20 Best Kung Fu Movies You Must Watch Before You Die

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Gregory's been living the digital nomad life in Asia for as long as anyone can remember, helping clients smash their goals. He writes on topics like software, personal knowledge management (PKM), and personal development. When he's not writing, you'll catch him at the local MMA gym, nose buried in a book, or just chilling with the family.

Here at Face Dragons, we are not just about work work work; it’s important to take time off and do things you enjoy too. Kung fu movies exemplify the values anyone going after dragons should embody: courage, strength, and adaptability are essential when you’re kung fu fighting or facing dragons. These are the best kung fu movies you must watch before you die.

Whether you are a trained black belt or just learned a little martial arts at home, there’s nothing like watching some kick-ass kung fu movies and trying out the moves in your living room. Start by watching the greatest kung fu film ever made:

1. Enter the Dragon

  • Released: 1973
  • Director: Robert Clouse
  • Starring: Bruce Lee

Enter the Dragon was the first jointly produced Chinese-American movie; it set a new standard for kung fu films. With the action and fight scenes of a Hong Kong flick and the budget and scale of a Hollywood blockbuster, the only thing they needed to make this film a success was a star in the lead.

And there’s no bigger star than Bruce Lee.

Grossing over $2 Billion in today’s money, Enter the Dragon is one of the most profitable movies of all time.

So, Enter the Dragon is historically significant, has the greatest martial artist of all time, and the best reception of any martial arts film, but is there any other reason to watch this film?

Yes, the plot.

Lee plays Han, a Shaolin Temple disciple who wants revenge for his sister. Where does this revenge take place? On a mystical kung fu island where a rare martial arts tournament (kumite) is held. Enter the Dragon has every element you could want from the best kung fu movie ever made.

2. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

  • Released: 2000
  • Director: Ang Lee
  • Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

There are few modern kung fu films on this list. When you tell a story with kung fu skills, CGI takes away from the actors’ skillset, not add to it. But Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon stayed true to classic Hong Kong cinema, using wires to make characters fly, for example.

The incredible cinematography by Ang Lee and the performance by a young Zhang Ziyi make this a true kung fu classic.

Prepare to be taken on a journey across China from its western deserts to ancient cities and from the highest rungs of society to barbarians hiding in caves. Watch as Yu Jiaolong (long means dragon) straddles these two worlds and soon collides with the current generation of the Jianghu class.

3. 36th Chamber of Shaolin

  • Shaw Brothers Studios
  • Released: 1978
  • Director: Lau Kar-Leung
  • Starring: Gordon Liu

Gordon Liu is a name known to all true martial arts movie fans but disregarded by most (his Wikipedia page still contains no photo as of July 2023.)

Despite his filmography containing over 123 martial arts movies, there’s one movie he’ll be remembered for.

36th Chamber of Shaolin is the classic tale we try to tell here at Face Dragons of a young man destined for greatness if he’ll only put in the effort. Follow Liu Yude as he convinces the monks at the Shaolin Temple to take him in, then slowly ascends the ranks of the chambers of Shaolin.

The work he puts in at each level changes who he is. Once he’s reached the top, will he still take the revenge he sought? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

4. Ip Man

  • Released: 2008
  • Director: Wilson Yip
  • Starring: Donnie Yen

Any fan of Bruce Lee knows that Ip Man (sometimes Yip Man or Ye Wen in Mandarin) taught him Wing Chun (do you still need to question if wing chun is effective?). But before the film was released in 2008 few knew that Ip Man was famous in his own right well before the little dragon came about.

Ip Man is more than just a kung fu film. It tells an essential story of authentic martial arts history.

As a boy, I studied wing chun with the Wu Tan martial arts school and had the opportunity to borrow a book written by either Wu Song Fa or They Soon Tuan. Part of the book focused on the life of Ip Man. Unfortunately, my master lost the book, and I have never found any trace of it online.

Anyway, the story from the book that has always stuck in my mind was titled “Ip Man and the prostitute.”

A traveling prostitute renowned for the hard chi gong skill of “iron body” was invited by some scoundrel friends of Ip Man (how they encountered this prostitute, one can only imagine.) The same friends also asked Ip Man to go to the same location. The woman then challenged Yip Man, saying, “If you cannot penetrate my iron body chi gong with three strikes, you’ll lose and must pay me in silver teals. If you win, however, you can use my services for free.”

Ip Man buckled her over with a single punch; his face went red, and he gave her the silver anyway and quickly exited the house.

Unfortunately, this story isn’t part of the movie as it focuses on the period of Japanese occupation, but some scenes in this film will stay with you.

I first watched this film in a packed movie theatre in Tianjin; in the scene where Ip Man is asked how many Japanese black belts he wants to take on, he shouts, “Shi ge! (ten)” The atmosphere was electric. The fight scene that followed is undoubtedly one of the greatest fight scenes of all time.

5. Drunken Master

  • Released: 1978
  • Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Before the release of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master, few knew that drunken-style kung fu existed. Far from giving practitioners an excuse to drink before training, this style was designed only to give the impression that the fighter is drunk when, in fact, they are still sober and dangerous.

Drunken Master was released in 1978, and although it wasn’t the first significant film Jackie Chan starred in, it was another of his early movies that helped cement him as a martial arts legend.

After disgracing his family with his terrible martial arts skill and social skills, Jackie Chan’s character, Wong, is sent off to study under a strict teacher, Begger So.

Under Beggar So’s tutelage, Wong learns the ancient and unique fighting style known as “Drunken Boxing,” which involves imitating a drunkard’s movements. In true kung fu flick style, the student becomes the master and saves the village from the latest evil warlord.

But this film is more than another martial arts cliche. The superb choreography of Jackie’s “drunken” style and the humor he shows, even at this young age, make this a true classic. Must watch.

6. Fearless

  • Released: 2006
  • Director: Ronny Yu
  • Starring: Jet Li

Fearless, or Huo Yuan Jia as it was called in Chinese, is the story of Tianjin native Huo Yuan Jia, a legend in the martial arts world whose house in Tianjin stood just 20 minutes from my own.

His fame in marital arts circles stems from creating the first modern martial arts association in China, the Jing Wu (Jingwoo) Chinese Martial Arts Association.

This movie greatly influenced my choice to move to Tianjin years ago. The story of Huo is played out through a beautiful depiction of Qing dynasty Tianjin, with all the color, architecture, and dress you’d expect of a Chinese epic story. But in Fearless, the life of Huo doesn’t follow the usual arc of the know-nothing boy who turns into a hero.

Born into a wealthy family of kung fu experts, Huo learns his father’s trade and eventually chases his dream of becoming the greatest fighter in all of Tianjin and, finally, all of China. But the death of his daughter and subsequent drug problems derail his dreams and life. Huo develops mental issues and ends up on the edge of death because of them.

If you want to know how it ends, you must watch the film. You won’t be disappointed, and you’ll own a small part of martial arts history because of it.

Visit Huo Yuan Jia Memorial Park in Tianjin if you love this film.

7. Shaolin Temple

  • Released: 1982
  • Director: Chang Hsin Yen
  • Starring: Jet Li (credited Jet Lee)

Before Jet Li was a household name, he made a film about a little-known temple at the foot of Song Shan Mountain. This movie reignited the interest of the Shaolin Temple and ultimately transformed it into the bustling center of martial arts (and tourist trap) that it is today.

Jet Li’s debut in the Shaolin Temple is so iconic you can find hundreds of spin-offs and rip-offs of this movie.

The Shaolin Temple has been a center of martial arts almost from its creation in the 5th century. This movie builds and explores some of the cultural significance of the temple and gives outsiders a view of temple life that, at the time, was completely hidden from the outside world.

Jet Li trained at the Shaolin Temple school, so he gave the role of Zhi Ming some authenticity. Zhi Ming flees to the temple after his father is murdered and finds refuge there, eventually learning the ways of the Shaolin Monks.

Watch as Zhi Ming goes on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth while learning the different kung fu styles the Shaolin Temple has to offer.

8. Once Upon a Time in China

  • Released: 1991
  • Director: Tsui Hark
  • Starring: Jet Li

Once Upon a Time in China follows the life and adventures of Wong Fei Hong, a historically kung fu master from Fo Shan in the late Qing Dynasty. This movie continues a tradition of making movies about this at times historical and other times legendary figure, as he was the subject of a vast number of some of the earliest Chinese kung fu movies ever made, starring Kwan Tak-Hing.

This trilogy was followed by a fourth movie, which ended the series in which Fei Hong moves to America and lives alongside figures such as Billy the Kid in America’s Wild West.

The choreography in this movie will not disappoint fans of Jet Li’s incredible abilities, often straddling the edge of what is physically possible. Anyone who has studied Hung Gar or heard of the infamous “no shadow kick” will want to see this movie.

A single controversial photo survives of the real Wong Fei Hong, but anyone who needs more than a single photo of the legend must see this movie.

9. Police Story

  • Released: 1985
  • Director: Jackie Chan
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Part detective story, part martial arts classic, this kung fu film will make you long for a time in the ’80s when Hong Kong was a mysterious place of technology that never made it to the West and classic Hong Kong cinema.

This movie bridges the martial arts and action genres. Written, directed, and starring Jackie Chan, his character, Chan Ka-Kui, is tasked with bringing in a drug lord, Chu Tao.

The shopping mall fight scene is iconic, and even after almost 40 years, it still holds up thanks to Jackie Chan’s physicality and prowess.

Police story was so popular it spawned a bunch of follow-ups and spin-offs. This year New Police Story 2 was announced, 38 years after the original.

10. Tai Chi Master

  • Released: 1993
  • Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
  • Starring: Jet Li

If you’re looking for a martial arts film with some historical elements that portray how things really happened in the development of Chinese kung fu, this isn’t it.

In this film, Jet Li learns Kung Fu in the Shaolin Temple and develops the art of tai chi after being expelled. His kung fu brother (this movie is also called Twin Warriors) takes an alternate route and climbs the ranks of the Qing imperial army.

Despite growing up together in the temple, the two come to a dramatic head as their different paths intersect, and they both must decide who they really are.

11. Way of the Dragon

  • Released: 1972
  • Director: Bruce Lee
  • Starring: Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris

Tang Lung, Bruce Lee’s character, travels to Rome to help his family’s failing restaurant, only to find out that the whole city is infested with the Italian mafia.

Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris fighting it out in the Colosseum.

Need I say more to convince you to go watch this film?

12. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow

  • Released: 1978
  • Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow is another of Jackie Chan’s breakout films and helped cement him as one of the rising stars coming out of Hong Kong. To a modern martial arts audience, it feels as if Jackie Chan has always been famous and making kung fu flicks, but when Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow was released in 1978, few audience members would have known who he was.

The plot goes along a classic kung fu arc. Chan’s character, Chien Fu, is an orphan bullied by the martial artists at the dojo (wu guan), where he works as a janitor. But everything changes when Chien Fu meets a beggar who teaches him the art of Snake Fist.

Chien Fu decides to return to teach the bullies at the martial arts school a lesson, and classic kung fu comedy follows.

This movie is a must-watch for Jackie Chan fans and anyone who calls themselves a martial artist.

13. Kickboxer

  • Released: 1989
  • Director: David Worth
  • Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme

By the end of the 80s, people like Arnold Schwarzenegger cemented the idea of giant, muscled action heroes, and the martial arts scene was immune. Luckily, we had Jean Claude Van Damme, a man who looked like a bodybuilder and could do an impressive full-side split, too!

You might wonder why this film is worthy of a place on a list of the best kung fu movies of all time. Strictly speaking, it’s not even a kung fu film. It’s set in Thailand, not China. We’re not going to get into the debate of which martial art is best.

Kickboxers speaks to anyone born in the West who has ever dreamed of going to Asia, finding a master in a jungle village, and mastering a martial art there (and getting revenge and glory, of course!) When I was working on getting my Taekwondo belts as a child, that’s all I wanted to do.

The other reason you must watch this movie is that everyone else has. Anyone who has spent years training in any martial art, especially if they are old enough to remember the millennium, will have watched this movie and dreamed of treading in Kurt Sloane’s (Van Damme’s character) footsteps.

14. Bloodsport

  • Released: 1988
  • Director: Newt Arnold
  • Starring: Jean Claude Van Damme

Bloodsport and Kickboxer are two Van Damme films of the late 80s that most people mix together in their minds. Both contain some fantastic martial arts competitions (in Kickboxer, it’s the Kumite,) and both showcase Van Damme in his prime.

If you watch one, watch them both. But watch this one first because it has another martial arts legend that you should recognize, Bolo Yeung.

Bolo plays Frank Dux’s (played by JCVD) nemesis. He’s out to win the kumite at any expense. You’ll have to watch it to find out if he does.

Without this movie, the word kumite would probably never have made it into the English language (disaster!)

In Bloodsport, Frank’s dying master’s last desire was for him to travel to this brutal underground martial arts tournament, and being a loyal student, Frank honors the wish. After arriving, he finds out just how intense the competition and the fighting are. It is called Bloodsport for a reason.

The bloody and intense fighting makes for a great film, though.

15. Gorgeous

  • Released: 1999
  • Director: Vincent Kok
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Gorgeous may not be on everyone’s must-watch list of kung fu films, but Gorgeous explores a time and a place that’s impossible to get back. Made in 1999, just two years after the handback of Hong Kong, this martial arts masterpiece may be the last true Hong Kong kung fu film of the 90s.

Tony Leung and Jackie Chan make a classic Hong Kong cinema for anyone who lived through the 90s.

As for the movie itself, rather than being another student-learns-from-old-master type tale, In Gorgeous Jackie Chan uses a contemporary style similar to kickboxing or even MMA. It could be for this reason that Gorgeous contains some of the best fight scenes that Jackie Chan ever filmed.

In the movie, Chan flies from Taiwan to Hong Kong to meet a woman, and a romantic comedy plot ensues, where he must beat off a rival suitor. But the story isn’t all that important. Just watch and enjoy this Gorgeous Movie.

16. Rush Hour

  • Released: 1998
  • Director: Brett Ratner
  • Starring: Jackie Chan, Chris Tucker

No martial arts history is being told here, no important masters being portrayed, or boundaries being broken. The setup of the ambassador’s daughter being kidnapped by Chinese gangsters is trite and uninspired. But you can’t be a fan of kung fu films without watching the Rush Hour movies.

You won’t care that traditional kung fu styles aren’t on display or about the lack of cut scenes to an old master’s wise words; you’ll be enjoying the silliness of Chris Tucker’s “Carter” and Jackie Chan’s “Lee” so much that it won’t matter that the plot makes no sense.

Watch this film and find yourself repeating how Tucker screams “Leeee!” or Jackie Chan’s adorable accent.

17. Five Deadly Venoms

  • Released: 1978
  • Director: Chang Cheh
  • Starring: Chiang Sheng

Five Deadly Venoms is a true kung-fu classic with a cult following. The plot has a little more depth than most kung fu films of the 70s, which is partly why, but the outstanding choreography and strong characters have much to do with it, too.

A dying master sends out his final student to ensure that none of his former students use their skills for evil. Five of his former students are named after the five deadly venoms.

  • The Centipede: A skilled fighter with incredible flexibility and agility.
  • The Snake: Possesses lightning-fast strikes and the ability to strike at vital points.
  • The Scorpion: Known for his iron-clad arms, he can crush opponents with his deadly pincers.
  • The Lizard: Masters acrobatics and wall-climbing techniques.
  • The Toad: Has incredible stamina and is nearly invulnerable to pain.

Yang Tieh, played by Chiang Sheng, confronts the deadly venoms to discover their true identities and intentions.

18. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story

  • Released: 1993
  • Director: Rob Cohen
  • Starring: Jason Scott Lee

Why, you might be wondering, when we already have two Bruce Lee films on this list, do we need another that doesn’t even star Bruce Lee?

Martial artists of my generation were lucky that Bruce Lee mania was still in full swing even a couple of decades after his death due to this film and the publishing of many of his, till then, unpublished works. One of those books, The Tao of Jeetkunedo, is even featured in the movie.

But now, more than 80 years since his birth and 50 years since his death, the new generation of martial artists are likely to know less about the creator of MMA than those that came before. This movie, starring Jason Scott Lee, does an excellent job of telling Bruce’s story, the ups and downs of his life, and the demons he faced both internally and from Hollywood and a public not used to seeing an Asian superstar on their screens.

It gives us a window into a world of superstardom in Hong Kong and discrimination in San Francisco and California. The tragedy of Bruce’s life was perhaps that he never got to see the recognition he deserved as he died before releasing his magnum opus, which would catapult his name into superstardom in America, the first Movie on this list – Enter the Dragon.

19. Snake And Crane Arts Of Shaolin

  • Released: 1978
  • Director: Chen Chi Hwa
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin tell a tale familiar to anyone who’s watched a kung fu movie before. A young man commits to avenging his father’s death and bringing honor back to his martial arts school by learning the snake and crane arts of Shaolin.

The young man, Hsu Yin Fung, played by Jackie Chan, seeks the tutelage of two masters, one of the snake fist and the other of the crane style. By combining these two powerful styles, Chan’s character hopes to be able to defeat Pai Mei (White Eyebrow Priest), who killed his father with the white eyebrow technique.

Another of Jackie Chan’s earliest movies, this one, released in 1978, is a piece of martial arts movie history you won’t want to miss.

20. Rumble in the Bronx

  • Released: 1995
  • Director: Stanley Tong
  • Starring: Jackie Chan

Some may disagree with Rumble in the Bronx being one of the top kung fu movies of all time. Let me know on X if you do. But this movie again captures that magical time when I was playing bootleg Hong Kong pop that my Chinese friends would bring back, along with hundreds of VCDs with all the best kung fu movies being released.

Rumble in the Bronx is a classic East meets West tale of Keung (Chan’s character), who comes to visit his uncle who lives in New York and runs a grocery store. He quickly finds himself entangled with some badass 90’s street gangs and uses his kung fu and ingenuity to fight them off and protect the family business.

This movie made Jackie more than a Hong Kong Superstar. It turned him into a worldwide phenomenon. The stunts in this movie are insane, with Chan performing them all himself. Watch the outtakes after the credits roll to see him break his foot and continue to perform with a sneaker-painted sock covering the cast on his broken foot.

Non Kung Fu Movies

Some of these may not strictly be kung fu films, but they exist within the same space or are just so iconic that they can’t be left off a list of the best kung fu films of all time. If you’re wondering what martial art you should learn, watching movies from every style is a good way to decide.

  • Karate Kid: The timeless arguement of kung fu vs. karate extends even into the martial arts movie world. I say watch them all and figure it out for yourself.
  • Kill Bill: Samurai swords and Japanese Yakuza, what’s not to like?
  • The Matrix: If a youthful Keanu Reeves realizing that “I know kung fu” hasn’t been made into a meme yet, someone better get on that quick. The juxtaposition of that beautiful wu guan (think dojo but Chinese) with the post-apocalyptic world they live in makes the first fight scene between Neo and Morpheus a thing of beauty.