Best Kung Fu Movies to Watch After Shang-Chi - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, September 5, 2021

Best Kung Fu Movies to Watch After Shang-Chi

Marvel’s latest origin story – Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – is now out in theaters, and those who decided to check it out were likely left smitten by arguably the MCU’s best action choreography and abundance of fantastical elements. Perhaps you were left so smitten that now you have an itch to check out even more films of the kung fu or wuxia (a form of Chinese fiction that focuses on martial arts heroes in ancient China) variety that you have to scratch if life is to go on.

Whether you’ve seen a few movies, are looking to expand your knowledge, or simply want more Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung, I have a list that may hopefully help you out. Combining sweeping landscapes, compelling drama, no short amount of humor, and, most importantly, fight sequences to blow your hair back, here are ten movies (out of many, many more) that are worth checking out if Shang-Chi left you craving kung fu excellence.

The Assassin

Many of the movies on this list feature plenty of intense action sequences, big personalities, and plenty of melodrama. This is not one of those movies. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first foray into wuxia, The Assassin (adapted from the classic Chinese short story, “Nie Yinniang”), lives for stillness emphasized by long takes on the actors, and the arresting costumes, art direction, and natural landscapes. A story about a woman raised from a young age to kill without question – but is put in a position where her remaining humanity forces her to change course, the compellingly stoic Shu Qi hardly has any dialogue as the titular assassin Yinniang. Instead, she lingers out of sight, listening in on political intrigue or waiting to bounce in for a fight – of which Hsiao-hsien handles quickly or even far out of view.

Almost an antithesis to many of the other movies on this list, Hsiao-hsien favors letting the humans at its core exist without needing to leap into action, letting the viewer bask in gorgeous scene after scene defined by conversation or pure silence. In the landscape of wuxia films, The Assassin is a marvel of craftsmanship and cinematography, looking and moving in such captivating ways it makes up for its deliberately slow pace.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

A list like this without including the groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is like making a list of the greatest TV shows ever without including The Sopranos: What’s even the point? An adaptation of the novel of the same name by Wang Dulu, Ang Lee’s wuxia masterpiece is still lauded over 20 years later for a reason, and that reason is that it still holds up as being very, very good. The iconic fight choreography from Yuen Woo-ping – performed by the cast including Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat, Zhang Ziyi, Cheng Pei-pei, and more – is a magical sight to behold; The score from Tan Dun is delicate and unobtrusive; The cinematography from Peter Pau makes every setting look majestic and; the cast is top-notch, selling the palpable drama throughout a strong, mostly female-led story that examines, among several things, gender roles in China.

Everything about it is operating at such a perfect level. Lee’s work bringing it all together is nothing short of a masterclass, and when you watch it, whether it be for the first time, the first time in 20 years, or for the tenth time, the excellence just oozes off each scene. Masterfully playing as a blend of fantasy and period drama, there’s no mistaking why Crouching Tiger stands tall on the pedestal it does today.

Enter the Dragon

Martial arts in movies – as well as television, video games, competitive sports, etc. – wouldn’t be where it’s at today without the influence of Bruce Lee, with 1973’s Enter the Dragon being his most seminal (and unexpectedly final) work. The groundbreaking blockbuster from director Robert Clouse blends the styles of spy genre made popular by the Bond movies and R-rated sensibilities of blaxploitation films, and stars Lee (who also choreographed the fights) as a martial artist named Lee who is sent to compete in a karate tournament put on by a crime lord (Shih Kien) and former disciple of the same Shaolin Temple as Lee. But even everyone involved seemed very aware of how the plot isn’t what audiences are coming for. What you come for is the magnetism of Lee, whose cool intensity easily outshines other talents like Jim Kelly and John Saxon.

His fists are fast, his feet are fleet, and his energy and charisma are undeniable. With all there is to offer nowadays in the martial arts genre, there’s still nothing like watching Lee throw around thugs with his trademark precision and persona, with Clouse knowing full well when to hold on to his expressions to let the power of his presence take hold. If you’re hoping to expand your knowledge of martial arts films, Enter the Dragon is a necessary work featuring the genre’s biggest star ever.

Fist of Legend

If you’re looking to expand your knowledge of the kung fu genre, you can never go wrong with some vintage Jet Li. A remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend from director Gordon Chan is set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the late 1930s, with Lee playing Chen Zhen, a martial artist investigate the death of his master at the hands of a Japanese fighter. Zhen’s journey takes him from one bout to another, and Yuen Woo-ping’s always sensational choreography doesn’t hold back in showcasing Li’s talent as a fighter.

The first sequence alone - set in a school wherein a group of Japanese men are trying to force out Zhen and the rest of the students simply because they’re Chinese – finds Li taking down fools with steadfast precision. Fights only get bigger and more intense, and with each hit, you can both see and feel the bones breaking, meshing brutality with style. It’s a hard film to track down on streaming/rental platforms, but fits with a story that explores anti-colonialism themes and acting as great an example as any of Li’s fighting and star power, Fist of Legend is more than worth hunting down.

The Grandmaster

While the Ip Man movies starring the endlessly impressive Donnie Yen may be the most popular films to mythologize the famed teacher of Bruce Lee, another take on the man and his life, The Grandmaster, is the far more fascinating film. Reuniting him with his In the Mood For Love director Wong Kar-wai, Tony Leung stars as the Wing Chun master in a film that sidesteps the triumphant heroics seen in 2008’s Ip Man in favor of a more complex examination of his life. Examining what it means to truly be a martial arts master, taking on battles that come not only from challengers but life as a whole, Kar-wai’s film operates like a sweeping epic filled with dramatic depth.

Sharing much of the screen is Zhang Ziyi in not only her best performance but perhaps one of the best on this whole list. Loved watching Leung’s flirtatious fight with Fala Chen in Shang-Chi? Just wait until you see him and Ziyi exchange glances between punches. And on that note, The Grandmaster doesn’t skimp on the action. Beginning with an opening brawl in the rain and into the smoky rooms of a brothel, Leung throws down in swift, kinetic fights, made all the more stunning thanks to the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd. A sequence wherein Ziyi steps onto a train platform, dressed in a fur coat, and proceeds to fight with Zhang Jin is cinema at a very special kind of peak.

Hero

Much in the style of Crouching Tiger, Hero from director Zhang Yimou blends stirring drama with a romanticized version of ancient China – filled with high-flying acrobatics. But Yimou delivers on the spectacle with a far larger sense of grandeur, blending fast-paced fights from performers Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Zhang Ziyi, Tony Leung, and Maggie Cheung, and uses visual effects and sublime choreography to make them all feel larger than life. This befits the Rashomon-style story structure, with Li’s Nameless acting as an unreliable narrator, with a tale that consistently begs the question of what is truth and what is deception.

Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Yimou breaks up his movie into color-coded acts, making scenes look uniquely gorgeous. A wuxia film that feels truly timeless, the fantastic visuals and fight choreography blends with compelling drama and ample amount of sexiness to weave a stunning, layered tale that never fails to dazzle.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Did you walk away from Shang-Chi loving the array of fantastical creatures, whether they be adorable winged dog things or even massive soul suckers? Then take a journey with director Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which has no shortage of mythical “demons” across an adventure that’s about as bonkers as anything that’s come from the mind of Chow – which is definitely saying something.

A sort of prequel to the 16th-century novel “Journey to the West” (attributed to Wu Cheng'en), the story follows self-proclaimed demon hunter Tang Sanzang (Wen Zhang) as he attempts to become a better hunter, encountering numerous deadly beasties. In a polar opposite role from her Assassin work, Shun Qi is the resident badass who, like Shang-Chi, has her own set of magical, demon-busting rings. Chow’s silliest sensibilities come out as he embraces the bizarre and the macabre, all before dishing out some wild set pieces – making for a weirdly hilarious fantasy adventure into Chinese folklore.

Kung Fu Hustle

It’s hard to talk about the modern age of martial arts movies without bringing up the singular, mad mind of Stephen Chow. Kicking down the door with Shaolin Soccer in 2001, he achieved international praise for 2004’s Kung Fu Hustle. This delightfully madcap flick tells the story of Sing (Chow), a deadbeat trying and failing to join the Axe Gang, while kung fu masters secretly existing in a poor apartment complex fight off the gang. But, really, the plot feels like an afterthought, because this movie is so deeply, hilariously bananas.

A kung fu movie perfect for movie nerds, expect to see reference to Jean Renoir, The Shining, and even Spider-Man – all wrapped up in Looney Tunes-inspired gags that use special effects to break up old-school martial arts action and music, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping and scored by Raymond Wong. It’s a love letter to so much of what came before while operating strictly on its own terms, and if after Shang-Chi you’re looking for a martial arts flick that has laughs to go along with the kicks, Kung Fu Hustle is basically mandatory.

Police Story 1-3

You’ll see a lot of comparisons between Shang-Chi and the films of Jackie Chan, and they are certainly warranted. The fight scenes blend impressive staging and fast fighting with a sense of humor and playfulness like some of Chan’s best films. The peak of those sensibilities comes in the form of not just his first Police Story film in 1985, but also the 1988 sequel and the third outing, Supercop (or Police Story 3: Supercop). While Chan is a marvel in all three films, with perfect comedic timing to match his flying appendages, the third outing benefits from an on-point Michelle Yeoh, stealing the show from even Chan so much that it earned her her own spinoff after this one.

Loaded top to bottom with action sequences that make you stop and go “Wait, they actually did that for real?”, these are martial arts movies that will benefit viewers new and returning for two main reasons: 1.) Chan is an entertainer supreme, and when operating at peak wit his boldness is unmatched and 2.) They exist almost as a kind of cinematic artifact, showcasing the level of stunt work and ingenuity for action that mainstream movies wouldn’t go in for nowadays. From the opening neighborhood shootout to the helicopter/train set piece of Supercop, these are three movies-worth of action that will blow your mind and tickle your funny bone. But we can forget about the spinoffs and reboots that came after...

Shadow

Director Zhang Yimou followed up hero with the equally colorful House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, but with 2018’s Shadow, he approached wuxia from a different angle. Trading out bold colors for an exclusively white and black palette, Yimou explored the nature of the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, and how opposites tend to compliment each other and exist in the same space. Aside from a few training sequences, the first half of the movie leans into the political drama, using the characters to explore this dualism: leadership and cowardice; masculine and feminine; desire and duty; loyalty and betrayal. Yimou digs into his cast of complex characters with his usual sense of visual flair, with truly jaw-dropping cinematography from Zhao Xiaoding, art direction from Kwong Wing Ma, and costume design from Minzheng Chen.

The build-up of the first half leads to a sensational final half, with intricate choreography making use of complex, deadly weaponry for a slew of intense fights. Whether or not it’s his best work is up for debate, but Shadow proves that whether he’s working with a wide array of bright colors or making simply white and black look endlessly stunning, Yimou is a master of his craft, combining unforgettable action with compelling drama.



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