This awesome list is a post written by my buddy Alex Miller, a guy whose knowledge of Hong Kong / Kung Fu movies far surpasses mine!
Over the years certain kung fu movies have transformed from cult items to a significant genre in our cinematic language.
One of the great, and occasionally frustrating aspects of kung fu movies is just how many productions there are. Hong Kong was a major contender in the market of international cinema, and the bulk of these pictures were martial arts/wuxia movies.
Occasionally frustrating, but always rewarding when you stumble across a new title that for some reason or another that has gone unnoticed.
Pedicab driver is famous among kung fu fans for two good reasons, one of those being a legendary fight scene between Sammo Hung and kung fu guru Lau Kar Leung, the other reason being it’s a great movie. Directed and starring Sammo Hung, Pedicab Driver is a great vehicle for the seasoned luminary of the Hong Kong movie business, and this is one of his many great movies.
Aside from the famous fight between Sammo Lau-Kar-Leung there’s also a wonderfully weird Star Wars homage where two rival pedicab drivers duke it out with florescent bulbs with light saber sound effects and all.
Sammo Hung will appear quite a bit on this list, as he should. For many good reasons, he’s a great fighter, wonderful choreographer, superlative actor, and above all a terrific director. Pedicab Driver is one of his best titles as actor/director.
The movie is extremely hard to come by unless you don’t mind dropping $80.00 on Amazon, but the movie can be seen in its entirety on Youtube.
I’ve been twiddling my thumbs for years waiting for a Dragon Dynasty release of this seminal film from masters Lau Kar-Leung, and Gordon Liu (of 36th Chamber fame) and prayers are gone on unanswered.
Dirty Ho is another great martial arts adventure comedy from the eminent duo Lau Kar Leung and Gordon Liu and demands to be seen by any self-respecting kung fu fanatic. Great fight scenes are assured with any Lau Kar-Leung production but Dirty Ho has some choice scenes including Liu posing as an antique dealer bouting (ever so subtly) with a prince while the two parry and exchange attacks while discussing the merits of a Tang Dynasty Jade carving.
Great action and comedy deftly blend and Dirty Ho can be rented on Youtube, or you can pick up an English dub DVD available on Amazon.
Shanghai Express, not Shanghai Noon. Shanghai Express is one of the more unique of all the Hong Kong action films from this period. Shanghai Express (or better known in Hong Kong as Millionaires Express) is a grab bag of that makes Hong Kong cinema great; Wong Fei Hung, great fight choreography, blending genres, and Cynthia Rothrock.
Shanghai Express is like a mixture of American western mythology Chinese culture weaved into a good old-fashioned adventure yarn. Confidentially directed by its star Sammo Hung, who also stars in the film alongside Yuen Biao, and Cynthia Rothrock and many other talented actors from Sammo’s Lucky Stars Series.
Shanghai Express is a Hong Kong western where a town of criminals, pimps, prostitutes, and every other kind of misfit band together to fight off plundering bandits as well as some Japanese warriors who just happen to be passing by. As we have seen the “east meets west” movie model doesn’t always work (Lethal Weapon 4, Shanghai Noon, The Protector) but this is the west imagined by the east, and the western actors are working under the eastern terms, and if history has taught us anything the east knows how to make an action film.
The film has everything you could want from a western as well as a Hong Kong martial arts picture, and Sammo pays more than homage to the great actors of silent comedies and musicals such as Laurel & Hardy, Fred Astaire, and Buster Keaton. Sammo, an unsung auteur of the action film has directed what might be one of his greatest titles, try not to have too much fun!
There’s a wonderful release from Dragon Dynasty, with interviews, and a superb audio commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan.
Duel For Gold
The Shaw Brothers are responsible for so many classic kung fu/wuxia movies it’ll only be sensible to name a few, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Come Drink with Me, King Boxer, and of course many more, Duel for Gold is a title that should be among the many classics but seems to have gotten lost in the archives.
A down and dirty tale of betrayal centering around a gold heist A Duel for Gold is great fun, with action galore including a bamboo tree top fight ( and Ang Lee said his inspiration came from King Hu ), and some great acting from Shaw legend Lo Lieh. Bloody fight scenes and campy Shaw Brothers entertainment assured, a must see!
Some badly dubbed DVDs of this feature are floating around, but eBay might be your best bet for hard to find Hong Kong action movies.
The Valiant Ones
By the mid seventies martial arts auteur, King Hu was having a hard time getting work after the production of his classic Come Drink with Me was a problematic production for the Shaw Brothers. King Hu’s The Valiant Ones has more and more of his balletic, gravity-defying fight choreography which is only enlivened by the fight choreography by a very young Sammo Hung, who also stars in the film as a Japanese pirate.
Like most of Hu’s movies, the film is constructed around corruption and intrigue regarding the dynasty (The Ming Dynasty), and The Valiant Ones is one of his tightly paced and liveliest productions. Sammo Hung might not have had the opportunity to bolster his screen presence the way he would in later films, but his fight choreography shines brighter than his performance. Sammo’s choreography paired with King Hu’s elevated sense of artistic flair makes The Valiant Ones one of his most entertaining films. Thanks to it’s running time and pacing The Valiant Ones is doesn’t suffer from the occasional lags one might experience with his more epic films like The Fate of Lee Khan, or his infamous (and masterful) A Touch of Zen.
The film is hard to find, there are some copies you can find on eBay, but it is available on youtube, without English subtitles though..
Project A 2
You might be saying to yourself, “why not the first Project A?’, and that’s because this is the ten best kung fu movies you “never” seen. Project A is a great Jackie Chan film with the three brothers in top form (Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao) but part II has a lot to offer that makes it more than just an admirable sequel.
As always Jackie was constantly one-upping his death-defying stunts and Project A II is filled with the great Jackie Chan nearly killing himself in order to entertain his fans. The homage paying to the great silent actors Chan emulates goes one step further as we see him execute to falling building Buster Keaton gag, except this time Jackie is actually running down the side of the building while it was falling.
Unfortunately, the three brothers are missing from part II but Jackie’s one man show won’t disappoint anyone in the mood for action, gags, stunts, and humor.
Since it’s a Jackie Chan film, it’s more available than some of these other titles, and there’s a Region A Bluray including both films in the series.
The Way of the Dragon
Bruce Lee completists will know this movie thoroughly, but most casual Lee fans might find themselves surprised when they hear about this one. Since it exists outside the holy trinity of Bruce Lee films, Fist of Fury (aka Chinese Connection), The Big Boss, and Enter the Dragon, The Way of the Dragon is mostly known for the film with the famous fight scene between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, but there’s a little more to it than that.
Bruce travels to Italy in order to help out some family members who are being harassed by mobsters, and of course Bruce is there to save the day. Bruce Lee (who directed the film as well) had complete control over the production and incorporated a bit of humor into some scenes as well as some extraordinary fight sequences.
The film is accessible, but beware of international dubb’s that exist as a result of being the first Hong Kong film to be set entirely in Italy. This may not be the best Bruce Lee movie it will satisfy anyone’s Bruce Lee fix, especially considering the limited filmography thanks to Bruce Lee’s tragically short career.Of course this will always be the film where “Bruce Lee schools Chuck Norris, and yes of course that is a highlight, but there’s more to the movie than that.
Available in a new four film box set from Shout Factory. Other versions may only exist in an English dub.
Wilder than wild later era Shaw Brothers production The Bastard Swordsman is a wonderfully bizarre and action packed wuxia fantasy film. Starting as an underdog storyline as the titular bastard becomes the student of an unidentified benefactor/trainer who insists on remaining unknown and anonymous. The Wudang Clan engages in a high-stakes battle with the rival Invisible Clan every ten years who the bastard (played by Norman Chu) is being groomed to fight by attaining the sought after “silkworm skill”.
The Bastard Swordsman is a wonderfully bizarre mixture of mysticism and wuxia, kung fu, wild wire work, and choreography. To summarize the film succinctly, it’s crazy. And extremely fun every step of the way, it’s one of those surreal experiences that you can only get from a crazy 80’s era Hong Kong movie. And probably the best mixture of sorcery and swordplay predating Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair. Followed by a sequel “Return of Bastard Swordsman” and delivers just as many (if not more) outlandish fighting scenes.
The Bastard Swordsman is readily available (with many other titles) from Funimation’s Hong Kong connection series.
The 18 Bronzemen
What’s great about Hong Kong movies is there shamelessness when it comes to knocking off other movies, or piggybacking on other successful formulas to make a buck.The director of The 18 Bronzemen Joseph Kuo is an overlooked master of strangely superlative Taiwanese knock-off films. And that’s not to say that The 18 Bronzemen is a “knock off” of any other production (unlike his 1979 film World of Drunken Master) since the word “Shaolin” appears in countless titles over the years, but The 18 Bronzemen (aka The 18 Bronzemen of Shaolin) exists in its own world as it is truly strange and wonderful movie.
A film that really has to be seen to be believed, as we see Shaolin monks go through rigorous training exercises (not too different from Lau Kar-Leung’s 36th Chamber) and the eventual sparring with the seemingly undefeatable Bronzemen. They might just be guys with bronze paint, and armor, yet they are quite imposing and thanks to some persuasive sound editing that adds a surprising amount of peril to the fight scenes. The significance of the bronzemen is never really explored, but if you’re watching a movie where Shaolin monks fights large, bronzemen than don’t be let down by the lack of logic.
Joseph Kuo doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but as a director he knows timing and how shoot an exciting action sequences and fight scenes tend to go on longer than your average productions. The movie was followed by a sequel cleverly titled “The 18 Bronzemen Part II”, just as much fun, just as many bronzemen.
You can see the film on youtube in an English dub, and as a cult item it’s available on DVD.
A breakout hit for Jet Li in his debut film was a huge success in Hong Kong and is a staple in the kung fu genre but it has gone relatively unseen in the US. For whatever reason, this seems to allude audiences in the states, and it means a lot of people are missing out on a fun entry in the seemingly never ending Shaolin martial arts movies.
Jet Li’s star status was assured when you see him parade his abilities before the camera, and for good reason because he is just that damn good. The story is pretty routine, young man escapes oppressive captors and finds a home in The Shaolin Temple where he goes through the vigorous “training for revenge” story but Jet Li’s physical prowess takes what would normally be a six making it a close nine. The film is comprised of studio-bound interior shots, where fake snow and painted backdrops just add to the charm to wide battle scenes that seem to compliment each other nicely. Although Li wouldn’t reach superstardom in 1991 starring as the iconic folk hero Wong Fei Hung in Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China series, still this is one hell of a debut acting vehicle
Shaolin Temple is available if you look on Amazon, you can also see the film in its entirety (dubbed in English) on YouTube.
Although some of these movies star major actors, directed by famous filmmakers these films don’t get the attention they deserve in the states.
Sometimes the funnest films are right under your nose, other times you have to do some hunting, regardless the enormous output of martial arts movies are so plentiful that the most ardent fan has a lifetime of entertainment to pursue. Hopefully this will turn you on to some new titles, or remind you of some ones you might have forgotten.