When you think about classic Chinese martial arts films (because I know you do all the time), usually, heavy hitting actors like Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, even Lau Kar-leung immediately come to mind. But what about women martial artists? Turns out, there are a lot of them. And they are the epitome of badass.
Women like Michelle Yeoh, JeeJa Yanin, and Zhang Ziyi have made a huge impression in recent years, but back in the "golden era" of martial arts movies during the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, actresses and martial arts experts like Angela Mao, Judy Lee, and Leanne Liu were dealing exaggerated blows (accompanied by equally exaggerated sound effects) with the best of them, creating some of the genre's most iconic films.
I looked back at nine Chinese wuxia and kung fu classics featuring some of the best women martial artists in the game. (A note: wuxia films, usually based on literature, are more about the journeys of warriors and their social and political struggles. Pure kung-fu movies, on the other hand opt out of the drama and get right to the point: flying through the air, kicking and punching.)
Some of these films are goofier than others, some are more romantic, and some have better fight scene choreography. They're such a treat, particularly in today's context, because while they do boast some Camembert-status cheesiness (like any other product of the '60s-'80s), the choreography and various displays of human strength and agility are still awe-inspiring. They exploring the ever-relevant concepts of discipline and honor. They're like mini lessons in history, culture, philosophy, not physics/gravity, and they're a whole boatload of fun.
And remember: do NOT try these stunts at home, folks.
Come Drink With Me (1966)
This Hong Kong classic, set at some point during the Ming dynasty, stars Cheng Pei Pei (who played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and is regarded as one of the seminal films of the wuxia genre. Master swordswoman Golden Swallow has been sent by the government to retrieve a governor's kidnapped son from a group of bandits. She partners up with what appears to be a drunken beggar, but is actually a martial arts master looking for some revenge of his own from an evil abbot of the monastery housing the bandits. With well-choreographed fight scenes and great cinematography, this is really the film that set the standard for pretty much all wuxia and kung fu films.
The Crane Fighter (1979)
Judy Lee (marketed as the female Bruce Lee) plays Ping Erh, a young woman who teaches herself a variation of kung-fu known as Crane-style—against the wishes of her father, a master of shaolin kung fu (the oldest institutionalized form of kung fu and practiced by Buddhist monks), which the Manchu government has banned. So the government sends some dudes to kill her, naturally.
The kicker here is that Ping Erh falls in love with a dude named Chao-chan Hai (their love is solidified through the various fights they have against one another) and they get married. On their wedding night, she straight-up challenges him, refusing to get into bed with him unless he defeats her in a fight and forces her onto the bed. He fails the first night and is forced to sleep outside, where some bumbling sidekick character ends up accidentally peeing on him. CLASSIC. (Full length movie here).
Ooh, speaking of Judy Lee, be sure to check out her first film Queen Boxer, if only for the opening credits (which feature the theme from Shaft).
My Young Auntie (1981)
Also known as Fangs of the Tigress, this film stars Kara Hui as Cheng Tai-nun, a martial arts expert who marries a much older man in order to protect his estate from his villainous brother. When the greedy brother manages to steal the deed to the estate, Tai-nun and her older nephew go to retrieve the document by force. Kara Hui won Best Actress at the very first Hong Kong Film Awards for her work in this film. As the trailer mentions, My Young Auntie has "Serious Kung Fu, Light Gags."
Stranger From Shaolin (1977)
This is your classic Yentl situation. Yim Wing Chun (played by Cecilia Wong Hang Sau), a young woman whose family is murdered by the Manchus, escapes to a nearby Shaolin temple by disguising herself as a young man. Though the abbot makes her perform seemingly menial tasks, she soon develops strength and skill and ends up creating her own style of close-range fighting. Everyone eventually figures out she's a woman, and they're all pretty cool with it. It doesn't have the best fighting sequences, but it's still fun. ( Full movie.)
The Lady Assassin (1983)
This flick starring Leanne Liu is one of those super zany complicated films about a greedy prince trying to outdo another prince poised to become the next Manchu Emperor. Liu plays Liu Si Niang, a skilled swordswoman who sort of just shows up after the premise has been laid out and kicks ass. Highlights include all of the choreography, some henchmen dressed in what appear to be hazmat suits made of gold lamé, and the Lady Assassin straight up splitting a dude in half. Vertically. ( Part 1 of the full movie.)
14 Amazons (1972)
This folklore-based war epic is about the female generals of the Yang family, a military family from the Song Dynasty. When General Yang-Tsung-pao dies in battle against Western Xia, leaving his son as the only male heir, his tactician widow Mu Guiying (played by Ivy Ling Po) takes it upon herself to lead the resistance against Western Xia. With only a handful of volunteer troops and her staff of all-family, all-female generals, she manages to outwit the king of Western Xia. Come for the badass female generals, stay for the completely implausible human bridge.
The Woman Avenger (1980)
Also known as Killer B's, this movie is pretty fucking amazing. Hsia Kwan Li plays Ling Chi, a woman hellbent on revenge after a group of bandits ambush her and her husband on the road. The bandits murder her husband, and the leader rapes her, leaving her for dead. She is found and saved by a Buddhist abbess who teaches her kung fu, which she then uses to kill all those who have wronged her. She also picks up a second female instructor just for the hell of it. Hsia Kwan Li's hits don't always connect (despite what the sound effects may lead you to believe), but she gives a very physical performance—she apparently performed all her own stunts and makes it look so effortless. (Full movie.)
A Touch of Zen (1971)
One of the most iconic wuxia films of all time, this Taiwanese production took six years to make, and took home the Technical Grand Prize award at Cannes—the first Chinese language action film to do so. Today, it's probably best known for inspiring Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and even though it's not too heavy on the fight scenes, they are beautifully choreographed and filmed. Hsu Feng plays Yang, a young woman outrunning assassins sicced on her by the emperor's chief commander, a eunuch, as a result of her father attempting warn the Emperor about the commander's corruption. It's got action, a love-child, and allusions to Buddhist enlightenment. What more could you ask for?
Broken Oath (1977)
In another classic revenge tale, the ever-badass Angela Mao plays Pure Lotus, a girl raised in a Shaolin monastery who is really good at kung fu and also discovers that her mother died during childbirth—her mother was raped and her father was murdered during an attack by, yes, a group of bandits. Sigh, I know. Pure Lotus ends up going after every single person involved in the attack on her parents. AND SHE FUCKING THROWS SCORPIONS. SHE THROWS THEM LIKE LIVING DARTS. WHAT.