This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
I love martial arts movies and I love Christmas so I’m kinda sad that the two have never really come together (Kung Fu Panda Holiday doesn’t count). I’d hoped to find at least one good example to write about, as we move into the festive period, but I guess since most martial arts films come from Buddhist countries and Christmas is a Christian holiday, I was destined for disappointment.
I did briefly consider making one up with the aid of Photoshop, but wasn’t sure I could get away with it so, alas, The 25th Advent Chamber Of Shaolin is not to be. For what it’s worth, I’d got as far as an apprentice monk named Ho, fighting his way through 25 “doors” of a giant temple designed to resemble an advent calendar. Each fighter he faces has a different festive weapon (e.g. giant glowing star, fatal bauble on a rope, poison holly leaves) and the final door reveals an ancient silver-haired bearded monk in red robes with a deep booming laugh. Great, right? Interested producers can reach me via the usual channels.
In the meantime, a more sensible approach to my conundrum of martial arts festivity is to take a look at ten of the greatest fights to ever happen in the snow. So grab a cup of hot sake, wrap up warm and let’s go knocking and blocking in a winter wonderland…
[Warning: Contains spoilers for House Of Flying Daggers]
1. Kung Fu Yoga
While few would list the recent Kung Fu Yoga as one of their favorite Jackie Chan films, it does have a couple of standout set pieces that make it worth a look. There’s a hilarious car chase with a CGI lion in the passenger seat, but most impressively, a mass brawl in a cave full of ice. This is probably the moment that most resembles classic Chan as he and his stunt team acrobatically slip and slide their way across frosty platforms while punching and kicking each other in the face. Ice to knee you? To knee you, ice!
2. Ninja Over The Great Wall
Of all the Bruce Lee clones, you could usually rely on Bruce Le to deliver the madness but, despite this being a Fist Of Fury knock-off with ninjas, he was on unusually restrained form here. Written and directed by Le himself, Ninja Over The Great Wall is quite a talky film with a bleak tone but has a few standout fight scenes that show what a formidable, underrated martial artist Le was. The ninja section in the middle (call it a ninterlude) is particularly nutty, featuring a flaming ninjas and – to justify its inclusion here – a scene where Bruce fights off a gang of SNOW NINJAS, who have to be seen to be believed.
3. First Strike
Jackie Chan’s fourth Police Story sequel tones down the violence but what it lacks in duffings up, it makes up for in STUNTS. One of its most memorable scenes is the snowy mountain chase, in which Jackie is pursued by assailants on snowboards and snowmobiles who all want to get their hands on his MacGuffin. There’s some staggering moments including one where a snowmobile flies inches over his head and, most breathtaking of all, when he leaps off an exploding helicopter into the snow just moments before the bang. Truly some of the maddest, most risky stunt work ever committed to film.
4. The Grandmaster
Wong Kar-wai’s existential epic blends modern cinematic fighting with grandiose romantic drama, telling the Ip Man story from a lateral perspective. The real star of the film is arguably Zhang Ziyi as an expert martial artist who devotes herself to vengeance when disaster strikes her family. Without wishing to spoil the story (much of which takes place in appropriately inclement weather!), there’s one absolutely fantastic Ziyi snow fight in a station. The speeding trains going by ups the sense of danger and, while the snow itself is somewhat ‘enhanced’ by CGI, there’s no denying Wong’s ability to shoot a beautiful scene. This is gorgeously lit, impeccably choreographed stuff.
5. Zatoichi Challenged
The 17th entry in Shintaro Katsu’s Zatoichi series finds the blind swordsman swearing an oath to a dying woman: that he’ll escort her son to his father in a faraway town. Their journey takes in all the usual array of shady gangsters, roamin’ ronin and deadly obstacles, before ending with a mindblowing snow fight. It’s an emotional and philosophical scene as much as a physical one but the choreographed swordplay is stunning and the atmospheric conditions lend it a spectral beauty, as the two fighters cross blades in probably the heaviest snowfall on this list. The evening light fades to darkness in the background while they battle, mirroring the poignant, melancholic note on which the film ends.
6. Chinese Boxer
Jimmy Wang Yu’s directorial debut is one of those martial arts films that changed the genre forever. It was one of the first to focus on bare-handed combat over weaponry, and the brutality on display moved audience tastes away from the more balletic wuxia of the 60s into violent, bloody fistfights. It still stands up as an impressively pacy, colourful and exciting piece and there’s an incredible sequence where Wang Yu takes on some Japanese fighters in the snow (a nice nod to classic samurai cinema). Shot on a combination of Shaw Studio soundstages and frosty Korean locations, the fight remains a classic from a truly great kung fu flick.
7. Sword Of Doom
One of the most bleak and brutal samurai tales of its era, Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword Of Doom (1966) remains an impactful watch. When its star Tatsuya Nakadai saw it again at a recent screening, he exclaimed “What a terrifying film!” at the end. If you can call it an end, that is. Its failure to fully conclude itself comes from the fact that it was originally meant be the first part of trilogy that never happened (and was based on a 41-volume novel series!) but this only makes it a more abstract, unnerving experience.
The fight scenes verge on nightmarish and the standout sees Toshiro Mifune – as Okamoto’s rival – calmly slices his way through wave upon wave of attackers in the snow, barely breaking a sweat as hands fly off, blood sprays in fountains and the bodies of nameless assailants stack up in their masses. Mifune’s performance is as graceful and cold as the weather surrounding it.
8. House Of Flying Daggers
Zhang Yimou’s ultra-lavish wuxia climaxes with a spectacular snowdown between Andy Lau and Takeshi Kaneshiro. There’s some impressive swordplay and leaping around, but also a pair of passionate performances as each character has so much to play for at this stage in the story. It also ends on a genuinely shocking twist. But what makes it one of the most impressive snow fights is that it was all a happy accident. Most of the film was shot in Ukraine and the weather there was unpredictable. The morning the fight was due to shoot, it had snowed overnight and showed no sign of stopping so they just went with it, creating one of the most gorgeous, iconic fight scenes in martial arts history.
9. White Heaven In Hell
One of the most astonishing snow fights comes at the conclusion of the mighty Lone Wolf And Cub series. Rogue samurai Itto Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) and his infant son Daigoro find themselves far from the verdant landscapes of home, as their road to Hell runs out. The climactic fight sees Itto slice and dice his way through literally hundreds of extras, deep red spurting across the white snow in gallons. It’s spectacular stuff and was enormously dangerous to film, with both Wakayama and Tomikawa coming close to death (Tomikawa was eventually replaced with a doll!) but the choreography and photography create something truly special from their suffering.
10. Snowblood: Blizzard From The Netherworld
“What cleans this world is not pure snow, but the fire-red snow of the netherworld…” Sounds great, huh? And it will pretty much make sense to you by the time you’ve watched Meiko Kaji take her hellbent revenge on the men who raped and murdered her family. Oft-imitated but never bettered (from Taiwanese knock-offs like The Woman Avenger to Tarantino knock-offs like Kill Bill), Toshiya Fujita’s adaptation of this classic manga gives you serious bang for your buck when it comes to fighting in sub-zero temperatures. The image of Kaji leaping through the snow, deadly umbrella in hand, is one of the most beautiful and iconic I can think of and you’ll want to turn the heating on just watching it. As rich in symbolism as it is in baroque ultraviolence, this is atmospheric combat at its finest.
I hope this list has inspired a few stocking fillers for the martial arts fan in your life and feel free to leave me your own favourite snow fights in the comments below!