Have you seen clips of those Asian movies with people flying around while swordfighting, but never really gave much thought to watching the whole movie? Or have you been interested in them but never really knew where to start? The following list can help you out with that!
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
This is easily the most well-known and easily accessible wuxia film in the US thanks to the praise and acclaim it garnered during its release in 2000 and its subsequent Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA wins. Combining several love stories, beautiful cinematography, and (at the time) awe-inspiring choreography, Crouching Tiger should be one of the very first wuxia movies you ever see. Starring Chow-Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen.
Zhang Ziyi returned in 2002 to the wuxia genre with this parallel to Akira Kuorsawa’s Rashomon alongside Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Director Zhang Yimou doesn’t hold back on the fantasy aspect with vibrant costumes and gratuitous martial arts while still keeping the plot and characters grounded with very real interpersonal struggles. “Hero” is still widely regarded as Yimou’s masterpiece.
House of Flying Daggers (2004)
Yimou and Zhang reunited in 2004 for this epic love story. Where Crouching Tiger had romance as secondary to the main plot, Flying Daggers is very much a romance from the get-go with the action and drama as secondary. Yimou’s flair for choreography, visuals, and characterization doesn’t falter.
Seven Swords (2005)
This is the perfect example of what could have been a great movie/series, but just didn’t garner enough critical reception. I enjoyed the film for what it was, but because the director ended it on such a cliffhanger with the intent of making five more sequels it almost felt like a cheap tease. That said, it’s still visually stunning and a nice homage to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
Curse of the Golden Flower (2006)
Zhang Yimou seems to be the master of modern wuxia with as many films of his are on this list. Golden Flower is very Shakespearean in terms of family drama mingling with political intrigue, and combined with breathtaking costumes, scenery, and fight scenes it’s one of the best of the genre. It’s worth noting that international pop star Jay Chou plays Prince Jai. While many films starring popular music stars usually end up suffering from trying to give the musician more screen time than their characters deserve, Golden Flower is (thankfully) not one of those films and certainly worth a watch or three.
Ye Yan/The Banquet/Legend of the Black Scorpion (2006)
Another Shakespearean wuxia film, this time loosely based on Hamlet, Ye Yan/The Banquet was released in the US at film festivals and on DVD as Legend of the Black Scorpion. Director Xiaogang Feng takes the already highly stylized world of wuxia and turns it up a few notches for this film.
A Touch of Zen (1971)
If you liked Crouching Tiger, you have to see A Touch of Zen if for no other reason than the bamboo fight scene popularized in the former film was heavily inspired by the one in Zen. Although by today’s standards it may seem melodramatic and the effects cheesy, Zen is still worth at least one viewing just to see where those bamboo forest fight scenes in Crouching Tiger and Flying Daggers came from (and remember how cheesy special effects in general were in the 70s before writing Zen off).
One of my favorite film genres and an excellent list, Hero and House of Flying Daggers are fantastic (as all of these are for various reasons). I’ll add Red Cliff (*epic* action adventure drama) and Kung Fu Hustle (comedy adventure) to the list.