Jimmy Wang Yu, who became the biggest star of Asian martial arts film in the 1960s in films like “The One-Armed Swordsman” until the rise of Bruce Lee, died on April 5 in Taipei, Taiwan. He was 79.
His daughter Linda Wong announced the death in a hospital, but did not give the cause. Mr Yu reportedly had strokes in 2011 and 2016.
A pioneering figure in martial arts, known for his prominence hand-to-hand combat, Mr. Yu paved the way for stars like Mr. Lee and Jackie Chan, who had great success outside of Asia. After the death of Mr. Yu said Mr. Chan on Facebook: “The contributions you have made to kung fu movies and the support and wisdom you have given to the younger generations will always be remembered in the industry.”
Mr Yu worked in the 1960s for the major Hong Kong studio owned by the Shaw brothers, starring in their films “The One-Armed Swordsman” in 1967 and “Golden Swallow” and “The Sword of Swords” in 1968.
During that period, Mr. Yu in a 2014 interview with Easternkicks, a website dedicated to Asian cinema, that he was often in the news for getting into fights, often with police officers.
“How did I become popular in Hong Kong?” he said. “I think there’s one reason – it’s because I’m a street fighter.” He added: “I think a lot of people might say, ‘I see you fighting in the movie, is he really a good fighter or not?'”
“The Chinese Boxer” (1970) – which Mr. Yu directed and starred as a man taking revenge on Japanese villains who destroyed a Chinese kung fu school – was probably his most influential film. With its focus on hand-to-hand combat rather than the sword fighting and fantasy elements then commonplace in Hong Kong action movies, it helped transform the genre.
In a 2020 essay on the website of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino, who wrote the martial arts films “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” (2003) and “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” (2004), wrote that “The Chinese Boxer” was groundbreaking in that it meant that “the hero taking on a whole roomful of villains, be it in a teahouse, casino or dojo, is equally a staple of the genre.” like the western barroom brawl or the quick denouement.”
“The Chinese Boxer” became a challenge for Mr. Lee, who had worked in Hollywood on “The Green Hornet” and other television series before returning to Hong Kong where he had grown up.
“Jimmy Wang Yu was the biggest action star in Hong Kong, and Bruce had his heart set on him,” said Matthew Polly, the author of “Bruce Lee: A Life” (2018), in a phone interview. “They didn’t like each other and had to be kept out of the same room.”
He added: “In a way, Jimmy Wang Yu was responsible for Bruce Lee’s success, because ‘The Chinese Boxer’ set the template for the kung fu movie and Bruce used that as his model for ‘Fist of Fury’, somewhat without a rip-off of ‘The Chinese Boxer’.’ Released in 1972, ‘Fist of Fury’ made Mr. Lee a major star in Hong Kong.
mr. Lee released only two more films before he passed away in 1973. His last film, “Enter the Dragon” (1973), established him as an international star and ensured his popularity to this day.
Mr. Yu was born Wang Zhengquan on March 28, 1943 in Shanghai and moved with his family to Hong Kong at a young age. Before his film career began, he was a swimming champion and served in the Chinese army.
After ‘The Chinese Boxer’, Mr. Yu tried to break his exclusive contract with the Shaw Brothers to make films elsewhere, but they successfully sued him, which resulted in him being blacklisted in Hong Kong. He moved to Taiwan, where he resumed his career at Golden Harvest and other studios.
In 1975 Mr. Yu stars in “The Man From Hong Kong”, also released in the United States as “The Dragon Flies”, in which he played a respected detective sent to Australia to extradite a drug smuggler.
In a review of “The Dragon Flies” in The Boston Globe, George McKinnon wrote that Chinese studio chiefs’ frantic search for a successor to Mr. Lee might have ended up at Mr. Yu, then 32. “Under that impeccable Hong Kong tailoring,” he wrote, “lies a ferocious dragon.” But unlike Mr. Lee and mr. Chan, became Mr. Wu no star in the United States.
George Lazenby, who along with Mr. Yu starred in both “The Dragon Flies” and “International Assassin” (1976), had trained in martial arts for four months while waiting to make a movie with Mr. Lee. After mr. Lee died, Mr. Lazenby moved on to working with Mr. Yu and performed his own stunts.
“It was really more stunts than dialogue,” said Mr. Lazenby, who is best known for playing James Bond in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), in a telephone interview. “Jimmy was a real fighter – if he hit you, you’d feel it. You just had to trust that he wouldn’t hit you.”
Mr. Yu continued to work regularly until the early 1990s, appearing in four films after a long hiatus between 2011 and 2013.
Complete information on survivors was not immediately available.
mr. Yu received lifetime achievement awards from the New York Asian Film Festival in 2014 and the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan in 2019.
After the death of Mr. Yu told the China News Agency, Academy Award-winning Taiwanese director Ang Lee: “For many fans like me, he represents the atmosphere of a certain era. His films and his heroic spirit will be deeply missed.”