In terms of plopping down on the couch and unplugging my brain for a few hours, there’s no genre of movies, outside of classic horror cinema, that I love more than old-school kung fu. It’s a genre that is permanently rife with absurdities, but even moreso than others, silly cliches and tropes are a part of kung fu’s DNA, to the point that the films don’t work very well without them. Rather, some of them almost become part of the fabric that is kung fu’s shared “lore,” so audiences know what to expect when they see certain stock characters or tropes arrive on the scene. They streamline the storytelling, allowing the films to focus on the aspect that everyone wants to see: The fighting and choreography.
Here, then, are 10 of my personal favorite kung fu tropes, the units of storytelling that make me smile or laugh every time they show up on screen (which is extremely often). You won’t see any Shaw Brothers or Golden Harvest film that doesn’t contain at least a few of these. If you’re looking for one to watch, check out our list of the 100 best martial arts movies of all time.
And when I say “everyone,” I mean literally everyone walking down the street. Every Shaw Brothers martial arts film, particularly all of them set in generalized 1800s period pieces, tend to feature hundreds of extras and townspeople who are all apparently skilled martial arts practitioners.
Granted, the martial prowess of the poor farmers and shopkeeps pale in comparison to the hero or the Big Bad, but why does a noodle shop owner know how to throw a spinning heel kick, anyway? The real-world answer is that every part is being played by an actor with martial arts training, but in the universe where the film is taking place, it means that high-level fighting skills are absurdly commonplace, even among plebs with no training. Even when it’s implied or specifically stated that the combatants have no idea what they’re doing, they’re still throwing out flashy moves that would cause a massive ACL tear if any of the audience members tried them at home.
There is no genre of film on Earth that ends so abruptly as a classic kung fu movie after the Big Bad has been dispatched. It’s one of the strangest things about the entire genre for a western audience to accept, because “THE END” so often comes at you completely out of nowhere, before you even realize what’s happened.
It’s not uncommon for a villain to be dealt his death blow and tumble over, spitting blood, only for the hero to stand up and start walking away without a word, to be immediately met with a freeze-frame “THE END.” No ending monologue, no shared celebration over the death of a tyrant, and no epilogue about how things have changed for the better. Just BOOM, done. Skip to the end of the fight below for a perfect example—there’s a grand total of 5 seconds between the death of the Big Bad and “THE END.”
I shit you not, I once saw a kung fu film whose name I’ve now forgotten that abruptly ended DURING the villain’s death sequence. They didn’t even let the villain finish falling over before telling the audience to get the hell out of the theater.
Props to TV Tropes for so perfectly coining a term that describes the groups of colorful henchmen one sees in everything from Dragon Ball Z to most RPGs. But with all due respect, kung fu movies are the natural home turf of the Quirky Miniboss Squad. These guys just seem to spawn and then congregate in evil dojos, waiting for an appropriately evil Big Bad to come collect them and set them loose on a rampage of wanton destruction.
It’s important to note that these guys aren’t faceless mooks that exist to get mowed down. Rather, they’re the elite team that enforces the will of the villain, and are all dangerous combattants. In the beginning of the film, they may cameo by destroying a village or rival dojo, showing off their signature abilities along the way. They often share some kind of common uniform or belong to a gang, specializing in specific martial arts, weapons or powers so it’s easier to tell them apart, although they may also go full Power Rangers and be color-coded for the audience’s convenience. In short, the Quirky Miniboss Squad is presented as an insurmountable obstacle early in the film, and must be conquered, sometimes sequentially, before the hero or heroes can tackle the Big Bad.
This trope is very common in martial arts film and anime—everywhere from Fullmetal Alchemist to the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad that The Bride is hunting down one at a time in Kill Bill. Even the Three Storms from Big Trouble in Little China would qualify.
This trope was so common from the late ’60s throughout the ’70s that some recognize it as an entire kung fu sub-genre that is questionably referred to as “cripsploitation”—aka, an exploitation film about crippled martial artists. Not the most sensitive title, considering that a fair number of these films feature performers with legitimate disabilities, but I don’t create the labels.
The trend likely kicked off with 1967’s One-Armed Swordsman, which featured two-handed star Jimmy Wang Yu, who had one of his arms secured in a special garment behind his back to not be visible. Wang Yu, a specialist, literally went on to reprise this same type of role over and over, in films with such creative variations as One-Armed Boxer. My personal favorite features a huge team-up in 1978’s Crippled Avengers, which includes a blind guy, a deaf guy, a legless guy, a handless guy and a guy whose head was squeezed in a vice until he “became an idiot.” Naturally, the legless and handless guys both end up getting fitted with high-tech metal replacements, which make their strikes that much deadlier. Plus: Dart-shooting metal fingers! Watch below as the “idiot” trains with the blind fighter in an amazing display of athleticism.
Things get more uncomfortable, however, in the films where producers are taking advantage of actual disabled people, such as 1979’s Crippled Masters, which features a legitimately armless man and another with disturbing, withered legs. The trope even leapt to America in the truly bizarre 1979 cop movie The Amazing Mr. No Legs, wherein the title refers to the villain of the film, a wheelchair-bound mob enforcer with double-barreled shotguns attached to his chair. Leave it to the U.S.A. to have the gall to make the disabled man the film’s villain instead of hero.
There’s basically three types of organizations in a kung fu film: Evil gang, temple/dojo and local government. Of those, two of the three will invariably be led by the strongest fighter in said organization. The only exception is government, which is unfailingly staffed by one sniveling coward and boot-licking, sycophantic bureaucrat after another. Seriously, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a positive portrayal of a small-town government official in years of watching these films.
The evil gang and virtuous temple, on the other hand, always seem to be pure martial-ocracies where rank is determined exclusively through one’s ability to throw beautiful crescent kicks. It seems like a really poor way of structuring, when you think about it—would one not want the smartest or most capable administrators in charge, rather than the guy who spends 14 hours a day training his Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique? Perhaps the evil gang could try putting a bookish supervillain in charge and leave the fighting to the guys who can punch through solid stone? They might find that suddenly their finances are being managed much more ably.
Likewise, in the virtuous temple (Shaolin or otherwise), the most powerful fighter is invariably the supreme abbot, even though he’s roughly 100 years old. But don’t worry: In a kung fu movie, that only makes you stronger. Any given fighter, if given long white hair, a tight, white bun or incredibly long, droopy mustache instantly receives a x3 combat multiplier—call it the “Pai Mei effect.” You likely think I’m referring to the great Gordon Liu in Kill Bill, but Tarantino didn’t by any means invent the character—he appears as a terrifying, unbeatable antagonist in two ’70s classics: Executioners from Shaolin and Clan of the White Lotus. Once again, you might think that a contemplative devotion to Buddha might be the most important qualifier to be the leader of a temple, but it’s actually the ability to punch a hole straight through a man’s chest.
This one goes hand-in-hand with characters such as the aforementioned Pai Mei, so I might as well describe it next. There is a stock character/style of martial artist in these types of films, usually a bigger guy with a great physique, whose style revolves entirely around the impregnability of his defense. The classic example would be The Toad in 1978’s Five Deadly Venoms, portrayed by the burly Lo Mang, as a fighter whose body is so rigorously trained that it can’t be pierced or damaged by even bladed weapons.
Naturally, the trade-off to “bronze body” or “iron armor” or whatever the technique happens to be called in any given film is that there’s always, always a single weak point on the fighter’s body to counter-balance it. It effectively makes these fighters into the kung-fu equivalent of the Death Star—totally impregnable, except for the one exploitable spot that makes them completely implode. It can be anywhere—the ear, the knee, the groin, etc, etc. The films featuring Pai Mei take this concept to its fanciful extreme—the White Lotus is only vulnerable during certain hours of the day, and he can actually MOVE his weak spot to different parts of his body at will. As I said before: That white hair/mustache multiplier is terrifying.
Ironically, though, “iron body”-type techniques are almost never applied by the eventually successful protagonist. In fact, the practitioners who use this technique are almost always killed eventually, because the spectacle of finding the weak spot simply makes for a good scene. It’s a technique so ostentatious that its users end up dead to serve the plot, whether they’re heroes or villains. You can watch a great example below, which ends with a dude’s groin being squeezed … to death!
This one is pretty simple, but fairly easy to recognize. It’s simply a bit of filmmaking trickery employed in the editing room to make fights seem more impressive or skillful than they really are. By slightly fast-forwarding the action during fight sequences, the tumbles, flips and kicks seem all the more impressive and tightly choreographed, while also helping to cover up any imperfections and mistakes made along the way. The technique is common to see in all types of kung-fu film, although it’s probably more common to the z-grade, zero-budget stuff than the more lavish, set piece-driven films starring the industry’s best performers—presumably because they didn’t need the editing trickery to nail their spots.
The slightly sped-up look also gives these scenes a certain visual sense of oddness, in a way that can be difficult to put your finger on. It’s noticeable less in the speed of someone’s movements, and more in the things that look “wrong” if they’re sped up, such as someone falling to the ground. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but more of a factor that gives action sequences a dream-like gauzy veil of unreality.
This trope is extremely common, but I first saw it actually named and cataloged in the pages of the excellent webcomic Dr. McNinja, which is about a ninja who is also a medical doctor, if the title was not clear. To quote that definition: “One ninja is an elite and powerful adversary. Multiple ninjas make a group of faceless and incompetent pawns.”
Truer words were never spoken when it comes to kung fu and ninja films in general. Especially when we’re talking about the mooks of the villain, the inverse ninja law is infallible: The more bad guys there are, the less competent and threatening they must be, by default. It simply makes good storytelling sense—you can’t exactly have the hero get immediately beat down by a horde of faceless, nameless goons. It’s the hero’s job to wreck that horde and show off what a badass he is/what great training he’s received, and then apply those new skills toward the real adversaries, who may be the earlier mentioned Quirky Miniboss Squad or the Big Bad himself. Of course, this trope goes hand in hand with so-called “mook chivalry”—the tendency of these faceless goons to fight the hero one at a time instead of truly using their numbers to their advantage. The Shogun’s endless hordes of ninjas in Shogun Assassin provide a perfect example of the trope.
It just goes to show that in the end, there’s no liability more likely to lead to death in these movies than a lack of characterization. If you’re a fighter without a name or character, then you’re clearly about to get your ass kicked. The trope is so popular that American action movies have always been rife with it. Where would Rambo be, without the inverse ninja law?
The vast majority of women in classic kung fu cinema are depicted as more or less powerless, but female fighters do occasionally present themselves. However, you’re not going to see the girl next door kicking ass with her tiger-style kung fu, or rocking the nunchucks. When they do fight, the women of these films regularly seem to incorporate a more womanly, “modest” brand of martial arts. In doing so, they tend to trade aggression and killer instinct for a combination of flips and prancing that look more like a Simone Biles floor routine than a deadly weapon. And if they do get to practice one of say, the classic animal kung fu styles, it’s almost always Crane style, which is apparently the most “feminine.”
In some rare cases, though, such as 1978’s Heroes of the East, this trope does get subverted in an interesting way. In that film, Gordion Liu’s Chinese protagonist marries a Japanese girl and is shocked by her uncouth, immodest style of karate. As the chauvinist husband, he insist she instead learns more ladylike Chinese martial arts, but eventually learns the error of his boorish ways … after fighting a bunch of Japanese guys along the way. But this is very much the exception, rather than the rule.
There are probably people out there who believe that the sports training montage began with Rocky, but it’s been a signature feature of kung fu cinema for as long as kung fu cinema has existed. Indeed, for some viewers, the training sequences are the entire reason they watch these types of films, as they tend to blend entertaining comedic pratfalls with exhibitionist displays of pure athleticism. In fact, some films make the training sequences into the real meat and potatoes of the plot—just look at 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, hailed as one of the greatest kung fu films of all time. It tells the story of a young student who flees a violent regime and takes shelter at the Shaolin temple, where he slowly begins to learn the mysteries of kung fu. The resulting, Herculean tasks train specific body parts, such as his hand-eye coordination, jumping ability or simply the toughness of his skull. The amount of detail put into each chamber is frankly absurd—the below clip is almost five minutes of just training his wrist strength. Seriously, kung fu movies are all about training sequences.
At the same time, this trope is often delivered sneakily as well, by having the protagonist complete various menial tasks that he doesn’t realize are training at the time. Perhaps sweeping or chopping onions improves his hand-eye coordination, or carrying buckets of water improves his strength. Remember “wax-on, wax-off” from The Karate Kid? That’s what we’re talking about here. It all feeds into a tenant that is universally understood throughout martial arts cinema: Intense training can imbue a person with literally any ability or power. In that sense, one might call kung fu one of the most optimistic of all film genres, don’t you think?
Jim Vorel is Paste’s resident kung fu geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more random movie musings.