Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings began its theatrical run this weekend around the world. Don’t know when I’m going to get a chance to see it, but for all intents and purposes, the film is already a success (98% audience score for 2500 viewers on Rotten Tomatoes). Just the latest in a long line of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, it is yet another character plucked from the obscurity to become a household name (at least in North America).
I have very little memory of Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. I grew up in the 1970s when the Kung Fu craze started by such movie luminaries as Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon) and Jackie Chan (him of Cannonball Run fame) was at its peak. And as a young half-Chinese kid, you’d think I’d be thrilled. But I wasn’t. I didn’t even notice. I wanted my super heroes SUPER, and kung fu and martial arts just didn’t seem…well, super. Instead, I read Spider-Man or the X-Men (in their pre-Wolverine days) and other super-heroes with “real” super powers.
But I’ve since discovered martial arts movies and now that Shang-Chi has been released as a superhero movie (and from what I understand, he gets a real power up), I thought I’d give you my Top 5 Martial Arts movies. This is my very subjective list based on what I’ve actually seen.
Number 5 – Enter the Dragon: one of the inspirations for Shang-Chi and one of only two Bruce Lee movies I’ve seen, I really enjoyed the James Bond vibe this movie had. Bruce Lee had such onscreen charisma, I would have loved to see where Bruce Lee’s career would have gone had he not passed away at such a young age.
Number 4 – Police Story 2: Supercop: My mouth dropped the first time I saw this movie in the theatre (yes, I saw this in a small Saskatoon theatre) and the stunts were jaw dropping. It had all of Jackie Chan’s monkey-like martial arts style (his combat with a ladder was a fantastic martial ballet). But stunts like jumping a motorcycle on a moving train sold me as a kung-fu auteur. And of course, this movie introduced me to the legendary Michelle Yeoh. I like this so much better than most of his Hollywood fare.
Number 3 – Kung Fu Panda: There, I said it. Yes, this is a North American cartoon movie series starring Jack Black and it is very much an American idea of what Chinese martial arts are like, but it has a heart that many other North American martial arts movies (animated or not) don’t have. Plus, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the best depiction of wuxia in an animated feature movie bar none. I know a lot of you are now shouting at your screen saying “what about Avatar: The Last Airbender?” Isn’t that the best portrayal of animated martial arts? I would agree…except that is a TV series and not a movie and this list is about movies. But maybe I’ll revisit that sometime soon.
Number 2 – Hero: Tony Leung was part of this Jet Li martial arts film. With Zhang Yimou at the helm, this is one of the most artistic Wuxia movie I have seen. Jet Li plays Nameless, a sword master who apparently kills several assassins who attempted to kill the King of Qin. What follows is a Rashomon-like series of tales told by Nameless. Each one uses a different colour palette and the balletic martial arts wire-work and performances make this film a must see for any martial arts fan.
Number 1 – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: My partner would not rate this as high (she says she had seen better wire work and it didn’t add anything new to the conversation), but for me, this is the most stunning martial arts AND wuxia movie I had ever seen. Ang Lee hit it out of the park with the ballet-like martial arts fights. This movie had Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh and introduced the world to the incredible Zhang Ziyi (who also showed up in my number 2 movie, Hero).
There are so many other great martial arts films made in China, Hong Kong and beyond. More modern films like Ip Man and the Raid have re-defined the martial arts genre. And films like Kung Fu Hustle and Kill Bill pay homage to the martial arts genre of film. But these five films I’ve listed above are my favourites and the ones I go back to if I want to see a masterwork of martial arts. How will Shang Chi compare? No idea. I might get to go and see it in theatres but will likely wait until I can see it at home (COVID is to blame here). Until then, there are always these movies to watch.