It would be almost silly at this point to regurgitate everything that’s been said about Netflix and Marvel’s Iron Fist series. From the painful Orientalism and white savior narrative to the apparent lack of basic knowledge of storytelling, it sounds, as my roommate succinctly put it, like a “parfait of garbage.”
But it would also be silly to deny that there’s a genuine interest and audience for martial arts in our media nowadays. If you’re one of the many people who’d rather not waste their time with Discount Walgreens Brand Timberlake™ pretending to be a master martial artist, here are, in no particular order, five movies and shows on Netflix with a) martial arts, and b) actual Asian people. Enjoy.
1. IP MAN
Okay, I lied when I said this list was in no particular order: Ip Man is first because, if you haven’t seen Ip Man yet, you should fix that immediately.
Donnie Yen, most recently seen as Chirrut Îmwe in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, stars as Ip Man, the legendary martial arts master, who lives in the Chinese village of Fo Shun in the 1930s. Unlike other masters in Fo Shun, Ip Man hasn’t opened a martial arts school, and he doesn’t teach his craft (a style of kung fu called Wing Chun) to any students – he lives a quietly comfortable and wealthy life with his wife and son. That all changes when the Japanese invade China during the course of World War II – Ip Man and his family are forced into poverty, and he himself eventually must rise up and redeem the honor of his countrymen.
I’m being purposely simplistic with the plot here because if you haven’t seen this movie yet, I want you to enjoy the ride. There’s a major tonal shift halfway through the film, which transitions us from the lighthearted and fun fight scenes and brings us to the harsh and brutal Japanese occupation of Fo Shun. I wasn’t expecting it – I knew next to nothing about Ip Man’s background, and so when World War II crashes the scene I knew I was in for a wholly different experience.
Have you ever cried while watching a fight scene? I can’t say I ever have, up until Ip Man at least. The fight scenes aren’t just there for some cool kung fu moments – they serve the plot, and they also serve as the emotional hook for the audience. They’re simplistic yet impressive, and there’s nothing you want more than to watch Ip Man kick ass – not for the sake of kicking ass, but because there’s so much at stake if he loses. It’s not just about the man himself, but about the honor of his village and country that has been so beaten for so long.
Please. For the love of Donnie Yen. Watch Ip Man.
2. 13 ASSASSINS
Prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike brings us 13 Assassins, an epic war movie the likes of which you should definitely put the kids to bed for before watching.
In 1840s Japan, the days of the samurai are coming to an end. Matsudaira Naritsugu is a cruel lord over his own people and rules them with (no pun intended) an iron fist, but because the Shogun is his half-brother, he’s protected from punishment. Good old nepotism, am I right? In order to protect the people, an older samurai Shinzaemon gathers together a band of assassins – 12, to be exact, plus himself – to stop Naritsugu in his tracks.
It’s a pretty straightforward premise – kill the bad guy because he does bad things – so what’s special here?
The blood and the unapologetically grisly imagery will stick with you, even though there’s a more-than-definite chance you’ve seen blood in a movie before. Everything about 13 Assassins draws attention to its heavy, somber atmosphere, its morose setting.
The sharp action is also well-worth lining this movie up in your Netflix queue. The ending is very Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in its setup, but with heckin’ samurai, so it’s cooler by default. It’s realistic, lengthy, and gritty without (I believe) relying too heavily on CGI to make its actors look badass – they are badass. There’s rooting for the underdog, and then there’s rooting for the 13 assassins against an army of 200. Yes, seriously.
Two words to sum up this film: TOTAL MASSACRE. Don’t get the reference? Gotta watch the movie.
3. FLASH POINT
Another Donnie Yen recommendation, this one taking a turn for the modern-day action movie, in case historical films aren’t your thing.
Sergeant Ma Jun (Yen) is a Hong Kong police officer that has quite the violent reputation to his name – he beats up suspects, to the point where broken bones are often involved – with which he doesn’t see a problem. It’s their job as cops to catch bad guys, no matter the means, right?
Meanwhile his partner has infiltrated a gang of drug dealers and, as a result, Jun is poised to take down three of its powerful members – until his partner’s cover is blown. Obviously, the logical solution here is for Jun to take these guys down by kicking some serious ass.
Ass does, indeed, get kicked in this movie. Fast-paced and brutal, there’s a lot of flying fists and feet to keep track of. Yen of course is as captivating as ever while he’s on screen, while actor and martial artist Collin Chou, who plays the primary gang member, makes for a perfectly matched rival when it comes to skill. Theirs is a fight scene and climax worth waiting for. Flash Point is one of those movies where it does, in fact, matter that the actors are also martial artists: the realism of the fight makes you all the more invested in the outcome.
Is it absolutely critical for all actors in martial arts films to be masters at the craft? No, but goddamn does it pay off. All you need to do is watch Flash Point, and there’s your proof.
4. RED CLIFF
If Homer were still alive today, I don’t doubt that he’d be drooling over the epic war movie Red Cliff, brought to you by director John Woo of Face/Off and Mission: Impossible II. He’s no stranger to the action genre, and it shows: Red Cliff is rich in both action and atmosphere.
Loosely based on the real-life Battle of the Red Cliffs, the movie takes place during the waning years of the Han Dynasty. Chancellor Cao Cao is leading an army against two southern warlords, Sun Quan and Liu Bei, whom he’d denounced as rebels. After a series of attacks, one of which involves Cao Cao unleashing his army on civilian refugees, Sun and Liu join forces and form an alliance to take down Cao Cao together – the enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all. What follows is a war for the good of their fellow countrymen and for the future of China.
If you like war epics, Red Cliff is for you, because holy balls is this movie Herculean in its presentation. Everything is monumental, from the battle scenes to the dialogue to the setting and mood that pervades throughout the film. Your pulse will pound, your blood will race, your…other body parts will be totally wow’d by this movie. This is a popcorn movie if the phrase “popcorn movie” weren’t used disparagingly nowadays – what I mean is that you’ll definitely have an adrenaline-fueled ride with this one.
5. INTO THE BADLANDS (SHOW)
This. Is. Essential. Viewing. Material.
AMC’s show Into the Badlands returns with its second season only two days after the release of Iron Fist, which gives you plenty of time to catch up with season one while you ignore the latter (it’s only six episodes long – you can do it without sacrificing much sleep).
Described by some as a ‘kung fu western’ (yes, seriously), the opening introduction of the show says it all: “The wars were so long ago nobody even remembers. Darkness and fear ruled until the time of the Barons, seven men and women who forged order out of chaos. People flocked to them for protection. That protection became servitude. They banished guns and trained armies of lethal fighters they called Clippers. This world is built on blood. Nobody is innocent here. Welcome to the Badlands.”
Daniel Wu stars as Sunny, a Clipper with unmatched skill and prowess in the Badlands, who serves the most powerful Baron, Quinn. During his time in the Badlands Sunny crosses paths with M.K., a teenage boy who seems normal yet is anything but. Lurking inside M.K. is a power that an up-and-coming Baron, The Widow, wants to harness for herself, and Sunny must do what he can to help M.K. survive the Badlands in spite of this.
Adrenaline-pumping fight scenes. Intriguing worldbuilding. Rich, sometimes breathtaking atmosphere. An interracial couple where neither partner is white. Honestly, if you sleep on this show but watch Iron Fist, I might come to you in the dead of night like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Treat yo’self and binge this one ASAP.
HONORABLE MENTION: MARCO POLO (SHOW)
I know what you’re thinking: “Uh, a show with a white guy as the lead? Isn’t that the whole problem?” Hear me out.
I was squinting pretty hard when I started watching Marco Polo because it had all the ingredients of white savior/Orientalist disasters that we’ve seen before, but none of them take root. Marco Polo isn’t a Wikipedia print-out of the man’s life, but instead the show uses Marco as a vehicle to draw the audience into the main plot: Kublai Khan’s court, the Mongol Empire, and the birth of the goddamn Yuan Dynasty.
The show has a rich setting and focuses much of its attention on the Khan, his family, his enemies, and his court; it also features music by Mongolian musicians Altan Urag and Batzorig Vaanchig of Asia’s Got Talent. You can tell this wasn’t just a slapdash effort to exoticize a culture. A lot of thought and respect went into this show, so much so that President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of Mongolia presented the creative team with an award “honoring their positive portrayal and global presentation of Mongolian subject matter.”
The show has an all-star Asian cast to boot: Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan (whom you probably saw in Doctor Strange if you saw that at all for, ahem, reasons), Chin Han, Michelle Yeoh, Olivia Cheng, Joan Chen, Rick Yune, and Zhu Zhu just to name a few.
And, okay yes, I admit it: Lorenzo Richelmy’s Marco Polo is equal parts charming and awkward, and what’s more, he’s never elevated to a status of white savior or know-it-all. He’s a member of the court and he’s there to help the Khan, not overstep or demean him.
It would also be ridiculous of me not to mention Remy Hii as Prince Jingim, son of the Khan, because his gorgeous face has been popping up every now and then as a fancast for Shang in the upcoming live-action Mulan movie, and to that I say: please.
While not primarily a martial arts show, Marco Polo works as a recommendation for anyone who was planning to binge Iron Fist and decided they’d like something a little less appropriative and more respectful to the culture it’s rooted in. If you’re going to have a show with a white lead and a story steeped in Asian traditions and history, this is how it’s done.
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