Geek, gamer, writer, graphic artist. Ced's favorite shows and adventures are those that allow him to enjoy the world from his bedroom.
Pugilists smashing brick walls with one strike. Thieves scaling walls with effortless leaps. Chinese Wuxia movies have never been short of superhuman antics. One could consider them the equivalent of American superhero comic book adventures.
But within Chinese pop culture, the Wuxia genre is separate from the magical Xuanhuan and Xianxia genres. Notably, “Kung-Fu” flicks do not contain supernatural elements such as gods and demons. Some Wuxia productions even outright dismiss magical powers and beliefs as superstitions.
And so when a Wuxia movie openly includes “magic” the likes of weather manipulation, demon summoning, etc., it is a clear sign of genre-blending.
Since the 70s, there have been several such productions. Some are fascinating while others are bizarre. A handful borders on hilarious.
But without a doubt, all are fascinating watches well-worth binging on. They’re arguably among the most creative Chinese cinematic productions too.
1. Finger of Doom (1972, 太陰指)
One of the earliest Wuxia/horror hybrids from the 70s, Shaw Brothers’ Finger of Doom features renowned actress Ivy Ling Po as a mysterious lady with an incredible, X-Men-like skill. A key member of “Living Dead” sect, a probe by her finger transforms a victim into a mindless zombie. The zombie is then completely under her control.
Creepy and atmospheric, the movie is, notably, also a vehicle for Ling Po’s oriental beauty. The renowned actress is constantly shown wearing pure white and with long hair, i.e., the classic Chinese image of a vengeful female ghost.
Admittedly, after Ling’s agenda is revealed, the plot somewhat reverts to standard Wuxia tropes, with much of the mystery dissipating. Nonetheless, as one of the earliest Wuxia films to incorporate both horror and suspense, Finger of Doom does an admirable job. More importantly, it establishes the standards for future Wuxia/horror hybrids like The Butterfly Murders.
Needless to say, coming from Shaw Brothers, there is no shortage of well-choreographed, expansive combat scenes. Watching this classic is like enjoying the best of two genres in one go.
2. The Battle Wizard (1977, 天龍八部)
Hong Kong author Louis Cha’s Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils has long been celebrated as one of the greatest, most expansive Wuxia novels ever written. Since the early 80s, all cinematic and television adaptations of the saga have also featured extensive visual effects. One could say this phenomenon is thanks to Shaw Brothers’ The Battle Wizard. This, hands-down one of the most bizarre retro Wuxia movies ever.
Based on the first story arc of the novel, The Battle Wizard is absolutely schizophrenic in its zest to adhere to the source material and to rewrite pugilistic confrontations into supernatural showdowns. While the first half of the movie largely follows the event of Louis Cha’s book, the second half spirals into a visual extravaganza of sorcerous effects. The end fight even catapults into the grisly realm of body horror.
Of note, as absurd as the above will sound, the creative direction is not entirely inexplicable as Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (the novel) did feature a slew of incredible martial arts.
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That said, this retro Wuxia movie is still, in and out, a head-scratching watch. One that will certainly make you ask, “What just happened?”
For today’s viewers, the over-enthusiastic visual effects would undoubtedly be a barrel of laughs too.
3. The Thrilling Sword (1981, 神劍動山河)
With a name like The Thrilling Sword, one knows right away this 1981 Taiwanese Wuxia fantasy is a zany ride from start to finish. But believe me, nothing will quite prepare you for the wackiness of this Snow White adaptation.
That’s right. This is a Chinese Wuxia fantasy take on the beloved fairy tale. With “Snow White” the result of a comet smashing into her mother’s womb, and with Prince Charming ultimately taking the form of a Conan-like barbarian warrior wielding an incredible sword.
I leave it to you to discover the rest of this bizarre mishmash yourself. An experience that I can only describe as digging through a bag of sweets, only to find more and more cookies.
Instead, I’d highlight that The Thrilling Sword was part of Taiwan’s response to the popularity of Western fantasy sagas in the 1980s, as well as stiff competition from Shaw Brothers Wuxia movies. Notably, these garish, genre-twisting productions even adapted classic Japanese folktales into magical Wuxia adventures. The most famous example being 1987’s Child of Peach.
Expectedly, all are insane, hilarious adventures. Full of lower-budget special effects and over-the-top antics. But in their own unique way, all exude a certain charm. A certain child-like desire to please at all costs too.
4. Imperial Sword, Crouching Devil (1981, 御劍伏魔)
Alternatively known as The Imperial Sword Killing the Devil, this is the Taiwanese Wuxia/Fantasy hybrid that inspired me to write this list. I first watched it in the mid-80s, and till today, I still remember all the characters.
Simply put, this strange but thrilling film includes everything that would fascinate an Asian boy in the 80s. From a treasure hunt in a deadly cavern to ninja-like assassins, to incredible swordfights. There’s even an awesome body-splitting ultimate skill.
For the sake of this list, I recently re-watched the Wu Tang Collection version of this film, and apart from the over-enthusiastic soundtrack, I was surprised by how well the show has aged.
Effects, naturally, cannot be compared to those from Hollywood productions of that decade, but neither are they in any way unbearable. The story itself is also a decent if uninspired take on classic Wuxia good-versus-evil tropes.
Lastly, and as like The Thrilling Sword, Imperial Sword, Crouching Devil was part of the Taiwanese response to cinematic competition from Hong Kong and the West. In my opinion, it remains one of the most noteworthy examples of this response.
5. Buddha’s Palm (1982, 如來神掌)
Mention the Cantonese name of this Shaw Brothers’ classic to any older Hongkonger and chances are, you’d get a wry smile, if not a chuckle about cheesy visual effects.
What’s noteworthy is also that you’d be assumed to be referring to a series of black and white Wuxia movies in the 1960s. The titles of these all include the same Chinese characters. In Chinese pop culture, said words have long become synonymous with over-the-top special effects in Wuxia productions.
Coming back to the 1982 movie, the flick is a remake and condensation of the earlier titles, and as before, positively chock-full of visual effects. As befitting its heritage, the eponymous Buddha’s Palm technique is shown to be quite capable of summoning storms and widespread mayhem. For good measure, this remake even has a griffin-like steed, a magical chain of rings, and a size-altering final antagonist with a truly heavy stomp.
Long story short, Buddha’s Palm easily qualifies more as a colorful magical adventure rather than a Wuxia one. One could also say this glitzy film is the “evolution” of Wuxia tropes to a higher, more outrageous level. In addition to bold genre-blending.
Viewers familiar with Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle will furthermore recognize the Buddha’s Palm as the ultimate technique used by Sing to squash the Beast. In that 2004 hit, Stephen Chow paid open homage to the status of this unbelievable technique in Hong Kong culture.
6. The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre (1983, 魔殿屠龍)
1984’s The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre shares several similarities with two of the above-mentioned titles.
Like Buddha’s Palm, it stars Alex Man and features visual effects aplenty. Like The Battle Wizard, it is an adaptation of a Louis Cha Wuxia novel, this time being Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre.
Beyond which, it is practically impossible to describe the movie. One could perhaps only say that the show is an over-zealous fanboy imagination of the events beyond Louis Cha’s popular novel.
In essence, The Hidden Power of the Dragon Sabre begins like a standard Wuxia adventure but gets increasingly bizarre, to say the least. By the midpoint, the story is also far more a twisty, outlandish magical fantasy rather than a Wuxia one. Even the flavor of Louis Cha’s novel is largely abandoned.
And then there’s the antagonist played by Alex Man; incidentally, this, a character who died in the original story. Without giving away spoilers, let just say the phrase “split personality” is given the ultimate Chinese cinematic makeover here.
When watching, do try not to be too creeped out by this showy transformation.
7. The Nine Venoms (1984, 九子天魔)
Following the Shaw Brothers hit that was Five Elements Ninja, Taiwanese actor Ricky Cheng starred in several genre-blending kung fu movies featuring supernatural elements. One such title was 1983’s The Weird Man, best described as a fantasy re-imagination of a Three Kingdoms tale.
Another was 1984’s The Nine Venoms, also known as The Nine Demons. In this, a classic Wuxia revenge tale is given a demonic makeover, in the form of a Faustian pact with bloody consequences.
In short, Cheng’s protagonist accepts demonic power for the sake of revenge after his clan is massacred. Subsequently, he struggles with the need to feed the demoness and nine child demons empowering him. Feed, as in regularly provides them fresh human blood.
Utterly bizarre at parts but also full of thrilling fight choreography, The Nine Venoms is first and foremost, a long series of acrobat fights meant to showcase the martial art prowess of its leads. The weirdness involved is also, more or less, tempered by Cheng’s acting. One can’t say he deserves an Oscar, but his grim portrayal of the lead, while donning lilac tights, is certainly commendable.
Add to which are the psychedelic lighting and group acrobatic set pieces. At times, watching this bizarre Wuxia movie is almost akin to enjoying a stage musical performance.
Introduction to Wuxia
An introduction to Chinese Wuxia, the pulp entertainment genre that has entertained East Asia for near a century.
Glossary of Wuxia Terms
A glossary of commonly used names and terms in Wuxia films, if you’re new to the genre.
© 2021 Ced Yong