The first kung fu film I saw was in 1973, Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (aka Fists of Fury; 1971). Since then, I’ve accumulated 950+ martial arts movies from the ’70s from 20 countries mostly on Betamax. Rather than list them from worst of the best to the best of the best, I preferred to present the films by the year they were made. There’s good chance you haven’t seen them all, yet they’re out there somewhere. Happy hunting!
(1970—Hong Kong): When the head of Flying Dragon Villa, Lung Zheng-feng (Tien Feng) wants his enemy’s five children killed, a swordsman rescues them and sends the five to different places to be raised. Twenty years later, the Flying Dragon Villa has become more feared. Meanwhile, the swordsman’s daughter, Yen (Cheng Pei Pei) sets out to find the brothers, end Lung’s reign and make Flying Dragon Villa an honorable place again. After uniting the five brothers, she teaches them the Five Tigers with One Heart kung fu skill to give them a fighting chance against Lung. Seeing this technique will help you understand why the Chinese are known for those amazing balancing and people-pyramid acts.
During the 1960s until retirement, Pei Pei was touted as the first queen of kung fu films and prior to a serious accident in Golden Swallow (1968) was known for doing her own stunts and fights. Yet after the injury, a male double was used if the director wouldn’t allow her to do it herself. When Pei Pei fights Tien’s stunt double, who’s armed with a guan dao (massive blade on top of a long pole), they rock the screen with lengthy weapon exchanges captured within the same shot. To me, this is Pei Pei’s best fight ever. She’s relentless, smooth, and graceful, which is a difficult to do when fighting someone with a larger and heavier weapon.
(1972–Hong Kong): Based on the true story of Ma Yong-zhen (aka Boxer of Shantung), The Avenger, which opens with Shaft (1971) theme music, is a remake of Brave Girl Boxer in Shanghai (1972), as the exquisite Chia Ling debuts as Ma Yong-zhen’s sister Ma Su-zhen, who travels from Shantung to Shanghai to find the gangsters that killed her brother. Chia enters the genre like a bat out of hell on a freakazoid chopper high on Meatloaf. In what must be the most men killed by any female star in a kung fu film, the final fight is as mesmerizing as it is relentless. For nine-and-a-half minutes, Chia is surrounded by knife-wielding warriors and hatchet men trying to feed-frenzy her into oblivion. Ultimately, it is the lady who axes the questions and when they try to lie and cheat her, she becomes the cheetah and makes them lie on the ground.
Avenger uses 1960s fight choreography while shooting the action with tight angles that create a strained sense of pugilistic claustrophobia that makes us feel Su-zhen and Chia are both fighting for their lives. With a wee background in Chinese opera combat choreography and this being Chia’s debut kung fu film, it was fitting to not disrupt Chia’s expectations of what the fight might look and feel like. During the use of 1960s choreography where hooligans would form tight circles around the hero and the non-attackers would excessively move to add motion and commotion to the fight, Chia was instructed to throw non-stop kicks and punches in all directions while spinning around like a female Olympic skater except to do it with knives and hatchets in hand. Everybody gets nailed by a sharp hatchet hammer or a pointed screwdriver knife…Su-zhen’s tools of the trade.
Fist of Fury
(1972—Hong Kong): Bruce Lee rocketed into superstardom with Fist of Fury and overnight sparked feelings of global pride to Chinese folks and Asian Americans, single-handedly stirred a tidal wave of nationalism among the world’s Chinese population by defeating the shadow of Japanese domination, and legitimized martial arts cinema. The Mandarin title Ching Wu Men means entering the gate of knowledge of the Ching Wu martial arts school, which was created by Shanghai martial arts legend Huo Yuen-jia.
Set during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in 1901, after the Japanese deliver a plaque with the words Sick Men of Asia written in searing black ink and Huo’s top student Chen Chen (Lee) endures ridicule from the Japanese delegation, we’re minutes away from a very important moment in fight choreography history; Lee kicking eight different bullies in one unedited shot in a Japanese karate dojo then introducing the world to a nunchaku. Adding to the scene’s steam, a reflection of Lee’s disdain toward how the Japanese treated the Chinese during that era, he adds insult to injury by having some Japanese fighters wearing their hakama backwards and at the end of the nunchaku sequence, Lee defiantly poses in front of Gichin Funakoshi’s (father of Japanese karate) portrait. Yet Lee’s ultimate powerful pervasive message of Chinese not being sick people is brilliantly depicted when Lee defeats Japanese thugs in front of Shanghai Park by splintering a wooden sign that read, “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed” with a flying kick (it’s a sign that never existed).
The Black Tavern
(1972—Hong Kong): They don’t make films like this anymore. Black Tavern is the best whip movie in the history of whip-moviedom. My mouth was so agape watching this film that I swallowed a thousand flies. Whip master Zhang (Ku Feng) is like a flamethrower full of rocket fuel. It’s on the list not for the story, but for the fight scenes that are cooler than liquid nitrogen freezing the Terminator, which includes the whacked out, Viking-helmeted, villain Hu terrorizing the Inn like an enraged bull in a ring filled of blind matadors who forgot their capes and swords. The story opens when after a drunk monk performs shu xiao ban (11th century Chinese rap music) to an inn full of vagabond, thieves, and a cryptic swordswoman that a treasure chest is heading to Black Tavern, all the rascals leave the inn with brains wrapped in greed. At the tavern, all hell breaks loose as the menagerie of Chekhovian pseudo-heroes, back-stabbing villains, zombie men, ghosts, leopard-skin lackeys, switched women and Hu partake in increasingly lethal and inventive death scenes.
Ku’s choreography goes far beyond simple whip twirling circles and figure eight motions that inject a whip crack or two. He’s Quisp and Quake, and the continued use of cool sight gags stupefy our brains like how his whip uniquely beheads a woman, and when Hu attacks Ku with a pole, what follows is an outlandish kooky fight sequence featuring a wicked reverse-angle point-of-view shot of Hu holding onto his weapon for dear life while he’s being lifted skyward, travels in an overhead semi-circle, lands on his back, while his face grimaces into camera the whole time, then ends up being whipped into a coffin and dragged across the ground toward several swords. The night fight in a snowstorm between the swords-woman and Zhang is a combo whip-in-a-whip-in-a-whip crescendo with a headless horse and carriage as a wayward rolling wheel tries to crush them.
Chinese Iron Man
(1973—Taiwan): Chinese Iron Man was Taiwan’s answer to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, where after Chinese chef Little Tiger Liang (Wen Jiang-long) sees Japanese karate students from Musashi Martial Club enter his restaurant, bully the Chinese patrons, and call them dogs, he breaks out his rolling pin and flattens every one of them. The Japanese dojo challenges the Chinese guan to a competition to draw Liang out of hiding. He complies and the dojo pays a dear price for their misplaced loss of face.
Choreographer Lin You-chuan was known for creating relentless, fast-paced fights that didn’t rely on perfect technique, posture, or real kung fu fighting. My hat goes off to Wen. In earlier films, he put his body on maniacal overdrive and just kicked and scrapped his way all over the screen, not caring about what other kung fu stars thought of him. When he takes on multiple attackers in this film, each shot is pure mayhem. He’s as intense as he’s fun to watch, regardless of the choreography’s haphazard nature and the somewhat sloppy kung fu. The key to Lin’s choreography was having Wen throw his leg in the direction of an attacker and the stuntman would react to his leg placement. As a result, Wen’s not kicking at anyone, he’s rapidly lifting his leg in many directions. It’s flail-on-flail choreography with animalistic luster. Wen mimicking Lee’s nunchaku dojo sequence with a piece of rope is so blatant that you’ve got to admire his audacity. Wen’s rope has the same sound effect, Wen copies Lee’s nunchaku movements and the fight is shot using the same camera angles. Wen kicks the karate dojo sign like the Shanghai Park sign and a brief Bruce Li moment is a sign of things to come.
The Defensive Power of Aikido
(1975—Japan): The Defensive Power of Aikido is Sonny Chiba’s homage to the founder of aikido, Morihei Uyeshiba (1883-1969). The film follows the path of jujutsu expert Uyeshiba (Jiro Chiba) losing fights to karate expert Natori Shinbei (Sonny Chiba; Jiro’s brother) and to the bokken-wielding sword master Okita. Uyeshiba thus learns karate from Soubei Honda. Armed with newfound skills, Uyeshiba revenge fight plans go awry causing Shinbei’ brother to commit suicide setting up a superbly orchestrated fight between two real brothers, Chiba vs. Chiba, with a hard-style karate vs. soft-style aikido tuning fork. Though the fights are intensely riveting, it’s the displays of true karate morality that is most memorable. When Honda presents Uyeshiba with a teacher’s certificate and Uyeshiba declines it because he can’t afford it, Honda replies, “I don’t take money when I give lessons to a man I trust. Though I can sell my skills, I can’t sell my marital heart.” Honda returns all the money Uyeshiba paid him for lessons over the years.
Jiro Chiba’s portrayal of Uyeshiba’s martial transformation is transcendently dynamic as to how he adjusts his martial movements from one teacher and fight scene to the next. His techniques subtly change and improve over the film’s duration, which shows how Uyeshiba’s aikido evolves from Japanese jujutsu to aikido’s basic hand guard, fight-ready position that is modeled after the way a samurai holds his samurai sword during battle.
The Fists of Vengeance
(1973—Taiwan): If there’s ever a film that rocks and rolls this is it. On the surface, the movie appears to be a run of the mill, topsy turvy, grittily and cheaply made early ’70s Taiwanese kung fu flick; yet it balled me over. Imagine Led Zepplin meets Def Leppard ala Deep Purple wrapped into one group and their sole song’s music is translated into the sensibility of the final fight scene. When Zhen Zheng (Jiang Bin) returns home, he’s called a traitor, ostracized by his village and his girlfriend forsook him as his brother, a turncoat that mines red sand from a river for the Japanese, who use it to forge steel to make guns to kill Chinese.
Though the early fights resemble out-of-control windmills, they’re raw and you watch them to the point of mental fracking. They’re filled with unabashed desperation and overblown fantastical facial expressions associated with silent-film stars. It’s like female fans of Rod Stewart saying he’s so ugly that he’s cute, Jiang’s fights are so sloppy that they’re great. Just when you think Jiang can’t get any worse the attack ante rises as Yasuaki Kurata skulks onto the screen as the nefarious nemesis from Nippon, who oozes the animalistic intensity that Sonny Chiba brought to his Street Fighter films, yet Kurata’s hapkido kicks elevate the film’s frays and makes Jiang look like a 20th degree black belt in everything. Midway through the finale, Zhen taps into his Buddha Prayer Fist, a cheesy and effective turning point in the fight as they begin battling on a fast-moving freight train with the frenzied intensity of Lee Marvin vs. Ernest Borgnine in Hitchcock’s savage barreling train skirmish in Emperor of the North (1973). The emotional sacrifice of breathless intent behind the assault asphyxiates every moment of the fight for them and us. This was a rare accomplishment in Chinese kung fu films that also featured the bewitching soundtrack of Black Magic Woman by Santana.
(1972—Taiwan): In this ode to the age-old virtue of gallantry, Jimmy Wang Yu stars in a trilogy of short films playing three different characters that challenges the unjust behavior of various black knights as he slays them to save three fair maidens. Overall, the fights in The Gallant are intense and well-choreographed, and Wang portrays each character and their fighting skills with dexterous prowess and violent acumen.
In The Stranger, a trapped woman flees from an abusive Triad into the arms of a man (Wang) that’s part James Bond and knight in shining armor. He doesn’t use a gun or sword instead he’s armed with flaming fists and combustible kicks, and fights with 10-tiger intensity soaked in an avalanche of bowling balls that uses up to 25 technique per shot to destroy the kingpin. The somber Stranger Attending the Tomb features Wang as a heavy-hearted prodigal son who while guarding his father’s grave laments on his own sinful past, while his sister believes her brother is the last bastion of goodness in the world. When she’s threatened by a gang of grave-robbing rebels that want to loot the father’s grave, with snapping dragon fists, and a pitchfork and shovel, Wang goes more berserk than Billy Jack at an OK Corral spree that is filled with wretched revenge and insane disdain. In The Avenger, a man (Wang) returns home from prison after taking the rap for a treasure heist to protect two accomplices, his father-in-law, and the double-crossing Li San. While the man was away, San killed the father-in-law and heinously coveted the man’s wife. With two daggers in hand, it’s time to unleash a whirlwind of steel-slashing bewitchment upon San and his clan. Never say, “Cut it out,” to a former inmate with blades.
The Pacific Connection
(1974—Philippines): Set in 1565, the film opens with a father and son Ben (Roland Dantes) practicing arnis as the father tells Ben about a legendary 100-year-old master who’ll never rest until he finds and teaches a righteous hero to become his successor. However, when Ben and father use arnis to thrash two cowardly sons of the Philippines’ first colonial governor Legazpi, and stop them from raping his mum, Legazpi retaliates by killing Ben’s father, raping then killing his mum, and shipping Ben to Los Mananos to be executed. Desperate to escape the storm-ravaged sinking ship, when forced to kill the captain and conquistadors blocking his way, Ben is mortally wounded. Washing up on an unchartered island he stumbles upon the old, now blind master who teaches Ben and how to make arnis sticks that can withstand sword strikes, which he needs as he prepares to battle Legazpi, his two sons and Mori, their hired deadly samurai bodyguard.
Though the muscle bound Dantes could have mimicked Lee’s Enter the Dragon eskrima fights to become a Filipino Bruce Lee, he chose to using effective traditional stick fighting, applying simple disarming techniques, heaven-six double-stick maneuvers, and kali knife skills. The impressive aspect of the arnis, Spanish fencing and samurai sword action is that each fighter stuck to their respective arts. After Chief LapuLapu killed Magellan with a Filipino kampilan dagger in 1521, natives were forbidden to carry swords. The Moros and Visayanns peoples combined their sword with Spanish sword skills and applied them to ratan sticks to create arnis/eskrima. These historical homage moments are subliminally intertwined into the film.
(1974—Taiwan): What would you get if Orson Welles directed Humphrey Bogart as the Man From U.N.C.L.E. in a Mickey Spillane black and white detective noir thriller disguised as a kung fu film? Director/lead actor Roc Tien’s Tongfather, which is a magnificent film noir that’s more electrifying than a hair dryer tossed into a bathtub of water. It’s a brutal yarn about two Taiwanese undercover agents (Roc and Tian Hao) sent to Hong Kong to stop powerful Triads and Yakuza bosses peddling opium and other vices. It’s also one of the most outstanding kung fu films I’ve ever seen, not because of the bizarrely effective and entertaining fight scenes, but because of two things that no other Taiwanese-made kung fu film has ever done.
One, the film’s most powerful scene is when Chinese boss (Chen Hung-lieh) proves his loyalty to the Yakuza boss by calmly breaking his own leg while chatting with him. When the Yakuza boss offer to see him home, the Triad boss, with hypnotic calm replies, “I’ll manage it alone, thank you.” He exits the room crawling on his stomach and drags his dangling leg over the rough surface. It’s as gripping as a pair of rock-climbing shoes on flypaper. And if that that wasn’t enough, it takes a minute to realize the English dubbing is excellent. Why? It’s the beauty of shooting without sound. The Chinese actors were saying their lines in English, thus having true lip movement and then dubbing the lines later with English speakers. I did several scenes like this in Battle for the Republic of China (1980). Roc delivers his lines with a Humphrey Bogart-esque grunting lisp and glare and displays fighting savvy with the cool of Napoleon Solo. His strait-laced posture and swanky placement of look-away kicks (looks in the opposite direction a split second before making contact) are alive with voodoo magic.
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