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Women in Martial Arts

Since the 1950s, martial arts movies have always been a popular staple with cinephiles and film critics. An array of sub-genres ranging from in-depth looks into Ninja, Samurai and Mixed-Martial Art products are produced in countries all over the world. A closer look reveals the breathtaking choreography and daring stunt work that captures the viewer’s imagination. These films are often colorful and vibrant, filled with philosophy and spirituality, as well as over-the-top violence and gravitas performances. The combination of high-powered acrobatics immersed in elaborate set pieces feels like a carefully calculated ballet, but with an almost spaghetti-western style. Some of these classics include: A Touch Of Zen, Enter The Dragon, Bloodsport, Kill Bill, Dragon Inn and 36th Chamber Of Shaolin. All these films were successful at the box office, and all starred male martial artists. Stars like Toshiro Mifune, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Sonny Chiba, Sho Kosugi, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Donnie Yen and Gordon Liu, to name but a few, were martial artists turned actors or actors turned martial artists who dominated the landscape of this genre. However, there were some women kicking and chopping along the way who opened up doors for other women to break barriers and box office records. In the 1920s, when Xia Peizhen was in The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple or later in 1939 when Nancy Wan-Saung Chan starred in Hua Mulan, these early pioneers probably had no idea how they were opening the doors for generations of women warriors to command the screen. This article will take a look at those groundbreaking women and some of their films that overcame culturally significant hurdles and grew to become martial arts legends of their own.

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Released in 1966 and directed by legendary filmmaker King Hu, who was known for his highly stylized wuxia films, Come Drink With Me stars Cheng Pei-pei as Golden Swallow and is considered to be the first real female action hero. Come Drink With Me tells the story of a general’s son who has been taken hostage by a group of bandits while his daughter, Golden Swallow, undertakes the mission of rescuing him. Her search takes her to a local inn where the bandits are held up and a violent encounter ensues. The choreography, constructed by Han Ying-cheih, is one of continuous movement and extremely high energy. Taking inspiration from Beijing Opera and incorporating the dance-like fighting movements into the frame results in stunning high-octane action.  

Eventually, Golden Swallow penetrates a Buddhist monastery where she confronts the man who has taken her brother. This leads to a series of violent and bloody sequences that carry throughout until the end of the film. Come Drink With Me is the definitive moment in film where martial arts cinema ceased to belong to a men-only arena. Cheng Pei-pei shows off her fighting prowess through the strength of her balletic abilities and dance background. Her sword fight scenes are so skillful that they match or surpass the great Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon. It is a beautiful and vibrant experience that truly is one of the best in its genre. Come Drink With Me was followed by a direct sequel titled Golden Swallow where Cheng Pei-pei would reprise her role. Cheng Pei-pei proves she is a blueprint that all the other female action stars will follow.


1992 saw the release of the third entry in the Jackie Chan-powered franchise, Supercop: Police Story 3, and even though Jackie Chan is the lead, it’s Michelle Yeoh who steals the spotlight. Despite the plot being a basic “cops vs criminals” formula with a mix of action and comedy, the stunt work and chemistry of Yeoh and Chan elevates the film to something quite special. 

Chan is his usual cheeky self, while Yeoh plays a strong-willed, independent policewoman who is more than capable of taking care of herself. Yeoh has all the right moves to defend herself with skill and intelligence, and her fight scenes alone give Jackie Chan a run for his money. The film puts them both onto an equal foundation of respect; two actors capable of utilizing such endurance and impressive choreography with their respected fighting styles and the humor they both project onto one another make them more than well-matched. Double the stunts and double the charisma more than makes up for any thinness in the plot. 


It’s incredibly wild and campy and for some reason has samples of John Carpenter’s Halloween score mixed into it that I can’t fathom, but this film is the definition of 1980s Hong Kong trash. 1985’s Yes, Madam! is an obscure gem that never takes itself too seriously. The film is fast-paced and frantic at times. So you wonder what’s so special about that? The answer of course is Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. Michelle Yeoh is the woman lead in this 1985 picture directed by Corey Yeun that has been described as the first “girls with guns” sub-genre. 

Yeoh is a cop who gets involved with a murder conspiracy and finds herself having to team up with American martial artist, Cynthia Rothrock. They both do their own stunts, they make the film worthwhile on an epic proportion, despite the hollowness and ridiculousness of it all. The film is soaked with perversions drenched in neon and fast-moving action sequences made famous by Hong Kong filmmakers of the genre. Rothrock holds her own up to Yeoh’s intimidating presence as the film’s star. 

The film is best viewed in its original language and in its original full length. The production of the film initially called for a male lead to be the next Bruce Lee type of character. Until Rothrock was seen giving a demonstration of her fighting ability, she was given the supporting role, while Yeoh was in her first-ever leading role in which she trained in a gym for eight hours a day to prepare. Hence why this film has its cultural importance even if everything else about the film is absolutely ludicrous.

It is remarkable through its historic scope of having two women leading the charging of the gates. Rothrock would go on to have success with other films such as Martial Law while Yeoh would star in many films such as James Bond’s Tomorrow Never Dies and the iconic Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. The foundation of the success for Yeoh and Rothrock both can be traced back to the undertaking of this film. Yes, Madam! is for lack of a better term, a hell of an experience, and I recommend you come along for the ride. It would be the beginning for a small wave of Hong Kong film companies to make their own female lead pictures such as In The Line Of Duty and The Black Cat series. It’s a significant achievement for a film that otherwise plays like an animated cartoon.

These women are the embodiment of strength, equal to that of their male counterparts. Today, we have seen newly released films on an epic scope with women leading the action, including Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Black Widow and Birds Of Prey. While the Supermen and Batmen may outnumber the Superwomen, it’s a step in the right direction. Bringing a wider bandwidth of female-led action vehicles is important for young audiences to see that women are as capable of saving the day without having to be saved themselves. And it is the early days of women-led martial arts pictures that layered the foundation which helped make it all possible.

Written By

Brian Wallinger had his first foray in theater acting in ‘A Christmas Carol’. A well-respected cinephile, Brian has seen more than five thousand films and has published reviews on many of them. He is an award-winning filmmaker, and also works as an actor, producer, director and cinematographer. Known for his art-house films such as (Bleeding Solar, Lysergic Lullaby) As a social activist, Brian is committed to causes that support liberal politics, the environment, and the LGBTQ community. In his private time, Wallinger enjoys hiking, kayaking, photography and jamming with friends.


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