and the Shaw Brothers Studio were producing films that featured sophisticated action choreography using wire and trampoline-assisted acrobatics combined with sped-up camera techniques. The storylines in the early films were loosely adapted from existing literature. The first martial arts movie superstars such as Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang Yu and Connie Chan are among the better known early wuxia movie stars. During the modern era, stars including Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi all made a name for themselves in wuxia films. Producer and director Tsui Hark along with legendary action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping owe a large part of their success to their work in the wuxia genre.
In 2000, wuxia films found a new and wider audience thanks to the success of Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“. It was a huge box office success and was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning four. Its success in the west paved the way for films such as Zhang Yimou’s “Hero“, “House of Flying Daggers” and “Curse of the Golden Flower” to be released in international markets.
The genre continues to be popular with both Asian and Western audiences alike. In recent years Daniel Wu’s hit television series has taken the wuxia concept and updated it in his show “Into the Badlands“, which is now into its third season.
Take a look at our Top 10 Wuxia Movies (appearing in descending order) and let us know which is your favourite!
- New Dragon Gate Inn (1992)
- Ashes of Time (1994)
- A Touch of Zen (1971)
- House of Flying Daggers (2004)
- One Armed Swordsman (1967)
- Swordsman II (1992)
- Reign of Assassins (2010)
- Come Drink with Me (1966)
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
- Hero (2002)
This 1992 Tsui Hark-produced remake of the 1967 King Hu masterpiece ups the action with some hyperreal martial arts choreography and injects the plot with some sly humour. Featuring an all-star cast including Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen, this is a fun take on one of the classics of the genre.
Chinese auteur director Wong Kar-Wai made his mark on wuxia movies with his subversive, arthouse, almost dream-like epic. Starring popular Hong Kong stars Leslie Cheung, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Carina Lau, Charlie Yeung, Jacky Cheung and Maggie Cheung, the film cost an astonishing HK$40 million and took two years to make. There are intermittent bursts of blurred action choreographed by Sammo Hung, that run through a fragmented plot that is more a meditation on the emotional scars people can inflict on each other, than the ones a sword can give them.
Not only one of the great wuxia movies but one of the great Chinese films. King Hu’s majestic, three hour-plus epic was the first of its kind to win a prize at Cannes. The story tells of a humble artist who becomes involved with a female warrior who is on the run and hiding in a mysterious castle. Starting small in scale, the film builds through a series of spectacular wire and trampoline-driven bamboo forest battles, that include a very young Sammo Hung for the eagle-eyed, leading to a psychedelic confrontation with a Buddhist monk. Both Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou have cited this movie as one of the major influences on their own works.
Zhang Yimou’s blend of romance, drama and action stars Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Playing more as a love story than a martial arts film, each scene is beautifully filmed in its own colour scheme to reflect a particular mood or emotion. The notable battles in the bamboo forest take their cues from the previously mentioned “A Touch of Zen”.
Actor Jimmy Wang Yu became Asian cinema’s highest-paid and arguably its first superstar after his leading role in Chang Cheh’s hugely influential classic. This tale of revenge and redemption is the wuxia version of the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and the westerns of Sergio Leone. With action choreography from Lau Kar-Leung, it was the first Hong Kong film to make HK$1 million at the local box office and spawned several sequels, spin-offs and remakes.
Tsui Hark wrote and produced this sequel that improved on the original in just about every way. Starring Jet Li, Brigitte Lin, Rosamund Kwan and Michelle Reis, it features some of the most energetic and frantically-edited wirework ever to feature in a martial arts movie. The film proved to be a huge box office success in Asia, influencing the action and editing style of films such as the Once Upon a Time in China and Fong Sai Yuk series.
Directing legend John Woo produced and co-directed this stylish tale of an assassin who is trying to escape her former life. Starring Michelle Yeoh, Jung Woo-sung, Wang Xueqi, Barbie Shu, Shawn Yue and Kelly Lin, the action is exquisitely choreographed by Stephen Tung Wei and features a plot that blends romance, thrills and humour in with quite a few twists!
Cheng Pei-Pei plays a highly-skilled fighter investigating the capture of her brother. The first half plays out in what would become one of the genre’s most iconic locations; an inn, as she encounters an assortment of increasingly powerful villains, building to an impeccably choreographed finale. “Come Drink with Me” wasn’t the first wuxia movie, but it was the first great one.
Arguably one of the most influential martial arts movies of all time, the success of King Hu’s film saw Shaw Brothers and the Hong Kong film industry shift their attention from musicals and kitchen sink dramas, to stories of kung fu heroics. It made an action star of trained-dancer Cheng Pei-Pei and paved the way for female stars in a macho world such as Josephine Siao, Connie Chan and Angela Mao-Ying.
In terms of worldwide recognition and success, this was the big one. Based on the fourth novel of the same name in the wuxia book series “Crane Iron Pentalogy”, by Chinese novelist Wang Dulu, Ang Lee wanted a martial arts version of “Sense and Sensibility”. With a first class cast that included Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen and a guest appearance from Cheng Pei-Pei, the film became a worldwide box office hit. It remains the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American cinematic history. Featuring some of Yuen Woo-Ping’s most sublime martial arts choreography, it went on to win four of its ten Academy Award nominations and remains the “Titanic” of wuxia movies!
Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” starring Jet Li, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Maggie Cheung, Chen Daoming, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen is perhaps the zenith of all the previous films in this list. It features a plot touching on the themes of politics, war, sacrifice and love, steeped in traditional Chinese culture and philosophy.
Jet Li is a charismatic Nameless Hero who makes his way through the sumptuously filmed, individually colour-schemed strands that eventually all pull together in a final twist. He also has one of the most beautifully shot and choreographed duels of his career with fellow action superstar Donnie Yen and remains without doubt a masterpiece of the genre!
So there we have it folks, 10 of the best Wuxia movie masterpieces! Which is your favourite from the list; are you a fan of the old school King Hu and Chang Cheh films, or do you prefer Tsui Hark’s stylish “New Wave” or Zhang Yimou’s visually arresting takes on the genre? Perhaps there’s a fight scene you really enjoyed…there are so many to choose from! comment below or join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter and let us know…