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!