Even as Disney’s once-buzzy live-action remakes become routine—the studio released three last year alone, and that’s not including Maleficent: Mistress Of Evil—the March 27 release of Mulan was going to be a big one. We say “was,” of course, because the film has since been postponed to an as-yet-unannounced date, along with much of the U.S. theatrical release calendar for March and April. But just because COVID-19 has shuttered movie theaters doesn’t mean you can’t get your fix of female warriors in China’s mythical past.
Women have featured in Chinese martial arts cinema since the beginning, and actresses like Cheng Pei-pei, Angela Mao, Kara Hui, Michelle Yeoh, Brigitte Lin, and Zhang Ziyi stand proudly alongside the Bruce Lees and Donnie Yens of the world in the firmament of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese stars. That distinction is an important one, as Hong Kong’s (and Taiwan’s) pre-unification dominance of Chinese-language cinema has given way to blockbuster filmmaking on the mainland in recent decades. Another distinction to keep in mind is the difference between wuxia—a historical genre that blends chivalry and romance with high-flying action—and kung fu, which places more emphasis on harder-hitting fighting styles and can take place any time between ancient history and the modern day.
Both regions and styles of filmmaking are represented in our selection of female-led Chinese martial arts movies. We’ve chosen films that share historical settings as well as certain themes with the legendary tale of Hua Mulan: Women dressing up as men in order to pursue their martial ambitions comes up a lot, as do romances between warriors in disguise. Epic sweep, light-hearted comedy, stunning cinematography, and magnetic performances that make expert fight choreography look effortless are also in abundance. Two of the stars featured in our picks, Cheng Pei-Pei and Michelle Yeoh, even appear in Disney’s Mulan remake. And all are available to watch online, making them the perfect thing to hold you over until it’s Disney’s turn.
Inspired by the Italian Westerns and Japanese samurai movies that were all the rage in the mid- to late-’60s, Come Drink with Me (1966) was a massive hit that raised the bar for Hong Kong action cinema. That’s thanks both to director King Hu’s artistic eye—which would later win him a special prize from the Cannes Film Festival for his film A Touch Of Zen—and the talents of star Cheng Pei-pei, a former ballerina who became the first major female martial arts star. The plot of the film is fairly simple: After nimble swordswoman Golden Swallow (Cheng) dispatches some goons who challenge her at an inn, she catches the eye of a local drunk (and secret kung fu master), Fan Da-Pei (Yueh Hua), who despite his reservations helps her confront the evil abbot, Liao Kung (Yeung Chi-hing), who is holding her brother hostage. According to Hu, the choice of a former dancer in the lead role was deliberate; the fights in Come Drink With Me are not meant to be realistic, but “always keyed to the notion of dance.” So although those swords in our heroes’ hands are absolutely real, the style of martial arts here is light and graceful.
Availability: Come Drink With Me is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. It’s dubbed, unfortunately, and the transfer is just okay, but it’s better than nothing.
My Young Auntie is a kung fu film rather than a wuxia epic, and an unusual one at that: In structure and tone, it’s more similar to a Hollywood musical than the brutal punch-outs between shirtless dudes that dominated kung fu cinema in the ’70s. That’s not to say that the young auntie of the title, Cheng Tai-nan (Kara Hui, a.k.a. Kara Wai), isn’t dangerous. She can deliver a beatdown as well as anyone—even when dressed in a glamorous white silk evening gown—and excels at keeping her nephew, Yu Yung-Sheng (Lung Wei Wang), in line, even though he’s older than she is. Tai-nan is an aunt by marriage, but she’s no gold digger: In fact, it’s the conniving Yung-Sheng who has designs on his elderly uncle’s fortune, prompting the old man to ask Tai-nan, an accomplished and principled martial artist, to marry him in order to protect him and his riches. The comedy that unfolds when this unusual family unit comes together both fuels and reinforces the film’s precise, sprightly fight choreography, which changed the course of the Shaw Brothers’ house style and influenced budding filmmakers like Stephen Chow, whose work similarly intertwines action and humor.
Availability: My Young Auntie is available as a digital rental on YouTube, Google Play, and iTunes. It’s worth the $1.99.
For Chinese audiences, Dragon Gate Inn is an iconic story, one that’s been remade several times since its debut in 1967 in a film directed by the great King Hu. The ’90s version, 1992’s New Dragon Gate Inn, is especially notable thanks to its all-star cast, which features Donnie Yen and Tony Leung Ka-fai (not to be confused with the other Tony Leung) alongside two of the biggest female Hong Kong stars of the era, Brigitte Lin and Maggie Cheung. Lin co-stars in the Mulan-esque role here, playing a rebel warrior from the Ming Dynasty era traveling in disguise as a man. Cheung, meanwhile, is the wild card, the brash, sexy owner of the eponymous inn where the forces of good and evil find themselves sheltering together on China’s arid frontier. The subsequent showdown is like something out of a Western, as is the sweeping desert cinematography. But the film’s high-flying fantasy action and blend of violence, comedy, and romance are quintessentially wuxia. Producer Tsui Hark also leaves his stamp on the material in the form of a wild cannibalism subplot—a bizarre pet theme of the legendary writer-director’s.
Availability: New Dragon Gate Inn is available online as a reasonably priced used DVD under the title Dragon Inn. But given the quality of the subtitles and transfer on the disc, you may be better off hunting down a YouTube rip from a Chinese Blu-ray—like, oh, say, here.
How many Star Trek captains can say they do their own stunts? Born in Malaysia, Michelle Yeoh came to prominence as a martial arts star in the mid-’80s before breaking out in the West; her best-known Chinese-language roles were in cop movies (please see Yes, Madam! as soon as you can), but she did star in a handful of period kung fu movies as well. We have a special affection for Wing Chun (1994), directed by legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (who did the fights for the Matrix and Kill Bill movies) and starring Yeoh as Yim Wing Chun, a figure from Chinese mythology rather like Hua Mulan. Like Mulan, Wing Chun dresses like a man in order to practice kung fu unbothered. Unlike Mulan, Wing Chun lives in her family’s tofu shop along with her scheming aunt and their assistant, a flirtatious widow new to the neighborhood. That leads not only to sisterly bonding and lots of slapstick comedy, but also a memorable scene where Wing Chun humiliates a cocky martial arts master by challenging him to chop through a block of tofu—and then repeatedly snatching it from his hands. Yeoh is excellent in the lead role, sweet but stern in her demeanor and elegant but athletic in her fight scenes. If you’ve been looking for a lighthearted action-comedy about how tofu is great and men are trash, look no further.
Availability: With no official North American Blu-ray release on the horizon, Wing Chun’s home video and streaming situation is similar to New Dragon Gate Inn’s. However, the DVD isn’t too expensive, and if you can wait a few days for shipping, the subtitles are much better on the disc.
Like Cheng Pei-pei, Zhang Ziyi trained as a dancer before transitioning into acting, and the incredible grace and control of her movements gets a suitably lavish showcase in House Of Flying Daggers (2004). The film marked Zhang and director Zhang Yimou’s follow-up to their international breakout smash Hero (2002), and wasn’t terribly well-received abroad by moviegoers who weren’t expecting the melodrama of its central love story. And that’s what this film really is: It’s a soap opera with martial arts elements, rather than a martial arts movie with a love story in it. As such, fans of K-drama and anime featuring historical romance should love it—and will have no problem following the admittedly (but not especially) convoluted plot. And even if you’re not used to tangled webs of secret identities and ulterior motives featuring tender-hearted men and strong-willed women, the film is absolutely gorgeous to look at. From the intricate jewel-toned patterns covering every surface of the brothel where our story begins to the breathtaking bamboo forest battle midway through the film, every frame of House Of Flying Daggers is a ravishing feast for the senses.
Availability: House Of Flying Daggers is available for free streaming with ads on Crackle. Even better, it’s a nice transfer with decent subtitles.