King Hu Retrospective at BAM

A Touch of Zen

All Hail the King: The Films of King Hu, a tribute to legendary director King Hu (胡金铨 / 胡金銓), is currently underway at BAM. Co-presented with the Taipei Cultural Center of TECO in New York, the retrospective presents fifteen films directed by him and films that he influenced or was influenced by.

Our one-time and short term event calendar lists all the screenings.

Let the synopses by BAM and the clips and trailers below introduce you to the films being shown. A couple of the screenings have passed, but you should be able to find at least a few of them on Netflix or online.

The Harvard Film Archive and Senses of Cinema have excellent essays about King, his films, and their innovations and impact on Chinese cinema.

A Touch of Zen (侠女 / 俠女)

King Hu’s (胡金铨 / 胡金銓) “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 English title for this film was the inspiration for English title, A Touch of Sin, of Jia Zhangke’s 天注定.

The Love Eterne (梁山伯与祝英台 / 梁山伯與祝英台)

King Hu’s (胡金铨 / 胡金銓) “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 Southeast Asia, helping jumpstart Hu’s own directorial career.”

Johnny Guitar

“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.”

Come Drink with Me (大醉侠 / 大醉俠)

King Hu’s (胡金铨 / 胡金銓) “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 (卧虎藏龙 / 臥虎藏龍)

“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.”

Painted Skin (画皮之阴阳法王 / 畫皮之陰陽法王)

“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.”

All the King’s Men ( 天下第一)

“King Hu (胡金铨 / 胡金銓) “introduced a wry sense of humor into the historical epic form with this lavish, gorgeous-to-behold 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 (刀)

“A longtime favorite of Quentin Tarantino, and widely considered one of Tsui Hark’s [(徐克)] 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.” -BAM

The Valiant Ones (忠烈图 / 忠烈圖)

King Hu (胡金铨 / 胡金銓) “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

Goodbye, Dragon Inn (不散)

“Contemporary art-house darling Tsai Ming-liang [(蔡明亮)]pays poignant tribute to King Hu [(胡金铨 / 胡金銓)] 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.”

Dragon Inn (龙门客栈 / 龍門客棧)

“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, [King Hu (胡金铨 / 胡金銓)] unleashed his awe-inspiringly ambitious vision in this action-packed Taiwanese production that laid the foundations for decades of wuxia films to come.”

Seven Samurai

“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.”

The Fate of Lee Khan (迎春阁之风波 / 迎春閣之風波)

“The third film in [King Hu’s (胡金铨 / 胡金銓)] “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.”

Legend of the Mountain (山中传奇 / 山中傳奇)

“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 [King Hu’s (胡金铨 / 胡金銓)] most visually ravishing works, Legend of the Mountain is a mesmerizing, mood-drenched feast for the senses.”

Raining in the Mountain (空山灵雨 / 空山靈雨)

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.

Image: A Touch of Zen Screen capture