The signature sound of legendary Staten Island rap group The Wu-Tang Clan is its heavy use of samples from Kung-Fu and Samurai films. Much of the group — especially RZA, the group’s primary producer and de-facto leader — spent their formative years taking in every elaborate kung-fu film they could get their hands on. RZA uses these samples as a tool for mythmaking — casting his group as a legendarily skilled group of killers, the baddest, scariest motherfuckers on the planet. It’s kind of their greatest asset.
Below, we’ve collected some of our favorite films that have popped up in RZA’s work over the years; the films that not only defined Wu-Tang’s style, but also reflect their philosophy and image.
There are only 35 chambers, there is no 36th.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978, Cia-Liang Liu)
Even outside of its obvious connection to the lore of The Wu-Tang Clan (their first record is called Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is an essential piece of kung-fu. In it, we follow San Te (the fantastic Gordon Liu), a young revolutionary who humbles himself at the stairs of the Shaolin Temple begging to learn the secrets of the group’s legendary kung-fu ability.
To become a kung-fu master, San Te must conquer the school’s 35 chambers, each one centered around a simple, but punishing exercise: bashing your head against weighted sand bags, leaping over a deep pit, carrying buckets of water up a long ramp. As San Te masters each chamber, the size of the classes becomes smaller, more elite; until he begins learning from the masters themselves.
Though not as heavily sampled as some of the other films on this list, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin outlines many of the core tenants of the young Wu-Tang Clan. A collection of the best M.C.s of the era, the Wu-Tang Clan mastered every school of hip hop so quickly that they, like San Te, created a new level for themselves. The 36th Chamber represents something new, something the rap game had never seen before.
Shaolin shadow boxing and the Wu-Tang sword style. If what you say is true, the Shaolin and the Wu-Tang could be dangerous.
Shaolin & Wu Tang (1983, Gordon Liu)
Dissatisfied with the comedic direction that the 36th Chamber series was taking in its sequels, Gordon Liu set off to direct his own kung-fu epic. Liu directs and stars in Shaolin & Wu-Tang, a film about a tense rivalry between two competing schools of kung-fu: Shaolin shadowboxers and Wu-Tang swordsmen. Threatened by the level of skill in both schools, a local lord vows to master both styles of fighting and then force the two schools to destroy one another.
Though exciting throughout, Shaolin and Wu-Tang is at its best during its absolutely thrilling opening set piece, a stylized chronicle of the expulsion of the first Wu-Tang swordsman from the Shaolin temple. Set on a massive stage, the sequences plays like a violent ballet as a lone swordsman battles against an entire school of identical Shaolin monks. The monks stay in formation, performing the same movements slightly out of sync with each other, creating the image of a single body with multiple arms and legs, and who can split off into countless soldiers. They are one, and they are many.
This movie kind of highlights the other core tenant to the Wu-Tang Clan, they’re a group whose members compliment each-other but work together under RZA’s unifying production. The different styles of its nine members are what make Wu-Tang dangerous.
When cut across the neck a sound like wailing winter wind is heard, they say. I’d always hoped to cut someone like that someday, to hear that sound. But to have it happen to my own neck is… ridiculous.
Shogun Assassin (1980, Robert Houston)
Shogun Assassin and GZA’s first album, Liquid Swords, share an opening monologue. “When I was little, my father was famous,” begins the young Daigaro as he explains how a child ended up accompanying one of the most violent and feared assassins in Feudal Japan: the Lone Wolf, Itto Ogami. When the mad Shogun drives out Ogami from his role as Royal Decapitator, he also sends a death squad to Ogami’s home to murder his family. Only able to save his son, Ogami travels down the road of vengeance, teaching his wolf cub the way of the samurai along the way.
Shogun Assassin itself is kind of a remix, director Robert Houston took the first two films of the Lone Wolf and Cub series and spliced them together, adding a moody synth score and a raspy English dub to create something irresistible for America’s fourteen-year-old boys.
Though all of the Wu-Tang Clan’s records feature some iconic film samples, the Shogun Assassin samples in Liquid Swords are the most powerful and thematic. Shogun Assassin is the darkest and most violent of the movies sampled by RZA (it’s also the only Japanese film), which compliments Liquid Swords — a cold, calculating record that’s overloaded with imagery of chess, street warfare and the philosophy of the cut. GZA presents himself as a modern Lone Wolf, the heads he collects are metaphorical, his swords aren’t made of steel but they cut just as clean.
The Toad style is immensely strong and immune to nearly any weapon. When it’s properly used it’s almost invincible.
Five Deadly Venoms (1978, Cheh Chang)
As the master of the secretive Poison Clan reaches his end, he sends his final pupil to track his five previous students, so that he may discover which of them are using their kung-fu skills for evil. The problem is that these students’ identities were kept secret, hidden away behind masks fashioned after the animal of their style: Lizard, Centipede, Scorpion, Toad, Snake.
Though the palate of many Kung-Fu films lean visually on a more bright, hazy side; Five Deadly Venoms is a colorful, vibrant film, and it has a great mystery at its center too. Throughout the film, the six kung-fu masters vie to identify and exploit one-another before their own weaknesses can be discovered, which leads to several electric clashes in fighting styles.
From Kill Bill to Kung-Fu Panda to Power Rangers, Five Deadly Venoms is a kung-fu film with wide-reaching influence. It’s not as integral to the Wu-Tang lore as some of the other films on this list, but Five Deadly Venoms is a badass piece of sword swinging. The line that RZA pulls from the film for “Da Mystery of Chessboxing” (the crack about the Toad style being nearly invincible) is pure myth-making, the line suggests that his crew has almost supernatural levels of skill.
Fatal flying guillotine chops off ya’ fucking head.
Master of the Flying Guillotine (1976, Jimmy Wang)
After dispatching a pair of deadly fighters in One Armed Boxer, the film that precedes Master of the Flying Guillotine, the legendary One Armed Boxer (played by director Jimmy Wang) must face off with their master, a silent assassin who uses a bladed hat (!) to decapitate targets from afar.
It doesn’t have much in terms of plot, but there’s a martial arts tournament; some incredible, brutal fight scenes; a yoga master who can make his arms stretch (!!); and, in some divine twist, a Krautrock soundtrack (!!!) with music from Neu!, Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk.
A tenant of the Wu-Tang is breaking the rules, and if Master of the Flying Guillotine doesn’t count as a Wu-Tang movie exactly… I don’t really care. The movie does reflect one of Wu-Tang’s greatest strengths, though, in that it’s extremely fucking cool. I didn’t even mention that the master assassin is blind, and hunts by sound. Dude’s like a kung-fu sharpshooter.