Universally recognized as one of the most influential and important Chinese directors in the history of cinema, King Hu (1932-97) came to fame making wuxia movies – the swordplay subgenre of martial arts cinema. In the process of perfecting the genre, Hu was also able to make it a vehicle for his authorial personality, much as Kurosawa would do with the samurai film and Minnelli with the Hollywood musical. While Kurosawa had a direct influence on Hu, the comparison with Minnelli is equally apt since both men were highly cultured aesthetes who paid special attention to the décor and art direction of their films and who reveled in the ability of mise-en-scène, movement and the spatial composition of the frame to express character and the relations between characters.
Born in Beijing, Hu Jinquang grew up in comfort, more interested in Chinese opera than in cinema. Still in his teens, he left Beijing for Hong Kong in 1949, just before the People’s Liberation Army entered the capital, and never returned. After a few years of scrounging for whatever jobs he could find, he ended up working in film “by accident,” as he put it, beginning with set design and construction. By 1954, he was acting onscreen, and in 1958, he signed a contract with the fabled Shaw Brothers, then Hong Kong’s most famous and prestigious studio. There he became apprentice to another aesthete, Lee Hanxiang, the director who specialized in opera films and historical melodrama. After assisting Lee on his classic The Love Eterne (1963), he was given the chance to direct Sons of the Good Earth (1965), a patriotic epic set during the War of Resistance Against Japan.
It was with his second directing assignment (and first wuxia film), Come Drink With Me, that Hu’s mastery of composition and editing became apparent. The success of this film signaled that audiences had responded to Hu’s decision to emphasize the valor and skill of his protagonists, rather than the use of magical powers, and to tone down the genre’s melodrama in favor of a sober stoicism that nevertheless exploded into flights of fancy during the action sequences. Emboldened, Hu left Shaw Brothers, which he saw as artistically inhibiting, and relocated to Taiwan, whose smaller film industry received him with open arms.
Based in Taipei from the late 1960s until the early 1980s, Hu became a precursor of today’s transnational directors as he worked as an independent filmmaker, using talent and funding from both Taiwan and Hong Kong and even shooting in South Korea at one point. During this period, Hu continued to refine the wuxia film in the direction of both greater subtlety and greater expressivity begun with Come Drink With Me.
He encouraged his martial arts choreographers to draw from the alternately fluid and rhythmic movements of Chinese operas. Rather than resorting to fast or slow motion, footage printed backwards, animation or other early special-effects techniques, Hu relied as much as possible on the actual skills of his performers and on the magic of editing. Although the films often have quite complex plots, Hu spends as little time as possible on exposition, preferring character expressed through action and philosophy presented as a set of spatial relations within the frame and temporal relations between shots. Perhaps Hu’s most striking generic innovation was his emphasis on the archetype of the female swordfighter, and his use of this figure to generate gender and sexual ambiguity among his characters, while making her the moral center of the action, much like Shakespeare’s comic heroines.
Hu’s “golden age” proved short-lived however. His massively ambitious and expensive epic A Touch of Zen was the first Chinese film to win an award at Cannes, but it lost money during its initial release in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Although it is today recognized as Hu’s pinnacle, the film’s financial failure made it harder for him to raise money. At the same time, the worldwide fame of Bruce Lee was shifting the martial arts genre from wuxia to the “kung fu” films, with their contemporary setting and their emphasis on unarmed combat. Hu responded by shifting from films of swordplay to work emphasizing intrigue or the supernatural, but in 1982, he moved to California in an ill-fated attempt to resurrect his career.
Hu’s innovations ultimately helped revive the wuxia genre and are explicitly cited in recent films by Wong Kar-wai, Zhang Yimou and, especially, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He is also acknowledged as a major influence on the “New Wave” filmmakers in both Hong Kong and Taiwan: Tsui Hark and Ann Hui on the one hand; Ang Lee and Tsai Ming-liang on the other. The Harvard Film Archive is proud to honor the work of this master filmmaker by presenting eight of Hu’s eleven features, including all of his classic wuxia films. — David Pendleton
Presented in conjunction with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office of Boston and the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York.
Special thanks to: Wen-chang Chen, Anne Hung – TECO, Boston; Teresa Huang – Chinese Taipei Film Archive; Wendy Hau – Hong Kong Film Archive; Regina Schlagnitweit – Austrian Filmmuseum; Cheng-Sim Lim; Bérénice Reynaud.
Directed by King Hu. With Polly Shangguang Lingfeng, Bai Ying,
Taiwan 1967, 35mm, color, 111 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Hu’s first film made in Taiwan after leaving Shaw Brothers, Dragon Inn is a rousing period tale about a heroic trio who defy the ruthless secret security forces of a despot to protect a family of political exiles. An exquisite game of cat-and-mouse ensues as each side tests the martial skills of the other. With his new freedom, Hu invigorates the swordplay genre by drawing on Beijing Opera traditions, choreographing the film to the percussive rhythms of the traditional stage. He also began to assemble a group of loyal actors whose careers he helped launch. One of these actors, Miao Tien, would go on to appear prominently in Tsai Ming-liang’s films, including Tsai’s tribute to this phase of Hu’s career, the poignant Goodbye Dragon Inn. New print from The Film Center of National Central University, Taiwan and The Center for East Asian Studies at UW-Madison
Directed by King Hu. With Zheng Peipei, Tang Paoyun, Tian Feng
Taiwan 1983, 35mm, color, 101 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
A rarely seen film from near the end of Hu’s career, All the King’s Men finds the filmmaker adding a comic pendant to his earlier tragic tales of heroic grace. The action takes place in 10th century BC, during the Zhou Dynasty, with an ailing emperor desperate for treatment by the leading doctor from a neighboring kingdom. The machinations involved in securing the visit of this physician take the form of an ironic variation of the life-and-death intriguing in the earlier films. Contributing to the screenplay is none other than Wu Nien-jen, who would shortly join Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang to launch the New Taiwanese Cinema.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Bai Ying
Taiwan 1971, 35mm, color, 186 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Exquisitely balancing the competing demands of the martial arts film and the careful depiction of human drama, Hu’s masterpiece is at once epic and intimate, fantastic and realist, action-packed and thought-provoking. With a Chinese title that translates to “Swordswoman,” it also provides one of the best examples of Hu’s many woman warriors, played by the celebrated Hsu Feng, now an important producer. Hsu plays a fugitive hunted for her family’s crusade against corruption at the emperor’s court. Around her the film arrays a host of characters who become involved in her struggle, building to a metaphysical conflict between worldliness and virtue. A Touch of Zen served as the model for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a debt Ang Lee acknowledges by including an homage to the film’s famous fight in a bamboo grove. New print from The Film Center of National Central University, Taiwan and The Center for East Asian Studies at UW-Madison
Directed by King Hu. With Zheng Peipei, Elliot Yueh Hua, Chen Honglie
Hong Kong 1966, digital video, color, 91 min. Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
A young magistrate escorting prisoners is kidnapped by Jade-Faced Tiger whose gang of unsavory thugs is holed up in a temple, under the protection of a mysterious abbot. A handsome warrior, Golden Swallow, effortlessly wards off an attack by the gangsters at a country inn, after which a drunken beggar stumbles into the scene, asking for a drink. Thus the stage is set for a typically dazzling and elegant King Hu film in which nothing is what it seems, including Golden Swallow. Played by Zheng Peipei, one of the most distinguished martial arts actresses of her time, the warrior is actually the governor's daughter, on a mission to rescue her kidnapped brother. Critic Stephen Teo has convincingly argued that Come Drink with Me is a pivotal transitional film from the fantasy-driven martial arts films common in the 1960s towards the more realistic, harder-edged films to come.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Li Lihua, Tian Feng
Taiwan/Hong Kong 1973, 35mm, color, 101 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
The Fate of Lee Khan once again shows off his impeccable talent for creating drama out of a single setting. An espionage thriller with echoes of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, the film chronicles a tense showdown between warriors on different sides of a civil war in a rural inn. Hu fills the first half of the film with a healthy dose of humor as he introduces the characters, ratcheting up the suspense as new guests arrive with unknown intentions. Unlike Hu's previous martial art epics, The Fate of Lee Khan is mostly filmed indoors, giving the director room to display his mastery of mise-en-scene and to experiment with action choreography confined to close quarters.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Bai Ying, Roy Chiao
Taiwan/Hong Kong 1975, 35mm, color, 107 mins. Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
Although Hu would continue to make period pieces full of intrigue, The Valiant Ones is his last true wuxiafilm; his later work includes only occasional bits of action. Perhaps this sense of bidding farewell to a beloved genre is the origin of the deep sense of melancholy in The Valiant Ones. Set characteristically for Hu in the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century), the eponymous characters are a small band of warriors assembled to defend the Chinese coast against Japanese pirates. Tantalizingly abstract in its fight choreography—action is expressed in calligraphic strokes such as the brief clanging of blades, the whizzing-by of arrows and the rhythmic flight of bodies—the film is nevertheless majestic in its evocation of landscape. But unlike the preternaturally gifted heroes of most swordplay films, Hu’s valiant ones are mortal. His “Picture of Valor” (the film’s Chinese title) is ultimately ironic; its somber resolution undercuts any triumph in victory.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Sun Yuek, Shih Chun
Taiwan/Hong Kong 1979, 35mm, color, 121 min. Mandarin with English subtitles
Along with Legend of the Mountain, Raining in the Mountain is one of two films made in South Korea by Hu acting as an independent filmmaker. While not a martial arts film, it looks back to the director’s earlier trilogy of “inn films.” Having used the country inn as a hive of skullduggery, Hu here turns to a Buddhist monastery as his theater of action. While various monks conspire among themselves to succeed the departing abbot, a general and an aristocrat hire competing thieves to steal an ancient sutra hidden in the monastery’s library. Hu skillfully contrasts the ceaseless intriguing, greed and ambition of the characters in the labyrinthine sets with the Buddhist principle of renunciation, represented by the expansive landscapes of the film’s opening and closing.