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. The Chinese martial arts movie is generally split into two primary subgeneres: the kung fu film and the wuxia film. The kung fu film is newer and focuses primarily on hand-to-hand combat, it’s steeped in traditional fighting forms and there’s a general emphasis on the physical skill of the performer: special effects are generally disdained. Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are its most famous practitioners and Lau Kar-leung its most important director.
Wuxia is a much older form, based ultimately in the long tradition of Chinese adventure literature, in classic novels such as The Water Margin or Journey to the West, or more contemporary works by authors like Louis Cha and Gu Long. Its heroes follow a very specific code of honor as they navigate the jianghu, an underworld of outlaws and bandits outside the normal streams of civilization. Wuxia films often incorporate fantasy elements, using special effects to allow their heroes to fly, shoot concentrated chi energy out of their hands (or eyes) and in other ways violate the laws of physics. Strictly speaking, wuxia should probably be confined to stories of code-following traveling knights-errant, but genres are a fluid and conventional thing, especially in Hong Kong, where films regularly mash together comedy, action, romance, melodrama and horror elements into a single impure whole, and as such, stark lines are difficult to draw. King Hu and Tsui Hark are the essential wuxia directors, and Jet Li, Ti Lung and Jimmy Wang Yu the genre’s greatest stars. The following is a list of 30 of the genre’s highlights, taking a reasonably expansive view of generic boundaries and arranged in chronological order:
1. Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966)
In the mid-1960s, the Shaw Brothers studio shifted emphasis from brightly-colored musicals to brightly-colored action films, launching an explosive transformation of the Hong Kong film industry the effects of which are still being felt today. Come Drink with Me wasn’t their first wuxia, but it was their first great one. Cheng Pei-pei plays a highly-skilled warrior 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 meets an array of increasingly powerful villains. With careful framing and rhythmic editing, director King Hu emphasizes the grace and beauty of Cheng’s movements: she was a trained dancer, not a fighter. The finale erupts in a magical spectacle, equal parts The Wizard of Oz and Kurosawa’s Sanjuro.
2. The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh, 1967)
Jimmy Wang Yu plays the eponymous swordsman, a terrific fighter who suffers his grievous injury at the petulant hands of his master’s daughter. Resolved to retire from the world of violence, he is sucked back in by the need for revenge after that same master is murdered. Learning an entirely new fighting technique thanks to an old, mangled manual, he carves a sad swath of destruction through his enemies. Chang brings a morbid psychology to the genre, obsessed with death and honor, his films are bloody and operatic. The action choreography is by Lau Kar-leung, who would spend most of the next decade working for Chang alongside fellow choreographer Tong Gaai. Lau would keep Chang’s early wuxias grounded in realism, but would really come into his own as a choreographer in the mid-70s with Chang’s cycle of Shaolin kung fu films.
3. Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967)
By the end of the Come Drink with Me shoot, the famously independent-minded Hu had enough of working with the Shaw Brothers and left the colony for Taiwan, in hopes of building a film industry there essentially from the ground-up. His first film in the new country would be one of the genre’s greatest hits, a Sergio Leone-esque adventure set at a remote borderland outpost. A couple of children are on the run from sinister Ming Dynasty agents and an array of heroes gathers to protect them. The first half of the film plays like a mystery, with each new character, good and bad alike, meeting at the inn and eventually revealing their true nature, while the second half is a series of lengthy battle sequences, moving from the inn itself to the surrounding mountains, the bad guys becoming increasingly powerful and magical until the final villain, a sinister eunuch with godlike abilities hampered only by a bit of asthma.
4. Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968)
Capitalizing on the success of Come Drink with Me, the Shaw Brothers snagged Chang Cheh to direct a sequel, with Cheng Pei-pei reprising her role but with an entirely new cast of co-stars. Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh play rival swordsman who are also rivals for Cheng’s affection. The three team-up to fight villainy, but ultimately Wang Yu is undone by his mastery: his monomaniacal quest to be the greatest swordsman in the world proves his undoing. The stunt crew is a who’s who of future directors and stars: Lau Kar-leung, Lau Kar-wing, Yuen Woo-ping, David Chiang, Hsu Hsia, Wu Ma, Mars and Lo Wei.
5. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)
A historical epic set in the late Tang Dynasty, the Emperor invites a Northern barbarian chief to help put down a domestic insurrection. His 13 sons, all generals, help recapture the capital city, but not without some in-fighting and conspiring with imperial agents. Based on actual events, or at least some of the traditional literary versions of them, Chang expands wuxia from the personal psychology of the lone heroes in his early films to an epic war movie scale. But still it is the individuals who stand out: David Chiang as the unjustly accused general who nevertheless (and pointedly ahistorically) remains loyal to the end and Ti Lung as a general who defends his brothers’ retreat, standing alone on a bridge against a whole army. He dies, but like all Chang Cheh’s greatest heroes, he dies standing up.
6. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
The greatest film in the genre’s history, and one of the greatest Chinese-language films of all-time, King Hu’s epic begins small, following a decidedly unheroic scholar as he investigates some mysterious happenings around the abandoned castle he shares with his mother. The new girl in town turns out to be a warrior on the run, and the scholar soon (well, a third of the way through the three hour movie) finds himself planning the defense of the castle against an invading band of corrupt soldiers. The last half of the film becomes increasingly abstract: a series of spectacular wire- and trampoline-driven forest battles (including against a very young Sammo Hung) leading to a psychedelic confrontation with a divine Buddhist monk.
7. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972)
An exposé on the horrors of life in the brothels that makeup the background of so many Chinese period films, Chor Yuen’s masterpiece is a wrenching film in which our heroine is kidnapped, forced into prostitution and, eventually, embarks on a quest for bloody revenge. Putting the lush settings and vibrant colors of the Shaws’ studio resources in stark contrast to the horrors of his scenario, Chor invites the audience to question the aestheticization of violence that forms a fundamental part of the genre’s appeal.
8. Killer Clans (Chor Yuen, 1976)
Following the phenomenal success of first Jimmy Wang Yu’s 1970 film The Chinese Boxer and then the quartet of Bruce Lee smash hits, the wuxia genre was displaced by the kung fu film for the first half of the 1970s. Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung collaborated on a cycle of Shaolin films, with Lau eventually becoming a director in his own right. But by the decade’s midpoint, wuxia was making a comeback, led by a series of films directed by Chor Yuen and adapted by screenwriter Ni Kuang from stories by Taiwanese novelist Gu Long. Killer Clans is a typically complex tale of intrigue and in-fighting among sword-wielding gangsters, an almost-noir mystery plastered over a meditation on loyalty and sacrifice.
9. The Sentimental Swordsman (Chor Yuen, 1977)
The best of Chor Yuen’s mystery wuxias stars Ti Lung as a hero haunted by past losses who is mistaken for killer by a local mob. A swirl of characters surround Ti as he attempt to solve the mystery and prove his innocence, all psychologically rather than generically motivated. Like his other films, a dense mise-en-scène envelops his hero (this one marked especially by tangles of spiderwebs); no one at Shaw Brothers made films as ravishingly gorgeous as Chor Yuen. The sequel is not as successful, and Chor’s later films would become increasingly imprisoned in their own ostentatious ornateness, with movies like the two-part Alexander Fu Sheng-starring Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre seeming to take place in a world entirely of their own, existing only in the minds of fantasy novelists, places only realizable on studio sound stages. He was the Josef von Sternberg of wuxia.
10. Crippled Avengers (Chang Cheh, 1978)
Halfway between kung fu and wuxia stands this follow-up to Chang’s hit mystery film The Five Deadly Venoms. Keeping the same group of stars (they would collectively become known as The Venom Mob in several more films together), Chang tells a typical kung fu story of defeat, practice and revenge, but with a supernatural twist (each hero is crippled in the first half of the film, only to turn their disability to their advantage in the second half, like a super-sized version of The One-Armed Swordsman). Chang’s films in the late 1970s became increasingly brutal, not just in their violence and the bluntness of their psychology, but in their action as well. The Venoms are all brilliant athletes, and their fight sequences stretch to interminable length, the percussive punches and kicks beating the audience, as much as the bad guys, into submission. The choreography is as beautifully synchronized as it is grueling to witness.
11. Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
Shot together in Korea for a Taiwanese studio, Hu released two of his very best films in 1979. Legend of the Mountain is a ghost story, in the vein of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a classic work that was the source of both A Touch of Zen and Tsui Hark’s A Chinese Ghost Story. A scholar goes to work in a remote location, only to find himself the pawn of dueling spirits hoping to steal his work for their own benefit. It’s as close to a Terrence Malick film as the genre has yet produced. Raining in the Mountain is a carefully structured heist movie set at a monastery, like A Touch of Zen becoming increasingly abstract as the film becomes a Buddhist critique of the materialism which drives the heist genre. These two films were Hu’s last great works, as he found financing increasingly difficult to scrounge together in the 1980s and his health worsened in the 1990s.
12. Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979)
More famous as an early version of his late-80s cop movies, Woo’s Last Hurrah is a conscious homage to Chang Cheh’s early 70s swordplay films, with a pair of killers for hire finding solidarity and friendship in arms as they struggle against a villainous gang leader. The missing link between wuxia and the “heroic bloodshed” cycle of the 80s and 90s cop/gangster films, Woo transmutes the nihilism of Chang’s bloody self-sacrifices into swooningly romantic redemption stories, the difference between attachment and ambition as the cause of suffering and brotherly love as the solution to suffering.
13. The Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979)
Bursting on to the scene in the late 70s was a group of directors moving from television to movies and reinventing Hong Kong cinema along the way. Most vibrant among this New Wave was Tsui Hark, and his debut film is a horror mystery wuxia quite unlike anything that came before it, more Roger Corman than Chang Cheh. A medieval post-apocalyptic story about the return of magic to the world, it’s set in the bowels of a doomed castle, its residents apparently the victims of carnivorous flying insects. Factions gather and are eventually unmasked, though the ultimate outcome of the story is left unresolved: the mystery of the butterflies solved, our narrator simply wanders away before the final battle finishes, leaving the martial-magical world to implode under its own contradictions.
14. Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung, 1980)
Sammo Hung primarily worked in the kung fu genre, showing off his surprising athleticism and that of his co-stars, most famously Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. But he also pioneered the horror-comedy-wuxia subgenre, with this 1980 gem. Sammo plays the “boldest man in town” who gets mixed up with the undead and some competing Taoist priests. The fights are mostly of the hand-to-hand variety, but for the memorable appearance of a hopping vampire (one of the first, they’d become generic icons of their own in the mid-80s Mr. Vampire series) and a final magical duel between the priests. Silly in all the best ways, like many of Hung’s films there’s nonetheless an underlying darkness, a sense of unease with the world of violence. The tension is better explored in his kung fu films (Pedicab Driver and Eastern Condors, for example), but this one’s final image is one of Hung’s most strikingly brutal.
15. The Sword (Patrick Tam, 1980)
A New Wave wuxia from Patrick Tam, with choreography by Ching Siu-tung. Drawing from both Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen, and running in parallel with Johnnie To’s 1980 debut The Enigmatic Case, The Sword plays up the nihilistic impulses in the competitive drive to the be best fighter in the world. A swordsman schemes his way into possession of a powerful ancient weapon, disregarding any and all moral values and human relationships. The choreography is built around rapid cuts, used to convey the sensations of motion more than the simple beauty of its performed images. Ching’s rapid montages will by the end of the 80s dominate the wuxia form, leading to dizzying phantasmagoric works and exerting a pernicious influence on the Hollywood action film.
16. The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-ping, 1982)
Like Sammo Hung, Yuen is better known for his work in the kung fu genre, but this 1982 film is arguably the greatest movie ever made about Taoist magic. A young man finds himself caught between warring priests, duped and tricked and baffled at every turn, his series of adventures so deliriously surreal they can only be described as what would happen if Jean Cocteau made a wuxia movie. Most of the extensive Yuen family was involved in the production, either on-screen or off.
17. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)
After a string of darkly subversive films which generated more controversy than box office, Tsui Hark went mainstream, first with a gangster spoof for the Cinema City studio, then with this special effects extravaganza. Packed past the point of coherence with motifs from Chinese mythology, a rapid-fire narrative follows Yuen Biao as a human soldier caught up in a battle among the gods. Tsui imported Hollywood technicians to develop the effects for the film, and it set a new standard for Chinese cinema. In turn, the film inspired John Carpenter to make Big Trouble in Little China. Tsui’s own 2001 digital remake, Zu Warriors, would prove much less successful in all respects.
18. A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987)
By the mid-80s, the period martial arts film was essentially dead as a genre in Hong Kong, displaced by Girls with Guns films like Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam, all-star farces like Cinema City’s Aces Go Places series and Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars movies, and, of course, the heroic bloodshed cycle of cop/gangster movies in the wake of John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. The wildly prolific Tsui Hark helped keep the genre alive with this supernatural romance, adapted from a story in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. The story had been told before by director Li Han-hsiang as a huangmei musical in 1960 (the Enchanting Shadow), but Tsui and director Ching Siu-tung make a wuxia out of the story of a young scholar (Leslie Cheung) who falls in love with a beautiful ghost (Joey Wang) who is enslaved to a vicious demon. Inspired by Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films as much as anything else, the film is a near perfect blend of horror, comedy and romance. It sparked a whole series of folkloric romances, culminating with Ronny Yu’s gorgeous 1993 film The Bride with White Hair, with Leslie Cheung and Brigitte Lin, and Tsui’s own Green Snake, with Maggie Cheung and Joey Wang.
19. Swordsman II (Ching Siu-tung, 1992)
With the first Swordsman film, Tsui Hark attempted to bring King Hu back into the Hong Kong mainstream. That lasted for a couple of weeks before the two famously controlling auteurs determined they could not work together and Hu abandoned the project. The film cycled through a series of directors, including Ann Hui, before ultimately being credited to Ching Siu-tung. He has the sole credit on the sequel, and it’s this film that is the much more well-known one. Jet Li plays an itinerant swordsman, one his way into monastic seclusion who gets sidetracked by a mysterious woman. The woman, played by Brigitte Lin, turns out to be an evil kung fu master whose quest for power as made him not merely a eunuch but has actually turned him into a woman. This character, significantly named “Asia the Invincible”, is one of the most famous in all of Chinese cinema. She returns in the third film a year later (The East is Red), a work even more semiotically dense. Swordsman II is most significantly an action film, making extensive use of the system of wire stunts and rapid editing Ching had perfected over the previous decade. Around this same time Tsui and Jet Li revitalized the likewise moribund period kung fu genre with Once Upon a Time in China, and in the series of films that followed it directors like Ching and Yuen Woo-ping freely mixed wirework with traditional kung fu performances, melding the two forms in films like The Tai Chi Master, the two Fong Sai-yuk films and Iron Monkey.
20. Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)
Moving in another direction entirely is Wong Kar-wai’s first effort at a martial arts film, which had a legendarily protracted shooting schedule that spawned not only a comic parody of the same source material starring the same actors (Jeffrey Lau’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes) made in the hopes of recouping some of the costs of Wong’s film, but also one of the greatest movies ever made, Chungking Express, shot on a break from the editing of Ashes of Time as a way for Wong to try to clear his head. Refocusing the wuxia genre inward, Wong takes the basic plot elements of Louis Cha’s novel and reframes them in the medititive, elliptical style he’d already become famous for with his breakthrough second film Days of Being Wild. Based at a remote inn, Leslie Cheung encounters a series of warriors (Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Tony Leung Ka-fai, Jacky Cheung, Carina Lau, Maggie Cheung) who are all interconnected, all haunted by those most Wongian dangers: memory and lost love. The action was choreographed by Sammo Hung, but Wong and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle filter and smear it, slowing it down to flashes of color and light, movement for its own sake. Dissatisfied with the original release, Wong tinkered with it and released it again in 2008.
21. The Blade (Tsui Hark, 1995)
Seemingly a response to Wong’s experiments, at least visually, Tsui Hark retold the story of The One-Armed Swordsman as a post-apocalyptic blur of sand and blackness, cutting to the nihilistic heart of Chang Cheh’s cinema. It’s the flip side of Ashes of Time, as sharp a break with the dominant tone of the period as Chang Cheh’s original was. Jet Li’s happy-go-lucky heroes are nowhere to be found in this mad world. It’s as close as wuxia has yet come to a Sam Peckinpah film.
22. A Chinese Odyssey (Jeffrey Lau, 1994)
At the other end of the joviality spectrum lies this two-part Jeffrey Lau farce. Like The Eagle Shooting Heroes, it’s a parody of a traditional story, in this case it tells a version of the Monkey King legend from Journey to the West. Comedian Stephen Chow stars, and it’s the best of a series of action comedies he made throughout the first half of the 1990s. Chow’s wit is dizzying enough (featuring a lot of wordplay that gets lost in translation), but combining it with Lau’s gonzo plotting and some first-rate special effects makes for a vibrantly, overwhelmingly silly bit of cinema. Lau’s best work is probably the unrelated A Chinese Odyssey 2002, where, freed from Chow, he gives Tony Leung and Faye Wong one of the decade’s best romances.
23. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000)
In what remains to this day the highest-grossing foreign language film in US box office history, Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee fashioned a conscious homage to the films of King Hu with a first-rate cast (Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen and Come Drink with Me‘s Cheng Pei-Pei), career-best choreography from Yuen Woo-ping (who had the year before become internationally-famous for his work on The Matrix), and all the lush locations and state-of-the-art effects possible in a Hollywood-China co-production. With the heart of one of his more traditional melodramas (lovers kept apart by social codes they don’t necessarily understand but nonetheless feel bound to) melded onto a series of spectacular action set pieces in a wide variety of styles, the film is a perfect distillation of wuxia for a Western art house audience.
24. Hero and House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 2002 & 2004)
Taking the pictorialism of wuxia one step further was mainland director Zhang Yimou in this pair of crossover hits. Famed for his period melodramas starring Gong Li, Zhang assembled Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung and Donnie Yen for the first film, about a group of assassins targeting the first Qin Emperor in 227 BC. Giving each section of his puzzle narrative a distinctive hue (grey, blue, green, red and yellow), and slowing the action down to almost-still images, the film is as much a response to the hectic antics of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung as it is a continuation of Crouching Tiger‘s style. The prettiness is grafted onto an uneasy story, one that seemingly argues in favor of totalitarianism for the sake of internal peace. House of Flying Daggers is a pure romantic melodrama, largely nonsensical in plot, the sins of which are forgiven for the sake of the sheer gorgeousness of Zhang’s images, and that of his cast (Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau). With Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower and Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet, the art house wuxia becomes increasingly baroque and soulless.
25. Red Cliff (John Woo, 2008)
Woo’s return to Hong Kong was marked by this epic two-part war movie, based on one of the most famous passages from the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro play generals planning the defense against a massive invading northern army near the end of the Han Dynasty. Utilizing digital effects on a massive scale, Woo’s story of brotherhood in arms plays out across a vast landscape, in a film as concern with the intricate psychology of generalship as it is the spectacle of violence. It’s quite simply one of the best war movies ever made.
26. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 2010)
Also making extensive use of CGI are a trio of Tsui Hark films from the early 2010s. The two Detective Dee movies (the other is Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon) have a better reputation than Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui’s second stab at remaking Hu’s Dragon Gate Inn), though I like that one more than most critics. They follow the eponymous detective as he investigates seemingly supernatural mysteries during the Tang Dynasty rule of Empress Wu (Carina Lau). Andy Lau plays Dee in the first film, and it’s a wild ride of action and mystery, complete with an old wizard who can switch bodies between 1980s stars Richard Ng and Teddy Robin Kwan. At their best, the new films repackage Tsui’s defiant anarchist spirit within the comic book aesthetic of the 21st century action film. The comic elements and hints of steampunk are turned up to eleven in Stephen Fung’s tremendously fun Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Zero, the best non-Tsui iterations of this new CGI-driven wuxia.
27. Wuxia (Peter Chan, 2011)
Known generically as Dragon for its American release, Peter Chan’s variation on David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence makes explicit many of the conflicts at the heart of the genre. Set in 1917, Takeshi Kaneshiro plays an ultra-rationalist detective who suspects that a local papermaker (Donnie Yen) who defeated a gang of thugs in self-defense may have unsuspected martial arts skills. He’s right: Yen is a former gangland killer who has escaped and attempted to reform his life, but Kaneshiro’s investigation both confronts him with the prospect of imprisonment as punishment for his past crimes, as well as raising his profile such that his former compatriots (led by no less than Jimmy Wang Yu) are able to track him down. Making deft use of computer effects (the replay of the opening fight sequence is particularly spectacular, as Kaneshiro sees it vastly differently than we did), the action is very well done, but the character-based exploration of the irreconcilability between the moral codes of the jianghu and the modernizing world make Chan’s film truly special.
28. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Jia Zhangke tells a quartet of loosely connected stories set in modern China, all based on
contemporary events. Not a martial arts film, the homage to King Hu in the title is nonetheless deliberate: using the tradition and codes of wuxia as a commentary on the dishonor of our present time, Jia shows men and women turning to violence as the only option in the face of government and corporate corruption. The types are the same: Jiang Wu’s good man pushed into violent reprisal by the state’s criminality, Zhao Tao’s haunted woman seeking revenge on the men who’ve exploited her, Wao Baioqiang’s wandering warrior, but the temporal codes are all mixed up. These modern knights-errant are not heroic, they’re tragic.
29. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok, 2013)
Stephen Chow had crossover hits in the US in the early 2000s with Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, the former badly mangled (as usual) by Miramax, but those films are cartoonish farces, utilizing digital effects to warp the already plastic universes in which Chow performs. This 2013 film though has a surprisingly complex soul, a genuine interest in the Buddhism that motivates its main character: pointedly not played by Chow himself. A kind of a prequel to Journey to the West, it chronicles the early stages in the career of the man who would become the monk Tripitaka, and how he gathered his demon/disciples before embarking on their quest to India in search of Buddhist scriptures. Like the Tai Chi Zero films and Monster Hunt, it presents a new kind of masculine hero, generally incompetent without the help of a strong female companion (played in this case by Shu Qi). Or rather, the type isn’t new, but is instead a rediscovery of the scholar-heroes of King Hu’s greatest films. You can also see hints of this dynamic in Lau Kar-leung’s kung fu films with Kara Hui in the early 1980s.
30. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015)
Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-anticipated 2015 film is a near-perfect melding of his idiosyncratic style, both visual and narrative, and the traditions of the wuxia genre. Told in long, lush and languid takes, the story of a woman trained to kill who decides she’d rather not paints a dense portrait of the intrigues and buried emotions of the late Tang Dynasty. The plot is somewhat knotty, though not nearly as dizzying as Chor Yuen’s late 70s mysteries, with all the exposition conveyed in dialogue while all the emotion lies under the surface, in images and gestures, the conflict between inner and outer selves erupting in spasms of lightning-quick violence. Hou pulls us away from the destruction, as his assassin recoils from the jianghu. She is a truly new wuxia hero: others in films by King Hu or Chang Cheh had attempted to reject the world of violence, to retreat into the isolation the monastery (A Touch of Zen) or the remote farmhouse (The One-Armed Swordsman), but this is the first time one has fully succeeded in reentering the world. The joy of Shu Qi’s smile as she returns to her new home at the end of the film is something the genre has been reaching toward for 50 years.
14 thoughts on “30 Essential Wuxia Films”
Thank you for this amazing list! I’ve been using it as the backbone of my own exploration of the genre.
I’m up to Legend of the Mountain, which your review mentions a 3 hour cut of. I was wondering if you knew any info on the new remaster of the extended cut. As far as I can figure out it’s only been screened twice at the MoMa last November and there’s no info on a possible home vid release I can find.
I haven’t heard anything. Hopefully, with the releases of restorations of Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen recently, it’ll see the light of day someday. But even those two took years to go from film restoration to home video (and Dragon Inn still hasn’t been released in the US).
I really like this list but it’s really long. I’ve seen Crouching tiger, hidden dragon, Reign of assassins and House of flying daggers though. I noticed reign of assassins wasn’t in your list. Why is this? I actually saw it about two years ago. I just got to know that wuxia is a genre of its own and I want to get immersed in it. Your list is based on best to worst so I’d like your personal recommendation on which ones to watch next.
Reign of Assassins is OK. The list here is chronological, not best to worst.
Red Cliff is actually mocked in China. It’s a nice flick, but not even a patch on the Three Kingdoms (2010) 95-episode series which closely follows the book, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Woo changed many aspects of the story. If you want to watch true Wuxia, don’t watch these Hollywooded versions (even when made in China). Watch the series that are available, including Legend of the Condor Heroes (2017) a great adaptation of the 1958 novel written by Jin Yong. Then there is Three Gallants and Five Horsemen, Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre, and so many more. But Red Cliff? Sanitised codswallop.
There is any chance that you will make 30 Essenial Kung Fu Movies or something like that? This wuxia list was treasure for me, so many great titles, thank for that!
Thanks very much. I’ve thought about doing a kung fu one, but it would pretty much just be a bunch of Chang Cheh and Lau Kar-leung movies, followed by a bunch of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies. Either I need to watch a wider variety of them, or the evolution of the genre is more dependent on choreographers and star personae than the types of stories they tell.
Fantastic list here. I’ve got a very similar table sketched somewhere of seminal films per decade (tried to limit it to five). I’ve got a Touch of Sin somewhere too that I need to watch; fascinating to see you’ve interpreted it as a modern-day wuxia? There I was thinking it was but a clever name on King Hu’s flick.
thanks for this a great resource, your descriptions of the films and the historical context you put them in is really satisfying. going to watch the heroic ones now, as ive only really seen the king hu/shaw brother ones, ashes of time and the modern ones that got popular in the.west. ps. touch of zen and the assasin have to be really high up in my favourite film list..both so incredibly beautiful.