Family movie night is a nice idea in theory, right? Well, it’s hard when you want to watch a psychological horror film, your father wants to watch an action movie, and your mother hates both and would prefer a Hallmark production.
Luckily, there’s one genre that all three of the Wolkovs can enjoy: wuxia.
Wuxia is a genre of Chinese fiction that is usually set in ancient China and contains martial arts. Moreover, wuxia films usually emphasize themes of honor, duty, love and heroism.
All of the Wolkovs can vouch for these five films. Considering our varied tastes, you should enjoy at least one of them.
“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000)
Not only is this my favorite wuxia film, it’s possibly one of my favorite movies of all time. It combines varied martial arts sequences with a story of the struggle between duty and freedom (stereotypical of a wuxia film).
During the Qing Dynasty in 1773, renowned swordsman Li Mu Bai leaves his warrior lifestyle after the death of his best friend. Soon after, he is reconnected with a former love interest named Yu Shu Lien, who was betrothed to his best friend.
Mu Bai asks Shu Lien to give his sword called Green Destiny to Sir Te, a friend and government official who lives in Beijing.
Shu Lien befriends Yu Jen, the daughter of a governor.
One evening a thief arrives to steal Green Destiny, and Shu Lien and Mu Bai must retrieve the sword.
Shu Lien and Mu Bai’s shrouded pasts hinder their quest for the sword, and the governor’s daughter that Shu Lien befriended is more than she appears.
Various Chinese landscapes from forested mountain scenes to waterfalls to rocky desert steppes are utilized to convey different emotions throughout the film.
Netflix made a sequel in 2016 called “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny,” which lacked the intricate and suspenseful plot, rounded characters, beautiful shooting locations and artful, yet thrilling, martial arts sequences. In other words, it was bad.
“House of Flying Daggers” (2004)
“House of Flying Daggers” is more of a romance film than a martial arts film. Despite this, I still enjoy it.
In 859 A.D., right before the fall of the Tang Dynasty, a rebel group known as the House of Flying Daggers battles with the government. Two government agents, Jin and Leo, are sent to infiltrate a brothel known as the Peony Pavilion, out of which, they believe, the House of Flying Daggers works.
At the brothel, Jin meets a blind dancer named Mei and begins to fall in love with her. Leo arrests Mei under suspicion that she is the daughter of leader of the House of Flying Daggers.
Shortly thereafter, Jin frees her from prison in hopes that he has gained Mei’s trust and that she will lead him to the headquarters of the rogue organization.
Leo follows with reinforcements from the government, and both men have seemingly fallen in love with Mei.
Like “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the cinematography is artistic, featuring vivid green bamboo forests and orange fields of wheat.
However, there are fewer martial arts scenes than in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” as the plot revolves around the love triangle.
Interestingly, the movie incorporates a poem called “The Beauty Song” by Li Yannian of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), which describes a woman so beautiful that cities and empires fall.
“Hero” is the most artistic of the movies on this list. From sword fights in bright red autumn forests to rain-drenched duels in a monochromatic gray courtyard, director Zhang Yimou uses color to portray emotions and perspectives.
During the Warring States period (475 B.C. – 221 B.C.), an officer of the Qin state called Nameless requests to speak with the king.
Nameless explains to the king that he has killed three assassins who each attempted to kill him.
The film shows the story that Nameless tells the king, the king is doubtful. The king then tells the story he thinks is truthful, and this too is portrayed on screen.
As the movie progresses, the audience is unsure of both the validity of Nameless’s quest and his allegiance to the Qin king.
The use of color in the cinematography is impressive and deliberate. It’s a movie that one should watch multiple times to appreciate it fully and catch the minute details.
“Kung Fu Hustle” (2004)
Unlike the other films on this list, “Kung Fu Hustle” is a comedy. It’s set in the 1930s and utilizes a cartoonish style that mocking other more serious wuxia films.
Song, the protagonist, is an orphan who was beaten up as a child when he tried to defend a mute girl from bullies.
Since then, he has wanted to be tough and join the Deadly Axe Gang who controls the city.
But to join, he must kill someone. Song gets into a fight with the residence of Pig Sty Alley and bites off a lot more than he can chew, as many of their residents turn out to be martial arts masters.
There is a lot of absurd comedy mixed with intense but ludicrous martial arts sequences.
Director Stephen Chow has also directed other comedy martial arts films like “Shaolin Soccer” and “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” both of which I also recommend.
“Ip Man” (2008)
The movie tells a fictionalized story of the life of Ip Man, an accomplished martial artist and master of Wing Chung (a style of martial arts).
The film begins lightheartedly as Ip Man refuses to accept students but remains the best martial artist in Foshan. Multiple other masters and gangs challenge him to fights, but he bests them all.
When the Japanese invade in 1937, he tries to keep a low profile to protect his family as his countrymen are tormented by the Japanese military.
General Miura, a great karate master who controls Foshan, starts an arena for the Chinese martial arts masters. If they can win in a hand-to-hand combat with a Japanese soldier, they are awarded a bag of rice.
When his friend and fellow martial artist goes into the arena and doesn’t return, Ip Man challenges the Japanese to find his friend.
Ip Man watches as another kung fu master challenges three Japanese soldiers, loses, then is killed.
In his rage, Ip Man challenges 10 men and and bests them all. General Miura is impressed but also suspicious of him.
From then on, General Miura sends his soldiers to keep a close eye on Ip Man, as he suspects Ip Man to be rallying the townspeople against the Japanese.
The martial arts scenes aren’t as fantastical as those in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “House of Flying Daggers,” or “Hero,” probably due to the more modern setting.
I enjoyed the historical aspect of the film, as the Japanese invasion of China isn’t usually addressed in Western films. Thus I’d consider it just as much a historical film as a biographical martial arts film.
—By Nicole Wolkov