Kung fu cinema fans in New York City will be getting some more screentime thanks to the kind folks at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where BAMcinématek will be hosting a new retrospective on the work of late legendary award-winning film auteur, King Hu. Known for adhering to the music and fluidity of his faved Beijing operas he loved while growing up, Hu’s credentials include over three decades in the industry in set and costume design, as well serving as actor, producer, writer and award-winning filmmaker.
From Friday, June 6 through Tuesday, June 17, BAMcinématek presents All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu, a 15-film tribute to the Chinese cinematic titan. Master of the martial arts movie, King Hu revolutionized the wuxia/swordplay film, introducing a refined sense of aesthetics, attention to mise-en-scène, and an aura of mysticism to the genre that was borne out of his lifelong love for Chinese opera. With his unique blend of stoic, iconic heroes, realistic violence, and dance-styled fight choreography, Hu’s style influenced decades of subsequent Asian cinema, modernizing the wuxia in the same way that Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone changed the Western. The series includes nine features by Hu alongside a globe-spanning sidebar of films that both influenced and paid homage to him, with many screening in rare and imported 35mm prints from around the world. All Hail the King is programmed by Andrew Chan and Nellie Killian and presented in conjunction with the Taipei Cultural Center of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York.
Born in Beijing, Hu emigrated to Hong Kong as a teenager and drifted into jobs in the film industry, where he came to specialize as an actor and a set designer. For the famous Shaw Brothers studio, Hu worked as an assistant to director Li Han-hsiang on two films, including The Love Eterne (1963–Jun 7), a musical romance so popular in Asia that lines of its dialogue became catchphrases. Hu’s breakthrough film as a director, Come Drink With Me (1966–Jun 8), introduced the first of his many badass heroines: Cheng Pei-pei as the unforgettable Golden Swallow, first glimpsed decimating a tavern full of gangsters with her faster-than-lightning hands.
Already notorious for his meticulous, intractable attention to detail, Hu clashed with producer Run Run Shaw over Come Drink With Me and left for Taiwan to make Dragon Inn (1967–Jun 14), a Ming Dynasty revenge yarn that cemented Hu’s commanding mature style of dynamic widescreen compositions, tracking shots, and rapidly edited combat scenes. Two years in the making, A Touch of Zen (1971–Jun 6) is Hu’s magnum opus, depicting the larger-than-life battles between a female fugitive (Hsu Feng) and her pursuers from the point-of-view of a humble scholar (Shih Jun) who becomes her protector and lover. With its famously transcendental ending, A Touch of Zen literally took wuxia to another level and remains highly influential–contemporary Chinese master Jia Zhangke paid it tribute with last year’s acclaimed A Touch of Sin.
Working independently and on a smaller scale after the box office failure of A Touch of Zen, Hu made the spy vs. spy melodrama The Fate of Lee Khan (1973–Jun 15), a claustrophobic “inn film.” Hu loved this setting, a place where people of all classes and professions would interact that explodes into violence in the last reel. By contrast, The Valiant Ones (1975–Jun 13) is non-stop action from start to finish, as the titular heroes rout a gang of Japanese pirates along the Chinese coast.
Next Hu made two back-to-back films in sumptuous South Korean locations: the languorous supernatural epic Legend of the Mountain (1979–Jun 16) and the twisty Raining in the Mountain (1979–Jun 17), a story of temple intrigue in which wit supplants weaponry. Legendary Taiwanese New Wave screenwriter Wu Nien-jen (The Puppetmaster) co-wrote Hu’s rarely-screened, 10th-century dark comedy All the King’s Men (1983–Jun 11), and a new generation of martial arts stars (including Sammo Hung and Joey Wong) headlined his final film, Painted Skin (1992–Jun 10), a ghost story based on the same collection of Pu Songling stories as A Touch of Zen.
Also screening are Kurosawa’s samurai classic Seven Samurai (1954–Jun 15), a major influence that Hu called “a real martial arts picture,” and Nicholas Ray’s own “inn film” Johnny Guitar (1954–Jun 7), whose gunslinger leading ladies (Joan Crawford and Mercedes McCambridge) parallel Hu’s female combatants. Hu disciple Tsui Hark pays homage to the ending of The Valiant Ones in his sweat-and-blood-soaked The Blade (1995–Jun 13), just as the acrobatic action scenes in Ang Lee’s crossover hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000–Jun 9) invoke A Touch of Zen’s balletic bamboo forest fight. Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003–Jun 14), Tsai Ming-liang’s tribute to Hu and to the twilight of cinema itself, features cameos by two of Hu’s stock company, Shih Jun and Miao Tien, in the audience for the final show of a closing Taipei movie theater–a screening of Dragon Inn.
All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu Schedule
Fri, Jun 6
7:30pm: A Touch of Zen
Sat, Jun 7
2, 7pm: The Love Eterne
4:40, 9:40pm: Johnny Guitar
Sun, Jun 8
4:30pm: Come Drink with Me
Mon, Jun 9
4:30, 7, 9:30pm: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Tue, Jun 10
8pm: Painted Skin
Wed, Jun 11
8pm: All the King’s Men
Fri, Jun 13
2, 4:30, 9:30pm: The Blade
7pm: The Valiant Ones
Sat, Jun 14
4:30, 9:30pm: Goodbye, Dragon Inn
7pm: Dragon Inn
Sun, Jun 15
2, 8:15pm: Seven Samurai
6pm: The Fate of Lee Khan
Mon, Jun 16
8pm: Legend of the Mountain
Tue, Jun 17
8pm: Raining in the Mountain
All films in 35mm unless otherwise noted.
All the King’s Men (1983)
Directed by King Hu. With Cheng Pei-pei, Tang Paoyun, Tian Feng.
Hu introduced a wry sense of humor into the historical epic form with this lavish, gorgeous tale of court intrigue, power plays, and elaborate political machinations during the tail end of the Tang Dynasty. Set in the 10th century BC, this dizzyingly complex story revolves around a sickly emperor who sends his prime minister to infiltrate the neighboring kingdom and bring back the only doctor capable of saving his life.
The Blade (1995) 105 min.
Directed by Tsui Hark. With Vincent Zhao, Moses Chan, Hung Yan-yan.
A longtime favorite of Quentin Tarantino, and widely considered one of Tsui Hark’s greatest and most audacious films, this brutal homage to the macho Hong Kong action films of the 1960s follows the tale of an orphan raised by the owner of a sword factory and his quest to avenge the death of his father. Reimagining the Chang Cheh martial arts classic The One-Armed Swordsman, The Blade also incorporates visual homages to the films of King Hu, who served as Tsui’s most important mentor and whom he eventually replaced as director on the legendary wuxia film Swordsman. Praising its show-stopping montage sequences, scholar Stephen Teo compares Tsui’s work to “the incredible technical effect King Hu achieved in The Valiant Ones.”
Come Drink with Me (1966) 95 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Cheng Pei-pei, Yueh Hua, Chan Hung-lit.
Hu’s first wuxia film is a landmark marriage of swordplay with the stylized grandeur of Chinese opera, in which a woman (Cheng) goes undercover as a warrior in order to rescue her brother from the clutches of the Five Tiger Gang. A seminal work of Hong Kong cinema, this Shaw Brothers production established a number of Hu’s recurring motifs: a strong female action hero, lavish art direction, and elaborately choreographed, balletic fight sequences.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 119 min.
Directed by Ang Lee. With Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi.
Ang Lee revitalized the wuxia genre with this exhilarating, fairy tale-like epic of warriors and thieves battling for possession of Green Destiny, a mythic 400-year-old sword. Justly celebrated for its transcendent, airborne action sequences, this Academy Award-winning international mega-hit is rife with references to Hu’s work–particularly the famous bamboo grove fight in A Touch of Zen.
Dragon Inn (1966) 111 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Polly Shangguang Lingfeng, Bai Ying, Miao Tien.
In this martial arts classic, a trio of swordsmen and women battle the forces of a powerful, conniving eunuch plotting to wipe out the children of his political rival. Following a falling out with Shaw Brothers over his desire for more artistic control, Hu unleashed his awe-inspiringly ambitious vision in this action-packed Taiwanese production that laid the foundations for decades of wuxia films to come.
The Fate of Lee Khan (1973) 105 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Angela Mao, Li Hua Li, Hsu Feng.
The third film in Hu’s “inn trilogy” (along with Come Drink with Me and Dragon Inn) is a rollicking comic adventure that follows a band of largely female fighters out to stop a Mongol warlord from getting his hands on a valuable map. With fight choreography by none other than Sammo Hung, The Fate of Lee Khan is a rousing showcase for Hu’s formidable women warriors, including martial arts icon Angela “Lady Whirlwind” Mao.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003) 82 min.
Directed by Tsai Ming-liang. With Lee Kang-sheng, Chen Shiang-chyi.
Contemporary art-house darling Tsai Ming-liang pays poignant tribute to King Hu with this entrancing elegy for the golden age of Taiwanese cinema. Set in a crumbling Taipei movie palace during its last screening ever–Hu’s iconic Dragon Inn–it captures the theater’s workers and patrons (including two actors from the Hu classic) in alternately mundane and deadpan moments, as Tsai’s hypnotic long takes gradually acquire a quietly moving minimalist majesty. “A movie about the dreamy pleasures of moviegoing that is itself both haunting and haunted” (A.O. Scott, The New York Times).
Johnny Guitar (1954) 110 min.
Directed by Nicholas Ray. With Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge.
Nicholas Ray’s subversive oat opera is at once a tale of Freudian passion, a camp vehicle for star Joan Crawford, and a florid satire of the Hollywood blacklist, released even as Senator Joe McCarthy staged his last investigation. With its powerful female protagonists, insular saloon setting, and feverishly stylized aesthetic, it makes for a fascinating Hollywood companion piece to King Hu’s Come Drink with Me.
Legend of the Mountain (1979) 184 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Shih Jun, Hsu Feng, Sylvia Chang.
Made in South Korea, this atmospheric supernatural fable follows a scholar (Shih) who retreats to the mountains to finish transcribing a sutra and finds himself suspended in an alternate reality, seduced by two women who may or may not be ghosts. One of Hu’s most visually ravishing works, Legend of the Mountain is a mesmerizing, mood-drenched feast for the senses. Digibeta.
The Love Eterne (1963) 126 min.
Directed by Li Han-hsiang. With Betty Loh Ti, Ivy Ling Po.
Hu cut his teeth at the legendary Shaw Brothers studio, where he assistant directed this sweeping musical based on a famed Chinese legend about a young woman (Loh) who disguises herself as a male in order to attend college and falls in love with a man who doesn’t know her true identity. Rooted in the highly stylized tradition of Chinese opera, this sumptuously mounted romance proved nothing short of a box office phenomenon throughout Asia, helping jumpstart Hu’s own directorial career.
Painted Skin (1993) 94 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Adam Cheng, Joey Wong, Sammo Hung.
Drifting away from wuxia films later in life, Hu focused instead on tales of the supernatural. His final work, based on a classic Chinese legend, is a beguiling story of a young scholar (Cheng) entangled with a beautiful ghost (the ethereal Wong) who paints her skin in order to appear human. Hu masterfully evokes an otherworldly atmosphere with his typically opulent visuals in this horror-tinged metaphysical fable, which features the great Sammo Hung as a Taoist priest.
Raining in the Mountain (1979) 120 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Sun Yueh, Shih Jun.
Hu immediately followed up Legend of the Mountain with this more action-oriented but no less pictorially lush tale of intrigue in a Ming Dynasty-era Buddhist monastery, in which a nobleman and a general each conspire to steal a valuable scroll from the temple’s library. With the action deftly confined to the monastery’s maze-like interiors, Raining in the Mountain becomes a virtuoso showcase for Hu’s typically luxurious mise-en-scène and elegant choreographing of action.
Seven Samurai (1954) 207 min.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa. With Toshirô Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Keiko Tsushima.
This sweeping chronicle of courage and heroism tells the story of 16th-century farmers who enlist a band of samurai to protect their village from invading bandits. Frequently listed as one of the greatest movies of all time, Kurosawa’s masterpiece showcases stunning cinematography, star turns from the great Toshirô Mifune and Takashi Shimura, and the director’s masterful approach to storytelling. In addition to providing source material for the classic western The Magnificent Seven, its virtuoso displays of swordplay also exerted enormous influence on the Shaw Brothers studio films and King Hu in particular, who called it a “real martial arts picture.”
A Touch of Zen (1971) 200 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Roy Chiao, Bai Ying.
Hu’s masterpiece is a mind-meltingly mystical tale of a female warrior (Hsu) who must fight for her life when the corrupt Ming dynasty targets her and her entire family for extermination. The first Chinese film to win a prize at Cannes, A Touch of Zen is part martial-arts epic, part ghost story, and part metaphysical reflection on Buddhist philosophy that bursts off the screen with Hu’s knockout visual flourishes, including the unforgettable image of a monk who bleeds gold.
The Valiant Ones (1975) 102 min.
Directed by King Hu. With Hsu Feng, Bai Ying, Roy Chiao.
Hu bid farewell to the wuxia genre with this elegiac, stylistically inventive period tale about a band of warriors battling Japanese pirates on the coast of China. The director transforms breathless fight sequences into an abstracted rush of rhythm and movement in this “daringly innovative action adventure story… The glittering images include a chess game that suddenly becomes a battle plan, a silent woman with heightened sight and hearing, and a rumbustious zen archer” (Time Out London).