The Star Online
March 3, 2006
By Micheal Cheang
Jet Li recently announced that Fearless would be his last wushu flick. With other action stars like Jackie Chan not getting any younger, who will be the next generation of kung fu stars? StarTwo sizes up the past and looks into the future of the martial arts genre.
Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan. Jet Li. Sammo Hung.
The names of these legendary butt-kickers reverberate through the annals of Asian film history, leaving scores of on-screen enemies in their wake.
However, the proud history of kung fu actors like them is in danger of fading out. Lee is dead, Chan is not getting any younger, Hung has semi-retired and Jet Li has recently made known that Fearless would be his last period martial arts (also known as wushu) flick. [In this context, I think they mean 'wuxia']
Although recent martial arts films such as Hero, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers were reasonably impressive, what genuine fighting in them was largely glossed over by fancy choreography, excessive wirework and artsy cinematography. Take away the pretty colours and the "invisible" wires and all you get are actors pretending to be kung fu masters.
The fact remains that what makes a martial arts film great is usually whether the actors are actually good at fighting.
Although the growing influence of Hong Kong fight choreographers like Yuen Wo Ping have vastly improved the fight scenes in Hollywood films, nothing compares to the raw power and skill displayed by exponents of martial arts like Li and Chan.
After all, Yuen's excellent choreography could not save Keanu Reeves from looking like a robotic Mat Salleh trying to fight like an Asian in The Matrix series.
With the waning physical prowess of stars like Chan and Hung who are in their early 50s, as well as the increasingly low-profiled development of younger ones like Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou and Donnie Yen, there is now a dearth of actors with real martial arts skills in the Asian film industry.
In fact, the brightest hope in Asian martial arts movies now isn't Chinese anymore. Muay Thai (Thai boxing) exponent-cum-actor Tony Jaa has been a revelation with his astoundingly brutal fighting skills and jaw-dropping stunts in movies Ong Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior and last year's Tom Yum Goong.
Recently, Stephen Chow's Kungfu Hustle and Fearless have rekindled interest in the genre. Kungfu Hustle was also responsible for the re-emergence of veteran kung fu actors like Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Leong Siu Long.
It may be a welcome boost, but it does not hide the fact that there is a lack of new kung fu talents coming through the ranks.
The movie industry is in dire need of kung fu actors who can carry a movie and kick butt at the same time.
StarTwo pays tribute to some of Asian cinema's greatest kung fu fighters and takes a look at some of the present high-kickers and future fast-punchers.
The Legendary Dragons
The 1970s and 80s saw the rise of the "Dragons" Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Bruce Leung Siu Long. They were dubbed the Dragons mostly because of the word "Loong" (meaning dragon) in their Chinese names. They were the biggest kung fu stars of their time, with Lee and Chan going on to change the face of Hong Kong cinema.
Bruce Lee (The Big Boss, Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury), 1940 1973: Lee (Chinese name Lee Xiao Loong) is more than just an actor. He is a legend and the man whom every other martial arts actor is compared to.
Through films like Fist of Fury, Enter the Dragon and The Big Boss, Lee used his much- parodied and imitated Jeet Kune Do trademark fighting style as well as his charismatic on-screen presence to single-handedly help change the image of Asian actors in the eyes of the West. He may have died tragically at 32, but Lee's legacy as one of the most influential figures in modern film history lives on.
Most noted for his addictive brand of kung fu comedy as well as his daredevil stunts (most of which he executes himself), his breakthrough role was in 1978's Drunken Master in which he played Wong Fei Hong (a role which he would reprise in the sequel in 1994).
He would go on to become one of the most recognisable faces and most popular artistes ever in Asia.
Bruce Leung Siu Long (Kungfu Hustle, Broken Oath), 58: The third and lesser-known "Dragon", Leung made his debut in 1975's Little Superman, and went on to make more than 70 movies within a span of 20 years. However, a political controversy led to his films being banned by Taiwan (an important market for Hong Kong films then), and Leung was forced to retire from the entertainment industry.
Leung made a comeback at Stephen Chow's request to play a villain, The Beast, in Kung Fu Hustle. It was the veteran action star-action choreographer's first movie since the 1980s.
The Pensioned Tigers
The 60s and 70s were great decades for kung fu movies, especially with the release of Shaw Brothers classics like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which introduced other martial arts experts like Gordon Lau Kar-Fei, and two of the most celebrated female kung fu stars ever Angela Mao and Chang Pei Pei.
Gordon Lau Kar-Fei (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Tiger on the Beat, Kill Bill: Volume 2), 51: Lau made his name playing a Shaolin monk in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, and went on to star in other blockbusters such as Tiger on the Beat, Peacock King and Last Hero in China alongside big names such as Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung and Jet Li. Lau later made his Hollywood debut in Quentin Tarantino's 2004 film, Kill Bill: Volume 2.
Angela Mao-Ying (Broken Oath, When Taekwondo Strikes, Enter the Dragon), 52: One of the world's first female kung fu stars, Mao was also one of the most prolific stars in the 70s before her retirement in 1982. A black belt in the Korean martial arts Hapkido, she starred in movies like When Taekwondo Strikes and Broken Oath, and is best known in the West for her cameo role as Bruce Lee's sister in Enter the Dragon.
Cheng Pei Pei (Come Drink with Me, Bride with White Hair, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), 60: Cheng is widely-known as the "Queen of Martial Arts" despite not coming from a martial arts background. Her background in dance helped her make a smooth transition into the martial arts genre, which included the groundbreaking 1965 film Come Drink with Me, Bride with White Hair and the Ang Lee Oscar-winning film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2001.
The Little Fortunes
In the 70s, a famous Peking Opera School performing group called the Seven Little Fortunes was formed. Comprising seven child martial arts prodigies, they travelled around the world performing in martial arts and acrobatic stage shows. Several members of the original line-up have since gone on to become some of the biggest names in Asian cinema, including Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qiu and Yuen Biao.
Sammo Hung (Project A, Martial Law), 53: Don't let his chubby physique fool you, this guy can really fight and is surprisingly agile for a man his size. Though he started out as an action choreographer, his foray into acting have also made for some hugely entertaining movies, including 1980's Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind, the film that pioneered the "hopping vampire" movies. Hung also made a foray into America with the short-lived TV series Martial Law (which turned out to be decidedly more memorable for Kelly Hu's booty than for Hung's tummy).
Yuen Biao (Project A, The Peacock King), 49: The mischievous-looking Yuen Biao was a body double for Bruce Lee in Game of Death, and has managed to hold his own against his fellow Fortunes alumni with action-packed movies in which he usually played naive kung fu-fighting heroes.
The consistently hard-working actor is most noted for movies like the manga-based Peacock King and Project A. He recently ventured into television, starring in the TVB series, Real Kung Fu.
Yuen Wah (Kungfu Hustle, Eastern Condors), 56: This veteran of over 100 movies was Bruce Lee's stunt double in the early 70s, and even had a small role fighting Lee in Enter the Dragon. He was known as the "Magnificent Villain" because of his evil-looking trademark moustache. He was also one of the veteran kung fu actors whom Stephen Chow sought out to appear in the martial arts tribute comedy Kungfu Hustle.
Yuen Qiu (Kungfu Hustle, Not Scared to Die), 56: She started her martial arts training at the age of 10 and became one of few stuntwomen in the Hong Kong film industry when she was 17. Yuen Qiu's first feature film role was in the 1973 Jackie Chan movie Not Scared to Die, and she even had a minor role in the James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. In 1975, she married and retired from show business, only to make her comeback 28 years later in Kung Fu Hustle.
The Middle-Aged Fists
In the 90s, a certain martial arts expert named Jet Li burst onto the scene with the hugely ground-breaking Once Upon a Time in China franchise, sparking a new generation of martial arts actors following in his footsteps such as Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou and Donnie Yen. Zhao and Yen made good on their own and now they are still rated among the best fighters in the movie scene.
Jet Li (Fearless, Once Upon a Time in China I, II and III, Fong Sai Yuk, Hero), 43: Li began his martial arts career as a member of the Beijing Wushu team and won 15 gold medals and one silver medal in Chinese wushu championships. He later became one of the most sought after martial arts actors in Asia, with his most popular roles being that of Chinese kung fu legend Wong Fei Hong in the Once Upon a Time in China movies. He later ventured into Hollywood, playing a villain in Lethal Weapon 4, and landing his first lead role in Romeo Must Die. Li recently announced that he is retiring from wushu movies after making Fearless (but not modern action or martial arts films) to concentrate on other projects.
Vincent Zhao Wen-Zhou (Once Upon a Time in China IV V, 4-5, Fong Sai Yuk), 33: Like Li, Zhao was a wushu champion who started training when he was eight years old. He made his acting debut in 1993 with Green Snake, after which he faced off with Jet Li in Fong Sai Yuk. Zhao would go on to take over Li's Wong Fei Hong role in the third and fourth sequels of the Once Upon a Time in China franchise. He made a foray into TV series with Fist Power in 2000, and also appeared in the TV adaptation of the popular Hong Kong comic The Storm Riders later.
Donnie Yen (Once Upon a Time in China, Iron Monkey, Hero), 43: Yen made his debut in 1984, but only managed to hit the big time with his breakthrough role in Once Upon a Time in China, in which he took on Jet Li's Wong Fei Hong in one of the most memorable screen fights of that era. The two would later face-off once again in the opening battle in Zhang Yimou's Hero. Yen also made a brief foray into Hollywood with a villain role in Jackie Chan's Shanghai Knights and is also currently involved in action choreography and directing work in both America and Hong Kong.
There may not be many prominent new martial arts actors appearing in Chinese movies lately, but all is not lost for the kung fu genre, as promising fighters like Tony Jaa from Thailand are introducing a whole new generation of movie-goers to the wonders of Asian martial arts with his own unique style.
Tony Jaa (Tom Yum Goong, Ong Bak), 30: Widely tipped to be "the next action hero", Thai action star Tony Jaa (real name Phanom Yeerum) stormed the world with his enigmatic brand of martial arts and daredevil stunts in Ong Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior, in which he did all the fighting and stunts without any doubles, wires or computer effect. Skilled in martial arts like Muay Thai, Aikido, Capoeira and Taekwondo, among others, Jaa's second movie was Tom Yum Goong, in which his character has to travel to Australia to save his kidnapped elephant.
Xing Yu (Kungfu Hustle, Black Swordsman): A Shaolin Temple disciple, Xing played Coolie in Kungfu Hustle, which showcased his powerful kicking skills. He entered the Shaolin Temple at the age of 10 and received training for 10 years, and currently manages the Shaolin Temple branch in Shenzhen, China. He first entered the film industry in the early 1990s with films like Black Swordsman and God of Gamblers.
For decades, Hollywood has been trying to emulate the dynamic moves of Asian kung fu movies, with Western actors like "the Bill in Kill Bill" (David "Kung Fu Caine" Carradine, who wasn't actually trained in martial arts), Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal showcasing their kung fu skills to the max. However, many of these films have failed to even come close to the dynamism of Asian kung fu films, many ending up as B-Grade action flicks. Here are a few Western actors who may have held their own against the Asian names.
Chuck Norris (Way of the Dragon, Missing in Action), 66: This veteran former karate champion-cum-actor holds the distinction of having fought the legendary Bruce Lee mano-a-mano in Way of the Dragon. Best known for 80s action franchise Missing in Action, Norris reportedly declined the role of the villain sensei in The Karate Kid because he did not want to cast a bad light on martial arts.
Steven Seagal (Under Siege, Exit Wounds), 55: A karate and Aikido expert, the pony-tailed devout Buddhist is one of few American action stars who could actually fight reasonably well. However, largely due to a lack of variety in his characters, Seagal's films rarely ventured out of the usual B-grade action thriller territory, with his most prominent films being 1992's Under Siege and Exit Wounds in 2001.
Jean Claude Van Damme (Universal Soldier, Timecop), 46: Known as "The Muscles from Brussels", Van Damme is a black belt in karate and like Seagal, is an action film star whose films always seem like it's the same movie replayed. Nevertheless, with reasonably well-grossing movies like Universal Soldier and Timecop under his belt, it could be said that Van Damme has had a slightly better career than Seagal