Even the most ardent film fans may find martial arts movies to be a challenging realm to enter. Beginning in the 1970s, the Hong Kong film industry produced thousands of films packed with mind-bending action scenes and planned battle sequences. We’ve pushed aside some of the more apparent choices to focus on the genre’s deeper cuts to assist and guide the Kung Fu curious beyond the fundamentals. Here are some of the most amazing martial arts movies ever filmed.
1. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
First, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. This is why any Kung Fu lover would always admire Gordon Liu The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is as classic as it gets. The definitive Shaolin film without a doubt. And the source of Liu’s moniker Master killer. He plays a young student who is injured after his school is raised by the Manchu government and flees to The Shaolin Temple for refuge. After years of toiling as a laborer, he is eventually granted the chance to practice Kung Fu, kicking off the film’s iconic training sequences. It’s a unique picture in which the training segments overshadow the traditional fights because they’re so gorgeous, fluid and imaginative. San Te must work hard in The 36th Chambers to discipline his body, intellect, reflexes and will. They form the entire entire heart of the picture and are unforgettable. The picture has gravitas. It imbues Kung Fu with immense respect because authentic Kung Fu can only be gained via the greatest of sacrifices.
2. Flying Guillotine
Next at number 2, Master of the Flying Guillotine. Master of the flying Guillotine is a psychedelic joy, the kind of inspired madness that people who have never seen Kung Fu, presumably imagine when it’s mentioned except even crazy. It’s a Jimmy Wang vehicle, the same guy from One Armored Swordsman but it’s better known for its amazing villain the titular user of the flying Guillotine. What exactly is the flying Guillotine? Only the most awesome weapon in martial arts film history. It consists of a large hat contained to a chain flung over the victim’s head. When the chain is jerked, the hat spins, and the inner blades cut the victim’s head off perfectly like a circular saw. Jimmy wanks battles with the master and his lackeys are depicted seriously. But they’re also hilarious since the villains are so outrageous particularly noteworthy because that’s how Yoga Works. The yoga master who can extend his arms like Dalsim in Street Fighter 2.
3. Five Deadly Venoms
Moving on at number 3, Five Deadly Venoms. This is what vintage Kung Fu and by extension Martial Arts Cinema is all about. The mythology alone is Magnificent. The first Venom mob film, Five Deadly Venoms, gave each of them a name for the remainder of their careers. There’s the centipede’s blinding speed, the snake’s deception and guile, the Scorpion’s stinging kicks, the lizards while climbing and gravity-defying acrobatics, and the Toad’s near invincibility as well as the so-called hybrid Venom protagonist who is a novice in all of the techniques. It’s a classic Chang cha and Shaw Brothers production with a big budget, superb costumes, magnificent sets, and elegant action. Is it a little cheesy? True, but how many great martial arts movies are depressing. Five Deadly Venoms exemplifies an entire era of Hong Kong film and the pleasure they took in providing stunning choreography and timeless stories of good vs evil. It embodies everything good about martial arts.
4. Enter the Dragon
Following that at number 4, Enter the Dragon. What is there left to say about Enter the Dragon? The classic tournament framework is used to provide a variety of exciting battles, even for a confused looking John Saxon. Still, it also shines in any of the other scenes where it follows Lee as he snoops around Hans Castle exposing his drug manufacturing operations. Jim Kelly is so useful as an excellent backup performer in the role. That would make him a black exploitation icon. There are other classic scenes and fights such as Lee’s last combat with a claw-handed Han. But probably the best is when Lee fights his way through a few dozen thugs in the fortress bowels, including a teenage Jackie Chan who has his neck severed. You also have to feel sorry for the jerk who sees Bruce Lee with nunchucks and thinks to himself, no problem, I can take him.
5. Once Upon A Time In China
Next up, at number 5, Once Upon A Time In China. Once Upon A Time In China unquestionably is Tsui Hark’s masterpiece and a high water point for historical Asian action movies and Martial Arts Cinema, is a picture of epic scope portrayed through little moments and even smaller gestures. Although there are only so many words to describe how Tsui established himself as an incomparable master of Hong Kong Cinema’s golden age in just 10 years, there are probably no words to properly convey the effortless beauty of some of Tsui’s images, which are liberally sprinkled throughout this film. So we snack for finding near spiritual grace in the rigors of martial arts training is obvious even within its opening credits which quietly observe folk hero Wong Fei Hung, Jet Li, as he trains a militia to defend his homeland from an impending Western Menace, the Golden Sun, the reflective sand, the Silhouettes of healthy bodies against the surf. This is only one tiny glimpse of Tsui’s visual prowess that we subsequently see Jet Li beat off a band of criminals with an umbrella while wearing a short-brimmed straw sun hat is a many-faceted affair.
6. Five Element Ninjas
Moving on at number 6, Five Element Ninjas, AKA Chinese Super Ninjas. This was Cheh’s final performance with the Shaw Brothers as preferences shifted away from costumed period pieces. But wow, it’s a doozy. In response to the town’s outlandish artistic choices, the filmmaker reportedly replied, I’ll just outdo everyone. He produced one of the most absurd but fantastic Kung Fu flakes ever filmed. This is the essence of Saturday morning Kung Fu theater in America. But if you only see it that way, you’ll miss out on the startling and occasionally funny gore of the combat sequences. The plot centers around a group of young fighters seeking vengeance on a ninja clan that slaughtered their peers. But it’s the villains who steal the show. Each ninja troupe has its unique clothes and eccentricities. Gold ninjas use their shields to blind their opponents. Water ninjas utilize snorkels to drag their opponents underwater and drown them to hide and maneuver. Fire ninjas employ smoke shields. Wood ninjas disguise themselves as trees and cut and tear with their claws. Finally, the outrageously ridiculous earth ninjas can burrow through solid dirt like freaking earthworms and blast out of the ground with a huge bang. Five Element Ninjas is as outlandish as Kung Fu but it’s hard not to enjoy it for its hilarious excesses.
7. The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter
Following that at number 7, The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. If you only watch one Shaw Brothers Kung Fu film, make it The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter. The film is the ideal of fast unvarnished Hong Kong martial arts pulp, starring a steely-eyed Gordon Liu as a celebrated General who must renounce his wrath to become a monk, at least until he can avenge his family’s murder at the hands of another disloyal General. From one Warrior slip into insanity to the entire film’s lapse into an ever-increasing madness, a violent frenzy of what ifs leads 8 Diagram Pole Fighter to its ambiguous and body-littered end because, after all, vengeance can never bring your killed loved ones back to life, will it? Still, there’s no harm in giving it a shot. And if that means transform a bale of bamboo poles into a makeshift bamboo pole shooting cannon, so be it. And if it involves graphically ripping out your enemies’ teeth by forcing them to chomp down on those same bamboo poles and then forcefully ripping the whole package from reluctant jaws, then so be it. And God forbid you if you have to cut off a nipple or two, this happens when you meddle with the monk who is determined to break his vows.
8. Shogun Assassin
Last on our list, we have Shogun Assassin. Shogun Assassin is difficult to understand, hilarious to see, and extremely enjoyable from beginning to end. A striking but stunning piece of exploitation film that transcends its dirty look and becomes something quite lovely. Shogun Assassin is the American title for the film, which is made up of material from two 1972 Japanese Samurai films based on the popular manga Lone Wolf and Cub. On the other hand, the American release drastically alters the experience by reducing the tail to its bare essentials, adding voice-over narration from a toddler’s perspective, and retaining all of the battle scenes in their hyper-violence splendor. It sounds bad but it’s hard to beat in terms of pure enjoyment and humor, some intentional, some not. From start to finish, the story of a man on the run with his young vulnerable son becomes increasingly absurd and the death count is too great to count. The film had such an impact on Quentin Tarantino’s aesthetic that you can hear part of it in Kill Bill vol 2. It’s the bedtime movie Uma Thurman watches with her daughter, which is doubly amusing if you’ve watched it and realize how inappropriate Shogun Assassin is for children. The trailer refers to the father and son as the greatest team in the history of mass slaughter.
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