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Heroines of Asian Martial Arts Films

When Michelle Yeoh became the first Asian woman to win an Oscar as best actress for her performance in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once last March she said, “this is proof- dream big and dreams do come true”, adding that her win “is for Asian community and anyone who has ever been identified as minority”.


Although Asians have been a minority in the Hollywood film industry since its inception, compared to Hollywood, Asian cinema has seen many more female action stars who inspire both empowerment and awe.

Before Michelle Yeoh splashed onto World cinema as one of the most spectacular kung fu stars in work like Police Story III: Supercop (1992), The Heroic Trio (1993), Wing Chun (1994) and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000), there was already a rich Asian legacy of strong female roles in action and martial arts films.

The genre emerged and flourished almost at the same time as cinema itself, dating back to the 1920s, although it had its great revival towards the end of that decade with the development of the Shanghai film industry. These first wuxia (martial arts) films were set in ancient China and drew heavily on Chinese folklore and classics and comprised over 60% of the entire film production of those years. The action girls in these stories were not delicate violets, nor damsels in distress, but true heroines, fighting against male villains on equal terms.

Each studio had at least one actress in whom they put their trust for leading roles in these epic films, although there were four predominant ones: Fan Xuepeng and Xu Qinfang at the Youlian studio, Wu Lizhu at Yueming, and Xia Peizhen at Mingxing. To these must be added such well-known stars as Hu Die.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of martial action productions from those years are considered lost.

In the early 1930s, when the Kuomintang government banned martial arts films, claiming that they promoted feudalism and superstition, the Shanghai film companies relocated to Hong Kong, where, as a British colony Chinese government censorship didn’t apply. The ban on wuxia films wasn´t lifted until the 1980s.

Hong Kong, beside being a refuge for many of the filmmakers who came from Shanghai, was a city with its own idiosyncrasy and language, the Cantonese, which became a determining factor in the division that would mark Chinese cinema until the 1970s.

The Shanghai companies introduced Mandarin-language wuxia films to Hong Kong and soon the local Cantonese studios responded producing their own martial arts flicks. This led to the rise of Kung Fu films.

Cantonese cinema was low-budget cinema designed for the local market, that produced the so called “seven days wonder” films that were shot in little more than a week, premiered and disappeared in pursuit of the next release. They were movies full of fantasy and martial arts imbued with a musical and classical style accompanied by a series of more urban films influenced by spy films, James Bond ´style.

This trend gave rise to the phenomenon of the “Jade Girls” where female stars were the most important assets of the production companies. Some of the top stars of Cantonese cinema of the 1960s were Josephine Siao, Connie Chan, Suet Nie and Patricia Lam Fung.

For its part, Mandarin cinema, with much more budget and prestige, produced by the big studios, like the well-known Shaw Brothers, tried to break with the type of martial arts cinema in favor of more violence and fantasy presenting the “The New School of Wuxia”, a swashbuckling cinema that moves away from magic and fantasy.

King Hu´s Come Drink with Me (1966), starring the absolute queen of martial arts Cheng Pei Pei, would cement the success of this new trend. During her years with the Shaw Brothers Pei would participate in about 20 films, such as Golden Swallow (Cheh Chang, 1968), The Jade Rashak (Meng Hua Ho, 1968), Dragon Swamp (Wei Lo, 1969) and The Lady Hermit (Meng-Hwa Ho, 1971). Mainstream viewers will recognize her as the villainous Jade Fox in Ang Lee´s Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon (2000).

Although they were a little late in bringing a strong female lead to the martial arts genre, the Shaw Brothers studio found a superstar in Kara Hui whose debut in the Kung Fu comedy My Young Auntie (1981) made an unforgettable impression. Hui was one of the few martial artists who knew that cinematic fighting was also a kind of acting.

The 1970s brought great changes to Hong Kong cinema with the arrival of Golden Harvest studios. Based on a production system composed of independent teams making their own films, flexible contracts and creative freedom, the studios revolutionized the internal system of film production, as opposed to the traditional Shaw family studio.

Golden Harvest´s first film The Invincible Eight (1971) was a showcase for the studio’s stars, including newcomers Nora Miao and Angela Mao, who would have to compete with a new male star, Bruce Lee. Mao became the queen of 1970s Kung Fu. Her fiery jump kicks struck fear in villains and viewers alike, as we see in Hapkido (1972), Enter the Dragon (1973) or Broken Oath (1977).

Another one who rose to prominence as one of the toughest fighters in Hong Kong films was Joyce Godenzi. Eurasian Miss Hong Kong winner who had no martial arts training before making a handful of movies in the late 80s, Godenzi worked with top choreographers, editors and directors to make notable films like, Eastern Condors (1987) and She Shoots Straight (1990).

Japanese born martial artist Yukari Oshima defied the odds against non- Chinese actors producing a large filmography of contemporary action roles making a name in Hong Kong and Filipino cinema. The combination of martial arts and stunt skills were in evidence throughout Oshima´s career, most notably in titles like Vengeance is Mine (1997) and It Takes a Thief (1999).

The Vietnamese actress, singer, model and former beauty queen, Thanh Van Ngo, was one of the biggest surprises of Charlie Nguyen’s The Rebel (2006). She made her Hollywood debut playing the role of Mantis in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016) followed by an incredibly moving act of sacrifice in the action-packed opening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) playing Page Tico.