Today marks the theatrical release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Assassin,” the tale of an assassin (Shu Qi) who is ordered to kill the man she loves. But “The Assassin” is only the latest entry in the massive martial arts film genre known as wuxia.
Born out of classic Chinese literature, wuxia films often tell stories from China’s ancient or medieval past, with romance and melodrama thrown in for good measure. Less realistic than its cousin, the kung fu film, wuxia often includes gravity-defying stunts where legendary warriors fly through the air or punch holes straight through their enemies’ chests.
Wuxia stands out among the broader action genre in that it doesn’t deny its female characters’ ability to save the day. In honor of “The Assassin’s” release, here are eight wuxia films whose women never hesitate to pick up a sword and fight, oftentimes doing so better than the men around them.
“A Touch of Zen” (1969)
Taiwanese filmmaker King Hu’s name appears multiple times on this list, and for good reason. For years, the director was the be-all-end-all creator of wuxia films, and his 1969 classic “A Touch of Zen” is one of the first wuxia films to bring the genre the international acclaim it so deserves, garnering a Palme d’Or nomination at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival. In “A Touch of Zen,” a bumbling and ineffectual provincial painter incurs the wrath of a corrupted eunuch (a common antagonist in wuxia films) when he helps a beautiful young fugitive lay low. The fugitive, Yang, turns out to be the daughter of a nobleman murdered at the hands of the eunuch, and while the two fight back, Yang ends up doing a vast majority of the heavy lifting. Quick, intelligent and far more capable than her dopey companion, Yang cuts down her foes and avenges her father, even achieving enlightenment at the film’s close.
“Come Drink With Me” (1966)
Another King Hu classic, “Come Drink With Me” tells the story of Golden Swallow, a warrior princess played by Pei-Pei Cheng who must take down a notorious gang of thieves while negotiating the safe release of her captive brother. Golden Swallow is the ultimate warrior, single-handedly taking down a whole bar full of assailants and barely even hesitating to dive headfirst into a bandit-infested temple. One of the film’s final fights is a sight to behold, with Golden Swallow leading her elite all-female troupe of bodyguards into battle. Golden Swallow runs through the battlefield in an expertly filmed tracking shot, effortlessly cutting down enemy after enemy.
Winner of four Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Feature, “Crouching Tiger” is jam-packed with women who fight just as well, if not better, than the men around them. Michelle Yeoh performs all her own stunts as veteran warrior Shu Lien, Ziyi Zhang makes her martial arts debut as the repressed Jen, and Pei-Pei Cheng, who played Golden Swallow in “Come Drink With Me” almost 40 years earlier, is the master assassin Jade Fox. A strong feminist current runs through the entirety of the film, with each woman refusing to live the lives prescribed to them by men. Yeoh and Zhang especially stand out, fighting each other one-on-one in one of the best fight scenes the wuxia genre has to offer.
“Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons” (2013)
Wuxia tends to be a rather serious genre. Melodramatic romance and epic conflicts between good and evil don’t always make for the most light-hearted content. However, any wuxia fan looking for a fresh spin on the genre need look no further than Stephen Chow’s “Journey to the West.” Chow has been making martial arts/comedy mash-ups for years, most notably with “Kung Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer,” but “Journey” is where he brings in the history, romance and mysticism of the wuxia genre with more than enough laughs. Shu Qi is Miss Duan, the leader of a demon-hunting clan who fights using a magic golden bracelet. Shu Qi is a pure pleasure to watch, light-hearted and genuinely hilarious, but capable of kicking butt better than anyone else. One scene, in which she takes out dozens of phantom restaurant patrons with a single move, is impossible not to love.
“House of Flying Daggers” (2004)
Just as she did in “Crouching Tiger,” Ziyi Zhang shows off her martial arts expertise in Zhang Yimou’s “House of Flying Daggers.” Zhang plays Mei, a blind young courtesan who is really a member of the revolutionary Flying Daggers, an underground sisterhood of assassins that aims to free China from the rule of corrupt aristocrats. Over the course of her journey, Mei pulls double crosses on enemies and allies alike, and she is one of the few fighters capable of controlling the film’s eponymous magic knives. The beauty of the film’s CGI-enhanced action sequences is amplified by Yimou’s fantastical set design and sumptuous use of color.
“Butterfly and Sword” (1994)
Just a few years before playing a Bond girl in “Tomorrow Never Dies,” Michelle Yeoh played deadly assassin Lady Ko in “Butterfly and Sword,” once again performing all her own stunts and making it look like no big deal. In the film, Lady Ko is one of the only heroes capable of defeating yet another corrupt and evil eunuch. While the romantic elements of “Butterfly and Sword” can sometimes stray into the saccharine and sappy, the action sequences are so over-the-top it’s impossible not to have fun. Lady Ko and her companions fly through the air like whirling dervishes, bouncing between enemies like some Chinese history-themed pinball machine. The final fight is as frenzied as they come, with the Eunuch wielding Wolverine-style claws that fire from his hands like missiles.
“Ashes of Time” (1994)
Wong Kar-Wai’s 1994 take on wuxia saw the director put his trademark understated, art-house spin on the typically epic genre. An anthology of intersecting loves and fated duels, the film stars Leslie Cheung as Ouyang, a fallen swordmaster working as a bounty hunter in the desert. Brigitte Lin, who starred in several wuxia blockbusters during the 90s, plays the dual role of Murong Yang and Murong Yin, a young woman who disguises herself as her brother and hires Ouyang for a hit job, orchestrating an elaborate suicide in the process. Yin is tragic, yet sympathetic, and Wong’s sensitive direction paints the usual romance of wuxia in a new light. Maggie Cheung also stars as the wife of Ouyang’s brother, his long-forbidden love.
“Dragon Gate Inn” (1967)
Yet another film by King Hu, “Dragon Gate Inn” is considered by many to be one of the best in the genre, and it has had several sequels, remakes and reimaginings over the years. The film follows several different martial arts masters as they race to protect the children of a slain general from the wrath of an angry eunuch. While many different warriors are brought together under the roof of the titular inn, the fighting brother and sister duo, also the children of a former general, stand out in particular. The sister has a tense duel with the leader of a gang who has come to collect the bounty on the general’s children. A classic of the genre that makes sure to have its women fight like hell, “Dragon Gate Inn” is a must-see for any fan of wuxia.