Chinese cinema, be it mainland or Hong Kong, has produced a wide range of cinematic classics. There are legendary martial arts movies like The Chinese Connection, crime dramas like Hard Boiled, and romantic thrillers like Lust, Caution. One of their classic homegrown genres is wuxia, epic movies about martial arts masters set in the past.
They can be serious, funny, magical, down-to-earth, or otherwise, so long as they uphold justice by dealing with oppressors and other never-do-wells. Not that they’re always so cut and dry as they can be more complex. There are plenty of great examples but, in order of recommendation, these are the best Wuxia movies around.
8/8 Come Drink With Me
Come Drink With Me is one of the oldest wuxia movies to find popularity in the West, being released all the way back in 1966. However, it was a landmark title in the wuxia genre, directed by one of its most famous directors: King Hu. The movie was also the breakout film for Cheng Pei-Pei, who’d become an icon as one of wuxia’s first and longest-running female action stars.
In Come Drink With Me, she plays Golden Swallow, an expert swordswoman who’s sent to save her brother from bandits. She’s aided in her journey by a beggar, Drunken Cat, who has his own grudge against the bandits and their ally, Liao Kung. The movie caught on so well that Cheng Pei-Pei would return as the same character in Golden Swallow, though it wasn’t quite as exciting as her action debut here.
7/8 The Bride with White Hair
Loosely based on the novel Romance of the White-Haired Maiden by Liang Yusheng, Ronny Yu’s movie is a brightly colored epic with dark overtones and gray morality. It follows Zhuo, the head of an army unit tasked with protecting China from an evil cult. During a battle, he comes across Lian, a woman raised by wolves who was later taken in by the cult’s conjoined twin leaders.
Zhuo and Lian fall for each other and wish for a quieter life. But circumstances change when Zhuo’s comrades are found murdered one night, with Lian as the number one suspect. Now he has to choose between serving his country or staying by Lian’s side. It did get a sequel that reunites the star-crossed couple, and a TV series adaptation, but the original movie remains the best in both action and narrative.
6/8 The Swordsman Trilogy
The Swordsman movies were also loose novel adaptations, based somewhat on Louis Cha’s book The Smiling, Proud Warrior. The first of the three, which sees a young swordsman protect a special scroll from a range of interested parties, was initially directed by King Hu, before being completed by Tsui Hark and a team of executive producers.
Swordsman II, which is generally regarded as the best, has Jet Li take up the Swordsman role and face off against The Bride with White Hair’s Brigitte Lin’s cult leader from taking over Ming Dynasty China. The third movie, The East is Red, follows Lin’s character as they deal with an imposter trying to rebuild their cult without them.
5/8 Kung Fu Hustle
Stephen Chow’s action comedy classic is set in the 1940s, a fairly modern era for wuxia. Yet the genre was a source of inspiration for the movie’s lampoons. For example, rather than starting with a righteous protagonist, it starts with a lowly gangster called Sing who proves hopeless as a villain when he tries threatening the tenants of a bunch of slums.
When he joins the slum’s battle against his old gang though, he soon taps into his true potential and becomes a force to be reckoned with. While the movie spoofs kung fu flicks, wuxia, and otherwise, it does so affectionately. Instead of making fun of the genre, it makes the genre more fun. The movie has funny sight gags, effects, and lines, alongside great fight sequences choreographed by Chow and industry legend Yuen Woo-Ping.
4/8 A Touch of Zen
This classic from King Hu started filming in 1968 but wasn’t completed until 1971. The production took so long that it was originally released in Taiwan as a two-parter, as the movie’s second half was still being shot while the first was released. They were combined into one later, though it still took another four years before it won the Technical Grand Prize at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie follows a sedentary artist, Gu Sheng-Tsai, whose life is turned upside down when Princess Yang Hui-Zhen turns up. She’s on the run from the evil general Ou-Yang Nian, who murdered her entire family. Gu is made to join her circle of protectors, as he learns to add martial arts to his repertoire through Nian’s rival Shih Wen-Qiao and the monk Hui-Yuan.
3/8 New Dragon Gate Inn
The original Dragon Gate Inn from 1967 was another King Hu classic. However, its 1992 remake New Dragon Gate Inn improved on it with Raymond Lee’s updated direction and Tsui Hark’s production. That’s not to mention its all-star cast featuring Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen.
The movie is about two warring factions in Ming Dynasty China clashing at a dusty old tavern in the middle of the desert. Its proprietor, Jade, seeks to make a profit from both Yau Mo-Yan and Chow Wai-On’s rebels, and the ruthless eunuch Tsao Siu-Yan’s East Chamber forces. However, she ends up stuck in the conflict when Chow tries to marry her in order to get one-up on Tsao. Instead of cash, Jade will end up with the battle of the century on her doorstep.
2/8 Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Ang Lee’s wuxia classic needs no introduction. Released back in 2000, it remains the highest-grossing foreign language movie in US history. Also, with ten nominations, it’s tied with 2018’s Roma as the foreign language movie with the most Academy Award nominations. It had a big cast too, with established names like Chow Yun-Fat and Michelle Yeoh, rising stars like Ziyi Zhang, and wuxia legend Cheng Pei-Pei.
Based on Wang Dulu’s 1941 novel, the movie sees Wudang swordsman Li Mu-Bai entrust Yu Shu-Lien, the woman he loves, with his ‘Green Destiny’ sword. He wants her to pass it to their mutual benefactor Sir Te, but it gets stolen by a masked thief in the middle of the night. It turns out one of Mu-Bai’s old enemies, Jade Fox, had convinced Jen Yu, the daughter of the local governor, to take the sword for herself. Now the elders have to take it back from her and set her back on the right path.
When it comes to the best of the best, it’s hard to go wrong with either of Zhang Yimou’s classics Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Though as great as the latter is, the former just slightly beats it by a hair; if only because Hero spent its initial release as a hidden gem. It was released in 2002 with a cast of big stars, including Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Zhang Ziyi, yet it took two years and urging from Quentin Tarantino for the movie to make its way West.
It was worth the wait too. It uses its color themes and swirling stunts beautifully, and has a fascinating Rashomon-style story. It’s about a nameless prefect from the state of Qin recounting to his king how he fought off a range of assassins who tried to claim his life. The king challenges his version of events with his own deductions, though neither may be the full truth. Every character has their own reasons for skewing the truth, and viewers will have to watch it in full to put the pieces together. It’s a treat for the brain as well as the eyes.