Your Friday touch of Zen
February 12, 2016 3:01 PM   Subscribe

With the highly-anticipated release of two King Hu masterpieces on home video by the Masters of Cinema organization, as well as the critical success of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin last year, it seems like the wuxia film is making some inroads into the Western critical consciousness. So I thought I’d put together a guide to some of the essential films of the genre. - 30 Essential Wuxia Films
posted by Artw (32 comments total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
 
"'Wu' means martial arts, which signifies action, 'Xia' conveys chivalry. Wuxia. Say it gently... 'whooshah'... and it's like a breath of serenity embracing you. Say it with force, 'WuSHA!', and you can feel its power." - Samuel L. Jackson describes Wuxia according to TV Tropes.
posted by Artw at 3:03 PM on February 12, 2016


Pretty good list, though I'm not sure I would call Red Cliffs, for example, wuxia. Not that I'm a big expert. Some great ones (Iron Monkey, Once Upon a Time in China) are in the descriptions (again not necessarily wuxia but martial arts in general), so don't just skim!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:23 PM on February 12, 2016


I just saw the Assassin two nights ago, though I'm still not sure what to make of it. It was achingly beautiful and well shot, but to me just a tad too disjointed and unclear in some important parts. Not sure if it's more or the film yet though, will likely have to see it again, which I guess is a recommendation of sorts.
posted by Carillon at 3:41 PM on February 12, 2016


Not perfect, but a pretty damn good list. Thanks, Artw.
posted by Purposeful Grimace at 3:48 PM on February 12, 2016


Swordsman II is very ice, but I have a very soft spot in my heart for the genuinely insane Swordsman III/The East Is Red, where the thin plot, such as it is, exists solely to set up delirious set-pieces and increasingly wild feats of... martial arts may not be the word so much as super-heroics. I went to it when a friend of mine asked me to look after a friend of hers when work suddenly appeared, and we picked it somewhat at random from the listings of the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Afterwards, we looked at each other and said "what just happened?" In some ways, it's not a good film, but it is a great film.

Also, the Chinese Ghost Story films, which have caused me to say "Heaven and Earth Are Infinite!" and sometimes "The Sea of Ignorance Is Boundless!" before attempting difficult tasks.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:53 PM on February 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


*scream* I.Love.You.Artw!

Wow, I didn't know Ashes of Time had been re-released. (Ashes of Time also led me to Days of Being Wild, one of my favorite films ever, but sooooo not what I expected when I first sat down to watch it. Only my ETERNAL LOVE for Maggie Cheung kept me in my chair.)

So. . . I was really surprised to see Assassin pop up on Netflix - been wondering about it, a kind of similar surprise around the statement around wuxia making some inroads, because the last few years I've been kind of wondering if wuxia had hit its peak more than a few years ago? But maybe it's just that I've gotten older and haven't been able to pay attention, much like one sadly does with music. I'm happy to be wrong.

Anyway, this list is delicious! Thanks!

also I have serious love/hate feelings about House of Flying Daggers
posted by barchan at 3:54 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


An awful lot of these are available on Netflux, BTW, especially the 60s and 70s ones, which I'm sure back in the VHS days would have been considered rare and precious items to scurry after.
posted by Artw at 4:06 PM on February 12, 2016


Ha, Artw, I saw a few of these for the first time via a friend who had brought them back from Korea for the both of us on VHS around 2003. But interestingly, one of the very first films I saw (via the same guy) was on a DVD that he got in Japan IIRC, around 97-98 - we had a hell of time finding a DVD player.
posted by barchan at 4:23 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


As the article itself basically says, House of Flying Daggers is so gorgeous that I'm willing to forgive pretty much any sins it commits.
posted by soundguy99 at 4:29 PM on February 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


Thanks for this, now I’m going to have to get back into it. I never knew the term wuxia, and it’s so much better than the long "not kung fu" descriptions I used to use.

An awful lot of these are available on Netflux, BTW, especially the 60s and 70s ones, which I'm sure back in the VHS days would have been considered rare and precious items to scurry after.

We used to go to Chinatown and rent Laser Discs. That and copied VHS.
posted by bongo_x at 4:56 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I loved The Swordsman II! It was the first time I saw a movie where the fighters called out the names of the techniques (ESSENCE ABSORBING STANCE!!!) before attempting them.

One of Jet Li's earler movies, The Kung Fu Cult Master, would also fit on this list, though the plot is, er, scattered.

In addition to the above linked, there are many old kung fu /wuxia movies freely available on YouTube.
posted by JohnFromGR at 5:04 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Sonny fucking Chiba!
posted by clavdivs at 5:52 PM on February 12, 2016


King fu movies are for the bereft as war movies are to the wanna-be.
posted by clavdivs at 5:53 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Does "Zen" actually have a meaning, or does it just take on some significance due to the arrangement of words around it? (At some level it seems to have something to do with restaurants...)
posted by sneebler at 6:17 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


COME DRINK WITH ME! YES. I love Cheng Pei-pei in that role.

I wouldn't call Red Cliff wuxia either, but it is at the very least visually gorgeous (that Bagua Formation battle!). I found Swordsman II/III hard to follow, but Dongfang Bubai is a really interesting character--though my favorite Brigitte Lin role is Tsao Wan from the non-wuxia film Peking Opera Blues. Never has cross-dressing looked so good, not to mention the sheer awesomeness of the central female trio.
posted by ilicet at 6:28 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Does "Zen" actually have a meaning

In this context, "it's got monks in it", I believe.
posted by Artw at 6:43 PM on February 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


For those who like me were wondering: at the time of this post, on Netflix (US) the 7 of the 30 are streaming:

Come Drink With Me
Crippled Avengers
Red Cliff
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Wuxia (aka Dragon)
A Touch of Sin
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
posted by fings at 6:47 PM on February 12, 2016 [7 favorites]


The list is pretty good, though I personally disagree with the "bow down to the essential classics" approach that put the oldies on top. The classics were groundbreaking and paved the road for latter works, but some of the newer films are simply better imho. I would pick New Dragon Gate Inn (1992) over the original every day of the week, for example.

Wuxia was my genre growing up. Such a shame that the genre has lost steam over the last decade. There's still a ton of wuxia on Chinese TV, but not much in film. The Crouching Tiger sequel opens in a week... I'm hoping it performs better than expected.
posted by fatehunter at 6:53 PM on February 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Hmmm...

Western attempts at the genre have been limited, such as the 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom, which starred Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michael Angarano. However, a major exception is DreamWorks Animation's media franchise Kung Fu Panda. Created as an earnest, if humorous, emulation by producers who were knowledgeable admirers of the genre, the series has been particularly hailed in China as an excellent contribution to the form.
posted by Artw at 7:02 PM on February 12, 2016


Kung-Fu Panda is great, especially the first movie. I tend to categorize animation and live action works separately, but that's just me.

The less said about The Forbidden Kingdom, the better. I almost wrote off the Crouching Tiger sequel when I read that TFK's writer (John Fusco) penned its script. Thank heaven they got some Chinese writer to revise it. Fusco also wrote Marco Polo btw. It speaks to my desperation for a wuxia revival in China that I still have hope for the Crouching Tiger sequel with Fusco's involvement
posted by fatehunter at 7:21 PM on February 12, 2016


though I personally disagree with the "bow down to the essential classics" approach that put the oldies on top.

I’m pretty sure that was in chronological order.
posted by bongo_x at 7:23 PM on February 12, 2016


Color me embarrassed. Sorry, please carry on.
posted by fatehunter at 7:28 PM on February 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


"it's got monks in it"

So how come those Capuchin monks in Italy/France never spent their holidays beating the hell out of nearby villagers or the Mafia? Seems like they missed a golden opportunity.
posted by sneebler at 7:40 PM on February 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


The classics were groundbreaking and paved the road for latter works, but some of the newer films are simply better imho.

I don't actually really disagree with you, but it has occurred to me that maybe we're too close (in time) to the early films to really have perspective. (This applies to Chinese cinema in general, including kung fu movies.) Like, we can watch Frankenstein or Buster Keaton movies some 60 years after they were made and appreciate them as great films while still recognizing that they were products of their time, both technologically and stylistically. But the "early classics" in wuxia and kung fu films are from the 60's and 70's, and they have their own lighting and costuming and cinematography and editing styles that I suspect tend to read to Westerners as "cheap schlock and/or TV." (Plus I'm not sure any of the older movies have really had good translations, whether subtitled or dubbed.) Maybe in 2040 those watching the older wuxia flicks won't find them quite so jarring and will have a different perspective on how "good" they are.

(Or, to put it another way, if anyone reading the thread is unfamiliar with the genre and wants to check some of the films out, I'd suggest not starting any earlier than about 1980, which is kind of when wuxia films started to look like "modern" films.)
posted by soundguy99 at 7:45 PM on February 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Yes! I was hoping Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Chinese Ghost Story would be on the list. Other essentials (read: my favorites) for Chinese supernatural fun include Mr. Vampire, The Boxer's Omen, and Holy Flame of the Martial World.
posted by teponaztli at 1:28 AM on February 13, 2016 [1 favorite]


Pigsy Sings
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:57 AM on February 13, 2016


So how come those Capuchin monks in Italy/France never spent their holidays beating the hell out of nearby villagers or the Mafia?

Saint Moses the Ethiopian singlehandedly beat up a gang of robbers with his bare hands, captured them, converted them to Christianity, then trained them as monks after his own example.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 2:22 PM on February 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


I liked the bit of that one Doctor Who episode that was all "Aha! These are the OTHER kind of monks!". The rest was a bit rubbish though.
posted by Artw at 2:28 PM on February 13, 2016


It's got Miracle Fighters on the list so all is right in the world. Though I prefer Taoism Drunkard, Miracle Fighters is likely the better made film.
posted by Ashwagandha at 9:06 AM on February 14, 2016


Just watched Come Drink with Me for the first time and it was amazeballs. Sooo many of the tropes of kung fu, action, and even scifi films are there-- in 1966!
posted by gwint at 7:06 PM on February 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've started a FanFare club to watch all these films. Come join!
posted by gwint at 8:27 PM on February 16, 2016


Oh man JohnFromGR, The Kung Fu Cult Master! Growing up as an immigrant kid in the late 90s I had a VHS tape of this and God of Gamblers 3: The Early Stage that I would watch over and over again. It felt like you just didn't get set-piece battles with this many extras here in the West, and when the song starts up and they start doing the counter-rotating circles around each other I still get goosebumps. My young mind was blown by having a villainess also be a love interest, and it was nice to daydream about how if I could just find the right teacher/manual/tomb engraved with Ancient Secrets that I could also be a wuxia master. Every time I got to the end, the cliffhanger made me want more but I figured that we were just too cheap to get around to buying the sequel that they MUST'VE made. It wasn't until much later that I found out that it was a flop and a sequel never was made.

Looking back on these two movies they're not really 'good' movies. The moods are all over the place from comedic to serious to melodramatic, the plots meander, and the characters aren't any more sophisticated than archetypes like Hero with Destiny, Conniving Stepfather, Duplicitous Femme Fatale. Even then, I still have a soft spot for them if only because they remind me of the time when I first saw them.
posted by coolname at 8:48 PM on February 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


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