Born in Beijing in 1932, King Hu moved to Hong Kong at the age of eighteen and started work as an illustrator for film advertisements. In 1954, he made his acting debut in the film Humiliation for Sale, and in 1958, through director Li Han-hsiang, he joined the Shaw Brothers studio as an actor, screenwriter, and assistant director. In 1963, Hu was first assistant director for Li on the film The Love Eterne, and the following year he made his directorial debut with The Story of Sue San. In 1966, Hu released his first wuxia film, Come Drink with Me, which was a major factor in the rise of the genre.
Dragon Inn (1967) was a blockbuster, setting box-office records in Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, and proved to have a broad and lasting influence. Its follow-up would not hit screens until 1971, after three years of filming. A Touch of Zen took the Technical Grand Prize award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, propelling Hu onto the world stage, and its bamboo forest duel became a classic scene and an indelible contribution to cinema.
Hu’s 1981 film The Juvenizer—entirely self-funded and self-shot—was his first comedy, and his only work set in the present. After The Wheel of Life (1983), Hu stepped out of the limelight until 1990’s The Swordsman, for which he made a comeback at the request of the younger wuxia director Tsui Hark. Hu was involved in the costuming, styling, and set design for the film, including setting up a massive set in Xitou, Taiwan. In 1992, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Hong Kong Film Directors’ Guild. The following year saw the release of what turned out to be his final film, Painted Skin. In 1997, while about to begin work on a film about the Chinese immigrant workers who built the transcontinental railroads of America, Hu died while undergoing heart surgery.
KING HU: FROM SHAW BROTHERS TO DRAGON INN
Though he would become the most influential director of wuxia movies in history, King Hu, born Hu Jinquan in Beijing, came to movies accidentally. An aficionado of Peking opera, comic books, and martial arts novels, Hu first became involved in the world of filmmaking when an acquaintance recommended him for a set decorating job at Hong Kong’s Great Wall Studio in the early fifties. Soon enough, Hu found himself acting in films as well. In 1958, he joined Shaw Brothers, Hong Kong’s premier martial arts film studio; founded in 1924, the studio had by this point become an action film empire, knocking out one fighting film after another with regularity and ease.
Though Hu started out as an actor at Shaw Brothers, his contract gave him the option of becoming a director. After cutting his teeth as an assistant director on such classics as Li Han-hsiang’s musical romance The Love Eterne (1963), he made his directorial debut in 1965 with the patriotic, anti-Japanese war film Sons of the Good Earth, in which he also starred. It was his third directorial effort, Come Drink with Me (1966), however, that proved revolutionary. Not only was this Hu’s first wuxia film, it was also a newly propulsive and realistically violent example of the genre, and it so captivated audiences that it revitalized the form, giving the generally artificial-looking, candy-colored Shaw Brothers productions an aesthetic shot in the arm.
Hu’s style, pioneered in Come Drink with Me, wasn’t just surface grittiness. He imbued his action with a compositional depth and maturity; focused intently on the physicality of his performers, rather than relying on special effects; used the camera as a balletic partner to the actors; sculpted his fight scenes keenly through editing rather than letting them play out in single takes; cast women in stronger, more central roles than the studio had before; and conveyed a palpable sense of Buddhist precepts.
For all these reasons, Come Drink with Me was a revelatory wuxia film, and the foundational work for Hu’s subsequent masterpieces Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971). But Shaw Brothers wasn’t impressed with this new brand of wuxia, and his relationship with studio head Run Run Shaw became frayed. With his newfound success and artistic confidence, however, Hu could write his own ticket, and after Come Drink with Me, the director left Shaw Brothers to make his own films independently in Taiwan, which had a smaller, more flexible and open-minded film industry.
The innovative Dragon Inn, produced with Sha Rongfeng for their short-lived partnership in the Union Film Company, set the template for nearly all wuxia films to come. A Ming dynasty—era tale of political exile and violent intrigue set in wide-open Taiwan exteriors, the film, with its aesthetic control and spiritual core, was evidence that the genre had broken decisively from its pulp past.
KING HU: A TOUCH OF FREEDOM
After a long stint at Hong Kong’s historic Shaw Brothers studio, which specialized in martial arts pictures, King Hu had decided to strike out on his own. His 1966 Shaw production Come Drink with Me had been an enormous commercial and artistic triumph for him but had proved too radical—in the realistic violence of its carefully orchestrated action—for the studio. So he had left Hong Kong for Taiwan, where he made his first major independent success, 1967’s Dragon Inn, with producer Sha Rongfeng, for their short-lived studio the Union Film Company.
Hu’s next film would prove even more ambitious. A Touch of Zen (1971) is the kind of gargantuan production that only an artist high on newfound freedoms would dream of making. A three-hour production with a richly woven plot, structural complexity, and dazzling visual experimentation, A Touch of Zen is the director’s grandest vision.
Starting as a story about a fugitive noblewoman (played by Hsu Feng, in one of the strong female roles typical of the director) hiding out in a village after she and her family were marked for extermination by the corrupt Ming dynasty government, the film builds into a spiritual action epic about the uneasy coexistence of violence and Buddhist principles. With its mystical beauty, exquisite photography, and moving, ambiguous depiction of faith, A Touch of Zen is a work of metaphysical genius, Hu’s clearest statement of faith and ultimate visual expression of the seemingly unfilmable concepts of Zen Buddhism. It is especially renowned for its radically disjunctive editing and dexterous camera movements during fight scenes. Here more than ever, one can feel the influence of the Chinese opera on Hu’s action cinema. It wholly reflects his ideas about the relationship between film and viewer; as he once said, “The audience is the camera. I don’t want the audience to sit and watch, I want it to move.”
With its three-hour-plus running time, A Touch of Zen offers many characters and plot strands, and it was, in fact, originally released in two parts. The first half, which climaxes with the most famous action sequence of Hu’s career—a gravity-defying, startlingly edited battle set in a bamboo forest—was released in 1970, while the second half was released in 1971. The two parts were subsequently combined into one title for international audiences, as Hu originally intended, and it has mostly been presented this way ever since.
A Touch of Zen was the first wuxia film to make a mark on the Western art-cinema world, screening to acclaim at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival and winning the Technical Grand Prize (awarded for “superior technique”) there. Just as Pather Panchali had brought Indian cinema to an international audience at Cannes twenty years earlier, A Touch of Zen was the breakthrough for a particular strand of Eastern cinema, convincing an audience that had previously been skeptical, or at least disinterested, of the artistic value and singular beauty of the best martial arts moviemaking.
Despite the film’s success at Cannes, however, it was an expensive disappointment domestically, which made it difficult for Hu to raise money for future projects—certainly for anything on such a scale. After 1975, Hu would focus on Buddhist- or supernatural-themed dramas. Though he continued to work in Taiwan, the movies being made by the ascendant daring filmmakers of the Taiwanese New Wave marked his work as dated. Nevertheless, Hu, who died in 1997 after complications following heart surgery, remains among the most influential filmmakers of all time, inspiring directors from Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou to Tsui Hark and Tsai Ming-liang.
1953 Empty Eyes (Il sole negli occhi)
1964 The Story of Sue San
1965 Sons of the Good Earth
1966 Come Drink with Me 1967 Dragon Inn
1970 Anger (part of the omnibus film Four Moods)
1971 A Touch of Zen
1973 The Fate of Lee Khan
1975 The Valiant Ones
1979 Raining in the Mountain
1979 Legend of the Mountain
1981 The Juvenizer
1983 All the King’s Men
1983 The Wheel of Life
1990 The Swordsman
1993 Painted Skin