I may or may not have a thing for Wuxia films…Well, okay, I most certainly do. I am not 100% sure as to why. I think it is a combination of the aesthetic, the music and the incredible martial arts, but also the plots. Some Chinese movies are like nothing you’d ever see in a film produced by a western country. I also love how epic and heroic over the top are these plots are, and the way they get mixed with historical narratives and fantasy. I think this reflects a much older way of understanding and telling stories. Therefore, I have produced a quick list of Wuxia movies I particularly enjoy. You are probably familiar with many of them. I unusually watch these as double or even triple bill, because there is something about watching these stunning scenarios with convoluted combat scenes that makes you want more…
I will cheat though, and quickly skip Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon due to the fact that it is like the corner-stone of modern Wuxia filmography. Nevertheless, I have to say that I have also seen the sequel recently – Sword of Destiny – and, although it is of course no the wonderful work of Ang Lee, it has a competent script. But the best part of the entire thing is the amazing Donnie Yen as Silent Wolf, being badass as always.
-House of the Flying Daggers: I think I have potentially watched every period martial arts movie that has Zhang Ziyi in it. I just like her: she is cool! She has an incredible degree of empathy and evocation that I find hard to find in some other Asian actresses (as much as I respect Gong Li and Michelle Yeoh, what they do is slightly different). But what I really like about this movie is some of the fighting scenes: that moment back in the Peonyhouse, when Mei steals Leo’s sword, and it concludes with the amazing Andy Lau doing a grapple of doom and smashing her into the pool. The entire chasing scene through the bamboo forest is just gorgeous, with all the colour contrasts…And the last scene in the blizzard. The triangle between Mei, Leo and Jin (I am usually crying by this stage thinking Jin is whiling to die so Mei can escape but it doesn’t matter cause this could have been written by Shakespeare and it would be the same ending…). The face-off with the daggers, the blood all over the place…And just the story: this is not just martial arts; there is deception, plot twists and romance.
-Hero (2002): Perhaps not the best work Jet Li has been in (and probably not Ziyi’s either), but the rest of the cast has a lot to give, particularly the three assassins from Zhan: Donnie Yen with his masterful, stoic face, demonstrates that a lance weapon is just as beautiful to work with than a sword. I love the moment when Sky and Nameless stop the fight to ask the old man to keep playing music for them. The cleverest part of this film – apart from the amazing budget, choreo, colour use, filming, special effects and music – is the retelling of the story, up to three times – couldn’t help myself and start thinking it was a rather Beowulfian thing to do. You have to get the plot right on a movie to allow yourself to repeat the same story 3 times to actually get what is happening.
-Red Cliff: part 1 and 2 – Do NOT watch the abridged version, there is no point! You actually miss so much meaningful plot and character interaction it is unreal! In any case, the most epic part of this is just the sheer amount of just people at war, it’s just ridiculous. How many extras did they get for this movie, I do not know, but it is massive. And that is actually all the film it is about. John Woo, the director even confirmed he had changed the plot and moved away from the historical reality because he wanted to portray what the battle would feel for the audience. (As a historian, I think that is fair enough). And he does. In fact, the only reason why we can consider this a Wuxia film and not a historical drama is the change of plot, which really puts the film more in the context of the hero’s journey and the beautiful display of martial arts and combat. I think my favourite scene is with the boats in the second part: arrows and flames everywhere, over a beautifully filmed river, full on attack, dramatic poses…So many incredible fighting sequences in here, there is no way I can just pick one. Therefore, I won’t pick one in specific, because that is just really the entire movie. I think all the individual stories really contribute to the wider narrative – so even though the movie is about the battle and the political struggle and unrest within China, the personal perspective of each character gives it a back bone that makes it stand out and not just become another big fighting scene that lasts for hours with no aim.
-Legend of Zu (2001): now, a lot of people hate this movie, and in fact, it was not incredibly popular in cinemas in the West, but I think it is pretty cool. It is much more concern with mythology, which I appreciate as it is one of those Chinese legends you do not get to hear as often as say Journey to the West and the Monkey King, and the Jade Emperor. So I really think the coolest part of this movie is the story. Of course it is full of awesome fight scenes, but if you want a Wuxia movie that gives you something different, you should come to this one – or if you are lucky to find it Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain from the 80s which is, let’s say, its predecessor, or the first attempt to bring the story to the screen.
Of course there is many more, but this is just a quick list of my favourites and why. If you like it however, I will come back with other movies, more obscure ones, and more martial arts to keep you jumping around!