Jimmy Wang Yu dies at 79: the martial arts superstar’s 10 best films, from One-Armed Swordsman to The Chinese Boxer
- Shanghai-born actor made his name in Hong Kong martial arts cinema working for Shaw Brothers Studio in films by Chang Cheh before taking up directing himself
- Equally adept at swordplay and hand-to-hand combat, Wang’s all-action style paved the way for fellow actors including Bruce Lee. He made his last film in 2013
Taiwanese actor and filmmaker Jimmy Wang Yu, one of the biggest stars of martial arts cinema, died in a Taipei hospital on Tuesday. He was 79.
Wang’s personal life was dogged by controversy. After breaking his contract with Shaw Brothers he struggled to find a stable home for his films. In 1981 he faced a murder charge in Taiwan, while ill-health ultimately forced him out of the public eye.
His home life was equally tumultuous, including doomed marriages to veteran actress Jeanette Lin Tsui and flight attendant Wang Kaizhen.
In spite of his difficulties off screen, Wang remained an eccentric and eminently watchable actor. For a brief spell at least, he was the very best in his field. These are 10 of our favourite films featuring Wang.
1. One-Armed Swordsman (1967)
He plays an impoverished student who loses a limb to the spoilt daughter (played by Angela Pan) of his martial arts master. Left for dead, Wang uses an old manual to train in a special one-armed style of swordplay, returning just in time to defeat a rival gang.
Wang reprised the role in a 1969 sequel before David Chiang completed the trilogy in 1971’s The New One-Armed Swordsman.
2. Golden Swallow (1968)
Cheng Pei-pei once again plays the tough warrior Golden Swallow, although her character bears little resemblance this time out to her role in the earlier film.
After being framed for murder, Swallow teams up with Lo Lieh’s Golden Whip and Wang’s unstable swordsman Silver Roc, who chalks up close to 200 confirmed kills as the trio become ensnared in a doomed love triangle.
3. The Chinese Boxer (1970)
The movie that paved the way for modern Hong Kong martial arts films as we know them, and inadvertently the superstars of the genre who would go on to eclipse Wang as an action star, The Chinese Boxer dispensed with the traditional tropes of wuxia to focus on hand-to-hand combat techniques.
Wang writes, directs and stars as a kung fu student who vows deadly revenge on the gang of Japanese thugs who attack his school. The actor is at his absolute best here, taking on roomfuls of goons single-handed in a procession of brawls that still impress 50 years on.
4. Zatoichi meets the One Armed Swordsman (1971)
Japanese studio Daiei Film’s Zatoichi franchise had been one of the most prolific of the 1960s, with Shintaro Katsu appearing as the blind samurai more than 20 times.
In 1971, adversaries – and original plot lines – were starting to dry up, the eponymous lead character having already confronted rival samurai Yojimbo (Toshiro Mifune) the previous year. So Wang travelled to Japan for a franchise crossover stunt to beat them all, as his one-armed swordsman Wang Kang faces off against the mighty Zatoichi in an iconic duel to the death.
5. One-Armed Boxer (1972)
Again assuming writing and directing duties in addition to playing the lead role, Wang plays the star pupil of his martial arts school, who loses his arm following an attack by a vicious triad gang, only to avenge his school anyway.
Wang also introduces the idea here of incorporating foreign fighters of various disciplines, which he would explore further in the film’s sequel.
6. Beach of the War Gods (1973)
Three years in the making and boasting an all-male cast of thousands, Beach of the War Gods may be shameless propaganda but it is also hugely entertaining and, as the trailer proudly proclaims on more than one occasion, a “picture made for the manly you”.
7. The Man from Hong Kong (1975)
Wang plays a Hong Kong cop who becomes involved in an international drug operation that pits him against George Lazenby’s antipodean crime lord.
Sammo Hung Kam-bo and Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max) also star in this roller-coaster of seat-of-your-pants stunt work and wince-inducing performances that is considered one of the most ambitious examples of Ozploitation cinema.
8. Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976)
In this sequel to 1972’s One-Armed Boxer, known in some territories as The One Armed Boxer vs. the Flying Guillotine, a blind assassin sets out to avenge the deaths of his two students, killed in the previous instalment by Yu, Wang’s maimed hero.
Wielding the ludicrous decapitation device of the title, he tracks Yu to a martial arts tournament, where we bear witness to an impressive display of international martial arts disciplines and techniques.
Eschewing realism for uproarious entertainment, Wang’s film has been a mainstay on the grindhouse martial arts circuit ever since.
9. Wu Xia (2011)
Following an absence of almost two decades, Wang returned to our screens to play the antagonist and father to Donnie Yen Ji-dan’s reformed bandit in Peter Chan Ho-sun’s homage to the One-Armed Swordsman series.
Owing as much to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence as to Wang’s career-defining roles, Wu Xia sees Yen’s simple villager unmasked as a notorious warrior, who is then forced into a climactic duel with Wang’s ageing gang leader.
10. Soul (2013)
Capping a career that spanned six decades, Wang’s final film appearance is not in an action movie, but rather as the elderly lead in Taiwanese director Chung Mong-hong’s arthouse horror movie.
Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan plays a burned-out chef who is taken to the remote countryside home of his widowed father (Wang). No sooner has he arrived than violence and deceit encroaches on the old man’s quiet existence, and before long he has also become culpable.
Soul is a bold and shocking film, but perhaps also a fitting swan song for an actor who built his image on celebrations of violent machismo.