Writing in the Chicago Reader about Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915-16), Jonathan Rosenbaum enticingly called that ten-part silent serial “one of the supreme delights of film.” This assertation basically gets at how I feel about the extraordinary wuxia films that the Chinese director King Hu made in the 1960s and ‘70s and, more specifically, about the mind-blowing sequences of combat to be found in these elegant swordplay features. Though Hu is primarily known as an action filmmaker, his films aren’t exactly loaded with fight scenes — like a classical genre filmmaker, he makes us wait a long time for the pay-off. In his greatest features, hours pass before we witness a blade cut into flesh.
In Hu’s magnificent masterpieces A Touch of Zen (1971), The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), and Raining in the Mountain (1979), the first hour or two is taken up by an elaborate game of intrigue that the characters enact with one another — a pleasurable accumulation of heroes and villains (often in disguise) gathering at a remote location, communicating in mysterious codes. (These formally intelligent genre films sometimes remind me of Budd Boetticher’s great westerns of the ‘50s starring Randolph Scott.) The languid, stately rhythms of the set-up, paired with the curiosity and moodiness of Hu’s mobile camera, allow him to construct a series of mystical, almost psychedelic paeans to the natural world; at times, character and story seem in danger of dissolving away into sunlight.
When combat finally does, inevitably, arrive, it comes with great force. We understand the implications of this violent tangle of movements as being inextricably linked to the politics of the day. But there’s also something ineffably pleasurable about Hu’s action scenes; he often had his performers spring far into the sky using offscreen trampolines as launch pads. These are, in essence, dance films, works about the possibilities and beauties of the human body in motion, as much as any MGM musical by Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen. The most famous example of Hu’s sublime action choreography remains the bamboo forest fight scene in A Touch of Zen, but in two of his other finest works, the results are just as astonishing for the way they synthesize theatre, sportsmanship, and dance to create a kind of visual music.
The apex of Hu’s sense of rhythm, The Fate of Lee Khan, represents a kind of retread to the basic set-up of his earlier and more famous Dragon Inn (1967). After the financial disaster of his deeply weird, gothic epic A Touch of Zen, Hu returned to the more contained narrative structure of heroes gathering at a remote inn to eventually face-off against an extremely powerful villain. Like Dragon Inn, this one features a collective hero: a democratic, quasi-Hawksian group in which no one individual really takes the lead, as opposed to the serialized, individual heroes of Come Drink with Me (1966) and A Touch of Zen.
Though nearly all of the film’s action is contained within the inn setting, Lee Khan never feels claustrophobic in the way another single-set film might. Hu’s camera is so dynamic that he constantly seems to be rearranging our sense of the space, shifting the movements and alliances of his characters around like pieces in an elaborate board game. This long-form game inside the inn, which comprises roughly the first two-thirds of the film, is incredibly pleasurable due to the quick and almost Fordian touches of Hu’s characterizations (it often takes only a small gesture or two to tell us everything we need to know about a particular person), and due to the eye-popping beauty of Hu’s images. Despite the greatness of these early passages, Hu truly outdoes himself during the climactic fight scenes, which take up nearly the last third, in the open air outside of the inn. I simply think it’s his greatest fight sequence, and one of the crown jewels of action cinema. Human bodies in motion have rarely been put to such expressive ends.
Hu nearly leaves the wuxia genre behind altogether in the more austere Raining in the Mountain. In this film, shot concurrently with the similarly-titled but quite different Legend of the Mountain (1979), there’s barely any action at all, and in contrast to the single inn setting of The Fate of Lee Khan, most of the film is set outside amid glorious forests and open-air temples. Hu’s habitual interest in Buddhism, and its crucial relationship with a natural order in the world, become centrally important here. A comic heist caper, Raining in the Mountain is also a kind of experimental epic in which Hu constructs a series of long, droning rhythms as a central motif; the musical metaphor I made earlier becomes most apt here. The plot has to do with several different groups gathering at a temple and competing to obtain a precious Buddhist manuscript. Hu’s balanced long shots here invite comparison to the great CinemaScope melodramas of Vincente Minnelli, such as Some Came Running (1958) and Home from the Hill (1960), in which awesome spaces loom over the earthly desires of men like a great and haunting equalizer. The combat in this one is more brief and more scarring: these are action scenes in which one senses the painful consequences of the violence on display.
For decades, Hu’s wonderful contributions to the art of cinema were very difficult to see here in the west. In the last decade, this situation has improved tremendously, with most of his major films receiving restorations. (In the case of at least a couple of the films, these restorations were financed by Ms. Hsu Feng, the actress most closely associated with Hu’s work.) The Fate of Lee Khan, Raining in the Mountain, A Touch of Zen, and Dragon Inn are all currently available for streaming on the Criterion Channel, and if you’ve never had a chance to become acquainted with these classics of Chinese film, then you’ve got a lot of great cinema ahead of you!
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.