“Everybody was kung fu fighting…”
Ever since their early days as niche genre movies for the Hong Kong market, kung fu movies have given a platform to talented, acrobatic actors, who blend the grace and precision of ballet dancers with the athleticism and power of boxers. Since reaching the United States in the 1970s, kung fu films have become a beloved cultural artifact, instantly recognizable to anyone who loves movies.
So get the popcorn ready. Here are 42 striking facts about kung fu movies.
42. The Beginnings of Kung Fu
Though they reached the heights of their popularity in the 1970s, kung fu movies date all the way back to the 1930s. The first kung fu movie, 1938’s Adventures of Fong Sai Yuk, was made in Hong Kong and told the story of a Chinese folk hero from the Qing Dynasty.
41. The One-Armed Swordsman
The first kung fu movie to break the $1 million mark was 1967’s The One-Armed Swordsman. The role set off a series of “one-armed” roles for the star Wang Yu: he would appear in several sequels to The One-Armed Swordsman, as well as The One-Armed Boxer and The Flying Guillotine.
40. The Two-Armed Swordsman
Despite the apparent type-casting, Wang did, in fact, have both arms. Life imitated art for Wang, however: late in life, he had a stroke, which left him with diminished strength his left arm.
39. Ip Man
Ip Man was a master of Wing Chun kung fu whose students included scores of legendary martial artists, the most famous of which was Bruce Lee. In 2008, Ip Man, a biopic about the life of the famous master was released, with Donnie Yeo in the lead role.
38. The Rivalry
The greatest rivalry in kung fu is not between any hero and villain, or even between two popular actors, but between two studios, Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest. Golden Harvest was founded by former employees of Shaw Brothers, which surely adds to the rivalry. The two studios are responsible for virtually all of the best-loved kung fu films, including The Big Boss, Five Deadly Venoms, and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
37. The Dragon
Without a doubt, the biggest and most influential kung fu star was Bruce Lee, who helped bring kung fu to the United States. Lee’s feats of speed and strength are legendary. Not only was he a master of kung fu, he also developed his own fighting style “jeet kune do,” which stressed flexibility and practicality. Using his jeet kune do style, Lee once defeated a karate champion in 58 seconds.
36. Not In It For The Money
For Jet Li’s first film, The Shaolin Temple, he was paid just one renminbi a day—the renminbi is the official currency of the People’s Republic of China. Exchanged and inflated, that still only works out to about 40 cents each day. The film made about $1.5 million at the box office.
35. Bruce Lee, Meet Bruce Wayne
While working as a martial arts instructor and stuntman in Hollywood, Lee landed the role of Kato in the Green Hornet tv series. The Green Hornet shared a crossover episode with the campy Batman tv series (both were produced by William Dozier), where Kato squared off against Robin, the Boy Wonder.
34. Crystal Clear
In 1971, Bruce Lee starred in The Big Boss. It quickly became the highest grossing film in Hong Kong history to that point. In the United States, the film was set to be released under the title The Chinese Connection, but Lee was already working on another film called The Chinese Connection. The Big Boss was then scheduled to be released in America as Fist of Fury, but by then, The Chinese Connection was planned to be released as Fist of Fury, so distributors settled on The Big Boss. Got it?
33. Gambling Man
Wei Lo directed such classic kung fu films as The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and The New Fist of Fury. He was also a compulsive gambler. Sound and picture were recorded separately when filming. This suited Lo fine, because that way he could have reports from the racetrack broadcast on set.
32. Some Notable Notes
1972’s Way of the Dragon—released as Return of the Dragon in the West—was the only film written, directed by, and starring Bruce Lee. It was also the first Chinese film to be shot in the West, and the last film to be shot inside the Roman Colosseum.
31. Careful Choreography
Lee also handpicked his opponent for the movie’s climactic fight: US karate champion Chuck Norris. Norris was one of the few martial artists fast enough to convincingly beat Lee, and Lee also encouraged Norris to put on a little weight to seem even more imposing. The fight scene filled up a quarter of the script and took more than 45 hours to film.
30. Curious Casting
From 1972 to 1975, the American tv series Kung Fu attempted to capitalize on the kung fu movie fad. The idea for the show was suggested by Bruce Lee, who was devastated when the lead role went to David Carradine, an American actor with no martial arts training.
29. You Look Familiar
In 1980, Shaw Brothers sought to release a sequel to their movie, Executioners from Shaolin. There was only one problem: the white-haired villain of the movie, Pai Mei, was killed in that film. For Fist of the White Lotus, Shaw Brothers rehired the actor who played Pai Mei, Lieh Lo, to play Pai Mei’s vengeful twin brother.
28. The Homage
The hero of Executioners from Shaolin and Fist of the White Lotus, Chia-Hui Liu, would later appear as Pai Mei in Quentin Tarantino’s homage to kung fu films, Kill Bill: Volume 2.
27. Funk Fu
Jim Kelly, a karate champion from Kentucky, landed his first major film role with Enter the Dragon; he would go on to star in kung fu and blaxploitation movies throughout the 70s. With his massive afro and smooth fighting style, Kelly brought some funky flare to the kung fu genre.
26. King of the Courts
In addition to starring in such classics as Black Belt Jones and Black Samurai, Kelly was also a professional tennis player.
25. The Game of Death
When he was offered the opportunity to make Enter the Dragon, Lee was already halfway through filming Game of Death. Sadly, Lee died before he could resume filming Game of Death, and Enter the Dragon would stand as Lee’s final film.
24. Head and Shoulders Above the Competition
One of Lee’s opponents in Game of Death was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. At 7’2” tall, Abdul-Jabbar provided an imposing foe for the 5’8” tall Lee.
23. Class Acts
Abdul Jabar had, in fact, been a student of Lee’s, as had Steve McQueen, James Coburn, George Lazenby, and Joe Lewis.
22. Kung Fu Collage
When Golden Harvest studios planned to release Game of Death in 1978, they released some filler scenes and updates needed to be reshot. Some actors from the original—like Kareem Abdul Jabar and Chuck Norris—refused to participate; and so their scenes, as well as many of Lee’s own, were filmed with stand-ins, or made up of footage from other movies.
21. The Early Bird
Jackie Chan is a legend of kung fu cinema, and one of the few who became a legitimate star in North America. He certainly put the effort in: Chan’s first film role came when he was just eight years old.
20. Chen Zhen
Chen Zhen, a character originated by Bruce Lee in 1972’s Fist of Fury, has become a recurring character in kung fu movies, and the role in entrusted to the very best performers. Across five decades Chen Zhen has been played not only by Lee, but also by screen legends Jet Li and Donnie Yen.
19. The Look-Alike
Early in his career, film studios tried to emphasize the similarities between Chan and Lee. They even billed Chan under the stage name “Sing Lung,” which means “Become the Dragon.”
Chan is not the only actor to befall comparisons to Bruce Lee. Lee’s early death opened the door for “Bruceploitation,” a wave of Hong Kong movies starring actors who looked vaguely like Lee, or whose names had been changed to resemble “Bruce Lee,” like Bruce Li, Bruce Leung, or Bronson Lee.
17. An Eye on Safety
The 1980 film Drunken Master made $6 million at the Hong Kong box-office. It was a star-making role for lead actor Jackie Chan, but it nearly cost him an eye when a fighting stunt went awry. Chan’s opponent was so shaken up by the event that he refused to film anymore takes.
16. From the Slums of Shaolin
The rap group Wu-Tang Clan created an elaborate mythos for themselves from kung fu films. The group took their name from the film Shaolin and Wu Tang and is known for sampling dialogue from kung fu movies in their songs.
15. Secret Police
One of Chan’s most successful movies—and his personal favourite—was 1985’s Police Story. The title of the movie is strategically vague. By the time he started working on the movie, Chan was one of the biggest stars in Hong Kong, so when other film studios discovered the title of an in-progress Jackie Chan movie, they would guess what the movie was about and rush their own version into production.
14. Chan of Many Talents
In addition to being one of the most famous and successful martial artists and actors of all time, Jackie Chan also has a successful music career—he has released 20 albums in five languages—and teaches tourism and hospitality at Honk Kong Polytechnic University.
13. Superstitious Studios
Wheels on Meals has a head-scratcher of a title. The title of the movie—which stars the “three brothers” of the Peking Opera School – Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao—isn’t the result of a bad translation or worries over copyright infringement. Studio heads at Golden Harvest Studios were anxious about releasing a movie called Meals on Wheels because two earlier movies, Megaforce and Menage a Trois, flopped at the box office, and were not willing to release another movie that began with the seemingly unlucky letter M.
12. Thank Your Lucky Stars
One of the most successful Hong Kong franchises of the ‘80s was the Lucky Stars movies, helmed by martial artist Sammo Hung. Featuring ensemble casts of major Hong Kong stars, including Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh, the Lucky Stars movies introduced a comedic kung fu style which owed as much to Buster Keaton as Bruce Lee.
11. On the Small Screen
Sammo Hung was a prolific director and actor with a distinctive comedic style, and while he didn’t reach the heights of stardom in the US that Jackie Chan or Jet Li did, he did star for two years on the CBS drama Martial Law. He was, during this time, the only East Asian lead actor on an American TV series.
10. Girl Power
The world of kung fu cinema is certainly male-dominated. Of the female martial artists, the most notable is Michelle Yeoh, who has been dubbed “the queen of martial arts.” Supposedly, she is the only one of his female co-stars that Jackie Chan trusted to perform her own stunts.
9. No Love Lost
There was mutual dislike between Jackie Chan and director Wong Jing on the set of 1993’s City Hunter. The animosity was so great that when Jing was directing his next film, High Risk, starring Jet Li, Jing included a character named Frankie Lone, an oafish, disingenuous actor, who was plainly meant as a parody of Chan.
8. The Bodyguard
Honk Kong icon Jet Li attracted attention from an early age. His prize for winning a martial arts competition was a trip to Washington DC to meet then-president Richard Nixon. Nixon was quite impressed with the 11-year-old Li’s skills, and allegedly even offered Li a job as a bodyguard.
7. Critical Acclaim
Jet Li’s film Fist of Legend, in which he plays kung fu movie hero Chen Zhen, has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
6. Always a Bridesmaid
Jackie Chan never played Chen Zhen, but he did play a proxy character, “Cheng Long,” in the sequel The New Fist of Fury.
5. Huo Yuanjia
Chen Zhen was inspired by Huo Yuanjia, a Chinese martial artist who lived at the turn of the 20th century and founded the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Instrumental in bringing martial arts training to the public and away from clandestine dojos, Huo Yuanjia was famous for challenging foreign fighters who insulted China.
4. Traction Star
Jackie Chan does all his own stunts, of course—and he expects his co-stars to do their own, as well. His style is too fast and inventive to be trusted to anyone else. But it can also be dangerous: over the course of his career, Chan has broken his nose three times, each of his fingers, his jaw, and his ankle. One failed stunt—he tried to jump from a tree branch but the branch broke—resulted in a permanent hole in his skull. Apparently, when the cameraman saw the gruesome injury, he turned and ran away!
3. A Broken Promise
Jackie Chan was just a struggling actor when he landed a plum gig as a stuntman for Enter the Dragon. During one fight scene, Bruce Lee accidentally hit Chan in the face, and promised to put the young actor in all of his films after. Lee’s death prevented him from keeping his promise, but Chan managed to become a superstar without Lee’s help.
2. More Than Just A Scratch
Jet Li’s career has put him into all kinds of danger, but his greatest injury came while he was on vacation. Li and his family were staying in the Maldives when the horrifying 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit. As he was carrying his daughter to safety, Li struck his foot on a piece of furniture. Somehow, word of Li’s injury got so exaggerated that some sources reported Li was dead or missing.
1. Stranger than Fiction
On at least one occasion, film editors had to slow down footage of Bruce Lee fighting. His kicks were lightning fast, so fast they looked fake on film.