The Asian martial arts film is central to the history of cinema as an art. Not long ago, that statement would have been regarded as reckless. Now video games showcase martial arts, and fantasy adventure films boast dragons and flying swordsmen. More deeply, the tradition running from 1920s Japanese and Chinese swordplay films and continuing through the postwar work of Akira Kurosawa and Hong Kong directors has explored powerful approaches to film aesthetics—the way movies are staged and cut, the way sound enhances bursts of movement. In this collective exploration, no filmmaker has been more distinctive and exhilarating than King Hu.
Born in Beijing in 1932, King Hu (Hu Jin-quan) migrated to Hong Kong and become an actor at the growing Shaw Brothers studio. He graduated to directing just before the studio decided to launch a movie cycle that would determine the course of his career. With the “Action Era,” a 1965 publicity piece announced, Shaw Brothers would update the wuxia pian, the “film of heroic chivalry.” Films featuring knights-errant and vigorous swordplay had been a mainstay of Chinese cinema since the silent era. During the 1950s, Hong Kong’s Cantonese-language companies had developed fantasy wuxia pian, in which warriors both male and female battled monsters, sought hidden treasure, dabbled in black magic, and displayed astonishing fighting skills, including flying. But the upcoming Shaw cycle would “break with the conventional stagy shooting methods and introduce new techniques to attain a higher level of realism, particularly in the fighting sequences.”
Two films of early 1966 laid the groundwork. Chang Cheh’s Tiger Boy was followed quickly by Hu’s Come Drink with Me, which became one of the top-grossing Shaw titles of the year. Early on, the stark differences between Chang and Hu revealed the breadth of options in the new wuxia film. Chang promoted what he called “staunch masculinity.” Films like One-Armed Swordsman (1967) centered on heroes undergoing wounding ordeals that would test their devotion to their master and their mates. Through flamboyant costumes, copious gore, and sadomasochistic punishments, Chang’s heroes find redemption in bloody brotherhood. Hu was more of a classical storyteller. He followed tradition in presenting pure male and female warriors who protect the innocent and battle political corruption. Aesthetically, though, he was far from conservative. While Chang exploited the power of standard staging and cutting, Hu was boldly experimental, even eccentric, in the way he shot and assembled his scenes.
Working on Come Drink with Me, Hu realized, as he would later recount, that “if the plots are simple, the stylistic delivery will be even richer.” Visual design was very important to him; he drew every shot in advance and supplied the cast and crew with photocopies. Declaring himself ignorant of the martial arts (“Kung fu, Shaolin tales—I don’t understand anything about that”), he derived his films’ combat techniques from Beijing opera and compared his fight scenes to dances. He lavished attention on his set pieces, for example spending twenty-five days shooting the bamboo-forest maneuvers in A Touch of Zen (1971). Whatever his other preoccupations—Zen, China’s history—Hu was an unabashed aesthete.
Indeed, his concern with artistic quality led him away from Shaw and toward more independent production. Union Film, a Taiwanese start-up studio, welcomed him just a few years into his directing time with Shaw. And after the success of his first picture at Union, Dragon Inn (1967), he was permitted to build a vast town set for his dream project, A Touch of Zen. Hu wrote the script and meticulously designed the sets and costumes. Because of the film’s length, Union decided to distribute it in two installments, released a year apart. It failed in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong, a single, two-and-a-half-hour version played for only one week on two screens. Not until the full three-hour version was revived for a screening at the 1975 Cannes Film Festival did A Touch of Zen gain wide attention. Winning a prize for technical achievement, the film brought Chinese martial arts cinema to a Western audience.
Hu’s films accept some standard plot materials of wuxia tales. There will be fights, of course, as well as disguises, pursuits, puzzling messages, and power struggles between idealistic knights and cruel officials. In the combat, warriors can execute gigantic jumps (“weightless leaps”) and wield “palm power”; a single smack can send an adversary staggering back for yards. Yet Hu also remade the tradition. He enjoyed tying story lines together in a single locale, often an inn where fighters converge and scheme. He had his women warriors disguise themselves as young men.
For A Touch of Zen, he added a supernatural dimension by grafting a swordplay saga onto a classic Chinese tale of a decrepit mansion inhabited by a mysterious, beautiful stranger. I can’t think of another wuxia pian of the period that postpones its first combat for this long—nearly an hour. Instead of fighting, we get exposition showing sharp-featured Gu Sheng-zhai’s daily routine, as he opens his shop and bears up under his mother’s insistence that he find a wife and a good job. Interwoven with that are darker hints—a doctor and his assistant who seem to be hiding something, a group of wandering monks, a blind fortune-teller, a suspicious swordsman scouting the village, and above all, mysterious noises issuing from a neighboring mansion within the abandoned fortress.
This long opening not only builds up curiosity but also asks us to enjoy the visual values of Hu’s sumptuous costuming, chiaroscuro sets, and widescreen compositions full of graceful character movement. In one shot, the mysterious stranger dodges out of sight. Why? The monks’ saffron robes ease into the frame as a subdued burst of color in the pale street landscape, setting up a motif that reaches fruition, ninety minutes later, when golden blood streaks down a sash.
After Gu tumbles into the arms of the lovely, frowning Yang Hui-zhen, the plot shifts up a gear. The stranger is Ouyang Nian, a disguised army commander. Once he has discovered Yang, the two plunge into combat, slashing through patches of tall goldenrod. Ouyang flees, and only then, via two flashbacks, are we and Gu treated to backstory. Yang’s father, an honorable civil servant, has been tortured to death, and his family is condemned. With the aid of two generals, Shi and Lu, she has escaped, and the men have taken up new identities in the village. Ouyang came to kill Yang at the orders of Eunuch Wei.
The story is simple, but the treatment is complex. No Shaw film would have delayed the basic exposition so cunningly. And no Shaw film would have presented heroic swordplay through the eyes of a secondary character. Yet by building the plot around Gu, Hu creates a protagonist-as-witness. Gu starts off as an ineffectual, eager-to-please scholar dazed by mysterious events. He becomes more active when he proposes a complex ambush of Wei’s forces, but soon he reverts to his passive state and is nearly forgotten as other characters take center stage. Hu’s episodic story structure recalls the shifting-protagonist tale common in classic Chinese literature.
After the glorious fight in the bamboo forest—the film’s most famous sequence, reworked by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—the original first part ended. Part two doesn’t have such a clear-cut arc, perhaps because Hu was still planning and shooting it when the first part was released. Yet there is no reason to complain: the new installment consists of ever more dazzling set pieces.
Ouyang dies from Yang’s blows, so his mission passes to a second antagonist, Men Da, who marches his men to the village. Gu booby-traps the fort, and his nighttime guerrilla tactics wipe out the invaders. (At the beginning, Gu thought the fort was haunted, and now he fills it with fake but scary ghosts.) Once Yang and Shi withdraw to the safety of Abbot Hui-yuan’s monastery, the film could end. But the tenacious Gu sets out in pursuit of Yang, and though he never finds her, he accepts the infant son she has borne in her absence.
The film could end here, too, but Gu is now sought by Wei’s forces. The abbot dispatches Shi and Yang to watch over him, just as a virtually superhuman adversary appears. This is Xu Xian-chun, played by the film’s martial arts choreographer, Han Ying-jie, splendid and savage in his red robes. He initiates a twenty-minute tag-team bout in a grove. First Shi and Yang take on Xu’s sidemen, then Xu gets the better of our couple, and then Abbot Hui-yuan intervenes to trounce Xu through serene but massive strength.
But Xu isn’t finished. On a bleak, rocky stretch of ground, he treacherously stabs the abbot before succumbing to hallucinatory visions. A mystic transmogrification occurs, leaving Shi and Yang transfixed by the appearance of the Buddha. Gu, forgotten for a half hour’s running time, is shown kneeling in a distant locale, as if he too saw the apparition. A film that began from the awestruck viewpoint of a humble scholar ends with our entering the mind of a ruthless killer blasted by the image of spiritual peace.
Like many Hong Kong–trained directors, Hu stages his conversations with a restrained dynamism that could teach lessons to contemporary Hollywood. But of course, his “stylistic delivery” is at its richest in his fights. After Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was screened for directors at Shaw Brothers, every martial arts movie had to bloody itself at least a little bit, and our director obliges. And more than Chang Cheh did, he followed the Japanese technique of using long lateral tracking shots as a hero sliced a swath through a string of opponents, felling them one by one. But he also explored other options. Abstract, balletic compositions bloom on the anamorphic screen as weightless leaps are enhanced by trampolines hidden in the sets. Characters react to one another by jerking their heads or snapping their eyes sideways, as if they were auditioning for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. This kabuki effect is heightened by thrumming percussion, often with the flavor of Beijing opera.
Most famously, Hu is a daring cutter. The smoothness of his dialogue scenes gives way to the majestic disjunctions of the fights; sometimes the editing stretches time, sometimes it pinches it. Some shots are only six frames long—a quarter of a second on the screen. The effect is to make these warriors’ prowess all the more astonishing: the camera can’t keep up with them. In the bamboo-forest sequence, Shi and Yang pop in and out from every side, scampering, hopping, swooping, dive-bombing. After a flurry of close-ups, a sudden long shot forces us to hunt for the characters in crannies of the frame. Xu’s sudden attack on the abbot is rendered in a jump cut with the force of a fist blow: leaping from far back in the shot, Xu suddenly drops into the foreground, nearly in our faces. Here, cinematic technique amplifies the staccato force of disciplined, near miraculous physical action.
King Hu proved to be one of the great directors of the 1970s. His later films played wondrous variants on his favorite plot devices and visual and auditory techniques. There’s The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), whose inn fights resemble color-coordinated Stanley Donen numbers; The Valiant Ones (1975), virtually an anthology of ways of staging and shooting combat; and Raining in the Mountain (1979), with intrigue and hide-and-seek swirling through a Korean monastery. But A Touch of Zen will remain Hu’s official masterpiece: a repository of his unique cinematic artistry and further proof that Asian action cinema is one of the glories of world film culture.
David Bordwell is the author of Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment (second edition available at his site). Other essays and blog entries on King Hu’s films can also be found on that site.