For many western viewers, Hong Kong cinema is synonymous with kung fu, an association that may cause contemporary Hong Kong filmmakers (and viewers) to groan. After all, Martial Arts movies have been out of fashion there for some time, give or take the odd brief revival. But for better or worse, kung fu put Hong Kong movies on the global map and is the territory’s unique contribution to genre cinema.

The Mandarin term for Martial Arts movies is wuxia pian, or Martial Chivalry film. Traditional wuxia fiction is as concerned with the heroic values of its protagonists as their Martial Arts skills. These chivalrous heroes and heroines embody values like yi (altruism), brotherhood and loyalty. The wuxia pian has two branches, the swordplay film, dating back to silent Shanghai cinema, and the more recent kung fu film that is more properly Hong Kong’s creation. Both can be seen as émigré myths for a territory of migrants, a mythical ‘China’ creating a sense of belonging for an uprooted (and colonised) people.

The kung fu film, in particular, seems rooted in the first wave of Chinese émigrés to move to Hong Kong from Southern China. Southern heroes like Wong Fei-hung had long-running series devoted to them in the 50s and 60s; broadcast TV didn’t reach Hong Kong until 1967 and some of these films are comparable to episodes of a TV series. Wong Fei-hung represented traditional Confucian values of responsibility and filial piety, values that would be overtaken by more consumerist ideals after the economic boom of the 1970s.

Increasingly, Martial heroes were as likely to be cynical loners as noble righters-of-wrongs. The Magic Blade (1976), based on a popular novel by Gu Long, shows the influence of Sergio Leone’s anti-heroic westerns as a poncho-wearing Ti Lung takes on a rival swordsman in order to be top dog in jianghu, the ‘World of Vagrants’ in which Martial Artists operate. The decline of the Martial Arts film can be linked to Hong Kong’s increasing disconnection from China. A younger generation of ‘belongers’ no longer felt like migrants and embraced a modern, conspicuously westernised, lifestyle that made kung fu movies seem increasingly outdated. It was perhaps the impending return to the ‘Motherland’, the 1997 handover, that briefly brought Martial Arts movies back into fashion in the early 90s.

The golden age of Hong Kong Martial Arts cinema stretches from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. This is largely down to two major film studios, the mighty Shaw Brothers empire and its upstart rival Golden Harvest. Shaw Bros was an old-fashioned dream factory, built along the lines of pre-1950s Hollywood. Their ‘Movietown’ in Clearwater Bay included many standing sets as well as production facilities, and even included apartments to house their employees. Stars were manufactured, often equipped with Martial Arts skills, and tied to restrictive contracts. The more flexible Golden Harvest offered more favourable contracts to stars and filmmakers. Their major coup was signing Bruce Lee to a two-picture deal. The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972) broke box office records, and Lee struck a new deal to form his own production company as a subsidiary of Golden Harvest. His directorial debut, Way of the Dragon (1972), was an uneven mix of broad comedy, package holiday location shooting in Rome and arguably the most celebrated one-on-one fight ever filmed as Lee and Chuck Norris traded blows in the Coliseum.

Shaw Brothers had no one quite like Lee. They did, however, have better production values and probably the two most celebrated Martial Arts filmmakers of the time, Zhang Che and King Hu. Zhang epitomised the ‘New Style’ wuxia films with colour, widescreen compositon and a blood-gushing style of violence influenced by Japanese chanbara cinema. Golden Swallow (1969) sidelines its titular heroine in favour of the self-destructive loner Silver Roc (Wang Yu), named after his manner of swooping down on his opponents. The climactic scene is representative of much to come in the genre; Roc’s white garb (the Chinese colour of death) is soaked crimson by equal amounts of his own and his attackers’ blood. He despatches them all before expiring with what seems to be a sense of grim satisfaction.

Zhang’s scenes of mutilated heroes became more extreme, and his tales of male bonding increasingly homoerotic. The swordswoman Golden Swallow first appeared in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me (1966); she was played in both films by the 60s’ most popular ‘Lady Knight’ Zheng Pei-pei. An early scene finds her in (admittedly not very convincing) drag, antagonising the local heavies in a tavern before showing them who’s boss. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) pays homage to this scene with its own tavern brawl, and more generally by casting Zheng as its villainess. Hu’s finest hour was made away from Shaws; there is nothing else quite like A Touch of Zen (1971) in world cinema. The narrative mixes the supernatural, political intrigue, Buddhism and high-flying action. As in most of Hu’s films, the women are in the thick of the action; Xu Feng’s stoic swordswoman even has a baby in the middle of the film without missing a beat. The final section, a triumph of Hu’s elliptical editing and breathtaking imagery, pits malevolent assassins against Buddhist monks (one of whom bleeds gold), who appear to skip weightlessly across grass and leaves.

Neither Zhang nor Hu were experts in Martial Arts and relied on others to stage their fight scenes. A newer generation of filmmakers made the transition from choreography to directing films. Zhang Che’s fight choreographer, Lau Kar-leung, was the first to make this move. His intensive knowledge of the Southern Shaolin tradition of kung fu brought a new authenticity to the genre and films painstakingly built around the finer points of distinct fighting styles. In Executioners From Shaolin (1976), the hero must adapt the Tiger and Crane styles to defeat the master of internal arts Bai Mei (Lo Lieh). The villainous ‘white eyebrow monk’, whose talents include strategic testicle-retraction, is about to make an unexpected return in Volume 2 of Kill Bill.

Golden Harvest’s equivalent to Lau was the prodigiously talented Sammo Hung, a Beijing Opera graduate alongside Jackie Chan. Hung, Chan and Yuen Wo-ping brought a new sensibility to the genre; irreverent, broadly comic, full of rogues and wise guys whose success relied on luck and sneakiness as much as kung fu skill. All three filmmakers experimented with hybrid genres, mixing kung fu with the supernatural (Mr Vampire) and Taoist magic (Miracle Fighters), and bringing it into the modern day (Police Story). By the middle of the decade, Shaw Brothers had ceased production, traditional martial arts films were all but dead and kung fu was part of a larger action package like Jackie Chan’s trademark mix of stunts and slapstick.

Martial Arts films enjoyed a brief revival in the early 90s, primarily under the influence of producer-director Tsui Hark. Often seen as Hong Kong’s first Movie Brat director, Tsui first emerged as part of the so-called ‘New Wave’; film-school trained, with a background in innovative TV work. While most New Wavers leaned towards gritty realism, Tsui flirted with a variety of popular genres; his first feature was an eccentric Martial Arts mystery, The Butterfly Murders (1979). Tsui arguably made Hong Kong’s last great Martial Arts film, The Blade (1995), an unflinchingly bleak and brutal remake of The One Armed Swordsman (1967).

But the Once Upon a Time in China series, starring Jet Li as Wong Fei-hung, is his most enduring contribution to the genre. As Hong Kong faced up to reunification, the films examined greater China’s colonial past, its westernisation, and a martial arts icon’s encounter with the modern technological world. But as culturally resonant as the films are, they never forget to be heartstoppingly thrilling, funny and moving. Tsui bathes his heroes in an elegiac glow, transforming Jet Li into the premier kung fu star of his era. Yuen Wo-ping’s groundbreaking wire-aided choreography, meanwhile, makes it easy to see why he became the first globally celebrated fight choreographer with his later contributions to The Matrix trilogy (1999 – 2003), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Kill Bill (2003).

Hong Kong cinema and Martial Arts have never entirely parted company. In the recent Buffy-clone The Twins Effect (2003), elfin Cantopop stars The Twins kick vampire ass in a manner that makes Sarah Michelle Geller look like she has lead in her stylish-but-affordable shoes. But the most significant wuxia pian of recent years – super-productions like Crouching Tiger and Zhang Yimou’s Hero (2002) – are pan-Chinese affairs by prestigious directors, even though they make use of Hong Kong choreographers and stars. Like the Western and the chanbara, the wuxia pian’s Golden Age has passed and it has been living on borrowed time for some time. But as Kill Bill confirms, with its Shaw Brothers logo and cameo by former Shaws star Gordon Liu, the impact of Hong Kong Martial Arts films is still being felt around the world.