Name something better than a good kung fu movie? Shut up! You’re wrong. There’s nothing better so here’s a list of my favourite kung fu films of all time. Please note this list is limited to the specific genre so no other martial arts are featured. That means no Ong-Bak, no samurai flicks and no modern types such as the pencat silat featured in The Raid. I’ve also excluded comedies as I’m saving that topic for a separate list. This is straight up Chinese kung fu. Here are five of my favourites.
5. Five Elements Ninja
Revenge plus evil Japanese dudes? This might be the most Kung-Fooey film ever made. Another Shaw Brothers production (the churned out hundreds of these movies in the 70s and 80s) Five Elements Ninja stars some of the legendary Venom Mob, a core group of actors who starred in loads of these violent classics. This time they play students of a martial arts school who have to fight a gang of ninjas who plan to wipe them out. The ninjas come in five different flavours based on the elements. We have the earth, fire, water, wood, and um..gold(?!) squads each with a special style. Five Elements Ninja is one of the more bloody Shaw flicks with limbs flying and memorably a ninja being completely pulled apart. There’s also a formidable, duplicitous female ninja in the mix to wrap a memorable plot around the usual kung fu mayhem.
4. Tai Chi Master
When you think ‘Tai-Chi’ you think old people in parks making creaking poses and whirling their hands around. However Tai-Chi in the hands of Jet Li means absolutely battering opponents with deadly speed and precision. So if you ever bump into him at the park don’t ask for a Tai Chi demonstration. This film is Li at his finest as a kung fu master who takes a different path to his best friend and inevitably has to fight him. Tai Chi Master is directed by Yuen Woo-ping famous in the West for choreograhing The Matrix and is possibly Jet Li’s finest martial arts performance. Also see Fist of Legend for more of Li’s physical genius.
3. Ip Man
Ip Man is the most recent film on my list and I’ve included it mainly because of the central performance by Donnie Yen. He’s perfect as the gentle, affable, Wing Chun teacher who must confront the horror of the Japanese occupation of China during World War Two. Ip Man must shelter his family while working for rice until his Kung-Fu skills catch the eye of the Karate loving Japanese general. Ip Man must fight (literally, the man kicks a stupid amount of ass) for the honour of the Chinese people during a turbulent time in history. The entire movie is worth watching for a scene in which the humble Ip Man demolishes an entire room full of karate experts in minutes.
2. 36th chamber of Shaolin
This 1978 classic from the legendary Shaw Brothers features a star-making turn from Gordon Liu (known then as Chia-Hui Liu) as student San Te who travels to Shaolin to learn kung fu from Buddhist monks. He must ascend the 35 chambers of techniques to become a true Shaolin master. He uses this enlightenment to go home to beat the shit out of the bad guys who took over his home town and killed his teacher. Liu is fantastic, looking like a lithe, deadly, Chinese Yul Brynner as he kung fus the crap out of mustachioed villains. The training scenes are memorable and the transition from cocky student to serene ass-kicker is done incredibly well. Two weird sequels followed but never manage to capture the magic of the original.
1. Enter The Dragon
This list wouldn’t be a Kung-Fu list without the daddy himself – Bruce Lee. He only made five films in his short life but I’ve chosen Enter The Dragon as it’s where he showed the entire world what a star he was. It’s also great as it’s basically a James Bond movie but with men constantly receiving kicks to the face accompanied by a thoroughly groovy 70s soundtrack. Lee plays a martial arts expert who enters an underground fighting tournament to avenge his sister’s death. There he befriends the dad from Nightmare on Elm Street and Jim Kelly and uses the tournament to avenge his little sis. Full of iconic moments and quotes (“boards don’t hit back”) Enter the Dragon is a masterly showcase for Bruce Lee’s style and charisma. Chinese film-makers love a good revenge tale as much as stories about beating the Japanese. Which brings us to..
Do you have a favourite Kung-Fu film? Preferably not featuring a panda? Let me know in the comments below.