Recently I’ve been watching a lot old Shaw Brothers Kung Fu movies on Youtube, and it occurred to me that from the point of view of someone not really familiar with the WuXia genre (ie most foreigners) there’s probably something they’re missing when they watch these films.
The WuXia genre is the Chinese equivalent to the American Western, or the Japanese Samurai film- a romanticized action story genre set in the past where good guys and bad guys are clearly marked most of the time. Its roots trace back to the Water Margins tales, but the genre really hit its stride in the early to mid 20th century when serialized pulp adventures about Xia became a mainstay of the Hong Kong and Taiwan publishing industry. Thus, just as Westerns flourished in the early part of the 20th century when film rose in popularity, so did the WuXia genre when the Hong Kong film industry bloomed somewhat later on.
Which brings me to the thing that most viewers outside Chinese speakers fail to understand when they watch these films- Kung Fu films are really two genres, not one. There are the Kung Fu films, and the WuXia films, but they are not the same thing. The WuXia films came first, because for the most part they are adaptions of those printed stories I mentioned above, and the Kung Fu films came later- generally being original stories created specifically for film. Knowing this, it’s actually not that hard to figure out which one you’re watching- if it has a complicated story with sudden jumps in time and location, it’s usually a novel-based WuXia adaption they’re cramming into a 90 minute film. If it’s a fairly smooth film with a simple linear plot and limited cast, it’s mostly likely a Kung Fu story made specifically for film.
To give actual examples- compare Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (a WuXia film that most non-Chinese people have seen) to Enter the Dragon or most Jackie Chan films like Drunken Master and you’ll see the differences. The other obvious hint is that a Kung Fu film is usually based around literal hand-to-hand combat, whereas most (but not all) WuXia films feature swordsmen as the main characters (thus WuXia films are sometimes nicknamed “Flying Swordsman” films by some reviewers). WuXia films also tend to center around the Jiang-Hu, or “Martial World”, and their byzantine politics as different clans and societies struggle for power against each other, whereas Kung Fu films generally amount to variants of “you killed my father/master/mother/sister/brother/dog- prepare to die!”.
It’s sad in some ways, that a lot of the scorn that the “Kung Fu” genre tends to get from the general non-Chinese public is actually based on the simple Kung Fu films, but the more complex WuXia films tend to get lumped in with them. While many WuXia films are indeed also crap, there are quite a few gems in there as well, such as the Sentimental Swordsman movies. (Although it too suffers from the typical WuXia problem of too much story and too little time.)
Not that “pure” Kung Fu films are always bad, movies like the 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Iron Monkey and even The Karate Kid are cinematic masterpieces that everyone would benefit from seeing. The point I’m trying to make is not that either genre is better than the other, but that they are different, and it’s a difference that’s worth being aware of if you’re going to appreciate these movies for what they have to offer-good and bad.