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10 Wuxia Films You Should Watch Instead of Mulan

As Disney's live-action remake fails to capture the essence of wuxia cinema, these movies provide a far better introduction to the genre

In the wake of its release, any positive notes about Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan quickly dissipated from memory, leaving behind only a sense of missed opportunities and baffling creative decisions mixed with continuing revelations of disquieting behind-the-scenes politics.

All of the hype that preceded the film's arrival – that the Disney film would embrace the narrative and visual stylings of wuxia – was overblown to say the least, the final product only serving to flatten the genre's aesthetic diversity into a cookie-cutter American blockbuster template.

Wuxia is a centuries-old genre, based in classic Chinese literature, blending chivalrous philosophy with martial arts – the word itself translating as “martial arts chivalry” or “martial arts heroes.” Translated to screen, that means graceful high-flying action amongst historical periods of turmoil and social upheaval, the exchange of costs and swords (and various other weapons) contrasted with musings about personal freedom and feudal, authoritarian government.

Mulan ignored such stylings, and worse still, the rich emotivity of the epics the film is supposedly emulating is reduced to stereotypical fretting over honour and one’s ancestors. A shame, really, as while Disney’s monopolistic hold on American cinema-going is far less than ideal, the film could have proven a gateway for many into an extremely exciting genre. Instead, here's a list of potential first steps – some of the best and most accessible wuxia movies that this strand of martial arts cinema has to offer…

 

Come Drink With Me (1966)

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

A film that could perhaps be considered the forefather of the genre, Come Drink With Me sparked a monumental change for cinematic kung fu. Come Drink With Me was revolutionary in more ways than one, rejecting the typical roles found for women in historical epics and placing them at the centre of the action, with the lead character Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei) throwing down with bar patrons at a moment’s notice. As such, it exists as abject proof of the regressiveness of Mulan, which shackles its main character to an imperial system and uncritically views that as her liberation, whereas Come Drink With Me has Golden Swallow stand alone as a fighter-for-hire, and stronger for it. The difference in quality is so vast it feels a little unfair to bring Niki Caro’s film into this, but it feels important to point out that the American blockbuster is hardly groundbreaking even by the standards of the 1960s.

 

Dragon Inn (1967)

Where to watch it: Criterion Channel (US only)

Made immediately after his debut Come Drink With Me, King Hu’s Dragon Inn rippled throughout Chinese cinema – its influence not just limited to the confines of wuxia, either. Despite starting his career as a set designer for the Shaw Brothers, Hu leaves behind interior spaces for sweeping natural vistas as the backdrop for his fights, utilising the full width of the Cinemascope frame for compositions that utilise vast amounts of negative space even as he highlights the intricacies and brutal impacts of each bought of swordplay. Homaged even in the likes of Tsai Ming-Liang’s slow cinema masterpiece Goodbye Dragon Inn (as well as later being remade in the 1990s), the film’s timeless mixture of balletic fights and sweeping widescreen vistas became definitive for martial arts movies.

 

One Armed Swordsman (1967)

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Released in the same year as Dragon Inn, director Chang Cheh’s One-Armed Swordsman also helped revolutionise martial arts cinema, and help establish the basic template for the more rough and tumble features – teahouse brawls, vendettas between students, game-changing weapons as nasty as they are elaborate. Stylistically opposed to the wide open landscapes of King Hu’s film, the fights of One-Armed Swordsman are still intricate but more aggressive, with the camerawork to match – structured with snap zooms and sharp cuts. That break from popular style is something that would later be replicated in the 1990s, with Tsui Hark’s retelling The Blade, which defied the established style with a bleaker, more apocalyptic tone.

 

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979)

Where to watch it: Criterion Channel (US Only)

Though his “heroic bloodshed” bullet ballets are the films for which he is best known, it was actually in wuxia that legendary director John Woo made his start. Despite the difference in setting, his directorial debut Last Hurrah for Chivalry still embodies much of the same thematic material as his later works. The film is a conscious homage to Chang Cheh’s early 70s swordplay films (Woo used to work for him, in fact), with a pair of killers for hire finding solidarity and friendship in arms as they struggle against a villainous gang leader. Replace the swords with twin pistols and you’ve more or less got a John Woo film circa the 1990s, so there should be plenty to enjoy for both fans of the filmmaker and burgeoning fans of martial arts cinema.

 

Green Snake (1993)

Where to watch it: Fandor (US Only)

First coming up as part of a new wave of iconoclastic Chinese directors, Tsui Hark is one of the most popular and influential figures of Chinese cinema. Tsui became known for his genre revisionism – tackling everything from murder mysteries to Peking opera. In the midst of his his immensely popular Once Upon a Time in China series, Tsui directed Green Snake, a film that on its surface carries the colourful, hyperactive appeal of a pulpy martial arts blowout, but is told with a subversive sense of humour. The story is an update of the folk tale “Madame White Snake” and stars Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong as a pair of snake spirits hunted by a puritanical Buddhist monk after taking human form. It questions the idea of the supposedly heroic chivalry often displayed in such tales, firmly taking the side of the snake spirits in their quest for Earthly pleasures. Perhaps not the easiest entry into this space, but a perfect film if ever there was one.

Ashes of Time (1994)

Where to watch it: Home video only

Made over the course of a legendarily long shoot, Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time reframed the characters of Louis Cha’s novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes in his own traditions – heartache breeding cynicism, unrequited love and missed opportunities, all told elliptically and tinged with regret. The story follows Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung), the villain of Condor Heroes, charting his path towards villainy through a series of encounters with different warriors, all connected in a complex web of fraught interpersonal relationships. While the action was choreographed by the renowned Sammo Hung, Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle shoot the action impressionistically, unfolding as flashes of colour and obscured movement – all beautiful, but less about choreography than it is about the movement itself. Heartache and violence is the focus rather than swordplay – as one character puts it, “I long to be loved, but can only hurt others.”

 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s homage to the films of King Hu remains to this day the highest-grossing foreign language film in US box office history. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of the most popular wuxia films amongst Western audiences thanks to its perfect distillation of the genre, melding Lee’s traditional melodrama onto a series of spectacular set pieces that engage with a variety of styles, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping (who found international fame for his work on The Matrix). The story is multi-pronged, but every element comes down to the simple tragedy of lovers being kept apart by codes of honour. It’s all performed with an utterly stellar cast – with all-timer performances from Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and even Come Drink with Me's Cheng Pei-Pei. There are few better places to start with wuxia than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – a perfect meeting of Lee’s sensibilities with the traditions of the genre.

 

Hero (2002)

Where to watch it: Home video only

Mainland director Zhang Yimou took the pictorial nature of wuxia to new heights with Hero. A stylised retelling of the story of Ying Zheng, the King of the State of Qin (later to become the first Emperor of China), and his would-be assassins in 227 BC, its immense power is almost wholly contained in Zhang’s breathtaking imagery. Before this film, Zhang was mostly famed for his period films starring Gong Li, particularly the trilogy of melodramas including Raise The Red Lantern, Ju Dou and To Live. With Hero, Zhang embarked on another trilogy, this time of wuxia films (he followed this one with the similarly acclaimed House of Flying Daggers and later Curse of the Golden Flower). With its floaty, graceful action slowed down to near-stillness, the film feels like a continuation of the style of Crouching Tiger; under cinematographer Christopher Doyle (who had already dabbled in wuxia with Ashes of Time), the film is visually divided into five sections, each dominated by a distinctive hue – grey, blue, green, red and yellow. For all that beauty, however, the story of Hero is a somewhat uneasy one, arguing in favour of totalitarian sovereignty of the emperor. That said, if you’re going to watch a high-flying historical Chinese epic that heavily flirts with nationalism, better this than Mulan.

 

House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Zhang Yimou followed up the historical tragedy of Hero with another wuxia epic, House of Flying Daggers. Flying Daggers took a different track from Hero, opting instead for a story of pure romantic melodrama, and a visual palette dominated by some of the most vivid greens ever filmed. Flying Daggers’ plot doesn’t exactly hold up under scrutiny, but the sheer power of Zhang’s gorgeous imagery is more than enough to forgive any sins. It also helps that Zhang chooses his cast well, with the likes of Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro and Andy Lau each doing wonders to tell the high flying actions and similarly heightened emotions of its twisty, melodramatic story.

 

The Assassin (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s long-anticipated 2015 film is a near-perfect melding of his idiosyncratic style, both visual and narrative, and the traditions of the wuxia genre. Told in long, lush and languid takes and shot in a narrow aspect ratio rather than the widescreen scope of the epics that came before it, the film is more interested in a close-up study of the suppressed emotions of ninth-century China. The story is that of Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi), an assassin in the late Tang Dynasty, who doesn’t want to kill her target. While most wuxia on this list portrays violence with balletic grace, Hou’s film is about the rejection of it – the sudden bursts of (still expertly choreographed) action interrupted mid-gesture by emotional exposition. Where Ashes of Time reduces violence to an abstract, impressionistic muddle, The Assassin is about its visual absence, perfectly embodying its protagonist's hesitance to re-enter the world she left behind.

Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer whose bylines have appeared in Sight & Sound, Empire, Little White Lies, and Polygon. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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