- Martial arts movies combine action and storytelling, pushing the boundaries of cinema with their high-energy sequences and choreographed performances.
- Iconic filmmakers like Jackie Chan, Chang Cheh, and Yuen Woo Ping have made significant contributions to the martial arts genre.
- Martial arts movie franchises stand out due to their multifaceted nature, covering a wide range of genres and employing various techniques, from wirework to complex camera rigs, all supported by months of rigorous training.
Martial arts movies have a rich and enduring legacy in the world of cinema, with influential directors and actors paving the way for the genre’s evolution. From the early classics to contemporary trends, martial arts films have not just captivated audiences with high-energy action; they have also pushed the boundaries of storytelling through the art of combat. Iconic filmmakers of the genre like Jackie Chan, Chang Cheh, and Yuen Woo Ping have made a huge impact on the genre, while newer directors continue to redefine the limits of on-screen physicality.
What sets martial arts movie franchises apart is their multifaceted nature. They encompass a wide range of genres, using diverse techniques, from intricate wirework to complex camera rigs, all supported by months of rigorous training. Each fight sequence is not just an action scene; it’s a choreographed performance, where the physical movements convey character motivations, relationships, emotions, and inner conflicts. These movies harness martial arts as the primary storytelling tool, and the filmmakers behind these tales are what make each film so special.
10 King Hu
Work includes Come Drink With Me, A Touch of Zen, and Legend of the Mountain
King Hu is renowned for his contributions to the martial arts genre, specifically wuxia. His notable impact emphasized character worth and skill over magical powers and toned down melodrama in favor of stoicism, with moments of extravagant action. His film Come Drink With Me exemplified his mastery of composition and editing. He encouraged his martial arts choreographers to draw inspiration from Chinese opera movements and relied on performers’ skills and editing rather than special effects. Hu also emphasized the female sword fighter archetype, introducing gender and sexual ambiguity, much like Shakespeare’s comedic heroines. Hu’s contributions continue to impact martial arts films and make history.
9 Chang Cheh
Work includes The New One-Armed Swordsman, The Duel, and The Duel of Fists
Chang Cheh was known for producing multiple films annually at the height of his career. These included classics like The New One-Armed Swordsman, The Duel, and Duel of Fists. Chang was a relentless filmmaker in the martial arts genre. His collaboration with the Shaw Brothers in Hong Kong spanned nearly three decades, during which he contributed to screenwriting and directed numerous films. Chang’s stamp as a director was his spectacular fight scenes and unapologetic portrayal of gore, setting him apart from others at the time. Chang’s work often revolved around male camaraderie, showcasing the male form and exploring themes of masculinity.
8 Sammo Hung
Work includes Warriors Two and The Prodigal Son
Sammo Hung is a Renaissance man in the world of martial arts cinema, excelling as an actor, martial artist, producer, and director. He has made an enduring impact on kung fu films and Hong Kong action cinema for decades and even starred in the forgotten martial arts tv show Martial Law. Hung’s directorial contributions include the iconic Warriors Two in 1978, introducing the art of Wing Chun in 1979.
However, it was in 1981 that he crafted one of his directorial masterpieces, The Prodigal Son, featuring brilliant Wing Chun choreography and setting a new standard for martial arts films. The film received acclaim and won the Best Action Choreography award at the inaugural Hong Kong Film Awards in 1982. His impact on action choreography, along with legends like Yuen Woo Ping, endures in modern cinema.
7 Ching Siu-tung
Work includes Duel to the Death and A Chinese Ghost Story
Siu-tung Ching is a multifaceted figure in Hong Kong cinema, excelling as an action choreographer, actor, director, and producer. His cinematic journey traces back to his childhood, influenced by his father, Ching Gong, a director at Shaw Brothers Studio. Ching’s early training at the Peking Opera school laid the foundation for his martial arts expertise and passion for the film industry. His directorial debut, the groundbreaking wuxia classic Duel to the Death, marked the start of his directing career. Collaborating with producer Tsui Hark, he directed the critically acclaimed supernatural fantasy A Chinese Ghost Story, achieving international recognition.
6 Lau Kar-leung
Work includes The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Spiritual Boxer
Lau Kar-leung, has been influential in Hong Kong cinema over a span of 60 years, emerging as a renowned martial arts choreographer, actor, and director. His extensive contribution to the industry includes choreographing 176 films, appearing in 215 films, and directing 25 of his own, notably the timeless classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. He choreographed many of Chang Cheh’s earlier films and directed The Spiritual Boxer in 1975. Lau’s directorial works, such as Challenge of the Masters and Executioners from Shaolin, laid the foundation for his martial arts filmmaking approach, driven by the goal to authentically portray diverse kung fu styles and exalt the martial arts.
5 Jackie Chan
Work includes The Young Master and Police Story
Jackie Chan has achieved global recognition through his remarkable stunts, unique approach to fight scenes, and directing abilities. Directing and starring in films such as The Young Master and Police Story, Chan’s signature trait is his unwavering commitment to performing his own stunts, often pushing the boundaries of safety and enduring real injuries. He distinguishes himself by delivering authentic, full-contact fight scenes without relying on excessive camera tricks or jump cuts. Chan’s fights possess weight and intensity, capturing attention through their realistic impact. His ability to infuse humor into these sequences adds an extra layer of entertainment, showcasing his versatility as a master of action and comedy.
4 Wilson Yip
Work includes the Ip Man series
Hong Kong director Wilson Yip, best known for his Ip Man films, initially gained fame as a director known for idiosyncratic comedies, ghost stories, and dramas. However, it was his Ip Man series that catapulted him to international acclaim within the martial arts genre. The semi-biographical films portray Ip Man, a wing chun grandmaster, against the backdrop of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Donnie Yen in Ip Man is exceptional, depicting a master who transforms from a respected teacher into a symbol of strength for the oppressed. Yip’s directorial skills solidify the Ip Man series as a martial arts masterpiece.
3 Tsui Hark
Work includes The Swordsman, Dragon Inn, and Once Upon a Time in China
Tsui Hark’s movies are characterized by their boundless energy, unconventional approaches, and innovative filmmaking techniques. With blockbusters like Once Upon a Time in China and Detective Dee, Tsui achieved substantial commercial success, making him one of the highest-grossing Chinese-language filmmakers. Over his prolific career, he’s directed approximately 50 films, earning four Hong Kong Film Awards and one Golden Horse Award. Hark’s contributions to kung-fu action films — notably The Swordsman, The Legend of the Swordsman, and Dragon Inn — set new standards in the genre, reshaping the landscape of martial arts films.
2 Prachya Pinkaew
Work includes Ong-Bak Muay Thai Warrior, Chocolate, and Power Kids
Despite Prachya Pinkaew starting his career directing music videos, he made a significant impact in martial arts cinema by highlighting Muay Thai. In 2003, he directed Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, starring Tony Jaa, which became one of the best martial arts tournament movies. He followed with Tom-Yum-Goong; Chocolate, which features an autistic female martial artist seeking revenge; and Power Kids, a story of four young martial artists defending a hospital from terrorists. Known for breathtaking stunts executed by Jaa himself without special effects, Pinkaew’s work showcases intense martial arts action, solidifying his role in the genre’s evolution.
1 Yuen Woo Ping
Work includes Drunken Master and Snake in Eagle’s Shadow
Yuen Woo-Ping is a prominent film director within the martial arts genre. Initially beginning his career as a stuntman and martial arts choreographer, Ping ultimately transitioned into directing with the releases of Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master in 1978. These films marked the launch of Jackie Chan’s career and sparked a wave of comedy kung fu movies, such as Kung Fu Hustle, also choreographed by Ping.
Yuen’s remarkable contributions extended from Hong Kong to Hollywood, where he notably handled martial arts choreography for The Matrix trilogy and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. In Asia, Yuen directed Sammo Hung in Magnificent Butcher, propelled Donnie Yen’s career with Drunken Tai Chi, and shaped Jet Li’s screen presence in movies like The Tai Chi Master. Yuen’s innovative approach to martial arts choreography and dedication to exploring new styles have made him an iconic figure in the industry.