I'm bored and feel like wasting time. So, a top ten list! This week's theme is:
Top Ten 1960s Chinese Martial Arts Movies
First, a little prologue:
The style of martial arts films popular in the 60s were swordplay films known as wuxia pian. Wuxia refers to a style of writing featuring heroic swordsman and daring deeds that traces its roots to ancient China (Pian means "movie"). Swordsmen in Wuxia novels often lived by a code akin to the samurai's bushido, the knight's chivalry, or the western gunslinger's unspoken code, fighting corruption and injustice but often living outside of the law in the martial world known as jiang hu. Sometimes the novels would describe in great detail the martial arts techniques used by their warriors. Wuxia pian had already been popular in the silent era, using early special effects and stylized sword-fighting. By the mid 60s, however, they'd been out of fashion for decades. Influenced by samurai films from Japan, westerns from America and Italy, and a history of hollywood swashbucklers, wuxia pian had come back in a big way by 1966. Fight choreographers, usually credited as "Kung Fu Instructors", combined samurai-style fight choreography with traditional swordplay techniques and graceful and acrobatic Peking Opera choreography to dazzle fans both young and old. By the early 70s, wuxia had gone out of fashion again, replaced by a grittier style of "boxing movies" known as gong fu pian, championed by the likes of Bruce Lee and eventually Jackie Chan. However, wuxia never disappeared, reemerging in the mid 70s and taking advantage of new computerized special effects techniques in the 80s and 90s. By the 2000s, wuxia took the world by storm with the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the similarly-themed films that followed, such as Hero, Seven Swords, The Promise, and The Banquet. Since that time, we've seen several other film markets follow with their own take on the wuxia formula, including South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Finland (of all places), and even the two markets that helped to inspire the genre; the US and Japan.
Now, my top ten wuxia of the 60s.
10. Dragon Gate Inn (1966)
Director: King Hu; Stars: Polly Kwan, Shih Jun, Pai Ying; Kung Fu Instructor: Han Ying Chieh
I am including this one, even though I've never seen it due to not being able to find it, because it is supposed to be one of the great classics of the genre, inspiring several remakes and making director King Hu an internationally recognized auteur. It was his first film made in Taiwan after his departure from Shaw Studios. In all probability, this one should be higher on this list. One day, I will know first hand...
9. The Jade Bow (1966)
D: Fu Qi, Cheung Yam Tim; S: Fu Qi, Di Bai, Sisi Chen; KFI: Lau Kar Leung, Tong Gaai
This is another early and influential entry. The film features techniques that would become staples of the genre, such as wire-assisted flying and "palm power" skills. It is also the first film with fight choreography credited to the dynamic team of Lau Kar Leung and Tong Gaai, who would choreograph most of the classic films of the 60s and early 70s before moving on to separate careers.
8. Vengeance is a Golden Blade (1969)
D: Ho Meng Hua; S: Chin Ping, Yueh Hua; KFI: uncredited
With tight choreography and an intrigue-filled plot, Vengeance is a Golden Blade is more than just a standard revenge movie. It's a fight-filled spectacle; a last hurrah for both the fading wuxia genre and for the days when swordswomen reigned supreme.
7. Have Sword Will Travel (1969)
D: Chang Cheh; S: David Chiang, Ti Lung, Ku Feng; KFI: Tong Gaai, Yuen Cheung Yan
One of the first wuxia to really show the influence of the American western genre, Have Sword Will Travel (get it?) was a star-making film for David Chiang and featured his first successful pairing with frequent costar Ti Lung. Chiang's lone wanderer character drawn in to protect a caravan of silver from plotting bandits was an obvious but effective nod to the western. It also helped to solidify Chang Cheh's trademarks, in that it was excessively violent and bloody and featured strong, masculine heroes.
6. Golden Swallow (1968)
D: Chang Cheh; S: Jimmy Wang Yu, Cheng Pei Pei, Lo Lieh; KFI: Lau Kar Leung, Tong Gaai
In this "sequel" to King Hu's Come Drink With Me, Cheng Pei Pei's Golden Swallow is reduced to a secondary character, eclipsed by Jimmy Wang Yu's Silver Roc. Chang Cheh made it clear he prefered male heroes to the swordswomen who had become popular in the genre. It had one of the highest body counts in any Hong Kong movie up to that point (probably behind Chang and Wang Yu's The Assassin from a year earlier), as Silver Roc plows through legion after legion of enemies.
5. Bells of Death (1968)
D: Feng Yueh; S: Chang Yi, Chin Ping, Ku Feng; KFI: uncredited
Bells of Death is a dark revenge thriller with quick and agile swordplay. Another western-inspired wuxia, the story revolves around a lone, stoic swordsman searching for his family's killers, righting a few wrongs along the way. The choreography, uncredited, is so good that it almost seems a few years ahead of its time, but with the hero wielding a sort of sword-cane it also sometimes resembles an episode in the Zatoichi series, which is clearly an influence.
4. Temple of the Red Lotus (1965)
D: Sui Jang Hung; S: Jimmy Wang Yu, Lo Lieh, Ivy Ling Po; KFI: Lau Kar Leung, Tong Gaai (unconfirmed)
The film that represented the birth of a new style of wuxia pian in the 60s, its mix of action, drama, and romance captivated audiences in Hong Kong and is credited as one of the movies that laid the groundwork for all martial arts films to come in the 60s, 70s, and beyond. While not technically the first of Shaw Brothers' forays into wuxia territory, it was the first in its class, in terms of scale, scope, and production, giving stars Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh their breakout roles. It's worth mentioning that it featured both Lau Kar Leung and Yuen Woo Ping as extras.
3. Come Drink With Me (1966)
D: King Hu; S: Cheng Pei Pei, Yueh Hua; KFI: Lau Kar Leung, Tong Gaai
A classic in every regard! From the classical music to the balletic swordplay (Cheng Pei Pei, afterall, was a ballet dancer), this film showed that there was nothing low-brow about the wuxia genre. Featuring sweeping outdoor cinematography (most Shaw Brothers features were filmed on indoor sets), Come Drink With Me is visually stunning. It firmly established King Hu as the premier director of artful wuxia and Cheng Pei Pei as the premier onscreen swordswoman of the 60s, as well as offering a breakthrough role for Shaw Brothers veteran Yueh Hua.
2. One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
D: Chang Cheh; S: Jimmy Wang Yu, Chiao Chiao, Feng Tien; KFI: Lau Kar Leung, Tong Gaai
This was the one that took it to the next level. Gritty and action-packed, it set a new precedent for violence. It spawned a series of sequels, both ofiicial and not, and a couple of remakes. It cemented the stardom of both Chang Cheh and Jimmy Wang Yu. It represented an advancement in action, choreography and style and was the first film ever to do $1 Million at the Hong Kong box office. Simply put, it's considered by many to be the greatest martial arts film of the era!
1. A Touch of Zen (1969)
D: King Hu; S: Hsu Feng, Shih Jun, Pai Ying; KFI: Han Ying Chieh, Poon Yiu Kwan
Clocking in at over 180 minutes, this epic marks one of the highest achievements in the genre! It builds like a feast, simmering and stewing, become more succulent as the film goes on. The cinematography is lush, full of light and movement. Without a doubt, it was one of the most difficult movies to film in the wuxia genre, and it won technical awards for it, notably in Cannes. King Hu used striking angles and tricky backlighting. He also used some stunning camera work to film a fight sequence in a bamboo forest that directly inspired Ang Lee when filming a similar scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In fact, Ang Lee cites it as a major influence in respect to that film. Ultimately, in my not so humble opinion, it is the best of the era, ranking at number one on this list.