By now, it’s no secret among genre aficionados and admirers of Hong Kong cinema that Lau Kar-leung (1934-2013) was among the world’s finest practitioners of the martial arts film and, by extension, of the action film more broadly. Lau, a filmmaker of considerable artistic stature in his home country, is one of the more well-known filmmakers associated with Shaw Brothers, the prolific Hong Kong studio best known today for its production of the early films of the Chinese filmmaker King Hu. The belated embrace that Lau has received in the United States can perhaps be chalked up to the lamentable unavailability of his work in proper home video releases for many years (most of his films were tossed off in poorly executed pan-and-scan versions), but it is likely also due to their their status as “low brow” kung fu movies.
King Hu, who directed classics like Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1971), made wuxia epics, a particular kind of swordplay film, and he garnered critical respect in the West much earlier on than Lau did. Lau, also a martial arts filmmaker, made kung fu films, which are characterized by displays of physical, “hand-to-hand” combat, rather than by swordplay. The kung fu movie has never been thought of as high art by a cinephile community that so often champions the slow and prestigious films of Bergman and Tarkovsky, but I would argue that they deserve to be considered just as seriously by film buffs. After all, if we can embrace the westerns of John Ford and the musicals of Vincente Minnelli, why shouldn’t we be able to appreciate the similarly physical and robust pleasures of Lau’s kung fu films?
If anything, Lau’s cinema arguably comes closer to approximating the spirit of Minnelli than it does to that of King Hu; both Lau and Minnelli can be regarded as filmmakers who are concerned with cinema’s capacity to document bodies moving through space. In a Minnelli film, this is done through the choreography of dance and the performers’ constant emphasis on expressive forms of motion (think of Fred Astaire in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” sequence, near the end of The Band Wagon). In a Lau film, this is done through the no less elegantly choreographed fight sequences. Unlike Hu, who often cuts directly from the beginning of a particular movement to its logical end point, Lau likes to film his fight sequences in extended long takes, rigorously documenting the physicality of his performers. In this regard, Lau renders the actions and movements of his actors into elements of formal style. This aesthetic emphasis on process is part of what I found so exciting upon my recent viewing of Lau’s 1979 masterpiece, Dirty Ho.
The plot of Dirty Ho is intensely minimal, being stripped down to the bare essentials. The film follows a disreputable young thief (the “dirty ho” of the title, played by Wong Yu) who is hired by a prince (Lau’s regular collaborator Gordon Liu) as a protective bodyguard. Liu’s prince is being targeted by his own brothers, a string of villainous eunuchs who want to kill him because they believe he will be named his father’s sole heir to royal power. Whereas King Hu is deeply invested in the political history of China, Lau’s narratives usually just function as skeletons that contain and add meaning to the fight scenes. One thing that is striking to me about the fight sequences in Dirty Ho is that they are almost all characterized by the notion of surrogates and substitutions. During an early duel between Wong and Liu in a brothel, Liu uses a young woman as a kind of shield or surrogate for himself in the fight. He stands behind her, controlling her limbs and dictating all of her movements; he fights through her, rather than directly.
Many of the scenes in the film deal with this strange practice of fighting by proxy. I haven’t seen enough classical Hong Kong action films to know if this is a typical convention of them or not, but for my own viewing it served as a kind of deeply weird inverse of Lau’s cinematic approach: the intensity and straight forwardness of Lau’s extreme long takes made for strange bedfellows with his performers’ tendency to be indirect, to hide behind other people and put their lives at risk. It’s this kind of cowardly attitude toward the consequences of physical violence that make Lau’s action cinema more dire in tone than other examples of the genre that I have seen.
The textural quality of the images in Dirty Ho are characterized by an aesthetic lusciousness that is closely bound up with its studio artifice. The film is full of deliberately fake-looking sets and unnatural colors; very few of the scenes appear to have been shot on location. The film is a kind of shotgun marriage between pictorial falseness and quasi-Bazinian realism. Here again, I was reminded of Minnelli. The film’s overt indexical quality, its capacity to faithfully record physical gestures from beginning to end, is precisely what shapes and gives form to Lau’s editing rhythms; he doesn’t cut to the next shot until his performer has completed a particular form of motion that they are in the process of enacting.
In this regard, Dirty Ho can be read as an abstract social document about martial artists playing around and displaying exertions of physical strength on a movie set. On the other hand, the film’s lush and oneiric images, which are perhaps more closely related to the artistic decisions of the Shaw Brothers studio than they are to Lau’s directorial cadences, are completely at odds with this creative strategy. In this regard, the film refuses to be held down by a singular reading on the part of the viewer. Just when we think we’ve gathered our bearings and have a handle on what Dirty Ho is up to, Lau pulls the rug out from under us, forcing us to constantly reassess our own relationship to film form and to shocking displays of violence.
King Hu’s Dragon Inn screened at the IU Cinema back in 2017 as part of the China Remixed series. Another Chinese martial arts film, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor and the Assassin, screened there earlier this year as part of the President’s Choice Film Series.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He studies literature, and has been a habitué of the local film revival scene since he moved to Bloomington a few years ago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.