Wuxia films are often associated with Kung Fu films in the West, with the latter sometimes classified as Chopsocky (a play on American Chinese dish Chop Suey and the word “sock” for punch). Thanks to the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s, Wuxia films were brought along to fulfill an export quota. Let’s explore how Kung Fu Cinema in the West led to the exposure of Wuxia films.
Before we get too far, let’s go over the general differences between the two genres: a Kung Fu film usually features the main character learning grounded martial arts for a simple goal, with revenge being the most common. Once this goal is accomplished, that’s usually the end of the film. These films typically take place place during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and early 20th century. A Wuxia film, on the other hand, usually features the protagonist possessing incredible, fantastical martial arts on a journey filled with many characters and events that affect Jiang Hu. While revenge may be a theme, Wuxia plots can also range from mystery (typical of Gu Long) to more historical-based (as seen in Jin Yong stories) themes. Most Wuxia stories are set in Imperial China, with an overwhelmingly majority set in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) or earlier.
Before Bruce Lee films were imported into the US, the 1972 Shaw Bros. Kung Fu film King Boxer (a.k.a. Five Fingers of Death) was released and topped the box offices. This paved the way for the popular Bruce Lee films in Hong Kong to be screened in the US, which in turn led to the creation of Enter The Dragon. The success of these films allowed more Kung Fu films to be exported for theatrical screening in Western markets. At the same time, Wuxia films were still being produced, and were often included in the export lists, along with the Kung Fu films. The Hong Kong film industry has been known to be very profit-oriented, so it is no surprise that Wuxia films were exported and marketed as Kung Fu films to increase their revenues due to the overlapping audiences, both drawn by the strong influence of martial arts on these two genres.
One of the earliest examples of a Wuxia film (that was exported and dubbed in English) is the 1967 Shaw Bros. Film The One Armed Swordsman, featuring the late Jimmy Wang Yu. For decades in the US, this film was marketed as just a Kung Fu movie on theatrical posters, VHS, and TV. While the fights are technically more grounded than later Wuxia films, due to technological limitations of the time, the film clearly follows the aforementioned Wuxia tropes that are absent in typical Kung Fu films. On a side note, the 1972 Wuxia film Boxers of Loyalty and Righteousness (a.k.a. Shogun Saints) written by Shiao Yi and featuring Jimmy Wang Yu was dubbed and marketed as a Kung Fu film!
A blatant example of a Wuxia film marketed as a simple Kung Fu film is the 1977 Shaw Bros. Film adaptation of The Legend of the Condor Heroes (a.k.a. The Eagle Shooting Heroes) by Jin Yong (Louis Cha). The adaptation is known as "The Brave Archer" in Asia; however, it was retitled as "Kung Fu Warlords" in the US. It is the epitome of a Wuxia story, even more so than The One Armed Swordsman. Even the theatrical poster itself features stereotypical characters of a Kung Fu movie set in the 1920s.
By the 1980’s, the VHS rental market and cable television became hot markets. This led to many Kung Fu and Wuxia films being more accessible in North America. On the VHS market, some titles were released under multiple alternative titles with covers that had no relation to the movie. On the cable television side, some channels featured a “Black Belt Theater” or “Kung Fu Theater” block where such films were shown. By the 1990s, this faded out as Hong Kong actors such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li started appearing in Hollywood films. While it’s in the past, it is still a part of the journey of the Wuxia genre coming to the West.
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