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The History of Kung Fu Movies
By Robert Vaux
Source: Intuit.com's history of kung fu movies
OverviewWesterners typically associate kung fu movies with their golden age of the 1970s, when the genre truly became an international phenomenon. But kung fu movies were around for many decades before the 1970s, emerging as a popular genre in Hong Kong shortly after the end of World War II. Their influence eventually spread far beyond Asia, and today can be seen in countless American and European action films, who use the immense skill and acrobatic choreography of kung fu movies as inspiration for their own brand of mayhem.
WuxiaKung fu movies draw their greatest inspiration from Chinese folk tales known as wuxia--stories of honor and fighting prowess not dissimilar to those of Arthurian knights. Early examples appeared around 200 B.C., and became fodder for novels, operas and similar forms of popular culture by the 1400s. They remains hugely popular in Asia, and when Chinese filmmakers cast about looking for material, became the perfect fulcrum for engaging, action-packed movies.
Post-War BoomThough kung fu movies had been around in some form or another as early as the 1920s, they first achieved critical mass in the years after World War II. Hong Kong became the center of a huge increase in movie output, augmented by the refugees who came to the city from mainland China. Early pioneers turned out energetic crowd-pleasers, notably Yam Pang-nin's "Lady Robin Hood" in 1947 and Wu Pang's "The Story of Wong Fei-Hung" (generally considered the start of the kung fu genre) in 1949.
The Shaw BrothersBrothers Run Run Shaw and Runme Shaw had been making movies in Hong Kong since the 1930s, but their studios began turning out an extraordinary number of kung fu films in the 1960s, including "The One-Armed Swordsman" and "The Twelve Gold Medallions." Their output helped a number of notable kung fu directors establish themselves, and they employed several actors who went on to the become genre stars.
Enter the MasterKung fu movies remained a largely Asian phenomenon until the arrival of a singular performer who changed the genre forever. Bruce Lee, best known to Western audiences as the Green Hornet's partner Kato, exploded onto the scene in the early 1970s. His films became a platform for his uncanny physical abilities, while his tragic death in 1973 helped fuel interest in works like "Enter the Dragon" and "Game of Death." His immense popularity brought kung fu movies to the West, and inspired subsequent performers such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
InfluenceThe impact of kung fu movies eventually spilled over into Western cinema as well. While Asian filmmakers periodically created crossover hits such as "House of Flying Daggers" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," American directors began aping kung fu sequences in their action scenes. Movies like "The Matrix," "The Phantom Menace" and the "Kill Bill" films wear their kung fu influences proudly on their sleeves, indicating just how influential the genre has become.