Kung-Fu in the Media

More than any other martial art or style of fighting, Kung-Fu has benefited and benefited from its representation on the silver screen. Some of the first films to feature martial arts contained strong elements of fantasy, where heroes could fly and competed with magical weapons. This genre of martial arts movie is known as Wuxia and is still popular today, with mainland China pumping out big budget Wuxia films such as Hero and House of the Flying Daggers. Wuxia novels were already very popular in early 20th century China but by the 1930s the central government had decided the genre’s content was too subversive and banned it. Thus the British enclave of Hong Kong became the new centre of Wuxia films and Martial Arts cinema in general.

By the 1930s, Hong Kong movie production houses began to catch on to the popularity of Chinese Opera and began filming and distributing it. This was to form the foundation for Hong Kong action cinema as we know it today. Chinese Opera involves a varied cast of legendary generals, warriors and female characters, all played by men. Besides the musical element, martial arts acrobats perform dazzling sequences of backflips, somersaults (including doubles), flips, kicks and rolls in a choreographed display of mock-combat that is crucial to the story line. Such men were hard trained and highly skilled. The genre of movies that their skills enabled, revolutionised film combat worldwide.

The decades of the 1970s and 80s saw a move away from Wuxia films and towards a new grittier type of violent martial arts movies. Seriously talented martial artists came to the fore, as more time was dedicated to elaborate action sequences. The Shaw Brothers studios released many classic Kung-Fu films such as The Five Deadly Venoms, and 36th Chamber of Shaolin that can still be bought on DVD today.

Around this same time, a young American-born, Chinese actor burst onto the international scene who was to revolutionise martial arts movies and martial arts in general in a way that could never have been imagined. Bruce Lee, a student of Yip Man, was an exponent of Wing Chun with movie star good looks and legendary charisma. His physical prowess was undisputable and he was so fast that other champion martial artists simply could not block his punches. Bruce Lee was an accomplished fighter, philosopher and created his own style of Kung-Fu, Jeet Kune Do or way of the exploding fist. His first three movies broke box office records and the classic Enter The Dragon was the highest grossing movie ever to have come out of Asia. Worldwide success boosted the popularity of Kung-Fu a thousandfold and all over the USA and Europe, martial arts schools were opening up and taking in students who wanted to be just like their hero, Bruce Lee. Sadly Bruce Lee died in mysterious circumstances when he was in his 33rd year. A variety of stories surround his controversial demise, including rumours that he received the death touch from a rival Kung-Fu master for exposing martial arts secrets to the west, that he died from an adverse reaction to pain killers or that his family was cursed. The last theory raised its ugly head again when his son Brandon died in equally strange circumstances, some 20 years later. Bruce Lee’s contribution to Kung-Fu can never be overestimated and his personal legacy will live on forever.

After the death of Bruce Lee, greedy movie producers tried to cash in on what they saw as a sure fire cash cow. They searched desperately for a successor and contracted average or below average martial artists who looked like the late superstar and would change their names to Bruce Lai, Bruce Li and a host of other sound-alikes.

When a new star finally arose he came from the bottom up and as a result of his own set of unique skills. With his average looks and questionable acting ability, Jackie Chan was an unlikely hero. However, his comic ability and breathtaking acrobatic skill presented something entirely new and the cinema-going public loved him. The young Jackie had stunt doubled for the late Bruce Lee on a number of occasions. He had already been kicked through a wall and even had his nose (accidentally) broken by Lee. Having been brought up in the Peking Opera school under a harsh regime of 24 hr training days that killed weaker students (the school made parents sign a disclaimer), Chan and his Operas school buddies, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung, were well prepared for anything the movies could throw at them. Instead Jackie Chan threw himself at them – out of windows, from trains, clock towers and dangling from flying helicopters. In terms of martial arts, Jackie invented a whole new genre entitled Kung-fu comedy, and drew on classic Kung-Fu systems such as Tiger Claw and Monkey to create unique styles and personalities. His self-performed, self-conceived insane stunts saw him break almost every bone in his body, brush with death at least a couple of times and become the most famous action star in the world.

With the international success of Hong Kong’s action movie industry, mainland China finally started to sit up and take notice. They had their own star – five times all-China Wushu champion, Jet Li. Containing a strong element of nationalism, Jet Li’s films often focused on traditional martial arts stories, featuring classic Chinese folk heroes such as Wong Fei Hung. By the 1990’s, China had reversed in its policy towards Wuxia films and began to be the main producer of the genre. Films featuring aerial wire work became known as Wire-Fu, as in contrast to Jackie Chan’s all real choreography approach, Wire-Fu glamourised the action by taking it to magical extremes.

The level of detail and skill involved in Chinese martial arts movies has made its influence felt in movie making countries across the world. Bollywood regularly pumps out action blockbusters featuring martial arts choreography. Meanwhile, there are few Hollywood action blockbusters today that don’t have some kind of Asian influence in their fight or stunt choreography. The impact on the martial arts has been enormous and, thanks to Kung-Fu movies, many young people draw inspiration and begin a lifetime career of dedicated martial arts practice. One would be hard pushed to find a Kung-Fu or martial arts practitioner today who has not watched some, if not all, of Bruce Lee’s, Jackie Chan’s and Jet Li’s finest moments, in addition to a couple of Shaw Brothers classics, possibly several times each.