Making a list of great martial arts films starring women is a surprisingly daunting task. Many, many films fit into that vague category of “martial arts films,” from 1905's Ding Jung Shan to 1966's Come Drink With Me to 2003's Kill Bill, and onward. They come from pretty much every country, and, like most genres, there are several sub-genres within the genre. With such a wide pool to choose from, it seems almost implausible that there wouldn't be a greater percentage of these films featuring strong female leads.
While there's no way in hell I've seen every martial arts movie, I have seen a few. And here’s some good news for feminist kung fu fans: Celestial Pictures and Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse are partnering up to get some of these classic films back into theaters in 2016. Celestial Pictures owns the archive of films made by the Shaw Brothers, the Chinese brothers who produced roughly 1,000 classic Kung Fu films from the 1950s-1980s. They’re rereleasing several of the female-centric films from that collection in 2016. I've prepared a list of personal favorites from that collection and beyond. I'm stoked to hear about more great recommendations, and I definitely invite you to go to town in the comments letting us know your favorites!
COME DRINK WITH ME (1966)
This was a real delight to discover, and I'd like to give a head's up to Alicia at Celestial Films for the recommendation on this one. I'd never seen it, and I'm glad I got the chance. The film follows Golden Sparrow, and I think I need to take a second just to describe this character. She is the daughter of a general, and takes on the mission of hunting down a group of bandits that are holding her brother ransom. The first scene she shows up in has her putting the smack down on a few unfriendly criminals, after which she walks into a bar, sits down, and straight up orders tiger bone wine. I'm not sure where you hang out, but the bars I go to do not carry tiger bone wine. If I'm ever lucky enough to be sitting next to someone that orders it, though, I'm just going to assume that within the next five minutes, that person is going to beat the Hell out of everyone else in the room, because they are a bad-ass and because that's exactly what happens here. While Golden Sparrow peacefully sips her drink, the entire room of guys that want her dead throw objects at her and try to kill her on the sly, but she ignores them and dodges everything. Then, without missing a beat, she walks up to the innkeeper and checks in for the night… with about the expected level of intensity of someone throwing down 20+ gloves and challenging 20+ people to a duel. So, yeah, I love her. She has zero compromise in her tactics, and pretty much just rules. Her cohort Drunken Cat eventually more or less takes her place as the central character, but I'm okay with that for a few reasons: first off, I like him a lot, secondly, their pseudo flirtation is adorable, and third, she takes a backseat because she's recovering from being straight up poisoned, so it is what it is. I'll allow it. All in all, this film is pretty much perfect.
BROKEN OATH (1977)
Broken Oath is yet another classic tale of revengeance, and boy howdy is it a grim one. The film starts out with the main character Lotus' mother slowly dying in a prison. Lotus is told early on that her life is about pretty much nothing except taking revenge on the men that killed her father and mother, and that fulfills about all of the background story any of us needed for this 90-plus minute film that isn't so much about plot complexity as it is about us the audience watching the main character just wail on some dudes. Of all the rad lady actors I discovered in course of researching this article, Angela Mao Ying is definitely one of my favorites. She's a real delight to watch, and this film showcases her as the punkest of punks. When she hits young adulthood, she gets kicked out of the monastery she was raised in pretty much for being too mad all the time, which rules. For her, getting expelled just makes life easy, as it frees up her time for wreaking a bloody vengeance upon all that have wronged her family. I really like this character, because I always really love terrifying women, but also because she has rad lines and fights pretty much every person she meets, which are traits I admire in a person. Oh, right, why is she terrifying, you ask? She throws scorpions at people. And kills them. But, mostly - throws scorpions at them. Don't know where else you could go for your scorpion-throwing viewing needs, so give this a shot if that's something you've felt was missing in your life, or if you just want to watch Angela Mao Ying beat up every guy she walks past for the length of a film. Obviously, I want all of that in every movie, so I recommend this.
14 AMAZONS (1972)
Holy damn, this movie is great. The basic premise is that one of the last remaining men of the infamous Wang family is killed in battle, and upon hearing the news, his wife and her mother, with a few other female relatives, say “Oh, Hell, no,” and collectively decide that they're going to go just kill the hell out of pretty much an entire army. Their own country attempts to thwart them by denying them troops, but that just makes this rad group of pissed off women even more pissed off. Radically, they go into battle without their emperor's consent. Okay, so the number of amazing things that happen in this movie are too many to count, but just to focus in on a couple of my favorite moments: A bunch of folks build a human bridge to get an army across a chasm, the many shots of all the women looking regal as Hell riding horses into battle, a great but unfortunately doomed character sword-fighting with one arm while a net full of boulders drags her on her back across the top of a mountain by her other arm, and oh my God, the ceaseless awesomeness of Lisa Lu as historical figure She Saihua as she tells pretty much every man she talks to for the duration of the film to screw off. Right, because did I even mention that this is all vaguely based on actual historical figures? Emphasis on 'vaguely,' as in Xena: Warrior Princess was based vaguely in ancient Greece… but then anyone that criticizes the film for being historically inaccurate is missing everything that is amazing about it. Definitely one of my favorite hidden gems that I watched this year, or ever. Finally, I have to make a quick note that the costumes in this movie are probably my favorite clothes of all time. Every single character has the best possible outfit they could have, which lends perfectly to the spectacular visual spectacle of 14 Amazons.
EXECUTIONERS FROM SHAOLIN (1977)
This film starts out really scary, with 2 fighters approaching each other on an all red backdrop, bathed in red lighting. It's a great effect, and kicks off a pretty epic fight scene. The boss of this film is the deadly Pai Mei, who destroys a temple where our hero Hsi-Kuan studied, and more or less wreaks your standard terror across the land. Having watched his master and many of his fellow martial arts students fall to Pai Mei, Hsi-Kuan chooses to study the tiger style of Kung Fu for 10 years in hopes that he shall become great enough to take Pai Mei out. He also gets married to the ridiculously beautiful Ying Chun and they have cute wrestling sex. It is indicated that some years have passed via the fact that the couple now have a kid, and Hsi-Kuan now has a mustache. A word on the mustache: it rules. Ying Chun teaches their son the crane style while her husband continues to stubbornly practice the tiger style, he makes some plans, and anything else would be a spoiler so I'll cut myself off there. This film has kind of an emphasis on scatological humor (Pai Mei can retract his testicles into his body, the main character straight up gets peed on by his friend, there is a useless idiot character that taunts Ying Chun until I wanted to jump through the screen and punch him myself) and that's not super my thing, but the film is definitely worth it based on my love of Ying Chun's elegance of character and her rad moves, Hsi-Kuan's age-identifying mustache, and their super cutie son, Wen-Ding. Honestly, their whole family is just really cute, and there's a lot of great scenes of them together in this film.
BEAUTIFUL BOXER (2004)
I love this movie, and, besides my personal affection for it, it's a rarity of all genres in that it features a trans character as the hero. Beautiful Boxer fits neatly into the standard plot of 'sports underdog does good against all odds,' and, as so many sports films are, it is a biopic. This one in specific follows the kickboxing career of transgender woman Nong Toom, who got into championship kickboxing in Thailand while still male-bodied to raise money for her transition. One of my many favorite things about this movie is that it's not overly serious, but it also refuses to make light of the very real struggles Noon encountered during her time in the ring. Predictably yet still disappointingly, these struggles were mostly rooted in the upsetting level of homophobia that was leveled at Nong Toom; both inside the ring, with her combatants mocking her by putting on makeup themselves and acting 'femme' in that special way that only misogynistic men can, and outside of the ring, as several people considered her a disgrace to Thai kickboxing and accused her of making a mockery of the form. Toom herself denies that she didn't take her matches seriously, and interviews with her indicate nothing if not a sensitive person that tried her hardest to live up to her status as a role model. While she was allowed to box only while still male-bodied due to gender restrictions on Thai kickboxing, she reached her initial financial goals with kickboxing, transitioned at age 18, and now owns her own gym in Thailand, so it's a far cry from a tragedy. This film has one solid flaw in that you have a trans character played by a cis man, but, that said, it's a great action film with a lot of touching moments and a character you will probably love as much as I did.
CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON (2000)
Of the many characteristics his film shares with most of the older movies on this list, obscurity isn't one of them: it was an international blockbuster and the highest grossing foreign language film in American box office history, so if you've only seen one foreign film in your life, chances are it was this one. The plot of the movie follows multiple characters and is kind of a lot to get into for a brief description, but more or less the character Li vows to give his crush Yu his sword, but it's been stolen, and is currently in the possession of Jen, who is not about to give it back. And, go. It's epic, not as in I'm exaggerating, but as in it's actually an epic. This film is widely known for the incredible action and choreography, including an iconic scene in which Li and Jen rush across tree tops to sword-fight. There's many other fantastic action scenes to choose from, but my personal favorite is the lightning fast round between actors Yu and Jen, in which Yu attempts to recollect Li's sword from Jen. Yu switches instruments repeatedly. Michelle Yeoh is a famous actor whose major claim to fame is a series of action films from Hong Kong in the late 80s and early 90s in which she performed all her own stunts. Her role here is among her best. In fact, all the actors are at their absolute peak. Both Chow Yung Fat and Michelle Yeoh both have a wealth of films behind them, and are more than deservedly considered 2 of the greatest action heroes of all time. Zhang Ziyi's incredible fight scenes with them place her well within their league. She was 22 when this movie came out, so her prowess in the role is really stunning, and a very special thing to witness as an audience member. Her follow-ups, such as 2004's visually remarkable House of the Flying Daggers, have proven that she's a top rate talent. This is a career-defining role for all of the actors for different reasons, and is well worth your time if you haven't seen it.
To my mind, it's nearly incomprehensible that Chocolate was JeeJa Yanin's first film, as her fight scenes in this film are so expertly done. She has a naturalness that very few martial arts stars have, and her Bruce Lee impersonations in this movie are just delightful. The story follows Zen, a young autistic girl who discovers her mother is ill and broke, and takes it upon herself to collect past debts in order to afford her mother's treatment. The people she attempts to collect from pretty much invariably choose not to pay her, and I'm glad they don't, because that's about all the excuse Zen needs to take immediate retribution on their faces. It is great. The film's overall story arc is a little on the sentimental side, but, to be honest, I can handle some tears and hugs in a film that is pretty much half just this girl beating people up for a totally righteous cause to the sound of mid-2000s techno music. When it's all said and done, Chocolate might offer more to the action genre than it does to the genre of drama, but the fight scenes are well worth the price of admission. I sincerely hope JeeJa Yanin will star in many more action movies in upcoming years; she is just fantastic.
KILL BILL PARTS 1 & 2 (2003)
I left this one for last, because if you've only seen one film on this list, chances are it's this one. I also left it for last because I have a big bag o' problems with Quentin Tarantino. But regardless of how I feel about him as a person, Kill Bill is easily one of the most famous action films of all time. Kill Bill is a classic revenge film, drawing from elements of Kung Fu & exploitation films. All that said, it would be absurd not to include this on a list of great martial arts films featuring women. Uma Thurman is fantastic as The Bride, who is predictably betrayed by her unbelievably sketchy husband that nobody can believe she even married to begin with. The soundtrack is rad, and features a lot of female artists, which in turn lends to the unforgettable scene with the 5, 6, 7, 8's rocking out like crazy right before the famously over-the-top violent conclusion of Kill Bill Part 1. My personal favorite person/element/aspect of this 2-parter is Lucy Lui's performance as Cottonmouth. In an especially violent and bloody origin story, we learn that she watched her parents be murdered as a child and then enacted her own vengeance upon their killer in an extended anime sequence. Despite the fact that she's a ruthless murderer, I don't think I was alone in sympathizing with her more than most of the other characters, and was genuinely bummed that she died (although if she had lived that would have meant the end of the also likable Bride). Sidenote, Lucy Liu is really just incredible across the board, and was equally great in the fight scenes in the underrated Man with the Iron Fists. There are things about this epic that I don't like, the utterly needless rape scene that is pretty much only included because of course it is springs to mind, and that I wanted Vivica A. Fox's character Copperhead to stick around for way longer, but there's a lot I really do love about it, too, and would recommend it for the premise (and Lucy Liu) alone.