Women martial artists have rarely had the opportunities of their male counterparts on film. From the underfunded “girls with guns” genre in 1980s Hong Kong to the lack of women action heroes today, these performers have often done more with less. It’s worth highlighting a few, some of whom you’ll know and others who will be new to you. Besides, if you like fight scenes, it’s always worth it to discover new ones you haven’t seen before:
What Jackie Chan did in Hong Kong films, everyone did. When he brought in foreign martial artists to diversify his fight scenes, the demand for stars trained in styles beyond kung fu skyrocketed. Moon Lee was trained in the kung fu required of most heroes, but she’d also mastered taekwondo and kickboxing. This was similar to Chan’s own background (minus the Chinese opera training) and let fight choreographers create aggressive, bloody fights centered around Lee. Here’s a stellar fight from Iron Angels 2, in which she faces off against her choreographer, Yuen Tak.
Oshima was a martial artist who choreographers were more than happy to let loose. Her gymnastic talents combined with a background in Goju-ryu karate made her fights feel unique. Goju-ryu teaches practitioners to accept blows with a soft body and strike out hard with an equal mix of straightforward and indirect attacks. You can see how she coils in and explodes out. Half-Japanese and half-Chinese, Oshima could also be relied upon to portray both heroes and villains. Even in Hong Kong, audiences still didn’t place trust in Japan.
When Jackie Chan made Supercop, he halted production before the movie even began. He’d seen Michelle Yeoh practicing a fight scene and there was a big problem. He went to producers and told them the entire movie needed to be re-written so Yeoh was a lead. Why? Her kung fu was better than his, he told them. It was a major moment in breaking down the wall for women martial artists on film. One of the best martial arts scenes in movie history would later pit Yeoh against a young Ziyi Zhang in the Oscar-nominated Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Gina Carano boasts a 12-1-1 record in Muay Thai and a 7-1 record in MMA. Her one defeat there came against a fighter who later got caught using steroids. Carano was hardly the ground fighter Ronda Rousey is, but she is a superb stand-up fighter with kick deliveries that could knock out a mule. In Haywire, she defended herself against Michael Fassbender in a brutal fight. When she breaks a vase over his head, that wasn’t part of the choreography. She just got angry when Fassbender slammed her head into a wall too hard.
If you see similarities between Yanin’s fights and Tony Jaa’s, it’s because their movies are produced by the same company. Expect a lot of muay thai, but Yanin’s kicks are what make this truly astounding. Sure, there’s some wire work, but less than you’d think. Her control comes from a background almost entirely consisting of taekwondo. This lends her a unique ability – she’s able to rotate her body away from her kicks, delivering precision kicks blind while already preparing her next move.
Estelle came to The Raid 2 with almost no training whatsoever, but working with two of the premier choreographers in the world (Yayan Ruhian and Iko Uwais) quickly brought her up to speed. As Hammer Girl, her unique fighting style of brandishing a pair of hammers added to the film’s artfully off-kilter brutality. Apologies for the Drake song in this clip. It’s not the original soundtrack and it doesn’t fit the scene, but it’s the only high-quality video of the fight online right now.
There’s a good argument The Grandmaster is the best film in any genre of the last several years. It’s certainly one of the most sumptuous. Ziyi Zhang is often criticized for being a dancer before a martial artist, but by this point in her career, she has years of training under some of the best martial artists and fight trainers in the world. Her background in ballet also allows choreographers to create elegant fight scenes. Most schools of kung fu dictate the rhythm of a fight through hand postures, arm movements, and precision step-work. Everything else the body does is dictated by those extensions. By showing many moments in slow-motion, director Wong Kar-wai shows us the intent behind every individual movement. In this way, it communicates the strategy of their combat better than many full-speed fights.
What scenes come to mind when you think women in martial arts? Do you have a favorite?