For most viewers, the history of Chinese martial-arts cinema begins with King Hu. His films are the earliest of the genre a non-specialist is likely to see—pre-1945 examples are lost (with rare exceptions), and the postwar genre was initially defined by the Wong Fei-hung series, starring Kwan Tak-hing as the early-20th-century Cantonese folk hero. Though most of those films survive, they are of interest today primarily for hardcore martial-arts aficionados drawn by their authentic depiction of various fighting styles. Compared to Hu’s work, they feel like antediluvian artifacts, with their studio-bound locations, locked-down cameras, and action that prioritized legibility over impact.
This worked out fine for awhile—Kwan made over seventy films as Wong, so clearly someone was watching. But the franchise (which began in 1949) petered out in the early ’60s as other types of period movies came to the fore. Ironically, one was the special effects-driven fantasy (shénguài) genre that had been previously supplanted by more down-to-earth films in the Wong Fei-hung vein; the insane Buddha’s Palm series from 1964 is probably the most famous product of this shénguài revival. Meanwhile, the more respectable huangmei opera (huángméi diào) films adapted folk tales into lavish color musicals.
King Hu’s rise was linked to that of the huangmei genre. A native of Beijing, Hu had some youthful acquaintance with the opera of his hometown, but he became more intimately familiar with the operatic tradition through his work with director Li Han-hsiang. Li popularized the huangmei cinema with Diau Charn (1958) and The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959); Hu, then a contract actor at Shaw Brothers, played a supporting role in the latter, and served as assistant director on Li’s The Love Eterne (1963), one of the most successful Hong Kong movies of all time. Hu then made his directorial debut with the huangmei film The Story of Sue San (1963).
For his sophomore assignment, Hu helmed the war drama Sons of the Good Earth, released in 1965 after a difficult production and extensive recutting. By now, the bloom was off the huangmei genre, and Li Han-hsiang—Hong Kong’s most globally-renowned director—had bolted Shaw for Union Film, a Taiwanese distributor that was expanding its production business. Casting about for the next big thing, Shaw went all in on what it called the “New Wuxia Century” (Wǔxiá Xīn Shìjì), which rejected both the over-the-top fantasy of the shénguài genre and the staginess of the Wong Fei-hung style. The initiative got off to a false start with Hsü Tseng-hung’s Temple of the Red Lotus (1965), a remake of a 1928 serial and ultimately little more than a period melodrama with some indifferently-done fight scenes. It was Hu’s Come Drink with Me (1966) that proved the “New Wuxia Century” was more than a marketing label.
Come Drink with Me was loosely based on a Peking opera, and the influence is felt throughout. Action scenes are often broken up by long passages of stillness or dialogue, which likely owes something to the Japanese period films held up as a model within the Shaw organization. But they also follow the percussive start-stop rhythms of Chinese opera, and the score by Chou Lan-p’ing (a veteran of The Love Eterne) is replete with the wooden clapper (bǎn) typical of the Peking school. Hu also declined to cast martial artists and instead pursued stage dancers and acrobats—star Cheng P’ei-p’ei, the first of Hu’s iconic martial heroines, was a classically-trained ballerina. He then drew up detailed storyboards in collaboration with stuntman-turned-choreographer Han Ying-chieh, facilitating a large number of camera setups and preparing every leap, slash, and thrust for maximum screen impact. The relatively sparing use of master shots marked a major shift from action choreography as it was then practiced, which was not far beyond the work of Kwan Tak-hing (who planned fight scenes on the spot with his martial-artist co-stars, then recorded the action in barely-mobile long or medium shots). Storyboarding never caught on among Hong Kong filmmakers, for whom pre-production time was a rare luxury, but Hu and Han’s method of breaking action down into shorter, discrete components became the industry standard.
Come Drink with Me was a massive hit in Hong Kong and Shaw’s numerous overseas markets. Hu immediately vaulted to the upper echelon of Hong Kong filmmakers, but his perfectionist methods were a poor fit for Shaw, which urged Hu to take after the more workmanlike style of Hsü Tseng-hung. Shaw’s would-be rivals at Union, having already recruited Li Han-hsiang, now lured Hu away with promises of creative freedom and a state-of-the-art studio in Taiwan. (Decades later, and long after Union’s disappearance, this studio would appear in Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day.) It was left to other directors, actors, and choreographers—talents like Chang Cheh, Jimmy Wang Yü, and Lau Kar-leung—to develop the “New Wuxia Century” at Shaw.
Hu quickly began work on his first film for Union, which became 1967’s Dragon Inn. Where Come Drink with Me traded on martial-arts tropes like bandit gangs and evil monks, Dragon Inn offers a sort of street-level view of palace intrigue. Inspired by a true incident of the 15th century, the plot involves the antagonism between two royal factions: the Jǐnyīwèi (imperial guards) and the Dōngchǎng (“Eastern Depot,” an intelligence agency). With this, Hu was partially responding to the James Bond franchise and its Hong Kong knockoffs, like Shaw’s Interpol 009 and The Golden Buddha. The depiction of the villainous Dōngchǎng is a counterpoint to the trendy glorification of secret agents. More significantly, Hu was influenced by the internecine strife that enveloped his homeland in the late ’60s:
In the mainland there was a scholar of the Ming Dynasty named Wu Han, who wrote many articles about the Dōngchǎng. He was already very famous when I was young … [During the Cultural Revolution,] Wu Han was tied up and criticized … He was fixed with a dunce cap labeled “anti-Party, anti-socialist” … Among his crimes, they said his research on the Dōngchǎng was used to satirize the Communist Party. This piqued my interest, so I collected materials for study.
The opening scenes of Dragon Inn—a virtuous official dragged out for a public execution, other hapless victims forced to march while wearing abusive labels—are too similar to the ritualistic torments of the Cultural Revolution to be a coincidence. But Wu Han’s work on the Dōngchǎng was actually a veiled attack on the Kuomintang regime that governed the mainland before 1949, and which in 1967 still ran Taiwan as a martial-law state. Dragon Inn can therefore be read not merely as an allegorical critique of the mainland’s Communist rulers, but of the authoritarian style linking Chinese governments past and present.
Despite the new political emphasis, Dragon Inn was still heavily indebted to its predecessor. The first third of Come Drink with Me takes place in a tavern, and Dragon Inn builds on this by situating most of the action in and around the eponymous location—a microcosm of the jiānghú, the parallel world of Chinese martial-arts fiction. (The title should actually be translated as “Dragon Gate Inn,” but Hu—a former English teacher—didn’t notice the error until it was too late.) Dragon Inn thus pioneered the “inn film,” a wuxia subgenre that would be revisited by Hu and various other directors, including Teddy Yip (Shaw’s The Black Tavern) and Wong Kar-wai (Ashes of Time).
There are further echoes of Come Drink with Me, including an expert swordswoman (played by first-time actress Shang-kuan Ling-feng) who spends much of the story disguised as a man. Shang-kuan’s male disguise is scarcely more convincing than Cheng P’ei-p’ei’s, but such carping misses the point. Even moreso than Come Drink with Me, Dragon Inn traffics in archetypes instead of conventionally true-to-life characters. The heroine’s masculine disguise employs visual and performative cues from Chinese opera, which is rife with cross-dressing female characters (traditionally played by male actors). The soft-spoken but powerful warrior played by Union contract actor Shih Chün wears black makeup around his eyes, like the male leads (shēng) in Peking operas; the audience can thereby identify him as the hero long before his identity and motivations become clear. The scheming eunuch (Pai Ying) has what appears to be blush on his cheeks, echoing the red facepaint used for such characters on stage.
Hu’s reliance on archetypes reflects a lesson learned while making Come Drink with Me: “If the plots are simple, the stylistic delivery will be even richer.” Perhaps Hu felt that readily absorbable plots and characters would make his audience more open to formal experimentation. Whatever the case, Dragon Inn handily one-ups its predecessor in the radicalism of its fight scenes. Come Drink with Me had been criticized in some quarters for its occasional shénguài elements, like the use of “palm energy”; some traces remain in Dragon Inn, but Hu leans more on specifically cinematic strategies to invest his fighters with superhuman abilities. Elliptical editing allows Hu to “cheat” time and space, giving an almost subliminal sense of characters immediately closing a distance:
Later, the film’s climax offers a startling moment of Pai Ying leaping through trees, his motion implied by a series of whip pans to the left. These quick camera movements also (somewhat) mask the edit points, so that several shots play out as one:
Pai barely moves for most of the sequence, but the camera and editing effects more than compensate with their own kinetic energy.
Finally, Hu uses extremely short shots that provide only a partial view of an action, or occasionally reduce characters to abstract blurs. These were already present in Come Drink with Me, but Dragon Inn goes further, with some shots lasting no more than a quarter of a second. Hu thereby violates the cardinal rule of legibility that underpinned old-school action direction. But the effect is very different from the many contemporary films that use rapid cutting to dissolve their action scenes into “realistic” incoherence—Hu never leaves any doubt about basic questions like the combatants’ relative positions, even when they’re subject to change in the blink of an eye. Rather, Hu uses these quick cuts to give the impression of an action—what David Bordwell terms “the glimpse”—in place of the full monty, reinforcing the sense that these movements are beyond human perception. These techniques are not exclusive to Hu; whip pans, for example, are a visual cliché of kung-fu cinema, and films like King Boxer (1971) featured “trick shots” similar to Hu’s. But few other filmmakers have so skillfully exploited discontinuous editing to depict their characters’ martial skill.
As it turned out, Hu’s audience was happy to go along with his experiments, and Dragon Inn was another box-office smash. Hu now found himself with the unenviable task of topping two genre-redefining masterworks. Looking for source material, he seized upon “The Magnanimous Girl” by Pu Songling, the doyen of Qing Dynasty zhìguài xiǎoshuō (“tales of the strange”). In its original form, Pu’s story runs just over 1,800 characters—barely long enough for a movie of conventional length. So Hu expanded the narrative with an historical incident (the Dōngchǎng pursuing survivors of a palace coup) similar to that which inspired Dragon Inn. He then resolved to turn this story into a three-hour epic, and Union, despite severe misgivings, spared no expense to help him do so. Well before Hu had a filmable script, the production team outdid the impressive set for Dragon Inn by building the equivalent of a small town, then let it sit unused for six months to create a convincingly aged look. (Hu, who started his film career as a set decorator, was obsessive about set and costume design, and attached special importance to period authenticity.)
Despite the lengthy pre-production, Hu did not have a complete script when filming began in December 1967. His attempts to find the story as he went along—combined with the perfectionism he had brought to bear on all his films—led to a shoot that was still ongoing at the turn of the decade, with no end in sight. (Literally so: it was not until late 1970 that Hu finally came up with a satisfactory ending.) A panicky mood overtook Union and the film was split in two for the Taiwanese market, with part one premiering as Hu was still knee-deep in production.
This first part concludes with a stunning fight in a bamboo grove that took twenty-five days to shoot, in part because the location only received a few hours of sunlight each day. (For comparison, the whole of Come Drink with Me was shot in fifty days, and even that far exceeded industry norms.) The time was well worth it, as the scene contains some of the most striking displays of Hu’s creativity. For example, characters leaping huge distances are a staple of wuxia fiction, and obviously much more difficult to pull off on screen. Hu could’ve used wirework—a stage technique found in some of the earliest wuxia films from the ’20s—but he preferred carefully concealed trampolines, a method devised by Han Ying-chieh for Shaw’s martial-arts-tinged crime thriller The Swallow Thief (1961). In A Touch of Zen, Hu takes the technique to virtually ecstatic heights. Low-angle shots have actors diving right over the camera, and rapid-fire editing shows them crisscrossing across the frame one after another:
The bamboo-grove scene was repeated at the beginning of part two, giving a combined running time of 187 minutes. One way Hu uses this generous runtime is to play an extended game of misdirection. Nearly an hour passes before the first proper action scene, and the film to that point is dominated by the the unassuming letter-writer/portrait-painter Ku Sheng-tsai (Shih Chün, who cut a rather more imposing figure in Dragon Inn). Ku’s occupation, along with his “effeminate” appearance and mannerisms, marks him as a stereotypical young scholar, and when he becomes smitten with his new neighbor Yang Hui-chen (Hsü Feng, another Dragon Inn returnee), the plot develops broadly along the lines of the “scholar-beauty” (cáizǐ-jiārén) stories so popular in Pu Songling’s day. But there are occasional signs of intrigue—like the disguised Dōngchǎng agents who keep popping up around town—and it’s no great surprise when Yang reveals herself as the martial heroine of the film’s Chinese title (Xiá Nǚ, or roughly “The Knight-Errant Woman”).
This first act covers almost the entirety of Pu Songling’s story; from here on, Hu takes over. Ku helps Yang and her party stave off an assault by dozens of Dōngchǎng troops, and though it might seem absurd for the bookish Ku to act as combat adviser to such seasoned warriors, traditional Chinese scholarship put a strong emphasis on defensive tactics. Ku, who somewhat pretentiously lards his speech with classical quotations, sums up his strategy with an aphorism from the Three Kingdoms general Ma Su: “Psychological warfare is paramount (gōngxīn-wéishàng).” His planning pays off, and most filmmakers would’ve been content to end the story here. But Hu has much else in store, including another forest showdown that pushes his elliptical editing further than ever before by removing frames from the middle of a shot:
Exciting as all this is, the real climax is still to come. In a narrative twist as daring as any of his formal ones, Hu gives the story over to a group of Buddhist monks who have heretofore played only a minor role in the plot. The final scenes tip into psychedelia as Hu tries out solarized imagery, and what might’ve previously come off as a storytelling defect—the seeming irresolution of Yang Hui-chen, whose goals and motivations are hazily defined—is placed within the conflicting demands of “worldy concerns” (súniàn) and the Buddhist prescript of renunciation. Though the film ends with an instance of transcendence, Hu perceives this dialectically, emphasizing that renunciation cannot happen without súniàn. In following the Mahayana injunction to “save all living beings” (pǔdù-zhòngshēng), the monks insert themselves into secular affairs to let Yang and her party pursue enlightenment; in doing so, the abbot Hui Yüan (Roy Chiao) achieves his apotheosis.
Perhaps the only other film to so seriously treat Buddhist ideas within a big-budget genre framework is Resurrection of the Little Match Girl, Jang Sun-woo’s 2002 film maudit. Unlike Jang’s film, Hu’s was quickly embraced, thanks in part to a singular figure who links both movies. The French critic/programmer/filmmaker Pierre Rissient, who would much later play a small role in Little Match Girl, saw a two-hour edit of A Touch of Zen in Hong Kong and immediately recognized its achievement. He encouraged Hu to submit it to the 1975 Cannes Film Festival, which premiered the single-part, 180-minute director’s cut. It appropriately won the “Grand Prix de la Commission Supérieure Technique”—previously awarded to Li Han-hsiang’s rather more traditional The Magnificent Concubine (1962)—and made Hu a critics’ darling. Film Comment and Positif put Hsü Feng on their covers, while Tony Rayns profiled the director for Sight and Sound. A Touch of Zen also received wide festival play and introduced Hu to a new international arthouse audience. But by this point, the film’s commercial fate had long been sealed. The two-part version bombed on its Taiwanese release in 1970 and 1973, and the cut-down Hong Kong version lasted just one week in two theaters.
This box-office failure was the nail in the coffin for Hu’s relationship with Union, which was already on the skids after a dispute over profits from Dragon Inn. (Hu also purportedly barred Union from renting the Touch of Zen set to other productions, depriving the company of a much-needed revenue stream.) He left in 1971 and Union soon shuttered its production arm, then focused on its other businesses before closing altogether in 1978. Various explanations have been offered for A Touch of Zen’s underperformance, including its length and its moody atmosphere—unusually for a wuxia movie, much of the story takes place outdoors at night, and Hu had no problem shrouding his elaborate sets in darkness. The film was also a victim of bad timing: by the early ’70s, the wuxia revival had been challenged by new wave of kung-fu movies, with their testosterone-heavy characters, visceral revenge plots, and emphasis on hand-to-hand fighting over swordplay.
The Beijing-bred Hu claimed no affinity for kung-fu cinema, which he saw as an essentially Cantonese genre. But he was not blind to commercial realities. He inked an output deal with Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest, which was giving Shaw Brothers a run for its money with its globally-popular Bruce Lee movies. Hu’s two films with the company, The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) and The Valiant Ones (1975), were still squarely within his wuxia wheelhouse, though neither had the wild ambition of A Touch of Zen—The Fate of Lee Khan was set almost entirely in an inn, Hu’s last work in this mode. They also contained some concessions to prevailing trends. For both films, Hu employed a young actor and fight choreographer named Chu Yüan-lung—later known as Sammo Hung—to punch up the action with a greater variety of styles, including more unarmed combat. Neither film was a hit, but both have their followings. Some critics regard The Fate of Lee Khan as Hu’s masterpiece, and The Valiant Ones, as Hu’s most action-packed film, found admirers among kung-fu fans left cold by his earlier work.
Hu’s most productive decade came to an end with Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountains, which echoed the Buddhist themes of A Touch of Zen. Both films largely left the wuxia genre behind (though Raining preserves a martial-arts aspect), and as though to announce a new phase in his career, Hu—who had already gone from China to Hong Kong to Taiwan, and then back to Hong Kong—shot both films in South Korea, where his popularity stretched back to Come Drink with Me. (The film was released there through the auspices of Shin Sang-ok, an accomplished and eventually notorious director in his own right.) These “mountain” films were made back-to-back with the same crew and locations, in an attempt to produce two films for the price of one. But Hu unsurprisingly went over-budget and over-schedule, and the diptych was mainly ignored upon its release in 1979; it remains so to this day, though a recent restoration of Legend of the Mountain will hopefully go some way towards redressing the balance. It was a major blow to Hu’s already shaky reputation among financiers and producers, and one from which his career never truly recovered.
Hu kicked off the ’80s with two poorly-received comedies, The Juvenizer (1981) and All the King’s Men (1983), both made in Taiwan. He made a brief return to the martial-arts genre with his contribution to the 1983 omnibus The Wheel of Life, but in a sign of how far Hu’s fortunes had fallen, hardly anybody noticed. The wuxia film Swordsman (1990) might’ve been his full-fledged comeback, but he clashed with Tsui Hark, its famously hands-on producer, and left on the tenth day of shooting. It was finished by a team of other directors, including an uncredited Ann Hui (an assistant on The Valiant Ones). Hu’s last film, 1993’s Painted Skin, was shot in China on a relatively low budget. Adapted from another Pu Songling story (which Hu had originally hoped to film after Come Drink with Me), the result has flashes of visual brilliance, but it mostly comes off as an uninspired riff on the Chinese Ghost Story franchise.
All the while, Hu sought backing for unrealized pet projects. These included Zhang Yu Boils the Sea, an animated retelling of a Yuan Dynasty opera, and Dream of the Butterfly, based on Hu’s first stage production. The Battle of Ono, an epic about Chinese immigrants in the American West, came closest to fruition. Production was due to begin in 1998, with Chow Yun-fat possibly taking the lead role, but first Hu went under the knife for a routine angioplasty. Complications arose and the great director died in January 1997, less than a month after his old mentor Li Han-hsiang.
Nearly twenty years later, it’s easy to forget how badly received A Touch of Zen was on its original release. Today it looms large over his filmography, and many lament that he never equaled its achievement. (Pierre Rissient: “He never understood why A Touch of Zen was better than his other films.”) But its financial failure limited the scale of what Hu could attempt in the future, and if the director was somewhat chastened, he was hardly over-cautious. His subsequent work continued to stretch the limits of film form, like the madly spinning camera and crafty use of doubles in the climax of The Valiant Ones. Modern wuxia filmmakers are far more reluctant to pick up where A Touch of Zen left off, no matter how insistently they cite Hu’s influence. The most outsized of 21st-century wuxia films—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero—attempt nothing so transcendent as A Touch of Zen’s finale, and their actors skipping on treetops (via the wirework that Hu abjured) lack the purely cinematic invention of Hu’s action scenes.
There’s something faintly ironic about that, given Hu’s debt to Chinese stage traditions. But for Hu, only film could fully realize the promise of those traditions. As he told Tony Rayns, “I’m very interested in the Peking opera, and particularly its movement and action effects, although I think it’s difficult to express them adequately on stage … the physical limitations are too great.” The early film theorist Ricciotto Canudo held that cinema is not merely a distinct art but a “conciliation” of the others: music, sculpture, dance, etc. Crucial to this was what he called the cinema’s “symbolic aspect” of “velocity,” an idea that might well describe Hu’s development of his theatrical influences:
Velocity possesses the potential for a great series of combinations, of interlocking activities, combining to create a spectacle that is a series of visions and images tied together in a vibrant agglomeration, similar to a living organism … No theater could offer half the changes of set and location provided by the Cinematograph with such vertiginous rapidity, even if equipped with the most extraordinarily modern machinery.
Canudo’s formulation of cinema as the synthesis of all preceding arts has become a cliché. But whether Hu was aware of the claim or not, few filmmakers have worked so adamantly to prove it correct.
New restorations of Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen screened in August 2016 at the AFS Cinema. Both films are also available on DVD/Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and on streaming through the Criterion Channel.