Jimmy Wang Yu: The Essential Martial Arts Movies

Before Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, there was Jimmy Wang Yu, the pioneering Kung Fu superstar who literally kickstarted the martial arts movie genre.

Martial Arts Movie Star Jimmy Wang Yu
Photo: Shaw Brothers

On April 5th, 2022, the martial arts world lost one of its very first cinematic heroes. Jimmy Wang Yu passed away peacefully at the Taipei Zhenxing Hospital at the age of 80 after a six-year battle with declining health. Upon hearing the news, Jackie Chan posted on his blog, “The contributions you’ve made to kung fu movies, and the support and wisdom you’ve given to the younger generations will always be remembered in the industry.”

By younger generations, Jackie was referring to himself. Wang helped Jackie get a foothold in Kung Fu movies. In 1976, Wang faced Chan in one of Chan’s earliest Kung Fu films, Killer Meteors. Wang co-directed the film with Hong Kong movie mogul Lo Wei, and after Chan and Wei clashed, Wang helped young Jackie get things sorted out. 

Wang starred in nearly 90 films most of which were Wuxia films, the genre of chivalrous martial arts masters. He also wrote and directed about a dozen movies, several of which he starred in as well. He began making films in 1965 with Temple of the Red Lotus (a lackluster Kung Fu saga only remembered because it marked Wang’s debut) and continued as a movie star until 2013.

Ironically, Wang didn’t begin with a martial arts background. He was an Army veteran, a champion swimmer, and a race car enthusiast who learned martial arts for the movies. And he could fight. Wang was often associated with street brawls.

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Wang was a controversial star. There were many allegations about his triad connections. He had scandalous relationships. He had an affair with the wife of one of his directors triggering a divorce that led to that director’s suicide. Wang married twice but his first wife accused him of abuse and his second had an affair that Wang publicly exposed by bringing press and police to their confrontation. In 1981, he was charged with murder, but charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. 

Nevertheless, Wang is remembered for his sanguineous legacy of brutally macho action films. In 2014, Wang was honored with the New York Asian Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2019, he was recognized with Taiwan’s most illustrious Lifetime Achievement award at the 56th Golden Horse Awards. Den of Geek has assembled this retrospective of ten of Jimmy Wang Yu’s most notable films.

The One-Armed Swordsman (1967)

The One-Armed Swordsman catapulted Wang to stardom, both launching a long-running franchise and defining many of his successive roles. Wang plays Fang Kang, an orphan who gets his arm cut off by his master’s petulant daughter. Directed by Wuxia master Chang Cheh, the two would team up for a sequel, Return of the One-Armed Swordsman (1969) and then Chang tried to replace him with David Chiang in The New One-Armed Swordsman (1971).

But no one could replace Wang. Wang ran with his one-armed anti-hero characters. He starred in Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) which will be discussed later, One Armed Swordsman Against Nine Killers (1976) and One-Armed Swordsman (1976). 

This ’76 One-Armed Swordman is noteworthy because Wang and Chiang played rival one-armed swordsmen. What’s more, Wang and Chiang shared the director’s chair. This film contains a hysterical bar swordfight where a gaggle of hooligans just can’t get the edge on Chiang and Wang as they merrily drink and kick butt. It has lots of silly drunken Kung Fu effects, like tossing a wine pot up in the air, cutting a foe, and then catching it for another drink without spilling a drop.

Wang also played another famous one-armed role as Yu Tien Lung in One Armed Boxer (1971). He reprised the character in the more famous sequel, Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976) which will also be discussed later. Wang also wrote and directed both of those films. 

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Golden Swallow (1968)

This is the sequel to the groundbreaking film Come Drink with Me (1966) starring the first Kung Fu queen, Cheng Pei-Pei. Most western audiences remember Cheng for her role as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), but that came after a long career in that spanned over a hundred Wuxia films. Cheng reprises her role as the fiercely independent swordswoman Golden Swallow. 

Come Drink with Me was a game changer because Golden Swallow was so liberated. She wasn’t a damsel in distress by any measure. She was a better fighter than hordes of men. Golden Swallow undoes that by making her the object of a duel between rivals, Wang as Silver Roc and Lieh Lo as Iron Whip. Wang emerges as the central figure in this story, despite Cheng being the titular character. Nevertheless, this is a classic example of Shawscope in full effect – the panoramic widescreen style of the legendary Wuxia movie grindhouse that was Shaw Brothers. Directed by Chang Cheh, the sweeping landscapes and spectacular scenery are so sumptuous that they almost upstage the Kung Fu swordplay.

The Chinese Boxer a.k.a. Hammer of God (1970)

The Chinese Boxer was a precursor to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury (1972). Without it, Fist of Fury might never have been made. This film ushered in a new style of Kung Fu movie. Instead of the classical Wuxia period pieces with flying swordsmen and Daoist sorcery, this film was grounded in more realistic hand-to-hand combat, with just a smattering of Kung Fu myth. Like Fist of Fury, it exploits the Chinese Kung Fu versus Japanese Karate rivalry in a bloodthirsty feud that escalates intensity with each fight. The film was written and directed by Wang, who also played the hero, Lei Ming. Opposing him again was Lo Lieh, playing the dastardly Japanese master Kitashima. 

Another example of Shawscope, the magnitude of some of the crowd scenes is impressive. Shaw Brothers was massive, akin to the golden age of Hollywood, where a studio would contractually own their stable of actors and have complete control over their careers. Wang rejected this notion and broke his contract with Shaw Brothers after this film, which led him to be blacklisted in Hong Kong. Many of his remaining films were made in Taiwan under other studios like Golden Harvest. 

The Chinese Boxer was also immensely successful for Wang, cementing his reign as the King of Kung Fu. The audience ate up this new ultraviolent take on Kung Fu films. The Chinese Boxer is full of graphic bloody kills and acts of brutal vengeance, setting the tone for B-grade Kung Fu cinema for years. Until Bruce Lee dethroned him, Wang became the highest paid actor in the genre. 

Wang made a sequel seven years later. The Return of the Chinese Boxer (1977) was directed by Wang and starred him again, pitting him against a ninja clan.  

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Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman (1971)

Of the one-armed swordsmen films, this one is the most cited because it represented the crossover of two franchises, Zatoichi, the blind swordsman (Shintaro Katsu) and Wang’s one-armed swordsman, renamed Wang Kang, perhaps to dodge copyright issues. For Kung Fu movie fans, it’s a clash of mega-titans like Godzilla vs. Kong. A cooperative effort between the Japanese Katsu Productions and Chinese Wing Luen Movie Film Company, it leans more towards classical Kung Fu choreography than samurai chanbara. Even the sound effects sound more like a Kung Fu flick. Miscommunications between Zatoichi and Wang as both speak their native tongues provide most of the comedy. 

Zatoichi and the One-Armed Swordsman includes some tasty ultraviolence: a toothpick to the eyeball, an ear-ectomy, a severed sword bearing hand echoed by Star Wars. However, it’s not a stand-out example of Zatoichi films, which is such an amazing franchise that it’s part of the Criterion Collection. It’s more of a failed attempt to crossover to the Kung Fu market, a deviant side note. 

There’s a prevailing rumor that there were two versions of the film. In the Japanese version, Zatoichi wins the final duel. In the Chinese version, both heroes die. However, the Chinese version has disappeared. Perhaps it never existed.

On a side note, the soundtrack is by Isao Tomita, or as many know him, Tomita. Tomita was a pioneer of electronic and space music during the 70s who covered many classical arrangements with synthesizers. 

The Man from Hong Kong (1975)

In a break from his typical period martial arts films, Wang took on this modern-day spin on vigilantes and spies akin in the spirit of James Bond, so much so that it stars one-time Bond George Lazenby. After leaving Bond, Lazenby attempted to get some traction in Chinese cinema with this film and Stoner (1974) costarring Angela Mao Ying. The Man from Hong Kong was a more successful venture – a satirical self-aware film that aspires only to entertain with some solid action and humor.

Australia had its own unique brand of grindhouse actioners, dubbed Ozsploitation. This film was an early cooperation between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest studios and Australia’s The Movie Company and The Man from Hong Kong is a fun mash up of the Ozploitation and Kung Fu genres.

Wang plays Inspector Fang Sing Leng of the Royal Hong Kong Police Force sent to Sydney to aid the Australian Federal Narcotics Bureau when a Chinese drug smuggler turns up. Lazenby plays Jack Wilton, a drug kingpin who happens to run a martial arts school. As neither Wang nor Lazenby were martial artists, the fight scenes are less polished than when Wang has been on his own turf. Nevertheless, the fights are given a boost veteran Sammo Hung, who served as Martial Arts Choreographer.

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The Man from Hong Kong shines in its irreverence, aided with some death-defying stunts, spectacular settings, and keen cinematography (the cinematographer was Russell Boyd who later won an Oscar for his work on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). 

Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)

This is one of the most beloved films of the Wuxia genre, a true masterpiece of Wang’s that he wrote, directed, and starred as the central character, Yu Tien Lung. Yu is hunted by another blind master, Fung Sheng Wu Chi (Kam Kong), who is seeking to avenge his two fighters that were killed in the previous film, One Armed Boxer. Fung kills any one-armed person he finds in hopes of getting revenge.

Yu must face a colorful gang of villains, a Muay Thai fighter, a Japanese weapons master, and a yoga master named Yogi Tro Le Soung (Wong Wing-sang in brown face portraying an Indian in a gonzo fight scene that just demands to be seen). But the real star of the show is the flying guillotine, a bladed frisbee basket attached to a chain that is tossed over an opponent’s head. And when sprung, it lops off that head so it can be yanked back to the user in the neat basket. 

The flying guillotine has become an iconic weapon. Wang poached it from its an earlier film, Flying Guillotine (1975). It has that gruesome campiness that makes the Wuxia genre so charming in a savagely gratuitous way. The flying guillotine gimmick became its own franchise, although not a continuous one. It was more about ripping off the make-believe weapon from previous films. There’s even a film called Zatoichi and the Flying Guillotine (1974) but it’s not Shintaro Katsu in the titular role. It’s a look-alike named Teruo Sakamaki.

The Prisoner a.k.a. Island of Fire (1990)

After Wang bailed out Jackie Chan from his dispute with Lo Wei in Killer Meteors, Chan returned the favor after he found success by having cameos in two of Wang’s films: Fantasy Mission Force (1983) and The Prisoner which Wang produced. Chan only has a small yet significant role, despite being heavily advertised in the marketing. Anyone expecting a Jackie Chan film will be sorely disappointed. 

The film is a modern deep cover cop story. Wang Wei (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is investigating the assassination of his father-in-law by going to prison and there he encounters fellow prisoners Da Chui (Jackie Chan), Iron Ball (Andy Lau), and Fatty (Sammo Hung). Wang portrays Kui, a shot-caller who protects Chui from Iron Ball because Chui accidentally killed his brother. It’s a grim and tragic tale, a far cry from typical Jackie Chan fare or Jimmy Wang Yu Wuxia bloodbaths. The dark, gritty tone of the film can put some viewers off, leaning more towards a John Woo film than Chang Cheh, but it’s a showcase of the dramatic skills of this stellar ensemble cast. 

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Dragon a.k.a. Wuxia a.k.a. The Swordsman (2011)

This Donnie Yen led film is a brilliant example of a well-made modern-made Wuxia film that captures the spirit of the old school films while updating them with today’s cinematographic sensibilities. It has all the complexities and intrigue so pervasive in the genre: mythic heroes and villains with filial baggage, a star-studded cast and thrilling fight scenes, now with CGI-enhanced dim mak death touches. 

Dragon allegedly began as a modern reboot of One-Armed Swordsman, but that concept was abandoned (there’s a nod to this when Yen’s character Liu must sever his own arm). Wang plays the Master, and more. It’s a meaty and mature role for Wang, who dials into his ever-present dark side with zeal. It also marked a triumphant return to acting for Wang, whose last prior film was Drug Connection in 1983. And starring as the Master’s wife is the other often unsung queen of Kung Fu films, Kara Hui. 

In 2011, Wang suffered his first stroke which resulted in him losing strength on his left side. Ironically, he lost the use of his left arm. However, ever the fighter, Wang threw himself into his physical therapy, doing his exercises three to five times more than what was required. He managed to regain his some of his strength and his ability to speak and walk. He even drove himself, using one hand, and returned to film work. 

The Guillotines (2012)

In the wake of Dragon, The Guillotines was a remake of Flying Guillotine (not to be confused with Master of the Flying Guillotine). However, it omits the main star of the flying guillotine franchise – the flying guillotine itself. There’s an early explanation which shows the evolution of the flying guillotine from the beloved noggin-snatching bladed basket to a CGI sharpened aerobie flung from a telescopic jai alai cesta. Consequently, despite ample fight scenes, the martial arts are lacking. It’s more like a superhero film.

The Guillotines attempts to compensate for the lack of its key decapitation star with gorgeous costumes and panoramic landscapes, but it doesn’t quite suffice. The film is overflowing with gratuitous slo-mo scenes of various missile weapons: bullets, arrows, cannonballs, and of course, the next gen guillotines, so much so that the film would be much better served if watched in 3D. And like so many Chinese films today, it is also dripping with underlying patriotic themes to the point of being propaganda. 

Wang has a minor role as Gong-E. His role almost seems as if it was given to him out of respect. This was his penultimate film.

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Soul (2013)

Wang’s final film was a marked departure from his usual work. Soul is an arthouse horror film where Wang plays Wang, the father of A-chuan (Hsiao-chuan Chang) who becomes possessed by the demonic spirit of a psychopathic killer. It’s a good role for Wang, who brings a genuine gravitas to the aging suspicious father as he struggles to understand and then exorcise the evil from his son. Wang always had a stoic approach to acting akin to many leading action stars like Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris. Here, he’s subtle style works to convey his growing dread as his son’s maliciousness emerges. 

Soul was well received by critics and earned Wang a Best Actor award at the Taipei Film Festival. It was Taiwan’s official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 86th Academy Awards but was not nominated to the short list. 

Wang suffered successive strokes in his later years. He made a few appearances but generally faded from the public eye. Soul stands as a unique conclusion to Wang’s extraordinary career.