Kung Fu is an ancient Chinese martial art that has branched into many sub-groups since its birth in the 2nd century. But what is Kung Fu? When people hear the words “Kung Fu Movie,” they probably expect that it is a movie featuring one of many branches of Kung Fu as its premise. The term Kung Fu, however, has been widely misunderstood since its debut on the silver screen.
Kung Fu is indeed a style of martial arts, but it transcends simply one definition and extends as well to a lifestyle that one chooses. There are those who interpret it as Kung – hard/ or skillful work, and Fu – time spent. Over a very long period of time, Kung Fu (or Gongfu) has come to generally define one who devotes oneself to a lifestyle of martial arts, or more specifically a Chinese martial art. This is why the martial arts movies we will talk about today are all considered Kung Fu films, and also why you won’t see any movies with Karate here like Karate Kid.
Dating all the way back to the 1920s, Kung Fu fighting movies have been an elemental aspect of modern filmmaking. You can see it in many films to this day, inspiring cinematographers, sound and video editors, directors, and choreographers to employ the classic styles they see fit. One of the most renowned is Quentin Tarantino, who directly cites classic Kung Fu films as his inspiration for filmmaking, sometimes through the characters in the films. Kung Fu films are illustrious, beautiful, hilarious, magical, and mysterious all at once, which is why we are here today to praise their glory.
Counting down from 10th best, it should be noted that, due to the lack of online availability for some of the more obscure films, they had to be omitted. So without further ado, I give you my top 10 Kung Fu movies of all time (available to watch online).
Hmm, not exactly the film you’d expect to see on this list, but there’s a reason why I previously mentioned the definition of Kung Fu: it’s everywhere. I’m not simply including this title because at one point Neo (Keanu Reeves) uploads martial arts training to his brain and spits out the ever-referenced one-liner: “I know Kung Fu.” That would be shallow. No, I’m appreciating this film for what philosophies and styles it incorporates into the plot itself. When a disillusioned computer hacker named Thomas Anderson — alias Neo — has the veil torn from over his eyes, he discovers that the world we are currently living in is nothing but a simulation programmed by a world-ending A.I. of human creation. Beyond being one of the best sci-fi movies ever, The Matrix actually employs many styles of Kung Fu film in its action sequences. Not only that, but the way that Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) describes the Matrix as he and Neo train in a digitally rendered martial arts Daochang (Chinese word for Dojo), is eerily similar to the logic of many Kung Fu movie martial arts masters. “I’m trying to free your mind, Neo. But I can only show you the door. You’re the one that has to walk through it.”
Fun fact: Keanu Reeves trained in jiu-jitsu, wushu, boxing, and krav maga for this role, later becoming skilled in judo and karate as well.
Director(s): Lana and Lilly Wachowski “The Wachowski Brothers”
Main Cast: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Ann Moss
Runtime: 136 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.7
9. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
The first movie on our list that liberally utilizes the “Wire-Fu” film aesthetic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a timeless feature from Ang Lee that redefines the sub-genre. A young and aristocratic woman named Jen (Ziyi Zhang) works to overthrow the oppression of society by denying her arranged marriage, choosing a life of crime on the run in the throes of true love with another. Meanwhile, a highly skilled and trained swordmaster named Yu (Michelle Yeoh), devoted to justice and honor, realizes she has let her life pass her by without experiencing her own true love story. Despite my somewhat sappy summary, this film is emotionally intense and beautiful to behold. In what most certainly passes the Bechdel test for many, this film highlights the beauty and high art of Kung Fu, contrasted of course with much darker forces that threaten to shroud its wonder. This is all wonderfully shown through Ang Lee’s direction and Peter Pau’s cinematography, quite literally contrasting the beauty and darkness of life. While it is more of a fantastical use of Kung Fu — with characters literally weightless, flying across landscapes — this was one of the most highly acclaimed foreign films of its time, winning four Oscars and captivating audiences worldwide.
Director: Ang Lee
Main Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Ziyi Zhang
Runtime: 120 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.8
From director Yimou Zhang, director of such greats as House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, and The Flowers of War (a notable Christian Bale performance), comes Hero. This film, like the previous one, likes to show its characters with a weightless physical ability, exaggerating the abilities of one man or woman to defy physics in a whole lot of ways. The end result makes for a breathtaking visual journey, highlighting symbolically and vividly colored film sequences with a score and masterful performances from its big cast. A man with no name (Jet Li) has been summoned to talk with the King of Qin (Daoming Chen), wanting to discuss the unnamed warrior’s unfathomable victories against three notorious martial arts masters. This film and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon belong to a sub-genre of films called Wuxia Action, focusing on martial arts as a form of entertainment and elation, but also as a dutiful action of respect, honor, and chivalry. Outside of the themes and colorization, this film has some of the most impressive duel scenes in a Wuxia film, thanks to real martial artists like Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Maggie Cheung, and Chieu-Wai Leung.
Director: Yimou Zhang
Main Cast: Jet Li, Tony Chiu-Wai Leung, Maggie Cheung
Runtime: 120 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.9
Taking a step into another style of Kung Fu films, The Legend of the Drunken Master is fun, eccentric, and hilarious as well as masterful in choreography. Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan) is a highly-skilled martial arts master, but when a gang of thugs comes into town to steal artifacts and practice injustice, he must decide to appeal to his father’s pacifist wishes or to fight the wrong-doers. Featuring the legendary Jackie Chan, it shouldn’t be very hard to convince you to check this one out. Employing a Kung Fu style unique to this film, Drunken Boxing (A.K.A. Drunken Fist A.K.A. Zuì Quán) is a very impractical and mysterious practice, which makes for some fantastic film choreography with Chan behind the wheel. The fight sequences throughout the film, while hilarious and a bit extravagant, are essential to the character’s morality and show the importance that balance has in everyone’s life. This film — technically a sequel to Chan’s 1978 film Drunken Master — encapsulates the star’s early career and celebrates it, kicking off his global rise to fame for his many feats in acting, choreography, directing, and writing. Any fan of Jackie Chan should have this as a staple among their favorites, showing off his incredible talent for physical comedy and timing as well as martial arts mastery.
Director(s): Chia-Liang Liu, Jackie Chan (uncredited)
Main Cast: Jackie Chan, Ho-Sung Pak, Lung Ti
Runtime: 102 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.6
Unique on this list for combining multiple different Kung Fu movie qualities, Iron Monkey is an action/comedy/drama that should not be missed. The Iron Monkey (Rongguang Yu) is a masked vigilante who steals from the corrupt and powerful to provide for the less fortunate, who are oppressed by widespread corruption and greed in the 1800s. So sort of a Batman meets Robin Hood meets Chinese Monkey Kung Fu (A.K.A. Hóu Quán). When famous Hung Ga martial artist Wong Kei-Ying (Donnie Yen) has his son taken prisoner by the selfish governor, he is forced to hunt down the Iron Monkey for his son’s freedom. Thanks to the incredible choreography from Yuen Woo-ping (who also choreographed The Matrix), Yen and Yu’s grace and ability are visually astounding to behold. This is also the only film on this list with a Kung Fu kid, especially one who can best 4 corrupt Shaolin monks. But that’s not all, get ready for Kung Food! A scene inspired by Hong Kong recipes and martial arts style, martial arts movies typically has some great scenes involving making and/or eating food while fighting. Among all these great highlights, this film has an impressive thematic change throughout the narrative, going from hilarious slapstick comedy to a life-or-death drama that convinces you in both ways.
Director: Woo-Ping Yuen
Main Cast: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang
Runtime: 85 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.5
The only film on this list that goes pedal to the comedy metal, Kung Fu Hustle is a hilariously and imaginatively cartoonish take on the Wuxia Kung Fu film genre. From the success of Shaolin Soccer (honorable mention and a great sports movie) in 2001, writer, director, producer, and protagonist Stephen Chow capitalizes on an awesomely successful gangster-action-comedy that is incredibly rewatchable. In 1940’s Shanghai, a quirky grouping of households in a cramped complex show their worth when the terrifying Axe Gang knocks on their door. Sing (Stephen Chow) aspires to join the Axe Gang but is restricted by his lack of ability and unshakeable morality. Inspired at a young age by the legendary Bruce Lee, Stephen Chow devoted his life to martial arts and film arts. Because he was too poor to attend proper training schools, Chow learned his fundamental skills from TV and movies, translating his experience into the lighthearted films we see him produce today. Kung Fu Hustle, however, is the only one of Chow’s films that ends on a serious note, with the protagonist mastering an ancient, magical, and mysterious style of Kung Fu known as “Buddhist Palm.” In real life, Chow has taken his initial self-training and applied it to Wing Chun Kung Fu, the same style that Bruce Lee has so famously mastered.
Director: Stephen Chow
Main Cast: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen
Runtime: 99 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.7
While both films display a precise iteration of kung fu styles as well as filming styles, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 is more of a nostalgic Kung Fu film than Kill Bill: Vol 1. The reason for that is that we finally trace back to the origins of “The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” and where they all learned how to kill so relentlessly, showing a true-to-form progression montage of Bak Mei Kung Fu and Beatrix Kiddo’s (Uma Thurman) learning process of the art. Beatrix Kiddo (A.K.A. The Bride) has a thirst for vengeance on her former boss and lover, Bill (David Carradine), that will not be stopped until it is properly quenched. Along the way, Kiddo must eliminate the rest of the D.V.A.S. Assassins that she didn’t in the previous film, each one posing a different challenge to her skills. Tarantino directly applied film techniques from classic Kung Fu cinema (quick zoom, sound effects, silhouette shots while training, etc.) throughout the narrative, which is the reason why this film is so high on the list. The beautiful thing about this film is the dedication to the film style, which is not unique to this Tarantino film, but still helps to make it the best Quentin Tarantino movie ever.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Main Cast: Uma Thurman, David Carradine, Michael Madsen
Runtime: 137 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.0
In what is most certainly the best Bruce Lee film of all time, Enter the Dragon takes a high rank among the films today. Why do you ask? Because of Bruce Lee’s top-notch fighting skills and commitment to the realistic nature of Kung Fu portrayed in his films. When Lee (Bruce Lee) is tasked with capturing a major narcotics dealer and gang lord, he must enter a tournament on a private island to get closer and closer to his target. Full of epic duels and Bruce Lee simply and single-handedly defeating multitudes of henchmen, this was some of the most fast-paced Kung Fu ever portrayed in cinema; by which I’m mostly referring to Bruce Lee’s quick and strong attacks. Dedicated to the role and making it look as real as possible, Lee refused a stunt double for the fighting scenes, as did his co-star Robert “Bob” Wall (A.K.A. Oharra). This, however, caused some unwanted injuries, such as Lee kicking Wall so hard in the midsection that it broke multiple ribs. With that fun fact out of the way, the film style is tuned to the Kung Fu film genre: grainy and staticky with the proper sound effects you would expect. This film does well to pick and choose when to use music but more importantly, when not to. During the final epic battle (before the boss battle), there is a lack of music that was by choice, with nothing to drown out the onomatopoeias and the drawn-out, signature Bruce Lee screeches. And what would a Bruce Lee movie be without getting his shirt torn off before the epic climax?
Director: Robert Clouse
Main Cast: Bruce Lee, John Saxon, Jim Kelly
Runtime: 102 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Probably the Kung Fu-iest of the Kung Fu movies on our list today is The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. A film that heavily influenced hip hop music group Wu-Tang Clan, it is referenced by RZA as the core of Kung Fu films. When the Manchu government destroys his school, ravages his town, and kills his father, San Te (Chia-Hui Liu) travels to a Shaolin temple to learn the ways of Shaolin Kung Fu and be at peace. With the most fast-paced narrative out of all other films today, this one gets through all that information and on to the Kung Fu training in 30 minutes of runtime. After finally getting to the temple, he is — after some resistance — admitted as a monk for training. The rest of the film is focused solely on Kung Fu and the 35 chambers one must pass to become a master, training the wrists, shoulders, legs, eyes, mind, and so forth all one chamber at a time. Besides its naturalistic feeling and fantastic story, this film has some classically styled fight scenes that are timeless, cementing it in place as one of the staples in the Kung Fu film genre.
Director: Chia-Liang Liu
Main Cast: Chia-Hui Liu, Lieh Lo, Yue Wong
Runtime: 116 minutes
IMDb Rating: 7.7
Taking first place on our list today is the modernized celebration of Kung Fu films, Ip Man. When Japanese forces invade China during WWII, a wealthy and respected Wing Chun Kung Fu master called Ip Man (Donnie Yen) is forced to leave his home and survive on the Japanese-occupied streets of Foshan. A biographical tale of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man (Bruce Lee’s mentor), this film focuses on events that could plausibly have taken place during that time. Since it’s on our list, I will say that this is unique in that it is not just a Kung Fu film. This film made it to the top for its incredible choreography and its charming yet moving performance from Donnie Yen. From the beginning, the fighting scenes are crisp, clean, and frequent, starting on a lighter note while friendly neighborhood masters spar with each other. As the film progresses, however, the motives become much darker, forcing respected Kung Fu masters to fight Japanese masters just to get a bag of rice. The character arc for Ip Man is incredible in this film, with Donnie Yen portraying at first the kind-hearted and calm-minded Ip Man, to his transformation as the emotionally driven and physically incapacitating Ip Man. His drive comes from the frustration he feels with the Japanese invasion of his homeland, which you can see in his eyes throughout the film. Dark themes and acting aside, this film is astounding on all fronts, especially when you’ve seen enough Kung Fu cinema to appreciate its evolution through time.
Director: Wilson Yip
Main Cast: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Siu-Wong Fan
Runtime: 106 minutes
IMDb Rating: 8.0
Since we didn’t have space or couldn’t find them streaming online anywhere (save some bootlegged YouTube videos), here are some honorable mentions.
- Fist of Legend (1994)
- Once Upon a Time in China (1991)
- Police Story (1985)
- The Prodigal Son (1981)
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