King Hu

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Nationality: Chinese. Born: Hu Chin-Ch'üan (as actor known as Chin Ch'üan; name in pinyin: Hun Jinquan) in Peking, 29 April 1931. Education: Hui-Wen Middle School, Peking; Peking National Art College. Family: Married scriptwriter Chong Ling (separated). Career: Moved to Hong Kong, 1949; worked in design department, Yong Hua Film Company, as actor, and as assistant director and scriptwriter, 1950–54; set designer, Great Wall Film Company, mid-1950s; radio producer, worked for Voice of America, 1954–58; actor, scriptwriter, and director for Shaw Brothers, 1958–65; director and production manager, Union (Liangbang) Film Company, 1965–70; founded King Hu Productions, 1970. Awards: Grand Prix, Cannes Festival, for A Touch of Zen, 1975. Died: 14 January 1997, of heart disease.

Films as Director:


Yü T'ang Ch'un (The Story of Sue San) (credited as exec d, disowned)


Liang Shan-po yü Chu Ying T'ai (Eternal Love) (co-d)


Ta Ti Erh Nü (Children of the Good Earth; Sons and Daughters of the Good Earth)


Ta Tsui Hsia (Come Drink with Me) (+ co-sc, lyrics)


Lung Men K'o Chan (The Dragon Gate Inn) (+ sc)


Hsia Nü (A Touch of Zen) (+ sc, ed); "Nu" ("Anger") episode of Hsi Nu Ai Le (Four Moods) (+ sc)


Ying Ch'un Ko Chih Fêng Po (The Fate of Lee Khan; Trouble at Spring Inn) (+ co-sc, pr)


Chung Lieh T'u (The Valiant Ones; Portrait of the Patriotic Heroes) (+ sc, pr)


Shan Chung Ch'uan Chi (Legend of the Mountain) (+ pr)


K'ung Shan Ling Yü (Raining in the Mountain) (+ sc, pr)


Chung Shên Ta Shih (The Juvenizer) (+ pr)


Episode of Ta Lun Hui (The Wheel of Life)


Hsiao Ao Chiang Hu (The Swordsman) (co-d)


Hua Pi Zhi Yinyang Fawang (Painted Skin)

Other Films:


Hung Hu-Tzu (Red Beard) (P'an Lei) (sc)


Hua T'ien-T'so (Bridenapping) (Yen Chun) (sc)


Lung Men Fêng Yun (Dragon Gate) (Ou-yang Chun) (sc)


By KING HU: articles—

Interview with Michel Ciment, in Positif (Paris), May 1975.

Interview with Jean Marc de Vos and others, in Film en Televisie+ Video (Brussels), no. 272, January 1980.

On KING HU: articles—

Rayns, Tony, "Director: King Hu," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1975/76.

Elley, Derek, "King Hu," in International Film Guide 1978, Lon-don, 1977.

Tessier, Max, "King Hu dans les montagnes," in Ecran (Paris), July 1978.

Ooi, V., "Jacobean Drama and the Martial Arts Films of King Hu: A Study in Power and Corruption," in Australian Journal ofScreen Theory (Kensington, New South Wales), no. 7, 1980.

Vos, J. M., and others, "King Hu," in Film en Televisie (Brussels), January 1980.

Bady, P., and Tony Rayns, article in Positif (Paris), July/August 1982.

Kennedy, Harlan, "Beyond Kung-Fu: Seven Hong-Kong Firecrack-ers," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1983.

"King Hu Section" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1984.

Bourget, J. L., "Hua Pi Zhi Yinyang Fawang," in Positif, Novem-ber 1992.

Stratton, D., "Painted Skin," in Variety, 9 November 1992.

Niogret, Hubert, and others, "Adieu ma concubine de Chen Kaige," in Positif (Paris), November 1993.

Douin, Jean-Luc, "Hong Kong Stars," in Télérama (Paris), 3 No-vember 1993.

Obituary, in Variety (New York), 20 January 1997.

Saada, Nicolas, "King Hu entre dans la légende," an obituary, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), February 1997.

Niogret, Hubert, "King Hu et Li Han-hsiang," an obituary, in Positif (Paris), April 1997.

Obituary, in Sight and Sound (London), March 1998.

* * *

King Hu was not only a master in the historical martial art film genre (known in Chinese as Wu Hsia P'ien or Wu Xia Pian), but a revolutionary of the form as well. One of the most popular genres in Chinese film history, it reached its peak in the 1970s in Hong Kong. In fact, the very first film made in China was an historical martial art film documenting Peking Opera performer T'an Hsin P'ei, who performed some fighting scenes from the opera Ting Chun Shang in 1906.

Influenced by Peking opera, King Hu always presented his main characters clearly and vividly in their first appearances on screen and lets the characters' interactions occur within a limited space. The presentations provide the audience with an early introduction of the main characters' backgrounds, personalities, motives, and duties, giving a clear indication of where everyone fits in the moral landscape. This restricted realm creates denser and more intensive emotional developments, paving the way to a higher dramatic climax. Such structuring can be observed at the temple in Raining in the Mountain, and the inn in both The Dragon Gate Inn and The Fate of Lee Khan. Most filmmakers in this genre tend to focus on fighting scenes and on displaying various styles of kung fu. In many cases the plots are constructed simply to support the fighting, which itself is given over to such elaborate special effects as to resemble more closely a supernatural force than a manifestation of human struggle. History itself loses its meaning: it simply provides an excuse for making another "historical" martial art film. This destruction of referentiality becomes all the balder when a character from the Han dynasty wears a hat from the Ming dynasty to go with his Han dynasty robe, goes into an inn that is a mess of Tang architecture and Ching furniture. As a result, the historical martial art film genre's main function is to create an imaginary and mystical world for the audience to escape to. But King Hu's work stood out with its professionalism in art direction and the director's personal philosophy in historical backgrounding.

The Ming dynasty (1386–1644 A.D.) was King Hu's favorite historical period, reflecting as it does two major issues of the contemporary Chinese political situation. First of all, the legitimacy of the Chinese government—should it belong to the Nationalist Party, founded by Dr. Sun Yat-sen, or the Chinese Communist Party, which enjoys the support of the majority of Chinese? King Hu never gave an answer, but he surely did not hesitate to take a Han-centric viewpoint of the Ming dynasty. In Chinese history, it is commonly perceived as an act of legitimization of authority when Chu Yuan-chang, the founding emperor of the Ming dynasty, started a revolution to overthrow the Yuan dynasty, founded by Mongolian "invaders." Chu is a Han, the majority ethnic group of China. In The Fate of Lee Khan, the revolutionaries led by Chu are brave, intelligent, united, self-sacrificing, and virtuous, while the Mongolians are cowardly, stupid, selfish, and morally corrupted. Although it seems to be an exception that the Mongolian lord and princess are equally brave, smart, and know the secrets of kung fu, they are cruel to their people. They even attempt to kill a traitor to Chu who offers them secret information about Chu's military power. In the end, the Mongolian lord, princess, and the traitor are killed by the revolutionaries.

Another parallel to contemporary times is the Ming dynasty's power struggles. The rivalries among corrupt officers, ministers, and eunuchs not only deceived the emperors, but ruined the welfare of the Chinese people. Facing a chaotic era like this, King Hu's solution seems to be found in A Touch of Zen, which won the Grand Prix de Technique Superieur at Cannes in 1975, marking a milestone in his career. King Hu expresses the limitations of scholarly and chivalric life in the first half of A Touch of Zen, while in the other half he initiates the audience into a surrealistic visionary world—the realm of Zen metaphysics: a monk bleeds gold and possesses extraordinary powers that seem to stem from the sun and other natural forces.

However, one may find a different philosophy in The Swordsman, which he co-directed with Tsui Hark, a leading figure of the Hong Kong New Wave and director of Peking Opera Blues. Although the artistic disputes between Tsui Hark and King Hu caused the latter to leave in the middle of production, The Swordsman surprisingly ends up being a combination of several filmmakers' virtues. Stylistically, there are kung fu scenes from martial art director Chen Hsiao Tung (director of Chinese Ghost Story), visionary special effects from Tsui Hark, and art design from King Hu, who eventually set the story in his preferred Ming dynasty. Its pace is one of the contemporary commercial Hong Kong film, much faster than King Hu's normal work. It employs Tsui Hark's cynical view of life, showing almost none of the characters to be trustworthy: they all have their own selfish ambitions, the fact of which breaks down the easy formulation of hero and villain. King Hu's specialty—the power struggles within intensive circumstances—is still in evidence, while a rather forced romantic relationship is evidence of Chen's hand.

King Hu's metaphysical Zen and the sublimation of the spiritual are not themes in The Swordsman. They are replaced by the nihilism of Tsui Hark, as seen when the protagonist and his girlfriend ride without a clear direction on an uncultivated field after they both encounter some of the complexities of life. Somehow more rooted in reality, King Hu subsequently prepared a film about the Chinese railroad workers' early U.S. history following immigration in the nineteenth century.

—Vivian Huang