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A ‘Must Watch’ Kung Fu Movie List

For fans of the Kung Fu movie genre, there is little that is more satisfying than a weekend Kung Fu movie marathon binge (or equally gratifying, is having one movie a night, spaced out throughout the week). Snacks in hand, hopefully in complete silence and not to be interrupted, makes for a great way to spend a rainy day (there are others, but this is not that kind of discussion). We all have our favorites. But of course, there are plenty that still have not been seen. Those new to the genre are perhaps familiar with some of the more popular or well-known titles, but you and I both know that there are a good many hidden treasures out there that very few have seen. That is where my list comes in.

You see, I am sure in laying this out that I will not mention a title that the diehard Kung Fu movie fan will not have seen (or at least heard of), but for those who are not completely initiated in this niche movie genre that we love so much, it will lay the groundwork for them to get a really good start in the genre, with a sense of openness and understanding. After all, most everyone is familiar with the position of today’s action films, with respect to the inclusion of martial arts. This list is a look back at the roots of the martial arts action of said subject, as their influence and styles (pun FULLY intended; after all, this is the 36 Styles website, correct?) were the blueprint for subsequent films through the ages that brought us to where we are today. This is in no way a complete list, presented in no particular order. I leave this for only my top fifteen Kung Fu movies, those that are iconic or pivotal to the genre, have set a precedent for their body of work (and those of the same ilk to follow), those that have undoubtedly shaped the current landscape (directly or indirectly) by their very existence and leap to fruition (it is for this reason that several, more recent films have made the list), and those that, for some reason, just flat out need to be seen. For those of you who are new to, or vaguely familiar with the Kung Fu movie genre, I hope this list helps you in your discovery of what I am sure will become a surprising passion. For those seasoned viewers out there, I hope that one, maybe two (or more) new items on here pique your interest, and warrant your attention. 

1. SNAKE IN THE EAGLE' SHADOW (1978)

Deemed the movie that propelled Jackie Chan to stardom, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is most certainly a classic, and if History of Kung Fu movies were a school subject, it would be one of those necessary viewing requirements like math or science are for general studies. This is not one of those “oh, maybe I will check it out” movies. No… you HAVE to see this one. Word has it that this film is where Jackie’s now famous slapstick comedy brand of Kung Fu has its genesis (had been done before in another movie, 1975’s Spiritual Kung Fu, but with this movie, it became a new standard direction). It has plenty of good action, showcasing several styles that translate very well onscreen (the Seven Star Praying Mantis in this movie will stay with you forever), a fair amount of comedy with interesting comic relief, and a main villain, played by the Lord of the Superkickers, Hwang Jang Lee, who apparently was who the character of Lau Chan, of the Virtua Fighter games, was modeled after. Another interesting tidbit: a few scenes of the training montages in this movie found a second life as scenes from Lei Wulong’s ending movie in Tekken 3, who was introduced into the series in Tekken 2 as a tribute to Jackie Chan. On any and all bases, this movie will have you covered, and leave you satisfied, and all the better for having seen it.

2. WARRIORS OF VIRTUE (1997)

I remember going to the movie theater to see this one. I remember the commercials for it, and I was very excited to see it. This one was sort of like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but with Kung Fu. Instead of Heroes in a Half Shell, we get… adult humanoid Kangaroos? Yes, it sounds very strange, but as with most fantasy films, why does it have to make sense? Warriors of Virtue actually is a basic, easy to understand, very eye pleasing cinematic lesson on Taoism. But packaged and presented as a Kung Fu movie, so as to first, gain the attention of the viewer, but secondly, to keep said viewer. And keep you, it will. With an even blend of action and story, and likeable characters, plus a few good quotable moments (which, if you said any of them to anyone, they would be completely lost on them, so just keep it to yourself), plus decent storyline (maybe not the best writing, however), for what it is and represents, it really is a solid effort, not to be missed. Just try to suspend any sense of realism or logic, though. Truthfully, this one was aimed at children, so some of the earlier details (mostly how the main character of the story, gets transported to the land inhabited by the Roos, as they are known as). But still… do not miss this one.

3. THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM (1979)

The Five Venoms would be an obvious choice for inclusion on this list, being the cult classic that it is. However, there is already one certifiable on here as it is, and furthermore, probably more people than not have seen it already. However, what may not have been seen, is the next movie to bring the Poison Clan back together, so to speak. Not in their same roles, but completely different roles, in The Kid with the Golden Arm, where the chemistry they had in their first movie together continues on, in glorious fashion. Featuring memorable characters and one of the best climactic fight scenes I have ever seen, this, along with The Five Venoms is not only to be seen, but to be had as part of your personal collection, which falls second in line to the next movie on this list, which is…

4. TEN TIGERS OF KWANGTUNG (1980)

There are as many Kung Fu movies as there are styles of Kung Fu, both documented AND undocumented. That said, damn near all pale into the timeless classic that is Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, in my opinion, one of Shaw Brothers’ best. While the buildup is pretty slow, once the action gets started and moving, it barely lets up, giving you a chance to catch your breath. With a who’s who of the top performers of the time, you almost do not know who to root for. Also, at least in my opinion anyway, in a surprising turn for movies of this genre, the dialogue is top notch, which adds another really interesting element to viewing. I guess I am going to show my Southern roots here when I say that I was as happy as a pig in mud when I was able to acquire this one for my collection. I cannot guarantee that you are going to experience the same jubilation if/when you watch this for yourself, but I am pretty sure that you are going to feel something pretty damned good.

5. CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)

This is not your typical Kung Fu movie. In fact, it is not a Kung Fu movie at all, just loaded with plenty of jaw dropping action, framed by a love story. The movie is adapted from the fourth novel in a pentalogy, or five-novel cycle, known in China as the Crane/Iron Pentalogy and written by noted wuxia (The wu in wuxia refers to “martial arts” or “combat”. The xia refers to a person whose sense of righteousness is so profound that it empowers them to sacrifice themselves and even break the law to help people. The closest equivalents in English would be the hero, knight, warrior, or vigilante in superhero comics.) novelist Du Lu Wang. The novels are Crane Frightens Kunlun, Precious Sword, Golden Hairpin, Sword’s Force, Pearl’s Shine, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Iron Knight, Silver Vase. In the collection, much of the story is not about Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien; they are in fact secondary characters, who only become important later in the series.

Chances are, you have seen this movie. But in the event that you have not, it is not one to ignore any longer. When this movie was released, a lot of people came away from it disappointed with the whole “wire fu” concept, something that was not new to Kung Fu movies of recent time. There obviously is a reason for this, and it is displayed to great effect in this modern masterpiece of a movie. It paved the way for a short lived, but sweet boom, of similarly themed films, such as House of Flying Daggers, Hero, and the lesser known (but breathtakingly beautiful) Curse of the Golden Flower. In what will go down as being one of the best movies ever out of China, with the production quality of a big Hollywood production (on an extremely slight budget of $17,000,000), do yourself a favor, and watch (or watch again) this one.

6. ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN (1983)

Remember 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China (the movie that is said to have been the inspiration for Mortal Kombat character Raiden)? Say hello to the movie that was the inspiration for BTiLC! One of the wildest visual cinematic rides that I have ever seen, and that you will ever go on, is Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, starring a hugely overlooked and underrated Yuen Biao. The story, and set up, make absolutely no sense whatsoever, but it is this same over-the-top quality that makes it such the gem that it is. This is one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed, as reading about it, or hearing secondhand information on it does this movie no justice. AT ALL. 

While certainly not the first wuxia (a genre of Chinese fiction or cinema featuring itinerant warriors of ancient China, often depicted as capable of superhuman feats of martial arts; several others are included in this list, along with an even newer genre, xianxia… that being an expanded, greatly exaggerated version of wuxia, with magic, demons, immortals, people who can fly, etc. The biggest contributor to the xianxia genre is actually not martial arts, but Taoism, which is one of the main parts of Chinese history.) movie, it certainly counts as one that has been established among the best. Yes, the effects are VERY outdated in this day and age, and probably were not even the greatest for it’s time, but that adds to its appeal. It is a great way to spend one hour and thirty-five minutes. Again, before watching it, please do not expect a shred of sense or believability in what you will see. But, do expect to have a great viewing experience.

7. IRON MONKEY (1993)

Officially a prequel to the Once Upon a Time in China movies, Iron Monkey is a Hong Kong take on Robin Hood. If you know that story, then you know this story. But also, know this: this movie has some of the best fight scenes that I have ever… EVER seen in a Kung Fu movie. Staccato paced it is not, which makes this all the more impressive. Fast paced, with many memorable scenes (not so much for quotable lines, but who really needs those?), and a stellar turn by Donnie Yen as the film’s antagonist, this is one that you would not soon forget, and really be glad that you saw. Even better, if you can find a copy to own, DO IT.

8. INVINCIBLE OBSESSED FIGHTER (1982)

This is a really fun movie. Not the best executed, but definitely a fun one. Interestingly enough, this is a Korean film, but do not expect any Taekwondo, Hapkido, or Kuk Sool Won. No, this is very much a Kung Fu movie, done to comedic effect (I have yet to know if this was intentional or unintentional, but whatever. It is worth it regardless). I have not seen this movie in seventeen years or so, but there are still quotable lines and memorable scenes from it that live on in my mind. This one has surely not been on many people’s radar, and I cannot understand why. Do not let it sneak past yours.  My memories of this are seeing it for the first time with my usual crew of friends one night, over pizza, after a few intense hours of Goldeneye 007. Talk about a party movie! It is too good not to want to share with anyone else for what it is, so if you can get a group together for this one, I really suggest you do.

9. LAST HERO IN CHINA (1993)

Another Robin Hood type movie, of sorts, Last Hero in China delivers a well-executed, comedic Kung Fu throwdown, with Jet Li playing the lead character of the ever-popular Wong, Fei Hung. The story is so very absurd, it is hard not to like and appreciate it. Jet is in rare form in this movie, and it was my first time seeing his Drunken fist, which instantly made me an everlasting fan of this. There is not much I can say here about this one because it really is hard to put into words, based on how wild it can get. It is definitely worth the time, and I truly hate that I lost the copy that I had in my possession.

10. THE MYSTERY OF CHESS BOXING (1979)

Now, I know that there are many among us who have seen this timeless classic, so you may wonder why this makes the list. Wu-Tang, son!!! Anyone up on classic hip hop history knows that this is considered one of (if not THE) main jump-off inspirations for the Wu-Tang Clan, going so far as to be a title of one of their tracks on their debut album. The name of the villain, Ghost Face Killer was even adopted by one of the most lyrical of the group. There may be other movies that have had a cultural impact on some level, but none quite like The Mystery of Chess Boxing (Enter the Dragon is the one that for sure surpasses this). That, alone, makes it a must-see movie. Are there other Kung Fu movies better than this? For sure. But let me tell you something… if it was good enough for the Wu-Tang Clan, then it is good enough for you.

11. THE MASTER (1980)

You know more about this movie than you probably realize. Remember the Wu-Tang Clan’s song Severe Punishment? Those are the opening lines you hear throughout the song. This one is not your typical Shaw Brothers film in that it is remarkably bare bones with regard to the usual elements that are normally present in any of their other works. Not that it is entirely devoid, but it does feel like a different movie, not exactly what you would expect from them. Fortunately, to give it an air of familiarity, are some actors from the Shaw stable that pop up in the good majority of their films. And it is because of that, this somewhat fresh and direct approach to the story and pacing (not to mention some really good fight scenes, most notably the opening credits sequence), making it an anomaly, is why it makes this list.

12. WING CHUN (1994)

This is a must see, and must own. Okay, maybe I am a little biased, as I have a thing for Michelle Yeoh… but all kidding aside, an excellent Kung Fu movie, about one of the most famous and inadvertently influential martial artists of all time, with a comedic edge… how can you pass that up? And perhaps Donnie Yen’s role in this movie was a bit of a foretelling to more recent times? We all know the story (right??). It plays out, as expected, but is done really well. There is a bit of artistic license taken here, but… movies, right? The movie is named Wing Chun, about the woman who created Wing Chun… yet, there is no Wing Chun to be seen! Michelle is in top form though, given great choreography to work with. It is very clear (like all of her other efforts) that her classical dance background serves her well, much like it does for Ziyi Zhang (Rush Hour 2, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). This makes this (and really, anything either of these two do) even more so impressive, as neither of these women are trained martial artists. Yet, Michelle Yeoh has before been dubbed ‘The Queen of Kung Fu’. All the more reason to see this (or anything of hers), would you not agree?

13. WHEELS ON MEALS (1984)

Although this is not their only film together (Project A and Dragons Forever are the others) Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao all together in the same movie? It is the Kung Fu holy trinity!!! The three each bring something unique to the formula and combine so well as a star power unit. Throw in Benny “The Jet” Urquidez for a stellar climactic fight scene (also in Dragons Forever opposite Jackie), and you have what turns out to be a fairly well known, but underrated and underappreciated mid 80’s Kung Fu movie. No, there is not much to it in the way of a story, but I personally think that is not what they were aiming for in the first place, rather relying on the individual strengths and talents of the trio to power the movie, plus their undeniable onscreen synchronicity and their natural unity as performers to be the draw.

14. SUN DRAGON (1979)

I promise you, there are better Kung Fu movies. I know this. I am not even going to lie, but this one does have some serious issues. It is one of those movies that is so bad, it winds up being some kind of good, in some weird way. So, why does this even make the list as a must see? The story. The story! And even though this story was meant to be serious, it will be comical to you. It is so out there in scope that there is no reason for this NOT to be on this list. Take the basic plot of revenge for the death of any family member, and insert an American actor, instead of the expected Chinese actor, and tack on more unlikely details, like the fact that the character in question is a Black Panther, and you have something that you would not believe was real unless you saw it for yourself.

15. BLACK BELT JONES (1974)

So, I know you are out there saying to yourself that this is not a Kung Fu movie. Nope. It sure is not. However, Jim Kelly was one of the principal supporting cast in Enter the Dragon, and trained for a period with Bruce Lee, so as far as I am concerned, that is his Kung Fu connection, as it was that movie that placed him in the martial arts spotlight, even if it was the Blaxploitation films. And of those, I think this is his most well-known, and the one he was most well known for. I have yet to know if they tried to take themselves seriously or not with this movie, as it is pure comedy throughout, be it in the fight scenes (two word: Dojo fight), the scenery and some character placement, or the earnestness with which some of the actors delivered their lines. You will see and hear some of the damnedest things in this movie, and I swear to you, this is not a bad thing! As with several others, this is one of those movies that has to be seen to be believed. Through it all, Jim Kelly epitomized the essence of cool. This is reason enough to watch. Maybe take a few notes, even. The final fight scene is one of the more inventive things I have seen in… well, ever, really. And although I cannot be for certain, because of the racial barrier broken down by Jim, movies like the previous entry at number 14 might not have been possible, especially in that era.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Chocolate (2008)

Okay… this one is not a Kung Fu movie per se, but with that small detail aside, WOW, what a martial arts action movie this is! This is a Thai produced movie that, while formulaic in composition, is good to every last drop of that formula. Why does this movie make the list as an honorable mention? Well, for starters, it does not have any style of Kung Fu as it’s main fighting style, instead being heavy on one of the five styles of Muay Boran (of which I am not entirely sure which style it may be, as it could also be a combination of styles). It does, however, weave in several different martial arts intricately, and it all works well. But the real reason this makes the list as an honorable mention, is because it is a definite must see. DO NOT PASS THIS UP IF YOU GET A CHANCE TO SEE IT. Jeeja Yanin, the star of Chocolate, plays an autistic teenage girl with insanely wild martial arts talent, who learns not by training, but strictly through observation, essentially becoming deadlier with everything that she sees. It is sad that because she is not one of the current “on-the scene” actors/actresses that she will not get the exposure and acclaim that she should as a martial artist (and seriously, she played this role to the hilt, so she is really talented even without the martial arts). It is for this reason that Chocolate deserves an honorable mention, and I believe that once you see this one of hers, you will seek out some of her others (I strongly suggest 2011’s This Girl is Badass!!).

The Last Dragon (1985)

My father was not a fan of Kung Fu movies. But I remember this being on Cinemax (anyone remember that??!), and my father showing it to me. I am pretty sure he had seen it at least once already, and there I sat, at 10-years-old, and watched what became my ABSOLUTE MOST FAVORITE MOVIE EVER. Taimak plays a character that anyone could support, and truthfully, will speak to a place inside you (pun intended; if you do not get it, watch it, and you will). This is not the Kung Fu movie you are used to, but it is a modern day (back then, anyway) telling of an age-old life lesson, in a stylized (again, for that time) and slick way, keeping with the pulse of the time and culture. Despite what you see on the surface, there are SO many subtle realizations present in The Last Dragon that you will probably pick up on something different with repeated viewing. It has easily solidified its place as a cult classic, and oddly (but very deservingly) enough, continues to gain some new fans. Watch it for yourself if you have not yet, and become one of them.

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)

Not enough good things can be said about Kung Fu Hustle. That is why I will keep this one short and sweet. What is it, exactly? Incredibly smart and funny writing hidden in a period piece dressed up as gangster movie satire. Unconventional and untraditional, everything that puts it into either category gels extremely well, and the end product is something that you wish would never end. Without giving away anything, let me just say that the unfolding of the story leads to many great surprises, and small treats to the careful and watchful eye.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

I do not think that any good list of Kung Fu movies can exist, without including the magnum opus of Bruce Lee. You know… Mystery of Chess Boxing had a cultural impact, but it will NEVER be the impact that not only this movie, but the man behind the movie was, and truthfully, the reason this makes it as an honorable mention is because not only is it not the typical Kung Fu movie, in the sense that we think of and know them, but I really wanted to reserve that space for more of the old school movies. While this was Bruce’s last full feature, it certainly was not his first. However, it was the first Chinese martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio, and the film that put martial arts… to be specific, Chinese martial arts… on the mainstream map. Watching Enter the Dragon is watching a piece of history in films, and represents the cumulative efforts of his martial arts and spiritual gathering. And as if that was not enough, this was Jim Kelly’s first real big splash on screen (which then led to his starring roles in his other movies, one of which has been previously mentioned on this list), and was the springboard to his fame and cult icon status. Of course, it has been seen by almost anyone. But, on the off chance that you have not seen it, what are you waiting for?

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

This movie is more Kung Fu than most people would imagine, or even notice. Unlike the typical Kung Fu movies of the 70’s and 80’s, The Forbidden Kingdom is story driven, where the early movies of the genre are more focused on the action.  It is not often when you see a traditional story blended with so many subtle elements, references, and nuances from other well-established stories and mythos, and so well done. First things first… this was any Kung Fu movie lover’s dream pairing, bringing together Jet Li and Jackie Chan onscreen for the first time. That undoubtedly was the biggest thing about the movie (not to mention that the pair represented old school vs. new school, with Chan’s fighting styles showcasing the traditional animals of Shaolin Kung Fu, and Li being the face of more modern, contemporary styles. And Jackie’s masterfully unmatched Drunken style HAD to be included (as it is what he is most famous for). But, for anyone heavily into Kung Fu and Chinese folklore and mythology, it is the best thing since sliced bread. With a basic backstory borrowed primarily on the already established 16th century novel, Journey to the West (considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature; think Moby Dick to American literature, and you get the point), we get Sun Wukong (Monkey King), complete with his trademark magic heavenly staff, played expertly by Jet Li; Jackie Chan plays Lu Yan (also known, perhaps even better, as Lü Dongbin), one of the Eight Immortals; the ruler of the heavens in Chinese mythology, the Jade Emperor, makes an appearance, to add a real semblance of connectivity to all things mortal and immortal; one of the supporting characters, Golden Swallow, takes her name from a character from late 60’s Shaw Brother’s movies (Come Drink with Me, 1966); and lastly, a well known character in Chinese literature, the White Haired Demoness, finds her place in the story, here, as the White Haired Witch. It all blends perfectly, sort of like the coming together of characters from different works of fiction from the same time period in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. That is A LOT put into an almost hour and forty-five minutes long movie that, despite the individual origins of each character, they all take on a life of their own for the sake of the plot, and it works. Well. It makes for a really enthralling and captivating experience, if you are up to speed on the respective sources for each character, their interactions, and presence in the film. All that said, DO NOT expect any sense of tangible logic in the unfolding of events leading into the meat and potatoes of the movie. But, is it worth watching? Absolutely!

I think this list should keep you busy for a few well-planned Saturday afternoons. You can thank me later for the suggestions, but there is no time for that now. Do not waste it talking to me… start watching the movies! Happy viewing!

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About Brandon Best

Brandon Best is a personal trainer, contest prep (Bodybuilding) coach, martial arts teacher, and Boxing coach, currently residing in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada.

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