Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, The Matrix trilogy, and even the Kung Fu Panda series all stem from the genre known as wuxia, which translates to “martial heroes” in Chinese. It is martial arts in story form infused with magical realism that has become a staple of Chinese-produced TV and cinema. The protagonists are usually independent and born out of the lower depths of society who rise to become heroes and vigilantes against different forms of oppression that hurt others. It is an appealing form of entertainment that translates into all languages. The wuxia film has existed since the 1920s. Still, the contemporary form originated in the 1960s through Shaw Brothers Studio, and one of its leading directors, Hu Jinquan, better known as King Hu.
Hu was born in Beijing and moved to Hong Kong in 1949 where he studied English and worked in multiple capacities for various productions. He was hired by Shaw Brothers in the late ‘50s and worked as a production designer, actor, screenwriter, and assistant director. Hu was encouraged to be a full-time director and was given his first job on Sons Of The Good Earth in 1965. He then would start his string of successful films that would build the wuxia genre to what it is now. Although he left Shaw Brothers during this time, Hu would take his skills to Taiwan which was constructing its own film industry.
Come Drink With Me (1966)
Hu was interested in traditional storytelling rather than violent exploitation. The violence is there with all the blood because that’s how it was but with artistic merit. It is here that Come Drink With Me lays down the first stones of what a modern martial arts film can be. At just 19 years old, Cheng Pei-Pei, who would later star in Crouching Tiger, plays the daughter of a general and a skilled swordswoman named Golden Swallow who goes out to rescue her brother from bandits. She is aided by a drunk, played by Yueh Hua, who happens to be a martial arts professional who is low-key about his talents. The two will form an unlikely pair to take down a highly dangerous monk of a monastery who works with the bandits that have her brother.
Hu was invested in Peking Opera and chose Cheng because of her dancing background. Using the opera’s movements as inspiration for the visual design, he creates a fight that strips off the artificial look of the swordplay from before with something that felt aesthetically real. The takes in the fights were longer so the edit manipulations would not be obvious. This would carry on with his later films. It was dangerous as it was never attempted to have this much combat happen in one film. The sets were bigger where two floors would be seen simultaneously and play a part in the sequence. Having a female character as the lead in wuxia was also unheard of, establishing the type of character as a mainstay in the genre.
Because of the studio’s lean toward strong violence, Hu chose to cut ties with Shaw Studios and take a job with new Taiwanese production companies being created.
Dragon Inn (1967)
Going to Taiwan, he made a smash hit across Asia, setting box office records in Taiwan, South Korea, and the Philippines with his battle between good and evil at a singular tavern. Dragon Inn almost feels like a remake of Seven Samurai but is never drenched in the constant themes of honor, revenge, and fending off the big bad wolves that are encroaching. When a general is executed for treason, the emperor orders the secret police to hunt down and kill the general’s children who have fled. But loyalists to the executed general await to defend them from the eunuch’s executioners at the tavern in a spectacular choreography of action.
King Hu sets up the premise in the prologue with the backstory and lets the fighting play the film out. However, he uses his interest in the Peking Opera to add a drop of Chinese authentic style that no other martial arts film had shown. It becomes faster and the action keeps expanding as Hu writes in detail moment-by-moment each fight inside or outside while not overindulging us with quick zooms, pans, and cuts. Hu sucks out all of the wordy backstories and the heart of the characters without losing his artistic integrity. His focus is on the story’s atmosphere, whether it be in silence or full of sound, the whole story forwards itself.
A Touch Of Zen (1971)
Hu went bigger and bolder than in his two previous films, but the risk was massive because of how much the schedule and budget overran, taking three years to shoot and edit. Under the influence of Zen Buddhism, Hu would put forward themes of transcendence and redemption following a noblewoman who hides in a village, only to be discovered by those who want to hunt her down as she is a fugitive against a corrupt leader. A local man gets involved, but first as a non-combatant because he doesn’t have the skills to actually fight, but soon finds the confidence to help the woman and take on her challengers – as well as fall in love with the noblewoman.
The film’s most famous sequence is the bamboo fight, a ten-minute battle that took three weeks to shoot because of the degree of difficulty in terms of choreography and hiding the zip lines that carried the actors. This is directly seen in Ang Lee making Crouching Tiger because of all the flying scenes in the trees. Hu manages to mix in some form of supernaturalism with rough realism of action as the story builds itself up to reaching enlightenment. His set pieces were grandiose, which played a role in the production going on for so long, but the reach Hu goes for close to authenticity is seen. The film had to be this long in order to give justice to his adaptation of classic Chinese stories from the 14th century.
Upon release as a two-part film, it failed completely. In 1975, Hu took it to Cannes where it received thunderous applause and recognition from the jury, the first film of the wuxia genre to get awarded. Only then did the film get much more attention and acclaim from others, putting his stamp on the genre and his legacy as a master of the Pacific Rim, opening the doors towards the Western world. He ended the decade with two films, Raining In The Mountain, and Legend Of The Mountain, both shot in South Korea. King Hu’s last works would not be as successful, going into semi-retirement, and dying in 1997, at age 64.
Today, martial arts are everywhere in all forms of media. It is part of the tradition that emerged from Asia to become a pop culture staple by all means. The traces of King Hu’s work in his wuxia movies are everywhere as he became the standard for raising the bar on technical achievements from Asia. The foundations for it all were laid back in the late ‘60s with directors like King Hu willing to make sacrifices and push the boundaries of what could be done. It was only a matter of time before it gained a foothold across the oceans and played out in faraway lands where they had never seen this before.
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