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Though the storytelling style has been around for centuries, Xianxia movies and novels are still relatively unknown outside of the Chinese speaking world.
A sibling of the much more famous Wuxia genre, Xianxia stories are Chinese medieval adventures with heavy elements of the supernatural and magic. Typically presented as extended sagas cumulating in flashy showdowns between good and evil, one could consider the genre as the Chinese version of Western fantasy stories.
With an emphasis on classic justice, chivalry, and overall goodness, such Chinese fantasy stories are easy to indulge in, even for Western audiences. The following are seven notable Xianxia movies perfect for fans of the genre and beginners alike. After enjoying them, you could consider moving on to the many Xianxia television action series released each year.
1. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山剑侠)
Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) boasts of several milestones.
Cinematically, it was the cumulation of the Hong Kong director’s growth during the New Wave Period of Hong Kong cinema. By incorporating Hollywood-standard special effects into the movie, Tsui also established new trends and standards for subsequent Cantonese productions.
Storywise, the saga revitalized the Xianxia genre, which has in preceding decades been completely overshadowed by Shaw Brothers Studios’ Wuxia movies. A fast-paced tale of two bumbling soldiers’ involvement in a massive confrontation between good and evil, Zu is lastly, noteworthy for re-acquainting audiences with the key attraction of classic Xianxia stories. This being that of magical artifacts with astonishing abilities and otherworldly names.
Such artifacts subsequently became the heart of all Chinese Xianxia television action series and video games up till today.
2. A Chinese Ghost Story (倩女幽魂)
The late 1970s and early 1980s was an era of enthusiastic cinematic experimentation by Hong Kong moviemakers. These years are often referred to as the New Wave Period.
Following this period, Tsui Hark and director Ching Siu-tung demonstrated their accomplishments from the preceding era by releasing the memorable A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). A gorgeous production based on one of the most renowned ghostly encounters from the Liao Zhai collection of Chinese supernatural tales, the production exemplified the fluidity of Xianxia story elements as far as genre-mixing is concerned. A box office hit, it also cemented the enduring big-screen popularity of the late Leslie Cheung and Taiwanese actress Joey Wong.
As for plot, A Chinese Ghost Story largely follows the original story of a hapless guy encountering a kindly ghost, but the film threw in plenty of swashbuckling magical action for good measure. Purists would likely not consider this Cantonese fantasy action flick a Xianxia production. However, it is undeniable that conceptualizations for the key warrior and villain were heavily influenced by Xianxia styles. The comedic moments also became reference points for subsequent similar productions.
At the same time, commercial success throughout East Asia also spawned two sequels; these, in turn, inspiring several other Hong Kong movies of the same type. (For example, 1993’s Painted Skin.) In short, this beloved classic developed a whole new “ghostly” sub-genre for the Xianxia world. The revised story, in recent years, has also been remade numerous times for both cinema and television.
3. Green Snake (青蛇)
An extremely imaginative and stylish 1993 adaptation of the classic Chinese folktale, Madam White Snake, Green Snake was Tsui Hark’s third major contribution to the world of Xianxia movies. One that was acclaimed for its luscious set and cinematography, while scorned by some for its sexual elements.
Ethereal and dreamlike in execution, Green Snake largely respects the original folktale but delves much deeper by examining the human shortcomings of the three supernatural protagonists. If that sounds too heavy for a fantasy film to you, know that the whole movie is not short of magical action. The climactic fight at the Golden Mount is particularly something to look forward to.
Furthermore, the ending, which starkly differs from the folktale, has been noted for its unapologetic critique of the social persecution of minorities. Whether as popcorn entertainment, visual art reference, or modern literature, Green Snake is undoubtedly one of the best 1990s Hong Kong movies to watch. The grim ending also ensures that you will remember the movie’s harsh lesson, long after watching.
4. Monster Hunt (捉妖记)
To cater to the increasingly cosmopolitan tastes of modern Chinese viewers, Xianxia movies post-2010 incorporated many storytelling styles from Western productions. An example of which is Disney-worthy cute mascots.
This 2015 box office hit centers on one such mascot; namely, a “monster” baby pursued by humans and monsters alike. That’s not all there is to this 3D action-comedy, though. Like any beloved Pixar film would be, there is a road trip, loads of quirky characters, and memorable action. Naturally, there is no shortage of heartwarming moments too.
On top of which, there is the unmistakable message about racial conflicts, one that isn’t excessively heavy-handed in presentation. All in all, this light-hearted fantasy adventure is entertainment suitable for all ages. It also represents the development of Xianxia productions, beyond magical fights and epic battles.
5. Jade Dynasty (诛仙)
Arguably the most extravagant Xianxia production in recent years, Jade Dynasty returns to the big screen all the classic elements the genre has been associated with since the 1980s.
These being a humble protagonist destined for greatness, otherworldly mystical weapons, complicated love triangles and loyalties, and an inevitable showdown between everything and everyone.
There are also gorgeous oh-so-Chinese backdrops, as well as action sequences choreographed by Ching Siu-tung, the top Hong Kong name for fantasy action movies since the 1980s.
Traditional and sweeping in scope, and with a good mix of attractive young leads and charismatic veterans, Jade Dynasty pans out very much like a Chinese RPG video game and that is exactly where the entertainment is. Needless to say, it is also a superb introduction to modern Xianxia stories. In other words, it's a great stepping stone to the many Xianxia television dramas with similar stories produced each year.
6. Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世)
To sidetrack a little, many tropes in Xianxia movies originated from the classic Chinese fantasy novels Journey to the West and Investiture of the Gods. In particular, Investiture enshrined several fantasy “battle-styles” that would be the staple of modern Xianxia productions. Elaborate “zhen-fa” i.e. magical arrays/rituals is one. The above-mentioned use of imaginative mystical artifacts is another.
The latest animated adaptation of Investiture, 2019’s Ne Zha pays homage to both tropes with its dazzling and bold reimagination of renowned Chinese magical artifacts to suit global tastes. Sleek, thrilling, and with an unexpected twist for viewers familiar with the original novel, the revised storyline also critiques certain classic themes of Chinese mythology. Themes that would, by modern standards, feel greatly unjust.
Best of all, Ne Zha is but the first in a series of Chinese animated features intended on creating a Fengshen Cinematic Universe. (Fengshen is the condensed Chinese name of Investiture) As of late 2020, part 2 i.e. Jiang Ziya has been released. 2021 would see the release of part 3, titled Yang Jian. Fans of the original saga and Chinese-style animation have much to look forward to.
7. Double World (征途)
Teddy Chan’s Double World, based on a popular Chinese MMORPG and available on Netflix, is a cross-genre production.
Set in a fictitious world that is a blend of Ancient Chinese and Central Asian culture, the movie emphasizes intense and brutal physical action the likes of Wuxia movies, but with supernatural creatures such as giant scorpions also featuring heavily. The story itself is clearly inspired by The Hunger Games too, particularly the gripping middle chapter.
Fast-moving and never short of brutal moments, the actual plot might disappoint viewers keen on flashier mystical action. That said, the imaginative backdrops and frenetic mass battle would still satisfy if not delight most viewers. The extended adventure within a sinister cavern would also feel greatly familiar to Western RPG players. The conclusion to that subterranean interlude is right out of a Western video game.