Jimmy Wang Yu, once a superstar of multiple Asian martial arts genres, died on Tuesday. He was 79.
News of his death in a Taipei hospital was posted on social media by Wang’s daughter Linda, herself a former Canto-pop star of the 1990s. She wrote that Wang passed away peacefully after a six-year battle with a chronic illness.
Born in Shanghai in 1943, Wang established his film career in Hong Kong, where he became a household name thanks to films including Chang Cheh’s 1967 classic “The One-Armed Swordsman,” which the first to hit the HK$1 million benchmark at the Hong Kong box office. Another early hit was opposite martial arts actress Cheng Pei-pei in Chang’s “Golden Swallow” in 1968.
In total, Wang appeared in more than 60 martial arts films, many produced by the Shaw Brothers studio. Several were influential internationally and helped pave the way for the short and incandescent career of Bruce Lee, as well as the longer lasting Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Wang also directed and produced films. “The Chinese Boxer” (1970), which he wrote, directed and starred in, was not just a box office success, but opened a different stylistic path and more modern narrative compared with previously dominant wuxia (heroic martial arts) titles, which were mostly costume dramas.
In the 1970s, Wang moved to Taiwan, where he received Golden Horse Award nomination for his role in the 1977 drama “Brotherly Love.” He also received Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film Awards nominations for his role in Peter Chan’s martial arts drama “Dragon.” His final film, “Soul,” won him the best actor title at the Taipei Film Festival in 2013.
Wang’s off-screen life may have been as turbulent as his films. Wang was charged with murder in Taiwan in 1981 and was twice married and divorced, with veteran actress Jeanette Lin Tsui and flight attendant Wang Kaizhen.
Latterly, he was dogged by ill health and remained mostly in hospital from 2016, after a second stroke. In 2019, the Golden Horse Film Festival awarded Wang a lifetime achievement prize, which his daughter Carol accepted on his behalf. At the ceremony Ang Lee praised Wang for being a filmmaking pioneer in the Asian region.
Linda Wang said her father cared for his friends and was willing to make sacrifices for those in need, just like the righteous warrior characters he played in many martial arts film classics. “[We] believe that his great image in ‘One-Armed Swordsman’ will live forever in the history of cinema and the hearts of movie fans,” she wrote.