King of Wuxia is the Definitive Documentary on Director King Hu
We review King of Wuxia, the definitive documentary about the life and career of director King Hu, who defined the wuxia movie as we know it, which launches the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest in New York City.
King of Wuxia is a new documentary about the career and life of director King Hu, who singlehandedly redefined the wuxia genre in Cinema when he made the seminal Come Drink with Me for Shaw Brothers in 1966. He transformed a movie genre from studio quickies to a more prestigious and lucrative level, in full colour and widescreen Shawscope. He then upped sticks to Taiwan, making five more movies – A Touch of Zen, Dragon Gate Inn (which kicked off the wuxia boom in Taiwanese Cinema), The Fate of Lee Khan, and the Valiant Ones – the refined his style and art. He was the first auteur of wuxia, in charge of designing, orchestrating, directing, and editing his movies. He then made Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in South Korea. All these movies were masterpieces. If any Chinese director deserves a documentary, it's him.
King of Wuxia Part One: The Art of Filmmaking
King of Wuxia is divided into two parts: the first part is two hours long and charts his creative peak from Come Drink With Me (whose original Chinese title means "The Great Drunken Swordsman") to Raining in the Mountain, which effectively goes all the way to 1980. King Hu is no longer with us, but nearly all his key collaborators are still alive and interviewed extensively throughout the documentary. They include his actors, ex-wife who wrote his scripts, designer, cinematographer, and former producer (and now critic and scholar) Shu Kei. Acclaimed Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ann Hui (who worked as his assistant before she became a director), and Sammo Hung are also on hand to talk about his vast influence on them and the entire industry.
The documentary is not mere hagiography praising King Hu. His collaborators break down exactly how he composed his shots, his choreography of the action, his literary and artistic influences in his design and storytelling, and how he pioneered the Eisensteinian method of editing wuxia fight scenes to create dynamic pace and action. He was never influenced by kung fu or martial arts but integrated Peking Opera into his fight sequences. Part, One of King of Wuxia is virtually a film school masterclass in shooting and editing movies, including Wuxia movies. That alone already makes it invaluable apart from King Hu.
King of Wuxia Part Two: A Career Thwarted
Part two of King of Wuxia is a more somber affair, covering King Hu's thwarted attempts to make films after 1980. Tsui Hark set up Swordsman, an adaptation of Jin Yong's classic wuxia novel "The Proud, Smiling Wanderer," for him to direct in 1989. Still, the moneymen vetoed King Hu, demanding a fast-paced blockbuster instead of the artful, austere style that defines a King Hu film – they didn't want a King Hu film! – forcing Hark to take over as producer and replace him with action choreographer Ching Siu Tung. King Hu and his entire regular production team were replaced, and maybe only one shot of his made it into the final film.
King Hu made Painted Skin, an adaptation of a famed Chinese ghost story, in 1992, but it's not discussed in the documentary. He moved to California and made a meagre salary writing literary articles. He invited a 19-year-old waitress to move in with him. She became his personal assistant, taking care of his administration work and looking after him, a relationship at which some people looked askance. He continued to create and research and wrote a script called The Battle of Ono, a saga about Chinese coolies who came to America to build the railways and ended up battling racists when they tried to prospect for gold. He was convinced this film could change the perception of the Chinese in America, and John Woo was all set to produce it for him to direct. It was to be his next masterpiece. Producer Sarah Pillsbury discussed hiring playwright David Henry Hwang to write the screenplay. It would be an ambitious, epic project.
Unfortunately, he died of complications during an angioplasty in Taiwan. It was over. How many documentaries about great filmmakers have you seen where his collaborators still openly weep over the loss of him? They loved him. They mourn the loss of the man and the artist, the films he never got to make. King Hu made eight films, seven of which are masterpieces—quality over quantity.
King of Wuxia fills a huge gap in one's understanding of Cinema History, Chinese Cinema, the wuxia genre, and King Hu. It's the centerpiece of the 10th Old School Kung Fu Fest in New York City and an essential watch before you watch the other films by King Hu and the other directors' works at the festival. Hopefully, it'll be shown again.