Martial arts film

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The first martial arts film The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928), a Chinese film directed by Zhang Shichuan Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.jpg
The first martial arts film The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (1928), a Chinese film directed by Zhang Shichuan

Martial arts films are a subgenre of action films that feature martial arts combat between characters. These combats are usually the films' primary appeal and entertainment value, and often are a method of storytelling and character expression and development. Martial arts are frequently featured in training scenes and other sequences in addition to fights. Martial arts films commonly include hand-to-hand combat along with other types of action, such as stuntwork, chases, and gunfights. [1] [2] [3] Sub-genres of martial arts films include kung fu films, wuxia, karate films, and martial arts action comedy films, while related genres include gun fu, jidaigeki and samurai films.


Notable actors who have contributed to the genre include Zhang Ziyi, Tony Jaa, Bruce Lee, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Toshiro Mifune, Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, and Sammo Hung. [4]


The first ever martial arts film was a Chinese film released in 1928, The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple (also translated as "The Burning of the Red Lotus Monastery"), a silent film directed by Chinese film director Zhang Shichuan and produced by the Mingxing Film Company. [5] The film pioneered the martial arts film genre, and was the first kung fu action film ever created. The film is based on the popular Chinese novel "The Romance of the Red Lotus Temple", which is set in the Qing Dynasty and tells the story of a group of martial artists who band together to defend their temple from raiders. The film is notable for its action sequences and fight scenes, which were groundbreaking for the time and helped establish the martial arts film genre. [6]

Asian films are known to have a more minimalist approach to film based on their culture. Some martial arts films have only a minimal plot and amount of character development and focus almost exclusively on the action, while others have more creative and complex plots and characters along with action scenes. [7] Films of the latter type are generally considered to be artistically superior films, but many films of the former type are commercially successful and well received by fans of the genre. [8] [9] One of the earliest Hollywood movies to employ the use of martial arts was the 1955 film Bad Day at Black Rock , though the scenes of Spencer Tracy performed barely any realistic fight sequences, but composed mostly of soft knifehand strikes. [10] [11] [12] [13]

Martial arts films contain many characters who are martial artists and these roles are often played by actors who are real martial artists. If not, actors frequently train in preparation for their roles or the action director may rely more on stylized action or film making tricks like camera angles, editing, doubles, undercranking, wire work and computer-generated imagery. Trampolines and springboards used to be used to increase the height of jumps. The minimalist style employs smaller sets and little space for improvised but explosive fight scenes, as seen by Jackie Chan's films. [14] These techniques are sometimes used by real martial artists as well, depending on the style of action in the film. [1]

During the 1970s and 1980s, the most visible presence of martial arts films was the hundreds of English-dubbed kung fu and ninja films produced by the Shaw Brothers, Godfrey Ho and other Hong Kong producers. These films were widely broadcast on North American television on weekend timeslots that were often colloquially known as Kung Fu Theater, Black Belt Theater or variations thereof. Inclusive in this list of films are commercial classics like The Big Boss (1971), Drunken Master (1978) and One Armed Boxer (1972).

Martial arts films have been produced all over the world, but the genre has been dominated by Hong Kong action cinema, peaking from 1971 with the rise of Bruce Lee until the mid-1990s with a general decline in the industry, till it was revived close to the 2000s. [15] Other notable figures in the genre include Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, Donnie Yen, and Hwang Jang-lee.

Sonny Chiba, Etsuko Shihomi, and Hiroyuki Sanada starred in numerous karate and jidaigeki films from Japan during the 1970s and early 1980s. Hollywood has also participated in the genre with actors such as Chuck Norris, Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, Brandon Lee (son of Bruce Lee), Wesley Snipes, Gary Daniels, Mark Dacascos and Jason Statham. [16] In the 2000s, Thailand's film industry became an international force in the genre with the films of Tony Jaa [17] and the cinema of Vietnam followed suit with The Rebel (2007) and Clash (2009). In more recent years, the Indonesian film industry has offered Merantau (2009) [18] [19] [20] and The Raid: Redemption (2011).

Women have also played key roles in the genre, including such actresses as Michelle Yeoh, Angela Mao and Cynthia Rothrock. [21] [22] [23] In addition, western animation has ventured into the genre with the most successful effort being the internationally hailed DreamWorks Animation film franchise, Kung Fu Panda , starring Jack Black and Angelina Jolie.

The Matrix (1999) is considered revolutionary in American cinema for raising the standard of fight scenes in western cinema. [24]


In the Chinese-speaking world, martial arts films are commonly divided into two subcategories: the wuxia period films (武俠片), and the more modern kung fu films (功夫片, best epitomized in the films of Bruce Lee). [25] However, according to Hong Kong film director, producer, and movie writer Ronny Yu, wuxia movies are not to be confused with martial arts movies. [26]

Kung fu films are a significant movie genre in themselves. Like westerns for Americans, they have become an identity of Chinese cinema. As the most prestigious movie type in Chinese film history, kung fu movies were among the first Chinese films produced and the wuxia period films (武俠片) are the original form of Chinese kung fu films. The wuxia period films came into vogue due to the thousands of years popularity of wuxia novels (武俠小說). For example, the wuxia novels of Jin Yong [27] and Gu Long [28] directly led to the prevalence of wuxia period films. Outside of the Chinese speaking world the most famous wuxia film made was the Ang Lee film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which was based on the Wang Dulu series of wuxia novels: it earned four Academy Awards, including one for Best Foreign Film.

Martial arts westerns are usually American films inexpensively filmed in Southwestern United States locations, transposing martial arts themes into an "old west" setting; e.g., Red Sun with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kung fu (term)</span> Chinese martial art

In general, kung fu or kungfu refers to the Chinese martial arts also called wushu and quanfa. In China, it refers to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete. In its original meaning, kung fu can refer to any discipline or skill achieved through hard work and practice, not necessarily martial arts. The literal equivalent of "Chinese martial art" in Mandarin would be 中國武術 zhōngguó wǔshù.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Wuxia</span> Genre of Chinese fiction

Wuxia, which literally means "martial arts and chivalry", is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of historical fantasy literature, its popularity has caused it to be adapted for such diverse art forms as Chinese opera, manhua, television dramas, films, and video games. It forms part of popular culture in many Chinese-speaking communities around the world. According to Hong Kong film director, producer, and movie writer Ronny Yu, wuxia movies are not to be confused with martial arts movies.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Action film</span> Film genre

The action film is a film genre which predominantly features chase sequences, fights, shootouts, explosions, and stunt work. The specifics of what constitutes an action film has been in scholarly debate since the 1980s. While some scholars such as David Bordwell suggested they were films that favor spectacle to storytelling, others such as Goeff King stated they allow the scenes of spectacle to be attuned to story telling. Action films are often hybrid with other genres, mixing into various forms ranging to comedies, science fiction films, and horror films.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cinema of Hong Kong</span> Hong Kong film industry

The cinema of Hong Kong is one of the three major threads in the history of Chinese language cinema, alongside the cinema of China and the cinema of Taiwan. As a former British colony, Hong Kong had a greater degree of political and economic freedom than mainland China and Taiwan, and developed into a filmmaking hub for the Chinese-speaking world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chinese martial arts</span> Variety of fighting styles developed in China

Chinese martial arts, often called by the umbrella terms kung fu, kuoshu or wushu, are multiple fighting styles that have developed over the centuries in Greater China. These fighting styles are often classified according to common traits, identified as "families" of martial arts. Examples of such traits include Shaolinquan (少林拳) physical exercises involving All Other Animals (五形) mimicry or training methods inspired by Old Chinese philosophies, religions and legends. Styles that focus on qi manipulation are called internal, while others that concentrate on improving muscle and cardiovascular fitness are called external. Geographical associations, as in northern and southern, is another popular classification method.

Gun fu, a portmanteau of gun and kung fu, is a style of sophisticated close-quarters gunfight resembling a martial arts battle that combines firearms with hand-to-hand combat and traditional melee weapons in an approximately 50/50 ratio. It can be seen in Hong Kong action cinema, and in American action films influenced by it.

The Game of Death is an incomplete Hong Kong martial arts film, filmed between August and October 1972, directed, written, produced by and starring Bruce Lee, in his final film project. Lee died during the making of the film. Over 100 minutes of footage was shot prior to his death, which was later misplaced in the Golden Harvest archives. The remaining footage has since been released with Lee's original Cantonese and English dialogue, with John Little dubbing Lee's Hai Tien character as part of the documentary titled Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey. Much of the footage that was shot is from what was to be the climax of the film.

Chopsocky is a colloquial term for martial arts films and kung fu films made primarily by Hong Kong action cinema between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The term was coined by the American motion picture trade magazine Variety following the explosion of films in the genre released in 1973 in the U.S. after the success of Five Fingers of Death. The word is a play on chop suey, combining "chop" and "sock".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bolo Yeung</span> Hong Kong actor and martial artist (born 1946)

Yeung Sze, better known as Bolo Yeung, is a Hong Kong former competitive bodybuilder, martial artist, and martial arts film actor. He is globally known for his performances as Bolo in Enter the Dragon and as Chong Li in Bloodsport, as well as other numerous appearances and a long career in Hong Kong martial arts films.

Bruceploitation is an exploitation film subgenre that emerged after the death of martial arts film star Bruce Lee in 1973, during which time filmmakers from Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea cast Bruce Lee look-alike actors ("Lee-alikes") to star in imitation martial arts films, in order to exploit Lee's sudden international popularity. Bruce Lee look-alike characters also commonly appear in other media, including anime, comic books, manga, and video games.

<i>Kung Fu Hustle</i> 2004 film by Stephen Chow

Kung Fu Hustle is a 2004 martial arts action comedy film directed, produced and co-written by Stephen Chow, who also stars in the leading role, alongside Huang Shengyi, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu, Danny Chan Kwok-kwan and Leung Siu-lung in prominent roles. The story revolves around a murderous neighbourhood gang, a poor village with unlikely heroes and an aspiring gangster's fierce journey to find his true self. The martial arts choreography is supervised by Yuen Woo-ping.

Hong Kong action cinema is the principal source of the Hong Kong film industry's global fame. Action films from Hong Kong have roots in Chinese and Hong Kong cultures including Chinese opera, storytelling and aesthetic traditions, which Hong Kong filmmakers combined with elements from Hollywood and Japanese cinema along with new action choreography and filmmaking techniques, to create a culturally distinctive form that went on to have wide transcultural appeal. In turn, Hollywood action films have been heavily influenced by Hong Kong genre conventions, from the 1970s onwards.

Alexander Fu Sheng, also known as Fu Sing, was a Hong Kong martial arts actor. One of Hong Kong's most talented performers, Fu rose to prominence in the 1970s starring in a string of movies with the Shaw Brothers that accrued him international stardom throughout Asia and parts of North America.

The Bloody Fists, is a 1972 Hong Kong action film directed by See-Yuen Ng and starring Chen Siu Sing and Kuan Tai Chen. The memorable fight scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, better known for choreographing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.

Kung fu film is a subgenre of martial arts films and Hong Kong action cinema set in the contemporary period and featuring realistic martial arts. It lacks the fantasy elements seen in wuxia, a related martial arts genre that uses historical settings based on ancient China. Swordplay is also less common in kung-fu films than in wuxia and fighting is done through unarmed combat.

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The Chinese Boxer is a 1970 Hong Kong action kung fu film written, directed by and starring Jimmy Wang Yu. Tong Gaai was the action director. The Chinese Boxer was a box office success at the time of its release and is currently considered the first classic in the non-wuxia, Kung Fu genre, or specifically the unarmed combat martial art films that center more on training and prowess than fantasy/adventure. It would prove influential to subsequent films like Fist of Fury.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jozev Kiu</span> Hong Kong writer (born 1969)

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