In his youth, King Hu (Mandarin name: Hu Jinquan) was captivated by Beijing Opera: in interviews, Hu reminisced about watching the martial arts segments of operas featuring Sun Wukong (the Monkey King – the hero of the classic fantasy novel Journey to the West) and reading comic books adapted from operas and martial arts novels. (1) The early appreciation of opera found expression in his films. But apart from this, there were no apparent connections in Hu’s childhood to suggest his eventual involvement with films as a career; it appears that cinema did not feature as a major cultural or entertainment influence in his life until very much later – after he had gone to Hong Kong in 1949. His entry into the film industry was quite “accidental,” as Hu himself put it. (2) An employee of the Great Wall studio whose children he was tutoring in the English language introduced him to a job at the studio. However, it was Hu’s proficiency at speaking Mandarin, his native language, that probably got him contacts and jobs in other Mandarin language studios in Hong Kong. After an early start as a set decorator, Hu became an actor, appearing in some 37 features from 1954-65. He joined Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 as an actor with an option of becoming a director.
Hu began directing at Shaws in the capacity of a deputy director to Li Hanxiang on two period films The Love Eterne (1963) and The Story of Sue San (1964). His first film as a fully-fledged director was Sons of the Good Earth (1965), a war film set during the War of Resistance against Japan. Hu himself wrote the script and played the part of the resistance leader who dies a heroic death while liberating an occupied village. At the point of his death, the camera zooms into the Nationalist flag, a dramatic cliché associating heroic self-sacrifice with patriotism. It would not be the only time that Hu made such an association in his films (cf. The Fate of Lee Khan  and The Valiant Ones ).
Hu was then assigned to make another anti-Japanese war picture using the same costumes, sets and props that had been constructed for Sons of the Good Earth. Hu began production on the new film, Ting Yee-shan (named after a real guerrilla leader of the war) in 1965. (3) After two weeks of shooting, the studio abruptly cancelled the project, apparently out of fear that the film would never pass the Singapore board of censors. Sons of the Good Earth had encountered censorship problems in the Singapore-Malaysia sector – a vital market for Shaws’ products and a region where the company had been well established since the 1930s – because “the subject matter concerned the racial conflict between Chinese and Japanese.” (4)
Following the cancellation of Ting Yee-shan, Hu immediately went to work on his next film, Come Drink With Me (1966). This is Hu’s first wuxia film (the swordplay and chivalry genre that predated the kung fu martial arts cinema) but it was already marked by the director’s singular reworking of wuxia conventions and themes that would establish his critical reputation and make him a master of the genre. The project was developed from Hu’s own idea, which he based on an opera The Drunkard Beggar remembered from his childhood days. Most critics tend to view Come Drink With Me as a transitional work in Hu’s career because it was a Shaw Brothers studio movie, and it straddled the “old school” wuxia films that emphasized fantasy and special effects, and the “new school” of the genre that depicted violence realistically. Come Drink With Me should really be viewed as a pioneering work: a precursor of some of the themes and motifs that Hu would later develop in his next two films, Dragon Inn (1967) and A Touch of Zen (1970-71), and whose influence would be felt in the subsequent boom of wuxia films that followed its great success at the box-office.
Come Drink With Me is significant in more ways than one. Not only did its commercial success help to establish the trend of new school wuxia movies, it boosted Hu’s reputation and confidence, paving the way for him to become independent of Shaw Brothers. Hu’s experiences of directing Sons of the Good Earth and Ting Yee-shan had not put him in good stead with Run Run Shaw. Reportedly, Shaw was not impressed by the rushes of Come Drink With Me, and advised Hu to learn from Xu Zenghong, one of their contract directors who worked fast and efficiently. (5) Hu, even then, was known for his fastidious and plodding methods. He left the studio and went to Taiwan to make his next two films – a move made viable only with the success of Come Drink With Me.
As the first major film of the new school movement, it is useful to see how Come Drink With Me falls into a historicist pattern that unifies the various strands of development in wuxia literature since the Tang dynasty, and then to explore how such a pattern is maintained in Hu’s wuxia films. In 20th century wuxia fiction, a historicist paradigm of the genre, suggested by Chen Pingyuan in his book The Literati’s Chivalric Dreams: Narrative Models of Chinese Knight-Errant Literature, encompasses the following: firstly, the world of the jianghu, secondly, martial arts action, and thirdly, Buddhist concepts. (6) Chen defines the jianghu (literally “rivers and lakes”) as a kind of Utopia where xia (the knights-errant) are free to defy authority and act on their conscience to punish evil and exalt goodness; (7) without this imaginary world, there would be no xia. The martial arts action empowers the hero and gives the wuxia genre sensual excitement. The hero must not only fight to win but fight in interesting ways to stimulate the reader’s interest. Martial arts action is symbolized by the genre’s focus on the sword and the supernatural powers of the swordsman. Lastly, Buddhist concepts such as transmigration, retribution, atonement, and enlightenment (leading to conversion), permeate the genre with cultural-religious-philosophical qualities: such qualities were only rarely displayed, according to Chen, in other genres – only the wuxia genre consistently exuded them. (8)
Such a historicist model is visible in Hu’s wuxia films, but since both historicism and genre theory imply a predetermined pattern of development, this essay is concerned with the artistic agency of Hu’s distinctive and idiosyncratic treatment of this model. For example, the jianghu is revealed by Hu’s evocation of the traditional Chinese tavern as a microcosm of the imaginary and the real. Chen Pingyuan notes that the jianghu is a semi-Utopia but at the same time, it can also denote a space in the real world such as a secret society, where xia are in their natural habitat. (9) In Come Drink With Me, Hu introduces the idea of the tavern as both an imagined world and a real society where good and bad xia engage in a struggle based on a private code of behaviour.
The heroine, Golden Swallow (Zheng Peipei), enters the tavern, traditionally regarded as a meeting point of Chinese society, but a clap of lightning and sound of thunder signal that it is also a place of dark mystery and danger – a world beyond the real world. Golden Swallow sits on a table ordering wine and food, and is successively harassed by the bad guys who have been waiting for her: jugs of wine are thrown at her, coins are fired as missiles, and finally swords are drawn – all threats which she thwarts with ease. These scenes are carefully choreographed to accentuate Golden Swallow’s preternatural skills. The intent here is not only to present the martial arts action component of the historicist model but to show the heroine in her element: the jianghu as the proper environment where heroes display their skills and courage, and signal their intention to eliminate the evildoers. At the same time, the tavern sequences are staged with attention to characterization and a keen sense of atmosphere, demonstrating Hu’s intimacy with the décor and lifestyle of traditional Chinese inns: Hu would reprise this setting as a concretization of the jianghu where danger lurks and chivalry is manifested, in Dragon Inn, Anger (1970, his segment in the multi-episodic The Four Moods), and The Fate of Lee Khan.
These “inn films” – so called because they are almost wholly set in the tavern – are also notable as political allegories, where one side fights for a political or patriotic cause against a side representing the forces of repression and authoritarianism. The jianghu is the place where the true knight-errant reveals his/her anti-authoritarianism and backs such a cause, instinctively, even against the odds. Violence is a means to serve two ends: to achieve the restoration of a just government, and to express the knight-errant’s disdain for authority and his refusal to be shackled by officialdom. In Dragon Inn, roving swordsman Xiao Shaozi (Shi Jun) comes to the tavern to save the children of a disgraced minister who are being escorted into exile and must pass through Dragon Inn, commandeered by a military unit of the dongchang (a secretive organ of government under the control of eunuchs during the Ming dynasty). Like Golden Swallow, Xiao easily beats off the bullying tactics of the dongchang minions seeking to evict him from the inn. Seeing that he cannot be moved, the captain offers him money and a position in government. This is turned down by Xiao, and in doing so, he displays the characteristic spirit of rebellion in the jianghu – an insight into the political tendency of revolution in 20th century China, though the allegorical intent of Dragon Inn, made in Taiwan, was also to mirror the Cold War conflict between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party.
To meet the requirement of making action interesting to an audience, Hu incorporated the beat and rhythm of Beijing Opera into the action choreography, most evident in Dragon Inn, and his episode Anger in The Four Moods (Anger was also adapted from a Beijing opera). Action becomes a matter of choreographing the space of the tavern as well as the actors’ movements, and this was Hu’s unique way of making the action sequences a visual experience. Hu saw martial arts action as dance (Zheng Peipei won the part of Golden Swallow because of her dancer’s training). At the same time, the accent on choreography derived from opera also brings out the mythical aspects of the martial arts. This is the starting point of many of Hu’s famous action sequences – the Battle of the Bamboo Forest in A Touch of Zen and the climactic battle between Hakatatsu (Sammo Hung) and Wu Jiyuan (Bai Ying) in The Valiant Ones are classic moments of action cinema, full of wondrous feats of martial arts action (vaults and leaps into the air, diving, whirling and darting movements).
Come Drink With Me does not contain a classic set piece sequence on the same level, but some of its action sequences certainly look like dry runs for those he would stage in Dragon Inn and A Touch of Zen. Hu’s style of action choreography (with input from Han Yingjie as martial arts director) is complemented by his editing technique – a treatment of action which David Bordwell has called the “glimpse”, a tactic of adding deliberate “imperfections” that make the action partially indiscernible, so as to “express the other-worldly grace and strength of these supremely disciplined but still mortal fighters.” (10) Hu’s camera style was based on his dictum, “The audience is the camera. I don’t want the audience to sit and watch, I want it to move.” (11)
Just as important as Hu’s induction of operatic style choreography into wuxia cinema was his reinvigoration of the female heroic prototype in Come Drink With Me. Zheng Peipei’s performance set the standard for the cinematic xia nü (lady knight-errant) model. Her character, Golden Swallow, exhibits youthful freshness and vigour, but also an aloofness that points to her innate superiority of character and moral steadfastness. She is eager yet restrained, tough but graceful. Though a warrior, she never loses her femininity (even when disguised as a male), and this is what distinguishes Hu’s female warriors and constitutes his breakthrough in the genre: the female sex is entirely comfortable as warriors and accepted as such by their male counterparts. The female knight-errant in Hu’s films counterpoises the male equivalent as seen in the films of Zhang Che, his directorial colleague at Shaw Brothers who focused on the male specimen of wuxia, exhorting what Zhang called yang gang, or “staunch masculinity” – a tradition of beefcake machismo in the martial arts that had laid dormant in the ’50s due to the predominance of romantic melodramas and the female star in the Mandarin cinema.
Golden Swallow is the harbinger of Dragon Inn‘s Zhu Hui (Shangguan Lingfeng), A Touch of Zen‘s Yang Huizhen (Xu Feng) who shares a preference for short knives with Golden Swallow, and Wu Ruoshi (also Xu Feng), the wife of the whirling swordsman Wu Jiyuan in The Valiant Ones. The xia nü prototype as created by Hu would be much imitated by other directors, most obviously by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), where Zhang Ziyi’s character Jen is a close cousin of Golden Swallow, Zhu Hui, and Yang Huizhen. Jen displays such outstanding fighting talents (she is groomed by none other than Zheng Peipei, playing her evil governess Jade Fox) that she is sought after by the male knight-errant Li Mubai (Chow Yun-fat) to be his natural successor.
Finally, Hu’s treatment of Buddhist concepts in the historicist wuxia paradigm is well illustrated in Come Drink With Me and A Touch of Zen where Buddhist imagery abound. The former features an aberrant monk, and the latter a Zen patriarch who personifies Buddha-nature. While making A Touch of Zen (the project at that stage was not called that – it went by tentative English titles of The Swordswoman and The Lady Knight), Hu hit on the idea of using the concept of Zen as creative intuition to pose questions about the genre’s roots in both fantasy and reality. Hu claimed that he had no deeper motivation to impart Buddhist beliefs, only that he wanted to express Zen visually.
Nevertheless, Hu did offer a critique of the genre and its conventions: he adopted a critical attitude about the shenguai (meaning the supernatural and the bizarre) component of old school wuxia films. The film starts off as a ghost story, then becomes a critical commentary on the viability of the ghost story when its protagonists deliberately appeal to superstition and fear as a stratagem to lure the enemy into a deserted castle, tricking them into thinking that it is haunted in order to diminish their will to fight. From this apparently antithetical reaction to ghosts and the elements of shenguai, one might assume that Hu adheres to a principle of material reality, complemented by the notion of human mortality; but the movie moves into a realm of Buddhist metaphysics. At the end of the film, the Zen patriarch Hui Yuan (Roy Chiao) is treacherously stabbed and we see his transfiguration into Buddha as he calmly sits in the traditional Buddhist posture. The sequence is shot in psychedelic colours compounded by the use of colour negative, which could indicate both a Buddhist sense of transmigration and an ontological inquiry: could it be an illusion or is it reality?
The Buddhist imagery also brings up the idea of immortality from Daoism. Traditionally, the knight-errant’s acts of chivalry, using his or her powers to wipe out evil and help the down-trodden, implies a search for immortality as the highest form of transcendence. Yet, no matter how skilful or preternatural their powers are, Hu’s heroes die like all mortals – a theme running through Hu’s films, from Sons of the Good Earth to Dragon Inn to A Touch of Zen to The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones. The Buddhist imagery at the end of A Touch of Zen shows, however, that immortality can be achieved if one adheres to Buddhist practices and manifests one’s Buddha nature. The transfiguration of Hui Yuan is first indicated by the liquid gold that flows out of his injury which shows him to be a genuine follower of Buddha and one who understands the nature of his own being. The end of A Touch of Zen echoes the final conflict in Come Drink With Me between the aberrant monk Liao Kong (Yang Zhiqing) and the film’s nominal hero, the drunkard beggar (Yue Hua). Liao Kong is killed by a bamboo pole thrust into his heart. As the pole is withdrawn, a jet of blood spurts out onto the beggar’s face, proving that Liao Kong is only a mere mortal.
Hu’s use of Zen as a metaphor of creative intuition served him well in his wuxia films – and not only to infuse Buddhist concepts but in the staging and choreography of his action sequences. After winning the Cannes Film Festival grand prize for “superior technique” for A Touch of Zen in 1975, Hu’s intuition seemed to fail him. He did not venture into the genre again except for a minor contribution to a Taiwan-made portmanteau film The Wheel of Life (1983). He aborted his own intended comeback into the genre with Swordsman (1990), a Tsui Hark production, after falling out with the producer and walking out of the film. Tsui went on to direct the film himself along with three other directors (Hu’s name, however, remained on the credits).
Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain, both released in 1979 and shot back-to-back in Korea, were not wuxia films although they contained action scenes entailing martial arts choreography. Both films contained Buddhist themes of transmigration and atonement. Legend is a ghost story in which two female ghosts seeking reincarnation seduce a scholar in order to take possession of the secrets of a sutra that he is copying. Raining deals with conflict inside a Buddhist monastery as monks struggle between themselves to succeed the abbot, while rich lay patrons conspire to steal an ancient sutra hidden in the monastery’s library. Legend was full of shenguai hocus-pokery, a regressive movie when compared with A Touch of Zen‘s dialectic about fantasy versus reality. Similarly, Hu’s last film The Painted Skin (1993) is a ghost story adapted from the same classical source as A Touch of Zen, but containing none of the earlier film’s subtleties and complexities. All three films seemed overloaded with religiosity when all they needed was a touch of Zen.
In Taiwan, the director made The Juvenizer (1981), a contemporary comedy that was beyond his talents, and All the King’s Men (1983), a Tang dynasty period piece with an incoherent plot that simply reinforces the anachronism of the historical period genre. Hu’s decline occurred in the context of a Taiwan cinema that was casting off old genres as a new generation of directors (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Wan Ren, etc) turned to addressing the history and social issues of modern Taiwan. Similarly in Hong Kong, the rise of the New Wave pushed Hu into irrelevance. He worked on many screenplays which never materialized including one about 19th century Chinese railway labourers in America who founded two townships in the California desert and came under attack by white bigots. Hu spent years preparing this project in the United States, where he had eventually migrated. He was on the verge of making the film, entitled The Battle of Ono, when he died in a Taipei hospital in 1997 from complications arising from heart surgery.
Hu’s legacy rests on his wuxia films. With the genre, Hu was able to excel and leave his mark in the Hong Kong and Taiwan film industries. It allowed him to engage the audience in his preoccupations with Chinese social history, military strategy, religion and philosophy. Using his creative intuition – the touch of Zen – Hu invoked and combined Chinese poetry, opera, literary traditions and even folklore with martial arts action into a commanding sense of cinema.
Films directed by Hu:
Sons of the Good Earth (1965)
Ting Yee-shan (1965) (aborted)
Come Drink With Me (1966)
Dragon Inn (alternate title Dragon Gate Inn) (1967)
A Touch of Zen (1970)
Anger (1970) (episode in The Four Moods)
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973)
The Valiant Ones (1975)
Legend of the Mountain (1979)
Raining in the Mountain (1979)
The Juvenizer (1981)
All the King’s Men (1983)
The Wheel of Life (1983) (episode)
Swordsman (1990) (walked out of film but still credited)
The Painted Skin (1993)
The Love Eterne (1963) (executive director)
The Story of Sue San (1964) (executive director)
Assayas, Olivier, “King Hu: Géant Exilé, Cahiers du Cinema, no. 360-61 (September 1984).
Bordwell, David, “Richness Through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse,” in Poshek Fu and David Desser (eds.), The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
________, Planet Hong Kong (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard University Press, 2000).
Cahiers du Cinema, “Entretien avec King Hu: Calligraphie et Simulacres,” no. 360-61 (September 1984).
Cinemaya, “Spotlight on King Hu,” no. 39/40 (Winter/Spring, 1998).
Chen, Mo Daoguang Jianying Mengtaiqi — Zhongguo Wuxia Dianying Lun (Montage of Swordplay and Swordfighters: A Treatise on Chinese Martial Arts Cinema) (Beijing: China Film Press, 1996).
Ciment, Michel, interview with King Hu, Positif, no. 169 (1975).
Elley, Derek, “King Hu,” International Film Guide 1978 (London: Tantivy Press, 1977).
Hong Kong International Film Festival catalogue, 22nd edition, Transcending the Times: King Hu and Eileen Chang (Hong Kong: Provisional Urban Council, 1998).
Hu, King, “Cong Xia Nü Dao Kongshan Lingyu” (“From A Touch of Zen to Raining in the Mountain”), in Huang, Ren (ed.), Lianbang Dianying Shidai (Union and its Film Era) (Taipei: National Film Archive, 2001).
Huang, Ren (ed.), Hu Jinquan de Shijie (The World of King Hu) (Taipei: Asia-Pacific Press, 1999).
Ooi, Vicki, “Jacobean Drama and the Martial Arts Films of King Hu: A Study in Power and Corruption,” Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 7 (1980).
Sek, Kei, “Xingzhe de Guiji” (“The Path of the Traveller”), Dianying Shuangzhou Kan (Film Biweekly), no. 13 (5 July 1979).
Sha, Yung-fong, Binfen Dianying Sishi Chun (Forty Springs of Cinema Glory) (Taipei: National Film Archive, 1994).
Teo, Stephen, Hong Kong Cinema: The Extra Dimensions (London: British Film Institute, 1997).
Yamada, Koichi and Udagawa, Koyo, A Touch of King Hu, Chinese translation by Lai Ho and Ma Sung-chi, Hu Jinquan Wuxia Dianying Zuofa (Hong Kong: Zhengwen Press, 1998)
Articles in Senses of Cinema
King Hu’s The Fate of Lee Khan and The Valiant Ones by Stephen Teo
Compiled by Michelle Carey
Biography (in French language) and a listing of titles available on DVD.
King Hu – Réalisateurs – Asia Wold
Nice site in French. The Hu page features a biography, filmography and picture.
Dossier Cine de Hong Kong – King Hu
Essay in Spanish by Fernando MartÍn Rock.
Audience discussion sessions with Cheng Pui-pui about King Hu
The actress discusses what it was like working on the action scenes with Hu.
Buy Hu on DVD and video here.
Click here to search for King Hu DVDs, videos and books at
- See Koichi Yamada and Koyo Udagawa, A Touch of King Hu, translated into Chinese by Lai Ho and Ma Sung-chi (Hong Kong: Zhengwen She, 1998), p. 27. The book is collated from a series of interviews that the two Japanese critics conducted with Hu in the ’90s.
- Ibid., p. 30.
- The film was publicized in Shaws’ in-house magazine Southern Screen, no. 88, June 1965. The project was effectively abandoned until Shaws revamped it with a new cast and director but using Hu’s original script. The film was released as Heroes of the Underground in 1975.
- Interview with Michel Ciment, taped in Paris, October 1974, published in French in Positif, no. 169, 1975. My references to this interview are sourced from the privately circulated original English transcript in my possession. This remark of Hu’s referred to the fact that being multi-racial societies composed of different ethnic communities (Chinese, Indians, Malays), Malaysia and Singapore were acutely sensitive to depictions of racial conflict.
- See Huang Ren (ed.), The World of King Hu (Hu Jinquan de Shijie), (Taipei: Asia-Pacific Press, 1999), p. 158.
- See Chen Pingyuan, Qiangu Wenren Xiake Meng (The Literati’s Chivalric Dreams: Narrative Models of Chinese Knight-Errant Literature), (Taipei: Rye Field Publishing, 1995), p. 107.
- Summarized from Chen, ibid., see pp. 113-115.
- Ibid., p. 108.
- David Bordwell, “Richness Through Imperfection: King Hu and the Glimpse,” in Poshek Fu and David Desser (eds.), The Cinema of Hong Kong: History, Arts, Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 118.
- This dictum was revealed to me by the actor Bai Ying, a regular in Hu’s wuxia movies, in an interview in Hong Kong, April 1998.