King of Pain

Nick Pinkerton on “All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu” at BAMcinématek

Tsai Ming-liang, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

TSAI MING-LIANG’S Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2004) takes place at the Fu-Ho Grand, a leaky, waterlogged Taipei movie palace on the night of its last-ever screening, which happens to be King Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967) a landmark in the genre called wuxia pian. (Fantasy-tinged martial arts movies, usually based on traditional stories.) Save for some scratchy shots from the film’s prologue and credits, you see nothing of Dragon Inn in Tsai’s film, though its soundtrack is a constant presence—the intensifying clack of a kuaiban before a charge; the rustling of silk garments which accompanies combatants taking flight; the glossy ring of slapping swords. If Goodbye, as Tsai has often said, bids farewell to a certain kind of communal cinematic experience, then King Hu’s cinema represents for him the quintessence of what that experience could offer. He’s not alone.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn plays as part of BAMcinématek’s twelve-day, fifteen-film series “All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu,” along with nine films directed by Hu between 1966 and 1993, and a selection of films by other directors that he was influenced by (Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai) or influenced himself (Tsui Hark’s 1995 The Blade). Tsai and Hu would seem on the surface to be strange bedfellows. Tsai’s cinema has been moving—or rather not moving—in an ever more static, meditative direction for years. The camera is virtually still in Goodbye, and his latest, Journey to the West, is a series of tableaux in which star Lee Kang-sheng, in a Buddhist monk’s robe, inches his way across the city of Marseilles for fifty-six minutes. Hu by contrast is a dynamo, remembered for jump-starting the wuxia, imbuing it with a new, barreling kineticism.

Born Jinquan Hu in Beijing, 1932, this distinctly pre-Revolutionary aesthete developed a love for Peking Opera, and honed his talent with pen and brush—his mother was a traditional painter—at the American Methodist–run Beijing Academy. During the Chinese Civil War, Hu went to Hong Kong, and was stranded there after the Communist victory in 1949. Plying his talents as a poster designer, Hu attracted the attention of Great Wall Film Company, who hired him as a set dresser, though he would spend most of his apprenticeship period at the Yonghua studio as an actor, and it was in this capacity that he was hired by the Shaw Brothers, with an option of becoming a director. Hu trained under Li Han Hsiang, a specialist in huangmei diao, films made in a traditional operetta form popular in the Chinese provinces. BAM is playing Li’s The Love Eterne (1963), a film on which Hu was credited as co-director, whose enormous success launched him into directing under the auspices of producer Run Run Shaw, who died in Hong Kong this January at age 106.

Come Drink with Me (1966) was Hu’s second credit as a solo director, his first crack at the wuxia genre, and the beginning of a legendary run of filmmaking. The opening, an ambush on a palanquin and its guards crossing a harsh, hilly landscape by a band of brigands, was athletic, visceral, and gory in a way that audiences hadn’t seen before, and they responded with mad enthusiasm. The Shaw Bros. wuxia had previously been studio-bound and candy-colored, nearer to the huangmei diao than this film, dirt-seamed and perfectionist in its period detail. It’s no exaggeration to say that Come Drink with Me was to the wuxia what The Wild Bunch (1969) was to the Western.

After the success of Come Drink with Me, Hu left Hong Kong for Taiwan, where he would be based until moving to California in 1984—though Raining in the Mountain and Legend of the Mountains, both released 1979, were shot back-to-back over fifteen months in South Korea. The 1980s were hard on Hu—the only work from this period in the series is the Tang Dynasty–set All the King’s Men (1983)—but in the early ’90s, never ceasing to dream of new movies, he briefly returned to Hong Kong to mount a comeback. Chinese Ghost Story cash-in Painted Skin (1993), Hu’s first film shot in mainland China, was also his last film. He died in 1997, while preparing an American project about the building of the transcontinental railroad, which was to have been produced by John Woo.

It’s a great loss that we will never see the American West as Hu would have shot it. His compositional genius is evident in every aspect of his work, but never so indisputable as when he’s dealing with landscape. Hu is responsible for some of the most ravishing establishing shots in cinema, and even his most frenetic films are distinguished by lyrical breaks, including several opening Overtures that feature travelers en route to a destination, dwarfed by the terrain they are crossing.

King Hu, A Touch of Zen, 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 200 minutes.

Come Drink with Me established the template for a typical Hu story. A group of strangers gather together at an out-of-the-way locale, each with their own hidden motives for being there, connected by secret allegiances. While it’s impossible to say too much about Hu’s filming of action, equal attention is due to the facility with which, through camera movement, division of the frame into compartments of action, and composition in depth, he keeps the various moving parts of his story before a viewer, seemingly effortlessly. In Raining in the Mountain, the setting is a mountaintop temple in the midst of a succession controversy. In Come Drink, Dragon Inn, and The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), which form a rough trilogy, it’s a roadside inn. BAM’s program includes Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), which features the prototype of the Hu inn in the cavernous, Frank Lloyd Wright–esque gambling saloon where much of the film lays its scene. (Hu also has Ray’s knack, seen in later films, of dynamically mapping architecture with the widescreen frame—see in particular the opening of Raining in the Mountain.) Johnny Guitar is also a relevant pairing because the saloon is run by Joan Crawford’s hard-nosed Vienna, a woman more brassy and assertive than the movie’s eponymous male lead. HK cinema of the period was rife with cross-dressing women filling male roles—see Betty Loh Ti and Ivy Ling Po in The Love Eterne—while Hu’s cinema is filled with honest-to-God warrior-women, including Dragon Inn swordswoman Polly Shangguang Lingfeng; Hsu Feng in Hu’s three-hour, Cannes-honored opus A Touch of Zen (1971); the sextet of fighting femmes, including a young Angela Mao, in The Fate of Lee Khan; and the prototype of them all, Cheng Pei-pei’s drag king Golden Swallow in Come Drink with Me. (Ang Lee would later cast Cheng in his extended citation of Hu’s cinema, 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which also plays BAM.)

Now let’s talk about the fights. Hu’s contribution to wuxia was highlighting the actual physical skills of his performers, minimizing the magical superpowers on which the genre had then recently been reliant. (You might say Hu was a revolutionary traditionalist long before the current CGI vs. Analog effects debate.) With the aid of Peking opera–trained fight coordinators, including Han Ying-Chieh and, on The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones, an uncredited Sammo Hung, Hu charted intricate choreographies which play out just at the edge of the mind’s ability to comprehend. Often a single scrolling take will contain a swinging-for-the-fences hack-and-parry, an aerial kick and somersault, an opening flurry and a closing retreat, all in a matter of seconds. These acrobatics are extraordinary feats in their own right but, lest we forget, in every single one of these fights there is an additional unseen participant who is in fact incredibly cumbersome and obtrusive, but has been made to seem impossibly light as a feather: the camera and its operator. Seen as they are meant to be seen—save Raining on the Mountain, BAM’s entire series is in 35 mm—Hu’s set pieces provide an endorphin dump that can only be rivaled by the élan of Hollywood’s best musical numbers. And music is also a key element of Hu’s total cinema, blending traditional Chinese opera and Western influences, both low (spaghetti Western) and high (I swear I heard a snatch of Debussy’s “La cathédrale engloutie” in Dragon Inn.)

Hu emphasized his performers’ real prowess, but that doesn’t mean that he bore a strict allegiance to the physical facts of the world. He bent time and space as it suited him, loved extending the hangtime of a leap into flight by suturing together a string of shots of bodies in midair, cutting from a close-up blow to a wide view in which the struck party lands an impossible distance away—all pre wire fu!—as well as whipcrack cuts that hurtle between the issuance of an order to its carrying out. Hu was an exceedingly playful director, his films full of games of skill, as well as tricks, stratagems, and tactics: see the series of contests that’s a highlight of The Valiant Ones or, in the same film, the battle plan laid out on a Go board.

Synthesizing disparate innovations from pan-Asian action filmmaking—hence the presence of Japanese chanbara Seven Samurai in BAM’s series—Hu created the new gold standard. It is safe to say that subsequent wuxia, or martial arts films generally, would not look or move quite like they do without him. What has largely been discarded, however, is the pedagogic intent in Hu’s entertainments. He was an adherent to Chan Buddhism and, beginning with Come Drink with Me, increasing with A Touch of Zen, and peaking with the Mountain films, his faith was an important part of his narratives. In this respect, the ascetic Tsai Ming-liang is as much an inheritor to Hu’s tradition as the flamboyant Tsui Hark, with one pursuing his spiritual seriousness and the other his physical buoyancy.

This infectious buoyancy is important to note, for even appreciative views of Hu from the West have tended to exaggerate the degree to which lack of familiarity with Chinese religion and folklore will hinder narrative comprehension and enjoyment of Hu’s films. (The answers are “Very little” and “Not at all.”) When it comes to basking in the golden reign of King Hu, the only prerequisite that I can see is that one must have a pulse.

“All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu” runs June 6th–17th at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.