While popularized in America in the late 70’s and early 80’s by shows like Kung Fu Theater, traditional Asian martial arts movies have been around since the late 1940’s. While there were a few martial arts films before then, the genre was officially launched with the release of the Hong Kong films using authentic martial arts forms. In the 1950’s, the genre was dominated with films centering on Wong Fei Hong, a Chinese folk hero.
In the 1960’s, the emigration of mainland Chinese talent to Hong Kong resulted in two distinct styles of martial arts movies. The mainland, Mandarin-influenced films were more artistic, and focused more on drama. They used special effects, romance, and the infusion of fantastic elements to popularize the genre. The Shaw Brothers, prolific and extremely popular Kung Fu movie makers, were some of the directors of this period.
The 1970’s saw a new player enter the field. The impact that Bruce Lee had on the genre cannot be measured. The first true international Kung Fu superstar, Bruce Lee began as a martial artist. His popularity shifted the focus of the genre from the director to the actor. This was the decade that saw the term Kung Fu movie become popular. Building on his success, martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li became global stars, and the entire genre became a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
With the rise in the genre’s popularity, it is no surprise that western cinema has been influenced. Directors like John Woo have found success in Hollywood. Martial arts are featured in many western movies, such as the Matrix. This trend towards the eastern fighting style in movies is well-illustrated by the popular Star Wars movies. Compare the more deliberate, European-styled light saber duels in the original trilogy with the wild battles seen in the prequel films. While once only a niche genre, popular on Saturday mornings, Kung Fu movies have become a dominant force in action cinema.