Review: The King of Wuxia (Taiwan 2022)

Subway Cinema’s 10th Old School Kung Fu Festival 2023

2023’s OSKFF (schedule here) is kicking off this Friday, April 14, with an absolute monster – Lin Jing-Jie’s massive, comprehensive documentary on King Hu, possibly the most influential and important Chinese filmmaker of all time, and certainly the acknowledged master of the swordplay or wuxia genre. 

The film itself is split into two parts, with the first covering King Hu the filmmaker, and the second King Hu the man.

In the first part, we hear from his collaborators (actors and choreographers like Shih Chun, Sammo Hung, Cheng Pei-Pei, Ng Man-Toi, along with writers, choreographers, producers, and cinematographers) and admirers (Ann Hui, John Woo, Tsui Hark, many of whom did have an opportunity to work with Hu).  There are excerpts from his writings, but primarily we learn about his technique, his influence, and his perfectionism.

Lin visits classic locations and literally digs into the vaults to find his storyboards and sketches, covers the seismic change Hu wrought with Come Drink With Me and Dragon Gate Inn, his intricately choreographed fights shot like dance – you can see the difference compared to work of Bruce Lee, with its emphasis on speed and impact, or Chang Cheh or the Venoms, with their acrobatics. Hu studied Hollywood westerns to learn how to give the appearance of contact and shift away from the artificiality of Peking opera, and he looked to Japan to learn from Kurosawa. 

Hu was also a scholar, surrounded by books he looked to historical records and paintings for sets, outfits, and designs, many of which he drew himself.  Walking through his films, the documentary breaks down his techniques, camerawork, production design, choreography, lighting, editing.

In the second part, we finally get to see more of Hu himself, through footage of his acting (the man was FUNNY), his family and friends, his struggles. Hu did not have it easy and his story may be familiar to struggling artists everywhere, eating stale bread to make his films, arguing with producers – maybe the most heartbreaking part describes how later in life while looking for work to sustain himself, he was turned away from a film lecture position in HK because he did not have a PhD (like NYU or UCLA declining to hire John Ford as a film professor because of his lack of academic credentials?!). 

But the man shines through always, determined, weary, funny, often the life of the party but just as often depressed. And we get a glimpse of the final film that could have been, a historical action-drama set in the California Gold Rush that was on the verge of being produced when Hu passed unexpectedly.

It’s fascinating stuff, of general interest but absolutely essential to Hu and wuxia fans. The King of Wuxia will be playing at the Metrograph in NYC this Friday.

Read my interview with Goran Topalovic of Subway Cinema about this year’s OSKFF here.

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