Looking back at the extraordinary career of the pioneering martial arts movie superstar.
If you’ve watched more than a handful of martial arts films, you’ll have seen Jimmy Wang Yu and, if you’ve seen Jimmy Wang Yu, you’ll know that he was one of the greats. It’s a sad truth that even larger-than-life legends have to die sometime and, on April 5th 2022, Jimmy Wang Yu passed away. He did, however, leave behind a unique cinematic legacy and some fifty years’ worth of performances to treasure.
Unlike many Shaw Brothers Studios martial arts stars who started off small, Wang Yu’s career kicked off with a bang, with leading roles in a slew of wuxia/swordplay classics like Magnificent Trio (1965) and Temple of the Red Lotus (1965). It was clear he had star power, mixing tight onscreen choreography skills, classical good looks and a heroic charisma. The public loved him and his wuxia movies were big domestic hits. However, by the late Sixties, the Chinese film landscape was shifting and directors like Chang Cheh were bringing in new influences and laying down foundations for what would become the booming kung fu industry of the 1970s.
Wang’s big breakthrough came with Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman (1967), a film of almost unprecedented violence for its time, that blew up the box office with its high-octane mix of karmic philosophy, Chanbara-style swordfights and gore. Lots and lots of gore, spurting limbs lopped off left, right and centre. It started a subgenre of its own, with one-armed fighters taking on all comers, but arguably no one ever topped the razor-sharp athletic choreography of Wang Yu in One-Armed Swordsman and its many sequels and spin-offs. It’s still a joy to watch him fight with one arm, all these years later. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like to see at the time but it was the first Hong Kong film to make HK$1m at the domestic box office, so the numbers speak for themselves.
It was The Chinese Boxer (1970) that truly defined Wang Yu, not just as a performer, but as a writer, director and trailblazer. The plot – corrupted martial artists starting a war with an honourable martial arts school – is one that would be recycled many times but here it’s a simple Manichean storyline that provides an emotional backbone for some of the most incredible, groundbreaking martial arts sequences ever made. It’s hard to imagine, given the thousands of imitations that would come out over the next two decades, but this kind of hand-to-hand combat movie really wasn’t common at all in 1970. So it’s a testament to The Chinese Boxer that it doesn’t feel at all prototypical but, instead, stands up as a masterpiece even now. There are some truly bravura sequences here. Wang Yu single-handedly taking on a casino full of weapon-toting bad dudes probably still has Tarantino crying into his Crazy 88 Funko Pops over his failure to imitate it, and the penultimate sequences in the snow are visually spectacular. Some of the most beautiful brutality put on film – especially as Wang Yu avoids the typical ADR thwacking sounds of later kung fu cinema and you really do hear every dull, fleshy thud of every punch like it’s real.
It’s tragic, really, that martial arts cinema is so frowned upon by the criterati and that these movies – despite being huge hits at the time – are now seen only as ‘cult’ material, because honestly, the effort that Wang Yu put into this film and the quality of the results put it up there with the greats in any genre. To conceive and develop this, direct it and also perform – to high degrees of athleticism – most of it is a level of technical and artistic (not to mention physical) skill that puts so many western filmmakers to shame. Imagine Scorsese or Coppola doing all this and you’ll see what I mean.
From there though, Wang’s career took a weird turn. Rather than stay on board with the biggest film studio in the country, he broke contract with the Shaws and went to Taiwan to make lower-budget independent movies. To say he was prolific at this stage of his career is an understatement, clearly adopting an approach of saying “yes” to everything and often appearing in a different film every month! While free from the shackles of a studio system, the results of his labours are, of course, mixed. There are some genuinely high-quality productions here, as he worked with Shaw rivals Golden Harvest on films like Invincible Sword (1971), but Wang brings out the quality even in some of the cheapest films he made around this time. Magnificent Chivalry (1971) is a great example of this, where he plays a character called The Bamboo Blade, who takes on Black Tiger Security, a gang of criminals who live in Stone Tiger Town, a whole enclave of bad dudes to slice through. Although the plot is silly and melodramatic, Wang is having a ball onscreen and his flamboyant acting and slick martial arts make it a lot of fun.
It’s strange to watch a shoestring production like Magnificent Chivalry, knowing that its star was spearheading blockbusters only a few months before and was still huge name value, but his motives become clearer when you watch the films he wrote and directed himself in this era. Having total creative control unleashed a playful side to Wang Yu that had been held back by the Shaws. He shamelessly poked the hornet’s nest by making The One-Armed Boxer in 1972, a mash-up/rip-off of One-Armed Swordsman and recent Shaws mega-hit King Boxer that went much further than either of them, in terms of violence and pacing. It’s a much more psychotronic effort and these garish, almost surrealistic takes on martial arts would come to a head on its sequel, One-Armed Boxer 2 in 1976…
Better known as Master of the Flying Guillotine, this – again – starts life as a rip-off of a more expensive Shaw Brothers hit but, like the Italian exploitation industry would do a few years later, takes things extremely off-piste. In the same way that it’s impossible to connect Lucio Fulci’s impressionistic masterpiece The Beyond back to Dawn of the Dead (the film his zombie movies were conceived to cash in on), Master of the Flying Guillotine bears little resemblance to Ho Meng-Hua’s Flying Guillotine, beyond its excessive use of the titular weapon. Meng-Hua’s film was lavish and serious, an earnest metaphor for the atomic bomb with complex storytelling and beautiful sets. Wang Yu’s is… not.
It really is berserker style kung fu filmmaking and shows a director off his leash and able to make whatever the hell he feels like, making the most of a very limited budget. It’s extremely gory, extremely silly, and features a host of magical and surreal opponents for Wang Yu to fight as he’s pursued by a Buddhist monk in swastika-patterned robes who’s roaming the country on a crazed decapitation spree. The final fight has maybe the most ridiculous finishing blow ever and the whole thing is punctuated by a soundtrack of Neu! songs slowed down to the point where they just sound like industrial noise, years before that was even a thing.
Watching Chinese Boxer and Master of the Flying Guillotine side by side is probably the best way to experience both extremes of Wang Yu. They’re Yin and Yang. Joe D’Amato and Martin Scorsese. He can make the most innovative, technically brilliant kung fu film and he can also roll around in the muck making gore-soaked madness for a pittance and I’ve always been a fan of the ‘get you a guy who can do both’ mentality. His passion for just getting out there and making the film is undeniable when you watch either of them though.
As the decade wore on and the kung fu craze boomed and busted, Wang Yu made several efforts at cracking the international market, most notably in Zatoichi vs the One-Armed Swordsman (1971) – a very uncommon collaboration between Hong Kong and Japan with a plot that promoted tolerance between the two fractious nations – and The Man From Hong Kong (1975). This was an Ozploitation movie directed by the ever-entertaining Brian Trenchard-Smith (or by Wang Yu himself, depending on who you believe), with Wang Yu as an Asian James Bond-style character and, ironically, ex-Bond himself George Lazenby playing the bad guy. The stunts are some of the most daredevil ever committed to film (and the list of injuries sustained by the stuntmen reads like a novella). Despite being incredibly entertaining, a lot of offscreen tension and perhaps just the sheer recklessness of it meant that Man From Hong Kong – while reasonably successful at the time – remains a very cult picture rather than the breakout blockbuster it wanted to be.
While there’s little argument that Wang Yu’s career was at its most glorious in the 1970s, he amassed a body of work that really was incomparable and still hasn’t aged. A number of comeback attempts in the Eighties didn’t quite ignite in the same way but a friendship with Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung meant he continued to work on exciting, top-quality projects like Fantasy Mission Force (1983), Millionaire’s Express (1986) and Island of Fire (1990). By the Nineties, he’d more or less retired from film to focus on running a business outside of the industry, but he was sometimes brought back as a treat for fans who appreciate the lineage of martial arts cinema, and it’s always a pleasure to see a Wang Yu cameo. Even as late as the 2010s, he still had that rare, instant and wonderful connection with a camera that only true stars do. You see him appear and you smile. Always.
R.I.P. Jimmy Wang Yu (1943 – 2022)
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