Peel the Onion | Wuxia Classics to Watch on Netflix Now (Part II)
Wuxia (武俠) / (ˈwuːˌʃiːˈɑː) / n. A genre of Chinese fiction in literature, television, and cinema concerning the adventures of sword-wielding chivalrous heroes in ancient China.
The first time I became aware of Wuxia, I didn't even know it existed. Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) had just come out in UK cinemas. At the end, someone said, "it was ok, but that bit when they're floating on trees just didn't seem real."
"Neither does Arnie mowing down a cartel of armed terrorists," I said. We agreed that some measure of fantasy was good in storytelling, even if two distinct cultures approached it differently.
Little did I know at the time, but Lee's seminal work was mine and many others' first introduction to one of China's timeless, ancient literary genres. By combining classic elements of Hong Kong martial arts cinema with the emotional heft of a western romance, Lee had struck upon a unique combination of action and traditional Chinese culture that signaled a global renaissance of the Wuxia genre.
The film's success birthed a spate of Wuxia films in the early 2000s, which fascinated fans worldwide with their blend of magical realism, period drama, and traditional swordplay from one of the oldest civilizations on Earth.
Fortunately, the biggest and best Wuxia films from this period of cinema history are all streaming on Netflix. So here we break down the Top 5 essential Wuxia films to add to your "My List" for that special rainy day.
After the international success of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero offered a similar blend of wuxia visual poetry and martial arts — a potent combination that was quickly taking the world by storm. Hero was Zhang Yimou's first wuxia film and was a substantial hit in Asia and Europe, becoming the first Chinese language film ever to top the American box office.
Nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2003, Hero was the most expensive Chinese movie ever made, and boy did it look it (and still does). Featuring an all-star cast of Jet Li as the nameless assassin, Maggie Cheung as Flying Snow, and Tony Leung as Broken Sword (as well as Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen), some of Hero's action scenes are so exhilarating you might have to look away to catch your breath.
The scene at the school is probably the most memorable, where Flying Snow and Nameless have to fend off a tsunami of Qin army arrows. The film is gorgeous, bettered only technically by Zhang's own House of Flying Daggers. But Hero is the better film with a more satisfying story for the action, elevating Zhang Yimou alongside Ang Lee as two auteurs who, for a brief moment, had transcended the wuxia genre with absolute mastery.
Watch on Netflix:
IP Man (2008)
True fans of Bruce Lee would have known who Ip Man was before this Wilson Yip-directed blockbuster. But everyone knew who Ip Man or Yip Man was after the film's 2008 release.
Starring Donnie Yen, Ip Man is a biographical martial arts film based on the grandmaster's life and his practice of the Wing Chun style of fighting. Of course, his most famous student is Bruce Lee, but the film focuses on Ip Man's youth and alleged events in Foshan in Guangdong Province during the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Ip Man is a Wing Chun-centric genre-defining kung fu action movie set in a pre-civil war China. The mind-blowing sets offer us a glimpse into life during this period, where the tension of oncoming chaos and upheaval is palpable. Here, grandmaster Ip, Donnie Yen, finds spiritual centredness in the practice and teaching of his particular branch of Wing Chun. Donnie Yen gives a masterclass in the form and quick arm movements synonymous with the kung fu style.
Yen plays the humble grandmaster to perfection, appearing meek and modest yet courageous when he sees injustice or is baited into action by some unruly character. Wilson Yip's explosive direction only complements this quiet/loud dynamic, with brutal fight scenes choreographed by Sammo Hung being some of the most exhilarating ever captured.
Ip Man is not your typical wuxia work in that it is an update or vamp on the traditional form. Peter Shiao of Immortal Studios sums up Ip Man as "a classic form that examines the archetype of the Knight errant Xia, a gifted and practiced individual who steps into larger shoes to right crimes against morality and, in this case, the Chinese nation by the Japanese during WWII. An updated Chinese connection." (Quote taken from radiichina.com, Feb 2021.)
Watch it on Netflix:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
Yu Shu Lian fight Jen Yu for the legendary Green Destiny sword (Columbia TriStar Film Distributors International)
It wouldn't be fair to top this list without the film that paved the way for all the others here. The release of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon changed everything, winning over 40 awards, being nominated for 10 Academy Awards, and hailed as one of the greatest wuxia films ever with its unique story and equal focus on female and male characters.
But let's go back to a time before it hit theaters to understand better why its blend of novelization and visual spectacle made it the crowning achievement for the genre. Wuxia is the culmination of decades of cross-pollination between wuxia and wushu. During Hong Kong's movie-making heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, straight wushu martial arts films had digressed into comedy satire with complimentary wuxia elements that seemed only to serve as a slapstick punchline. Think of early Jackie Chan, like Drunken Master (1978), and through the 80s, 90s, and 00s with auteurs like Stephen Chow, who combined slapstick comedy with wuxia elements as a cinematic signature.
Even as direct wuxia faded in overt popularity, it was still present in the tales of all the Cantonese folk heroes featured in wushu martial arts movies at the time. Wuxia as martial arts fantasy gained traction again in films like Last Hurrah for Chivalry (1979), The Swordsman Trilogy (1990-1993), and Ashes of Time (1994) — all were just some examples of a burgeoning new wave of wuxia cinema yet to crest.
All of which leads us to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, starring Chow Yun-fat as Li Mu Bai, the master swordsman, and owner of the stolen Green Destiny sword — the film's MacGuffin. Coming to the aid of his old friend and suppressed love interest Yu Shu Lian, played by Michelle Yeoh, Li Mu Bai pursues the young thief, Jen Yu, played by Zhang Ziyi, making her screen debut.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was perhaps the most exciting and most romantic movie in the year it was released. Ang Lee had created a wuxia masterwork that told an exotic fantasy tale that played like a Jane Austin plotline but with some of the best martial arts action sequences ever filmed.
Like a Western set in the ancient Far East, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon tells the love sagas between Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lian and Jen Yu and Lo 'Dark Cloud' (Chang Chen). Li Mu Bai is the warrior who knows no fear in battle but fears opening his heart to Yu Shu Lian. Jen is the free spirit rebel whose determination to break from the social chains of gender roles flies into oblivion after letting Lo know that what they felt was a true love not meant for this lifetime.
But the heart of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the relationship between master and prodigy. Near the end, there is the floating bamboo forest scene, which Lee shot with high wire cranes instead of computer effects. It feels natural as master and prodigy glide through the forest down a waterfall into wuxia history.
Watch it on Netflix:
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
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