Chinese cinema has produced a lot of great directors. The long list includes internationally respected artists such as Xei Fei, Wong Kar-Wai, and Shu Shuen Tong. These wonderful directors are associated with what Americans might call the arthouse tradition. But China also has a great tradition of action films that focus on martial artists. Many great directors have created these films, but I want to talk about just one in this post. His name is King Hu, and his work is ripe for discovery for both neophytes and experienced cinephiles.
King Hu was born in Beijing in 1932. He was the grandson of the governor of the Henan Province. He moved to Hong Kong in 1949, where he began working in the movie industry. He joined the legendary Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958, where he worked as everything from an assistant director to an actor. In 1966, the success of his martial arts film Come Drink with Me would embolden him to leave the Shaw Brothers Studio to make films in Taiwan. The first of those films was Dragon Inn, which was a big box office success. Another of his Taiwanese films was A Touch of Zen, which noted film historian/director Mark Cousins called “one of the most beautiful [films] ever made.” Ang Lee has cited Hu’s films as an influence on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
One of my favorite of Hu’s films is Come Drink with Me. A governor’s son is kidnapped by a group of bandits and held hostage. They want the governor to release their leader, but instead he sends his daughter to rescue his son. It helps that his daughter is an accomplished swordswoman known as Golden Swallow.
This movie is great at showing Hu’s eye for shot composition. He packs the frame with actors and exciting fights, but he does so in a zen-like manner that makes everything feel comprehensible. His fast tracking shots and zooms are a great counterpoint to his artfully calm static shots.
Hu is great at alternating tones. His fight scenes are intense, and he does not shy away from shocking acts of violence, but some of those fight scenes include moments of athleticism that do not feel hard-edged or gritty. Hu would have his actors jump on trampolines to get some of his more stylized effects. He even includes a musical number of sorts from a beggar and some child singers. This movie is a crowd-pleaser in the very best sense, as it makes use of a wide spectrum of emotions without forgetting to entertain.
King Hu’s films have influenced a lot of great filmmakers, such as Tsai Ming-liang and Quentin Tarantino. His shot composition and general use of mise-en-scène place him among the higher ranks of great directors. His films have the power to entertain and inspire both committed fans and neophytes who have never heard of him.
Jesse Pasternack is a junior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed two short films.