Before I sat down to write this post, I realised that there will come a time when I will feel the need to explain why I have and will continue to perpetuate the term “martial arts film”, as opposed to the sometimes accurate but often more generalised and uninitiated term of “kung fu film” that is often applied to what seems to be any east-Asian movie with fight scenes in it.
No time like the present, I guess.
The fact that I use the term “martial arts film” to describe a fight film in general is a sign that I wouldn’t just be writing about the generic kung fu film here.
Over the years as a keen consumer of the genre, I’ve grown accustomed to watching the energetic displays of talent and skill from a number of leading actors, extras and stuntmen, who each represent a different martial arts background.
Whether the fight choreography is influenced by karate, wu shu, taekwondo, boxing, kickboxing, or even muay thai, the actors, actresses and stuntmen and women working in the film fully embody that method of fighting by demonstrating the expert skills, techniques and the physical and mental fortitude that each style demands.
Before many of these styles received the Hollywood treatment, the most recognisable martial arts films produced over the last few decades were with actors from kung fu backgrounds or were made with kung fu fight choreography.
It was in the 70s and 80s that the most enduring films eventually gained recognition by western audiences as English-dubbed “kung fu” movies, produced by filmmakers like the Shaw Brothers, Raymond Chow, and many other Hong Kong producers. And it was during that time that the typical costumes, straight-to-the-point pre-fight dialogue, 20 to 30 minute-long fight scenes and outrageous kiai cries became celebrated hallmarks of the genre.
Hong Kong action cinema became a genre in its own right. It was the driving force behind some of the most successful martial arts films of all time and turned actors like Jackie Chan, Yuen Biau, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung into household names. Yet the success of martial arts in film was perhaps fully epitomised in the career of the incomparable Bruce Lee, when classics like The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon were released.
After martial arts films began developing an international following, the genre had evolved to include a mix of different styles, and therein attracting a mix of different fighters. It was perhaps Sonny Chiba who helped spearhead the Japanese styles of karate and chambara into the mainstream in the 70s. Western actors like Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Bruce Lee’s son, the late Brandon Lee – who all found distinction in the overarching old-school action genre – also represented learned styles in films which saw them in hand-to-hand combat.
But it wasn’t until the early 2000s when Thailand broke onto the international stage with Tony Jaa, who in turn paved the way for martial artists from outside east-Asia and the US to make their own mark in the industry.
Rather than instigating rivalries between styles and nationalities, I like to think that the coming-together of fighting styles has directly helped in the building of a community of sorts, which I think is a remarkable concept within the film industry, which can be portrayed as elitist, competitive or frequently cast in controversy.
Actors who practiced martial arts themselves were often exploring other styles (that could otherwise be considered rivals) and were understood to be well receptive to learning the various techniques unique to each martial art. Film makers became more receptive not only to the styles actors may choose to portray in fight sequences, but also to the respective history of each discipline as they sought to create more dimension for a film’s characters and story. Inspired audiences, having been exposed to diverse styles and interpretations of the martial arts genre, were eager to see more of it.
It was soon standard to see a martial arts movie with more complex characters, unconventional or visually stunning settings and fight scenes that were more elaborate and sophisticated than the next.
So far exceeding the stereotypes of the so-called “kung fu film”, the martial arts film has evolved dramatically since the end of the 20th Century. It remains a cinematic powerhouse, but evidently for much different reasons than 30 or 40 years ago.